The Myth of a Successful Prayer Life

Spring showed up bleak and gray this year, but we barely noticed. The weight of waiting occupied every minute, with question marks bristling where daffodils had been delayed. An army of friends prayed for our family when we could not, waging war on our behalf, inquiring with kindness about obstacles that made no sense and resolution that did not come.

But then one day answers began to bloom. Seismic yeses from God felt like tectonic plates shifting beneath our feet, and the way before us was mercifully clear and certain.  In all the restless energy of waiting I had begun to feel like a failure—a failure at prayer! Then I wondered:  Is this arrival of clarity a sign of success?

Instructions for a Successful Prayer Life

In North America, we are preoccupied with success on every front. Fear of missing the mark drives us to seek out recipes that guarantee a good outcome. Ironically, though, while prayer is happening all over the place in Scripture, there is very little instruction on the generalities beyond “pray like this” and “go into your room and shut the door.” Instead, Jesus and the psalmists and the prophets were all busy doing the work of prayer, pouring out their hearts like water in supplication, celebration, or anticipation of what God would do next.

Jesus’s parable about the persistent widow in Luke 18 reveals the complexity of defining successful prayer, and today it’s my great joy to be sharing truth from that vignette over at Marva Smith’s writing home. I’d love it if you joined me over there to read the post in its entirety.

The Myth of a Successful Prayer Life is part of Marva’s Shining Like Stars series, and you’ll find a blessing if you click here to read other posts.

Michele

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How Parenting Exposes Our Need for Faith

Whether we’re making meals, changing diapers, or shuttling kids to baseball practice, parents are doers. Always in protective mode, we apply sunscreen and Band-Aids as needed, and when we hit a wall with a need we can’t meet ourselves, we consult with the experts.

Long before parents could ransack Google or WebMD for medical advice, the distraught dad of Mark 9 wore his son’s need day and night–until the day he carried it in hope to Jesus. With disappointment written plainly on his face, he stepped out of the crowd and met Jesus’s level gaze. One arm protectively encircled his son’s shoulders, but any family resemblance was obscured by the son’s disfiguring burn scars, patchy hair, and missing eyebrows. Love and anguish constricted the man’s voice as he explained his dilemma to Jesus:

“I went to your disciples, but they couldn’t help. A demon has stolen my son’s voice, and he throws the boy to the ground, into the water and into the fire. Please. If you can help us…”  (Mark 9:17-18, 22)

Before he could finish the story and fully convey his frustration and need, his boy hit the ground right there before Jesus’s compassionate eyes.

Mark alone of the four Gospel-writers records the father’s anxious response to Jesus’s certainty that “all things are possible”:  “I believe!” he says. “Help my unbelief!”  With an eye to portraying Christ’s humanity and emotional responses, Mark departed from his usual spare, just-the-facts-ma’am narrative style to document a father’s expression of faith diluted by doubt but emboldened by desperation. In his outburst, we hear the lingering horror of near drownings, the blurted exhaustion of continual vigilance.

Parenting does that. Like nothing else in my following life, mothering has taken me to the edge of what I know for sure about God and how to follow him well. Parenting has continually exposed my need for a stronger faith.

Capture

That’s why the story of the Mark 9 dad stopped me in my tracks during this year’s read through the Gospels. Desiring God is graciously sharing my rendering of this story and its application to our own desperate parenting moments. It would be a gift if you joined me over there today…

Grateful for you,


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Sunday Scripture ~ Psalm 90:17

“Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands.”  (Psalm 90:17)

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded his readers that “without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer, and without prayer, work is not work.”

Our times of prayer remind us that life is not simply about work, while our work reminds us that life is not simply about prayer.

To our great surprise, we see that God, who waits on high to have compassion on us, longs to be gracious to us.

When I walk the dog and give thanks for the vast blue sky and the bracing wind in my face, God is there.

When I am ironing the collar of a shirt and folding my son’s jeans still warm from the dryer, God is there.

By turning our attention purposefully toward God in the midst of our ordinary days, we demolish the wall between sacred and secular.

Our work becomes an offering to God as we meet him in the ordinary moments of life.

May the beauty of the Lord our God be upon you today,

The Gift of Language and the God Who Speaks

The recent biographical movie featuring the life of J.R.R. Tolkien captures him saying, “After all, what’s language for? It’s not just the naming of things, is it? It’s the life blood of a culture, a people.”

Language and the way we use it reveals our thinking and our character. The structure of a language reveals what’s important to the people who speak it. In Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, pastor and author Eugene Peterson argues that language is a gift from God through which we sing and pray and, using the very same syntax and parts of speech, can also order a burger at the drive through or tell a story to a two-year-old. Peterson describes the language Jesus used in his three embodied years by capturing a line from an Emily Dickinson poem:

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

Particularly in Jesus’s parables, it’s clear how the truth “comes up on the listener obliquely, ‘on the slant'” (20) and then overtakes one with its clarity. His use of language wars against our natural tendency to compartmentalize speech into secular and sacred spaces. Jesus used the language of the people and the metaphors of his space and time to tell stories and to pray.

Jesus in His Stories

The four gospel writers differed in their focus, but collaborated in presenting the ways in which Jesus used language to preach, teach, and converse his way through first-century Palestine. Peterson zooms in on the ten parables unique to Luke’s gospel to illustrate Jesus’s “story telling way with words” (31) that give us deeper insight into God and His ways:

Life is Personal by Definition

“When we deal with God, we are not dealing with a spiritual principle, a religious idea, an ethical cause, or a mystical feeling.” (44)

Avoid Chattering Godtalk

“A lot of our talk about ‘the things of God’ is a way of avoiding the personal presence of God in the hurt and hungry people we meet.” (56)

The World is Prodigious in Wealth

“God does not barely save us, doling out just enough grace to get us across the threshold of heaven. He is lavish.”

Jesus in His Prayers

The language of prayer is “local and present and personal.” (160) Words that bubble up from the heart are the same when addressed to God or to a close friend. The six New Testament transcripts of Jesus’s prayers mentor readers in the language of prayer–and also in the absolute necessity of it in a following life.

Peterson advises readers to leave room for silence in prayer, a form of punctuation in which monologue is transformed into conversation. Then, he cautions about the ease with which we can lapse into pretending to pray, to use, “the words of prayer, practice the forms of prayer, assume postures of prayer, acquire a reputation for prayer, and never pray.” (161)

Jesus’s prayers sing his life of unity with God and shimmer with intimacy that invites us to advance beyond the “I’ll pray for you” narrative and jump into something more relational, substantial, and whole in our conversations with God.

Involved and Participatory Language

Peterson’s writing is almost unbearably relevant and always leaves me flipping pages to check for chapter endings because I’ve become saturated with more truth mid-chapter than I can absorb or assimilate. His insights crackle and spark, leading me into a new way of reading a familiar parable that intensifies its intended message and anchors it in the narrative arc of Jesus’s purpose as The Storyteller.

Tell It Slant sets up a framework for exploring large and sweeping concepts (parables and prayer) using pictures and particulars harvested from Peterson’s experiences and deep understanding of Scripture. He advocates for a use of language that is both “involved and participatory” (68), a use of words that rejects complacency and guards our hearts against depersonalizing God. To that end, he offers the stories and the prayers of Jesus as a model for how language can witness to the holy while still anchoring us to this very real and startling world.

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Grace and peace to you,

michele signature[1]


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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A Fruitful Life from a Heart of Love

Roots and wings are the gift Christian parents pass on to our children. We establish rules, give them responsibilities that build confidence and skill, and we water those deep roots with lots of love and prayer, knowing that strengthening wings will soon carry our children away from home, out of reach of our influence and our protection. Now, in my family, there is one more full-fledged adult as my third son has graduated from college.

In my prayers for the four young men who are so close to my heart, I’m taking my cues from the book of Philippians. Writing from a Roman prison, Paul the missionary church planter tips his hand and opens his heart to reveal Paul the spiritual father. His prayers for new believers and leaders in faraway fledgling churches have fueled my own prayer life as one-by-one my sons leave the nest to make independent lives and decisions in a world very different from the one I encountered at their age.

Prayers for strong marriages, safety on the job, or wisdom in college selection are all good and specific requests from the heart of a Christian mum, but Paul’s three-verse, single-sentence out pouring to God challenges me to lift my sights to motivation, to pray about the drive behind my adult children’s following lives—and to take a careful look at my own.

In this season of graduations and weddings, many of us are releasing freshly minted adults into the world. It’s always a delight to partner with Desiring God where, today, I’m writing about praying for our adult children, and the ways we can find ourselves being continually shaped and stretched by our prayers.

Join me there?

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Self-Care and the Rare Gift of Spiritual Friendship

“Hey, we have a lot in common! Maybe we should meet for coffee?”

Coming from Facebook, a place where “friendship” usually remains distant and virtual, this was startling content. Add to that a full schedule and a hard bent toward introversion, and there was every reason for me to log off, click on “unfriend,” and run like crazy. The risk of a face-to-face meeting with a total stranger is way outside my comfort zone, and yet the outcome, in this case, was a real-life friendship and a lesson in self-care.

Even with open laptops and a list of technical topics for discussion, when I meet with this particular friend, the percent of time devoted to “business” may be pretty low. Conversations meander as coffee cups are emptied and refilled.  I almost always come away from face-to-face time with friends enriched and encouraged in a way that transcends even the satisfaction that would have come from spending that time hammering away at my to-do list. We gauge the temperature of each other’s hearts, and somehow our faith is shaped in the context spiritual friendship.

A partner in prayer, another set of eyes, a companion in trouble:  these are the benefits of spiritual friendship, and today at April Yamasaki‘s writing home, I am arguing for the benefits of curating an environment that allows us to go deep in each other’s lives. Click here to keep on reading. I think you’ll agree that friendship as self-care is a refreshing way to look at the time we spend with the important people in our lives.

April Yamasaki is a fellow member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and I’m glad to be teaming up with her today because I learned a lot from her book, Four Gifts: Seeking Self-care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. When I shared my review here, many of you expressed a need for and an interest in developing a greater mindfulness in your approach to self-care. When you hop on over to April’s place to finish this post, be sure to check out other articles that also focus on spiritual practices for healthier living for your heart, soul, mind and strength.


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A Post-Election Prayer

By faith, we have gone behind the curtain.
We have made our voices heard, according to the temperature of our hearts —
Some with a raised fist;
Some with a wavering hope.

We have sifted the relative merits of deeply flawed and difficult candidates.
We have heard the word “Never” said about winners and losers, and
we have learned that only You are equipped to say that word with absolute certainty.
Thank you that the eye of the storm has passed, and we can now begin to put feet to those whispered prayers:  “Thy will be done.”

In the aftermath of a political hurricane, we ask for grace:
To be charitable;
To pray for the winner;
To honor the brother or sister who voted differently;
To advance into the culture — knowing full well that politics is all “downstream”;
To trade litmus tests for conversations with real people;
To renounce our deep desire to say, “I told you so”;
To live in such a way that strong families, strong churches, strong communities, and strong faith will become our First Thing, giving us courage to stand for righteousness.

May our desire to be folded into the number of those nations who are called “blessed” impact the way we practice Mere Christianity, knowing that those who fear You, who hope in Your mercy, and who wait for You are those who will rejoice.

Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us,
Just as we hope in You.”   (Psalm 33:22)

//

This prayer was inspired by the stimulating and insightful conversation between World Magazine’s Warren Cole Smith and Rusty Reno, editor of First Things Magazine in the November 4, 2016 edition of the Listening In podcast.

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