Prayer and Bridge Building

I run several days each week. Several of my routes include a half-mile-long paved trail that includes a bridge over a creek near the small waterfalls from which the creek and the trail derive their names: Angel Falls. Bridges enable us to cross canyons and rivers. They help us to reach destinations that might otherwise be unattainable.

Angel Falls Creek Bridge

Metaphorical bridges also help us reach otherwise unattainable, or at least difficult to visit, destinations. In Genesis 28, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching from heaven to earth on which he sees angels ascending and descending. He awakens with a fearful awareness of the presence of God and prays a memorable prayer of petition in which he attempts to bargain with God. The ladder in the dream was a bridge between heaven and earth.

Prayer, too, is a bridge that we cross in our attempts to draw nearer to God. As we pray, we often also intercede for others, praying that they may overcome the issues that keep them antagonistic towards God and towards other people. We pray that they may find the bridge over those spiritual chasms. In Philippians chapter one, the apostle Paul describes his prayers for the Christians in Philippi:

“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with oy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6).

Near the end of that same letter, the apostle pleads with two women to “be of the same mind in the Lord” and asks another Christian to help these women “since they contented by my side in the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:1-3). He wanted their partnership with him and with one another in serving Christ to endure. He prayed that they might be able to bridge any spiritual or personal gap that may have arisen among them or between them and God. Paul acts as a minister of reconciliation and calls other Christians to do the same, to be “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:3) and to be, and to call others to be, reconciled to Christ. Although he does not use the terminology, he calls for bridge-building in relationships with God and others.

We sometimes find it easier to build walls that divide us from others rather than to build a bridge that unites us. Sometimes a wall that protects from a clear danger is needed. But walls can outlive their usefulness or divide unnecessarily. Paul reminds in Ephesians 2 that Christ has destroyed the “dividing wall of hostility…to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Christ makes peace and helps humanity to bridge what divides us from God and from one another.

Let’s pray that we may build bridges that unite and that help people draw closer to God and to one another. Let’s appraise our actions and attitudes. Do we encourage peace or do we stoke the fires of anger with incendiary arguments and name-calling? Sometimes we fear to cross a bridge because we feel more at home where we are, don’t trust the bridge, or fear what is on the other side. Let’s cross the bridge of salvation into the presence of God together.

• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version

God, you loved the world so much that you sent your son that he could shine the light of your love so that we might discern the path that leads out of darkness. Our anger, greed, selfishness, and pride divide us and widen the distance also between you and us. Open our eyes as we read your Word that we may see clearly the way that your son, the pioneer of our faith, has blazed. Help us to build bridges as ministers of reconciliation, to live in ways that draw people together in service to you. Thank you for your love and your patience. Forgive us and help us to follow more faithfully. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

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Praying for Ukraine and for Ourselves

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).

Those words from the Bible are my favorite quote from any literature in any genre. The words “Comfort my people” are on my tombstone already, not just because I want people to console my loved ones after my passing, but because I want them to remember these two verses from the prophet Isaiah and the powerful, encouraging message that they and the next three verses proclaim.

They originally were written to ancient Israel to help a nation recover from invasion, destruction of property, violent deaths of loved ones, and exile. Isaiah conveyed God’s loving message that they could survive because they had hope. God had forgiven them. Desperate times still would follow. The people still would suffer. However, they no longer had to shoulder an extra burden of guilt. The book of Lamentations reveals in graphic terms the agony that the people of Jerusalem endured during the Babylonian invasion. But even in that tragic treatise, in the middle of lament over pain and suffering, occur the words

“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:21-22).

As I write these words, people in Ukraine cower underground in subways and other shelters. They know firsthand the horrors experienced long ago which Isaiah and later Jeremiah addressed. They all fear, but some have hope, even if not for physical or national survival, because they know the words with which Isaiah 40 begins and they believe that God has forgiven them. Please do not think that I regard lightly the plight of the Ukrainian people. I have been in a combat zone, have heard explosions, have seen what a fiery helicopter crash does to human bodies, have informed parents and spouses of the deaths of soldiers and infant children. Some Ukrainians, taking shelter in subways, have sung hymns of hope and praise. Others, rather flee the country as the Russian Army advances, have resolved to stay and minister to other Christians whatever may happen. They act and think like this because they realize the character of God remains as it was when the words of Isaiah 40 and Lamentations 3 first were proclaimed.

Early Christians applied the words of Isaiah 40 to the circumstances brought about by the death by crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, whom they understood to fulfil the roles of Messiah and Suffering Servant about which Isaiah wrote. So Peter could proclaim,

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do? Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:36-39).

God had acted through Jesus to accomplish the forgiveness of sin and to demonstrate victory over death. Another apostle Paul described himself and his coworkers (and I think also by extension all Christians) in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 as “ambassadors of Christ” and “ministers of reconciliation” who fulfill Isaiah’s commission to “comfort my people” by showing the way to reconciliation with God and with one another.

As I perused social media, including other blogs, in recent days, I read many pleas to “pray for Ukraine.” I echo that plea and add to it a plea to act for Ukrainians whose lives are endangered. You may give to agencies that have established histories of helping people in Ukraine. You may prepare to offer hospitality to displaced Ukrainians and missionaries who flee that country. Consider how you may comfort people whom God has called to serve him. If you have opportunity to teach, teach as one who brings good news, as an ambassador who aims to mend broken relationships. And, by all means, continue to call on God to act for peace. Pray for Ukraine. Pray for all of us, that we may accept the comfort God offers and that we may learn to love one another.

• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.

O God who heals and forgives, open the eyes of people to your message of forgiveness, healing, and hope. Help us to realize that you already have acted to restore hope, even as reasons for hope evade our awareness in areas scarred by combat and dissension. Lust for power and dominance over people betrays the ancient temptation to appropriate your powers for ourselves, to act as if we are God, rather than God’s Creation. We are created in your image. May we remember to see our fellow humans as image-bearers of you, no matter how dimly your image may be reflected in their actions and words. May we act as people who love God and one another. May we act for justice, because you are a just God. Give hope and life to the people of Ukraine. We thank you for people around the world, including many in Russia, who have called for peace and for an end to attacks against the Ukrainian people and their nation. Help us to remember that you have done the hard work so that we know comfort and learn how to love one another. Lord, have mercy. I pray in the name of Jesus, amen.

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Prayer and Emojis

“What is your favorite emoji(s) to use?” I was asked that question in the form of a writing prompt that was designed to help me write more regularly. Emojis are symbols used on social media to fill in emotional gaps and make clearer what words may fully express. People use smile emojis and frown emojis, praying hands emojis, and angry emojis. My favorite is one that Facebook introduced in 2020 in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the “care” emoji. The care emoji of course helps express that I care about another, that I am showing compassion or sympathy in difficult times. I also use the emoji when I am concerned about a statement that someone has made in anger or in derision, to indicate that I care about the person and hope that they will reconsider their statement when they calm down. I intend the emoji at express that I care about the person even though they may be writing statements or expressing beliefs that I believe to be false or that I feel threatened by.

Care and compassion ideal play prominent roles in prayer. We pray for others when they grieve, when they grow ill, when they fail to achieve goals for which they have worked hard. When we express these petitions to God through prayer, we tell God that we care. We very well might use the care emoji if we were writing our prayer as a “direct message” to God.

When our prayers are steeped in compassion, we show that we care, but we also reflect the character of God. When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he addressed fellow Christians whom he had rebuked in previous communications. The church in Corinthian had numerous doctrinal and relationship problems. After having corrected them, he begins this letter by revealing the character of God and his own concern for these younger disciples of Jesus. He writes,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

These words occupy a space in this letter of Paul’s that in several of his other letters expresses what he is praying on behalf of his letter’s recipients. Those prayers express the apostle’s care and concern, just as these words to the Corinthians do. He grounds his care in the nature of God, who is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.” Paul asserts that even our sufferings are accompanied by God’s compassion as he comforts. He assures them he suffers along with them and that they are comforted as he is comforted by God.

When we pray, we may pray prayers of lament in which we weep and tell God of our anguish as we grieve or suffer. Angry or sad emojis would accompany those prayers. We crave relief from our pain. We pray that the God of compassion will demonstrate his compassion once more for us. But we also pray prayers that express our care for others, our desire that that God will comfort them.

I like the care emoji because I try to reflect the character of God when I use it. I am not perfect as he is, so I do not claim always to communicate well or always to restrain my emotions when silence would work better. I can indicate that I care, even when I may not trust myself to express that concern well. The care emoji helps me in those times.

*Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.

God of compassion, we hurt. Millions in our world have died from a new virus in recent years. We grieve because we have lost friends and family, but we also mourn because we argue about ways to react to this virus and the proper ways to treat one another. We are tempted to shout and to belittle because we are angry or frustrated. We lash out because we feel deprived of the presence of loved ones, of hugs, of handshakes, of the shared emotions shown by others’ smiles or frowns. You comfort us in our affliction and know our suffering. Open our eyes and our hearts so that we more consistently may act with care and compassion. Help us to know when to speak and when to be silent. May we people who comfort. May we proclaim through what we say and do that we praise you, the God of all comfort. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer, a Song, and a Memory in the Night

I remembered this post while reflecting on the prayer I discussed in it from Psalm 119:49-56. I focused on the encouragement that we derive from songs whose lyrics mirror our prayers. I encourage you to read the entirety of the original post after you read these comments. I think that it will encourage you. As the Psalm says,
“Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge. In the night, LORD, I remember your name” (Psalm 119:54-55).

The prayer is rooted in faith in God’s promises. Another hymn comes to mind when I read this prayer, one I sang frequently when a child, “Standing on the Promises.” In the midst of his suffering, that precisely is what the Psalmist did. He trusted God to keep his word to his people. Because of that faith in God keeping his promises, he in turn kept his spiritual focus. He writes in verses 52 and 56,

“I remember, LORD, your ancient laws, and I find comfort in them…This
has been my practice: I obey your precepts.”

Suffering can tempt us to compromise our values if we think that will alleviate our pain. May we maintain our confidence in God and our focus on following his Word.

Call for Fire Seminar

When life is darkest, what do we pray? When hope dims, what songs do we sing? When opponents taunt, on what memories do we rely? In his prayer to the Lord, the writer of Psalm 119 provides his answers to those questions as he prays in verses 49 through 56.
He prays with anger: “because of the wicked, who forsake your law” (verse 53). He prays with hope: “Your promise gives me life” (verse 52). He prays with confidence: “this blessing has fallen to me, that have kept your precepts” (verse 56). The psalmist trusts God and obeys him.
He sings the laws of the Lord as his songs (verse 54). I remember myself singing a song based on another verse from this song as a child: “O how love I thy law; it is my meditation…” During my darkest hours, songs of faith have sustained me. The songs “It…

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Seeking Solitude to Pray

Where do you go when you need solitude? For extroverts that question may have no meaning. For people who personality tests identify as introverts, solitude seems like time in a most sacred space. I love being around people and especially speaking to and teaching large groups of people. When I was younger, I performed in plays like “My Fair Lady,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and “Brigadoon.” I sang in college choir that traveled throughout the United States and Europe. But after time before and among people, I need a break. Sometimes, when I am grieving or trying to make a difficult decision, I crave solitude so that I can meditate over relevant biblical passages and pour out my heart to God.

During the past six years, I have fled to two places when seeing solitude. One is Angel Falls trail near my house. A picture of the small waterfalls after which the trail is named accompanies this post. The sound of the water calms me. The falls, the stream, the surrounding trees, and occasional deer or owls remind me that God who created all this still is in control. I pray for his guidance, sometimes as I pause along the trail, sometimes even as I run (with my eyes open, of course – I’m watching and praying).
Jesus, before teaching his disciples a model prayer that we often call the Lord’s Prayer, encouraged his disciples to seek out a quiet and secure place to pray. Often, he himself would go alone into the hills to pray. In this passage before the Lord’s prayer, however, he said,

“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

The pronoun “you” in the verse is singular. The instruction is for private prayer, not for congregational or group prayer. However, a principle from the context applies whatever the context. Prayer is not a spectator sport. It’s not a sermon. It is communication with God. Now, when I don’t go to the trail, but need solitude, I often go to my walk-in closet at my house. I shut the door after I enter it. I have a chair in that closet and sit in it while I think and pray. I feel secure and safe while praying in the closet.

The book of Acts and the letters of Paul reveal that often Christians prayed together. But sometimes they, like Jesus before, prayed alone. Paul tells in several of his letters what he prayed on behalf of churches in such prayers. John seems to have been alone and in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when he received his “Revelation from [or “of”] Jesus Christ.”

Where do you go when you need solitude, when you want time alone so that you may cry out to God without interruption? Where do you go to call for fire when you are in spiritual crisis? Where do you go to ask God for guidance in troubling times? Pray hard, my friends.

• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.

Lord, we seek you sometimes in boisterous crowds singing and praising joyously. At other times, each of us needs time alone with you to grieve, to seek guidance, or to talk through difficult situations. Help us to seek safe places to pray when we need to talk with you alone. Hear us and help us when we cry out. Refresh our spirits and heal our wounds. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer, Stars, and the Majesty of God

How do you feel when you look at the stars? I spent the month of November 1998 in the Mojave Desert with other Soldiers from Fort Campbell. We engaged in military training. I rehearsed with other team members how we. as religious support personnel in our brigade, would perform our roles during combat. While it was a training environment, the absence of lights made it quite dark on cloudy nights. If one wandered from his or her tent without a glowstick after dark, they ran the risk of getting lost or injured in darkness that swallowed perception of what lay around. On the other hand, when skies were clear, the brilliance of innumerable stars overwhelmed me. Then, and now, when I look at the stars, my awareness of their immense distance from the earth and their actual great size awakens awe within me. Our home planet cannot be seen with the naked eye from any being who might be looking from planets revolving around any other star than our sun any more than we can see any of those planets. The magnitude of the universe invites contemplation of how it came to be. Positing the role of an intelligent being like God, or even a “natural” process, implies powers that boggle the mind. Like the psalmist who penned Psalm 8, I want to pray, really to exclaim, or to sing:

“LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:1,3-4).

While the psalmist goes on to marvel at the significance and responsibilities that God has given humanity, his psalm emphasizes his amazement that God even notices us humans in the vastness of the cosmos. I find it daunting that my life, anyone’s life, can actually have purpose given our minuscule individual role in the overall scheme of the universe. Yet when we consider our societies, we realize that individuals can influence others, that they, that we can make a difference.

When I look at the stars, I imagine what it might be like to travel to one of them. I consider what ethical challenges and what spiritual quandaries I might confront if I encountered intelligent life, or any kind of flora and fauna, on distant worlds. These speculations drive me back to the enormity of the responsibilities that the Bible says that God has placed on humanity as stewards of his creation. This awareness triggers humility. And somehow, even as I ponder possibly unanswerable questions, I sense the reality, the majesty, the presence, and the concern of God. My prayers move beyond petition, confession, and lament to adoration and gratitude. I echo the words of the Psalmist with my own thoughts:

“LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9)

• Quotes from the Bible are from New International Version, 2011.

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Prayer and Dreams that I Remember

A dream theme has weaved through my sleeping hours during my life. I’m in a dark, wooded, confusing area with a companion searching for a lost child. I first had this dream when I was about four years old and wondered later if it was about my older brother who had died before I was born or about my slightly younger brother. I had the dream again when I was about ten and wondered then if the dream was about still another brother who had been born the year before. In the most recent iteration (at least, that I remember), I was distraught as I searched feverishly for a child whose identity this time was known – my own youngest son, who already, even in the dream, was an adult. My companion, this time my older son Caleb, who had died in real life about four years before, did something no other companion in this series had done. He spoke to me. Caleb put his hand on my shoulder as I wept in my dream and said, “Daddy, it’s going to be alright.” I woke up, surprised but also refreshed. The four years before, beginning with my being quite ill and my mother having a stroke in the months before Caleb’s death had had some stressful and unexpected reversals. Somehow, his words in the dream gave me a sense of calm and helped me regain a sense of balance and confidence as I pressed forward.

Jacob, while fleeing from his angry brother Esau who sought to kill him, dreamed one night after he had stopped to rest enroute to hopeful sanctuary with his uncle Laban. The narrative continues in Genesis:

“He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the durst of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:12-15).

God told Jacob, “It’s going to be alright,” a message that Jacob needed much more than I did when I dreamed my dream. Jacob awakened with a sense of fear and awe, with an awareness of having been in the presence of God. He used his pillow-stone to make a shrine to God and then prayed a prayer that is perhaps the best example of bargaining with God in prayer that is found in the Bible. I wrote about back that prayer and God’s eventual answer to it in 2013 in a post that you can read by clicking here.
I don’t understand the function of dreams exactly. I know that people in both the Old and New Testament have dreams in which they receive messages, sometimes encouraging, sometimes warning of dire consequences. I have read suggestions that dreams are our brain’s way of working out unresolved problems or that they are simply the result of electric activity in our brains. I suspect that they sometimes are more than just electric pulses. I know that my dream encouraged me and inspired me to move forward with hope. As was the case with Jacob, the dream has also inspired me to pray, although not to bargain. I have prayed thankfully for God having given me a daughter and two sons who have blessed my life even in their most frustrating moments. I miss Caleb but rejoice in still being able to talk with his siblings. I’m thankful for a God who finds ways to give his people hope in their darkest hours. May the Lord bless you and help you to find peace and direction in your life. I highly recommend the reading of the Bible and prayer to God as you seek answers.

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.

O God who sometimes moves in mysterious ways, we wonder sometimes about whether our lives have meaning or if we may discern messages or direction from our dreams. I thank you for the Bible and the guidance it and mature Christians have given me during my life. I thank you for my children and pray that the two who still live and their children will be a blessing to all whom they encounter. Help me to serve you well as I continue to walk in this this “vale of suffering.” Thank you for the ability to believe, to hope, and to love. I pray in the name of Jesus, amen.

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God’s Saving Love and a Loving Response

My mother told me when I was in my late twenties and again when I was in my fifties that she looked forward to conversing with me because she always learned something new. She admired that I loved to read and research, to learn and to explore. That, too, is probably the trait I like most about myself. I love to learn. Reading, travel, and diverse work experiences have contributed to my learning more through the years. I also have tried to pay attention to trends in both popular and Christian worship music while expanding my knowledge of older music offerings.

My love for learning helps me to appreciate the quest that the writer of Psalm 119 pursued to learn more God’s will and specifically how it is revealed through his Torah (law, commands, or instruction, but actually eight synonyms are used throughout the longest Psalm). Psalm 119 consists of 22 eight verse sections, each section featuring the next letter of the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet with each verse within the section beginning with the appropriate letter for that section. The eight verses in the sixth section begin with the letter waw. That feature does not carry over into English translations, except that most versions of the Bible indicate before each section of this Psalm what letter is featured in that section. Each section also functions independently of the whole as a psalm, a poem, and a prayer that contributes to overall theme of Psalm 119. The sixth section begins by entreating the Lord to keep his promise and love the person who is praying:

“May your unfailing love come to me, LORD, your salvation, according to your promise;” (Psalm 119:41)

Salvation is rooted in God’s love. While most Christians probably think first of John 3:16 when asked about a Bible verse that connects God’s love for humanity with salvation, numerous verses in the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) make the same connection. In some of those, God speaks about his love through a prophet. Here, a psalmist who is praying makes the same case: People can be saved because God loves them.

Why does he want the benefits of God’s saving love? He wants to be able to answer those who taunt him because of his faith. He seeks freedom from shame. He wants his hope to be realized.

God’s love for him is mirrored for the Psalmist in his love for God’s word, the Lord’s commands. He trusts in God’s word (v 42). He hopes in God’s laws (v 43). He obeys God’s law and seeks out his precepts.

The psalmist’s prayer reaches a crescendo as he concludes. He affirms his love for God’s statutes. He declares how he act as he responds to God’s saving love:

“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame, for I delight in your commands because I love them. I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees” (Psalm 119:45-48).

Salvation is not found in a sterile, purely logical belief and obedience. The coherence of God’s pursuing, rescuing love with humanity’s obedient, faithful, searching, struggling love results in the accomplishment of harmony in God’s creation as people live as God planned when he created our world. This coherence testifies to the reality of reconciliation with fulfilling God’s will. The psalmist, like me, yearns to learn. He sings this prayer as a member of God’s covenant people because he wants to meditate on God’s word so that he may deepen his love and be more effective in proclaiming the glory of our God. May we too pray for evidence of God’s love in our lives as we devote ourselves to living out God’s creative purpose for our lives.

• Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.

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Road Trips and Prayer

What road trip do you aspire to take some day? I have traveled on some memorable road trips. I’ve driven from Jacksonville Beach, Florida to Phoenix, Arizona by way El Paso, Texas, and driven from Phoenix to San Diego. My wife and I drove through New England and the Mid-Atlantic States in 2010, and navigated a circuitous route through Montana, Northwestern Wyoming, and Idaho. We had harrowing road adventures on the other side of Wyoming and on the Hana Road in Maui. My children accompanied me on some of my favorite road trips from Dover, Delaware to Chattanooga, Tennessee and back. There remain roads to travel. Morrisa and I would love to take a road trip through Alaska someday. I want to see Mount Denali and to gain an impression of our nation’s largest state. As I suggested in a recent post, it is extremely unlikely that I will make a once hoped-for road trip through the Valles Marineris, a gargantuan canyon on Mars that would stretch across more than half the United States if it were on earth. It is over 1800 miles long, as wide as 360 miles, and as deep as five miles. Although science fiction novels by Ben Bova and Andy Weir have whetted my appetite with vivid imagining of road trips on Mars, such journeys remain in the future, and I almost certainly will not be among those travelers on the Red Planet.

What do road trips have to do with prayer? As many seasoned road warriors have learned, prayer happens on such trips. Often, travelers pray fervently as they descend an icy and curving mountain highway that has no guardrails or drive through torrential rain and fierce winds. They pray as they traverse a desert road, far from the nearest town, and nervously watch the gas gauge near empty. In the Bible several “road trips” include episodes with prayer. Ezra began a road trip from Persia to Jerusalem in this way:

“There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, ‘The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:21-23).

Ezra and his fellow travelers prayed for safety after assuring the King of Persia that they would not need government protection because God would be with them. They still prayed, because they recognized the reality of the dangers they might encounter as they traveled. Later in the same chapter, Ezra writes, “The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way” (Ezra 8:31b). Several years later, Nehemiah wanted to strike out on the same journey, having learned that the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem were in trouble. When the king noticed his distress, and asked what troubled him, Nehemiah prayed before asking to be sent by the king to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the city. After the king agreed, then Nehemiah’s account continues,

“I also said to him, ‘If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe conduct until I arrive in Judah?” (Nehemiah 2:7).

Nehemiah, after praying, asks for government protection on his journey. Ezra had told the king he did not need protection, then he had prayed for God to protect him. Both men had great faith in God, despite their differing approaches to travel security. They would work together in the rebuilding of the city and the reinforcing of the faith of their fellow Jews. Although Ezra had refused security forces, he too had received written authorization from the King of Persia before beginning his journey. After receiving the letter, Ezra responded with these words,

“Praise be to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the kings’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the kings powerful officials. Because the hand of the Lord was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me” (Ezra 7:27-28).

Nehemiah and Ezra both prayed before beginning road trips that would have great significance in Israel’s history. Respectively, they would rebuild the temple and the walls around Jerusalem. Their methods at times would differ, but in the end they would work together to accomplish their common mission.

Believing in God’s power to save and protect means sometimes that we venture out when others might not. However, such faith also includes accepting rescue and protection that God may provide through the government. Discerning the difference requires faith, wisdom, and discernment.
Travelers prayed during other road trips in the Bible. Moses prayed during the Exodus. Jesus prayed during his final road trip to Jerusalem. Paul prayed for guidance during his missionary journeys. As we venture out on our road trips, wherever we may go, let us recognize the presence of God and take time to pray as we go.

• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

Lord, protect us as we travel. May we recognize your power to protect us while discerning wisely what protection and gifts you have given us by means of other travelers. May our journeys result in more people giving glory to you. May our faith grow stronger as we work together with others who share our faith in us. May we grow in unity despite our differences as we travel together towards our ultimate destination, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, in whose name I pray, amen.

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Prayer and What Others May Not Know about Us

Space exploration has intrigued me throughout my life. The beginnings of the United States space program coincided with my childhood years. When I was twelve years old, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon. I still remember watching that landing and disembarking on our family’s television in Weirton, West Virginia. That same year, while home from school because I was sick, I read a novel that I had ordered through a book club at school, Dune by Frank Herbert. Although the book was longer than 570 pages, I finished reading it that night. The story of that science fiction novel captured my imagination. I continued, meanwhile, to follow the progress of the space program and the beginnings of the International Space Station. I grieved when a spacecraft, carrying an astronaut who was a schoolteacher, exploded, and I mourned the shutdown of flights for several years thereafter.

Because of reading Dune and similar science fiction novels, I began to cherish a hope that I would live to see human exploration of the planet Mars, and that I myself might be one of the explorers. That dream lingered as I earned a master’s degree in theology and became first a preacher, then an Army chaplain. When I was stationed in Germany during the early 2000s, I learned that NASA was opening up recruitment for astronauts to military personnel in nontraditional fields. What few people have known about me is that I then applied to become an astronaut by completing a questionnaire. Sadly, my quest was rather quickly denied because of a childhood medical condition. However, I have maintained my interest in space exploration and my hope that people would land on Mars during my lifetime. Although my prayers to become an astronaut have thus far been frustrated, I still have been given opportunities for exploration and service on our own planet that have been quite fulfilling.

Perhaps you too have a dream or a goal that despite your fervent prayers and fevered efforts has not been accomplished. In that you and I are like the Apostle Paul. In the biblical book of 2 Corinthians, he describes how he had prayed repeatedly for release from a “thorn in the flesh,” and how his prayers had received a different answer than the one he anticipated. He writes,

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9).

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? I don’t know. Some scholars have suggested that it may have been poor eyesight or seizures that had resulted from his being beaten and stoned. One source that I read long ago but can no longer locate suggested that the “thorn” was Paul’s ex-wife, who had divorced him when he became a Christian. That last suggestion, while possible, probably had more to do with the commentator’s own experiences than Paul’s. The childhood malady that short-circuited my astronaut quest (and for which I needed a waiver to serve in the military) was epileptic seizures, so I can understand how Paul would have prayed for release from that. I did, and took medication for it several years, and for many decades now have been free from that affliction. But the exact identification of Paul’s thorn remains a mystery.

He prayed three times for release from the thorn. The exact wording of his pleas does not survive in writing, but the answer he heard from God does – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That variable in ministry success remains a mystery to some minister search committees who want a preacher who has never struggled or encountered significant obstacles. But the Bible repeatedly testifies that God uses people who might be described as damaged or handicapped in some fashion to accomplish his will. Moses insisted that he was not eloquent. Paul himself wrote that others complained about his speech not being eloquent. Jonah, Hosea, and Peter all had significant hurdles to overcome, yet God used each powerfully, even if not in the way that they initially might have hoped. After Paul hears God’s unexpected answer to his prayer, he writes,

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10)

We can learn from the Bible about how to pray and when to pray from written prayers, or from instruction about prayer, or as is the case in 2 Corinthians 12, from a person’s description of how and when he prayed, and what happened as a result. Each of us has hopes or goals that no one knows about which we pray. Our personal histories have factors that weigh against our realizing those hopes or achieving those goals. However, God still answers our prayers in ways that show us a path to usefulness in the kingdom of God. That path may be one that we never envisioned (I once told someone that I would never be a military chaplain.) or may be one that surpasses our greatest hopes. What we learn also from Paul’s experiences, and from the teaching of Jesus, is that we must keep on praying and that we must be open to a different answer than the one we seek.

• Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

Lord, we seek ways in which to serve you. Sometimes our health or our personal history or some other person’s opposition impedes our search. We ask you for relief from our handicaps. When you heal our hurts, we are thrilled. Sometimes you tell us, as you did Paul, that your power is proclaimed through our weaknesses. Grant us the humility to discern your will and to follow your Son faithfully wherever you may lead us through him. I thank you for the opportunities to serve and to excel that you have given me, even when some were not what I had expected. Please keep opening doors for those who seek to serve you. I pray in the name of Jesus, amen.

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