Finding Peace

Some days I laugh out loud about funny things my mother said or did. For example, for a woman gifted with many talents, the extremely simple concept of throwing a Frisbee completely eluded her. A Frisbee toss with Florence required cat-like skills, and maybe even a football helmet. Some days I smile at things she taught me, like how to sew a simple stitch – with or without a sewing machine. Some days my smile is more wistful, as I consider the lessons I picked up on simply by watching her live her life. Some days I just miss my mom. I mean, really, really miss her.

My mom passed away a little over two years ago, during Mother’s Day weekend. I don’t have her anymore as my top cheerleader and sounding board. But I do have two treasures: a stack of her journals (which one day I’ll be brave enough to actually read) and two of her Bibles. One is the beat-up old Scofield KJV that I vividly remember from childhood; the other is an equally marked-up Amplified version that was her study Bible in her last days.

The past year has been a tough one. I find myself walking on ground I never in a million years expected to trod. Yet here I am. I wish my mom was here to guide me, to talk to, to hear her amazing blend of compassionately no-nonsense wisdom, to see those green eyes light up with fiery passion, then with sweet grace, as she prayed with me and for me. These days the missing her is a deep, unfathomable ache, almost another presence in the room.

Having been a Christ-follower for the majority of my life, I feel like I should certainly have a better grasp on what to think, what to do. But I kinda don’t have a clue. So I do what my Mama taught me: I turn to Scripture.

For the last couple months, I’ve been taking a very leisurely stroll through the book of Psalms. If anyone ever in the history of mankind understood the heart of Father God, it is David, shepherd boy turned king. My basic plan is to read one chapter per day, and then spend the day considering what it says and how it might relate to my life. Sometimes a particular psalm will require more than one day. There’s a reason the 23rdPsalm is one of the most treasured chapters in the entire Bible. I believe a person could spend time pondering it, line by line, word by word, for a year and never fully grasp its rich glimpses into the character of God. I didn’t camp out quite that long (yet), but I surely did enjoy the days spent there.

In one of those amazing planetary alignments, I was asked to share a devotional at a small women’s gathering, I was kind of caught up in Psalm 37 at the time, and I was so very much missing my Mama. As I began to pray over what to share, I was certain that Psalm 37 would be the foundational text. I had a vague idea where to go with my talk, but it just wasn’t shaping up quite right. I wondered what my mom thought about when she read King David’s words. I took her time-worn KJV off my shelf, pausing a moment to savor the weight of it in my hands, of seeing her handwriting on the pages, of catching that warm scent that happens when old leather books are opened. And wouldn’t you know it? She had marks all over Psalm 37. For a fleeting second it was like she was leaning over my shoulder, her hair brushing against my cheek as her delicate finger pointed out, “Here! Look at this!”

What follows in bold text are the verses, with underlining and points she designated. Now, knowing my Mama, she may have heard this in a sermon and thought it worthy of remembering, or it may have been something God revealed to her during a time of private study. Either option is just as likely as the other. I’ll also share a few of my own thoughts on each verse.

 

FRET NOT: Five Active Verbs – Recipe for a Fret-Free Life

Psalm 37:1-9 (KJV)

1 Fret notthyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.

For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.

  • It is so easy to get stressed out over the things we cannot change. “Bad” people seem to get ahead while “Good” people have a hard time of it. No matter our circumstances, there is no need to fret. We can trust God.

TRUST

Trustin the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. 

  • We need to trust our heavenly Father. This sounds so very obvious, but when we have been wronged in some way, our natural tendency is to take matters into our own hands. Many is the time I have wanted to put a hand on my hip, point my finger in someone’s face, and tell them off. Man! Wouldn’t that be satisfying…for about ten seconds! Instead of retaliating, we need to seek God’s wisdom. Sometimes He will reveal a course of action, perhaps relying on the legal system or seeking mediation. Sometimes He will ask us to do the hardest thing of all – nothing. This one is hard. So stinking hard. However, when we trust God and do good (even when we REALLY don’t want to), we are submitting to His Lordship and aligning ourselves with His heart. My family is in the middle of a situation in which a person who has done wrong seems to be winning at life, whereas our every step forward is slow and methodical and earned at a great price. Yet even in this we can see the fingerprints of the Father. It will not be our job to take this person down. Our greatest responsibility here is to live justly and entrust the situation into the hands of the only One with any real power to change things.
  • When we take that monstrous leap of trusting Him, we will see that God is much more concerned with our character than our circumstances, and obedience will always precede blessings.

DELIGHT

Delightthyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

  • I used to think that this verse meant that if I just worshiped God on Sunday, He would give me anything that I wanted, kind of like a cosmic Santa Claus. And I wanted all kinds of things, many of which weren’t especially good for me. Much like a small child who has never been given the safety of reasonable limits (admit it, you’ve seen more than one toddler fling himself to the floor in a store when he wasn’t immediately given whatever it was he wanted at the time.) when we live for our own selfish desires, we can quickly spiral out of control: “So what if I don’t have enough money for those cool new shoes? I really, really want them. I’ll add them to the credit card. What’s another $200? I won’t have to pay for right away. Ooohhh! Look at those earrings!” Then ten minutes later, we want something else, then something else, then another something else. When we are grasping at the latest shiny thing, we will never be truly satisfied. There will always be that something else that we think we need. The same principle applies in our spiritual lives. I’ve grown to understand that when I delight myself in the Lord He is able to give me the desires of my heart because as we spend time together my desires begin to change. It becomes more clear that all the fancy cars and houses and shoes will never bring me joy. Not for long anyway. What my heart truly longs for is wisdom and peace and love, and for the people that I love to experience these things as well. As I invest in our relationship, I become more like my Father; what I want is what He wants.

COMMIT

Committhy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.

And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.

  • Committing my way unto the Lord means surrendering the ownership of my life. There’s that trust thing again. The whole WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) fad a few years back took an amazing, life-affirming concept and somehow managed to make it trite. This is more than just throwing out a buzz phrase or wearing the latest trendy bracelet. One of the things I’ve started doing is consecrating my day to God. Before my feet hit the floor, I make an intentional effort to focus my mind on His mind, my heart on His heart (AKA the Gospel), my thoughts, my actions on His. This takes effort and intentionality. When I realize that I am not my own, I can quit fighting. I can let go. I can quit worrying about things. When I am obedient, my only concern is doing what God says; making it happen is His job.

REST

Restin the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret notthyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.

  • Resting in the Lord is a lesson I am currently learning. My family is facing a challenging situation right now. I look at the circumstances and get so afraid, so frustrated. Nothing looks like it is going to work out right. The immediate natural impulse I have is for something – anything – besides resting. That’s when I have to take a deep breath, remember the ways God has intervened on our behalf, the way He orchestrated events as we never could, and then rehearse the goodness of God. I can rest because He is faithful. I can rest because He reminds me that what “seems” is not necessarily what “is.” I can rest because my enemies are no match for Almighty God. I can rest because He is true to His Word. I can rest because the track record for God keeping His promises is exactly 100%. Whether we can see it or not, God is at work. I can rest in Him.

CEASE

Ceasefrom anger, and forsake wrath: fret notthyself in any wise to do evil.

  • Letting go of anger is so important. This verse does not in any way imply that we are wrong to be angry about certain situations. Even Jesus got angry when people were turning His Father’s house – set aside to be a house of prayer for all people – into a place to turn a profit at the expense of others. Genuine injustices should make us angry. It’s what we do with that emotion that makes all the difference. When someone we care about is wronged, for example, we want to retaliate. We want to make that offender pay, and pay dearly, for what they have done. There have been situations when I have taken my anger to God …but had to be very careful not to pray that the offender be run over by a bus. One thing I have learned is that when I let anger get deep within me, I have allowed the other person control over me. They may not even know or care that I’m mad. People have spent decades wallowing in such anger and bitterness. And that’s just sad. Letting go of anger involves forgiving. This ain’t even easy. But it releases the control that the situation has over you. There is a difference here between forgiveness and excusing. Excusing says “That’s Okay.” And it’s not. Whatever happened was harmful or hurtful to you. Forgiveness says “That hurt me. Still, I release you from this debt” – and in doing so I release myself.

ADDED BONUS: A PROMISE

For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.

  • God will take care of the evildoers. We don’t have to worry about that. When we follow His leadership, God will bless us. All that we need will be supplied in just the right way and at just the right time. We can quit worrying. Period. We can enjoy our relationships with other people and with Him. This is perhaps the best part.

Going Deeper

Recently I had the opportunity to take my Sudanese friend and seven of her children to the beach. She and the three oldest girls jumped in and swam like dolphins. The three little girls, following their lead, ran headlong into the surf – and immediately wiped out. Salty and distressed, they retreated to a very nice tidal pool, eased their way in, and played for hours. It was safe there with no pesky waves, just calm, serene water. Still, there was this pull to the ocean, to frolic in that wild surf.

Eventually the little girls could resist no longer; they decided to brave the waves once more. Carefully, very carefully, they dipped their toes into the surf, breath shallow and hearts pounding. As soon as the water hit them, they ran screaming onto the dry sand, then immediately went back again. The oldest younger daughter, Sahiba, is eight. She is all dark chocolate arms and legs and dimples. Sahiba was determined to learn to swim, but she was scared. She grabbed my hand and took a couple of steps past the shore and into the water.

Sahiba was too afraid to go any farther than knee-deep. The only thing was, that’s where the waves were breaking and she (and I) was being tossed about badly from the full impact. I kept telling her, “Go a step deeper, Sahiba. Hold onto me and take one more step.” Though they have only been in the U.S. for a couple of years, my friend and her older children are reasonably proficient in English; however, once she got excited, Sahiba reverted to her native language. She pointed at the waves and began telling me all about it in Maasalit. Even though I know very few Maasalit words, I definitely understood her meaning: “Can’t you see these big waves? They are knocking me down? I can’t go any further.” But I also understood what she did not – that if she would just go a little farther out, the water would be smoother.

Later on, I was trying to teach Sahiba to float on her back. She would stretch her arms out, stick her toes up, but as soon as I made any move to release her, she immediately stood up. I told her, “If you fight me, you are going to sink.” In that instant, God spoke to my heart: “What about you?” The sun still shone, the waves still pounded, little girls still giggled between waves, but for me, it was a moment frozen in time. I simply could not get away from that question.

Little by little, small successes sprinkled with failures, Sahiba worked her way into deeper water. She still held onto me for dear life, but she conquered her fear – driven both by her desire to move beyond the tidal pool and her trust in me.

On the ride home, the girls chatted quietly about their day at the shore, then one-by-one, they fell asleep. I, however, smiled as I fought back tears. This simple day at the beach was absolutely rich with meaning as God impressed His truth upon my heart.

  • Sometimes when we rush headlong into something, we will wipe out.

We see other people doing things that we wish we could do, so we hurl ourselves into them with great gusto. Only we have no idea what we’re doing, and we might fail. Our enthusiasm can propel us forward, but it may not completely prepare us for the task at hand.

  • But that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Failing the first time, or even the 53rdtime, does not make us a failure. We may not be great at something right away. It often takes time to hone a skill like swimming or playing an instrument or developing the discernment that comes from reading Scripture. We have to practice again and again and again, learning from our mistakes and building on our successes.

  • Playing in the tidal pool builds confidence.

While it lacks the intensity of the ocean, a tidal pool still has its benefits. Sahiba found a small section about knee deep and began practicing putting her head in the water. With a few attempts she became more comfortable being under the water and holding her breath.

  • That doesn’t mean we should stay there forever.

The tidal pool is calm and serene. The baby (age 18 months) wanted nothing to do with the ocean. He was perfectly content to sit and splash in the warm, ankle-deep pool. The noise and the waves terrified him and he wanted no part of that. Sahiba, however, began to long for something more. The tidal pool may be safe, but the excitement level was quite low. More and more often Sahiba began to fix her gaze on the ocean, so close, yet just beyond her reach.

  • We want to go deeper, but we are afraid.

Sahiba saw her mom and sisters swimming and she wanted to join them. But the waves! They were big, so very big! They’d already knocked her down once. That’s a scary, out-of-control experience. But still, her family members were obviously having a great time and she wanted to join them. Sometimes following Jesus is a lot like this. We want to grow deeper in our relationship with Him, but it’s so frightening, so beyond what we are used to, so very…unknown. We long for it, but we can be afraid of what it might require of us. Our inadequacies might be revealed. People might think we are weird. Shoot, we may even have to (GULP…) change certain habits or become a missionary or something crazy like that. Scare-ree!

  • When we stop short, the waves will crash all around us.

Sahiba took a couple of bold steps that brought her into water about knee-deep. She was brave to even try. It took an act of courage to get her to that point. But she stopped at exactly the point where the waves were breaking. She was tossed about, clearly out of control. This made her nervous and she retreated to the safety of the shore. Time and time again she would wade out, get knocked around by the waves, then dash back to safety. She kept trying the same thing and ended up with the same results. Sahiba could see what she wanted, but she was too afraid to go past where she had already been. I think I have done the same thing hundreds of times in my walk with Jesus. I see the faith of other people and long for that kind of intimacy with my Father. There have been times, for example, when I’ve started a Bible study with great enthusiasm. Then things start getting personal. Holy Spirit starts revealing things to me. I don’t like what He’s bringing up. It will hurt if I have to deal with that stronghold. It will cost my comfort level if I actually deal with the issue at hand.  I then dash back to the safety of my status quo, gazing at the freedom Christ offers, but unwilling to take the step past the waves of guilt and remorse and pain crashing all around me.

  • A step beyond our comfort zone things are often surprisingly smoother.

As we step beyond what we have always known and into who we could be, we discover that the surf here is not as fierce as we expected. The waves are still coming in as they always have, but from this vantage point we are able to see them coming and position ourselves to gently roll over the top of them as they crash further on, well past us. Maneuvering through the waves is not nearly as difficult as we expected. It took a dedicated effort to get here, and while our vigilance is still required, the effort is not so great as it once was. Spiritually, we are able to recall our trust in our Father. Recalling the promises He has kept and the ways He has rescued us in the past gives us courage to face the future. This remembering is what I call Practicing the Goodness of God. Problems will surely come so we have to remain aware, but He gently lifts us above them, secure in His love.

  • If we fight Him, we will sink.

It took several tries for me to relay the concept of floating on her back to Sahiba. She was tense, ignored my instructions, and quickly went under. I knew what she needed to do. I needed her to listen to me. I needed her to trust what I was telling her, even if it seemed a little crazy: “WHAT? Point my toes? Let water get in my ears? Stretch my arms straight out??? I don’t think so!”  Unlikely as it may have sounded to her at the time, I knew that if she would trust me, she would float on top of the waves. If she fought even one part of the process, she would sink. As we grow in our trust, Jesus begins to develop our character. Sometimes the things He asks of us are uncomfortable and even a little scary: “Spend time with Me each day. Deal with this deep pain from your childhood. Tell that lady over there how much I love her. Quit pretending with Me; I want you to be gut-level honest in your prayers.” It’s hard sometimes. Yet Jesus knows us inside out. We need to listen to Him and to trust that not only does He know best, He also has the best in mind for our good and His glory.

  • When we are in deep water, we can cling to our Father.

Sometimes Sahiba clung tightly, eyes wide with fear, chattering away at me in Maasalit. Other times she let go for a minute and tried out her own abilities, laughing as she practiced navigating the surf. Several times Sahiba’s head went under, but she always popped back up, and I was there to catch her while she caught her breath. I never left her side. She knew I was right there with her and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Similarly, as we begin to grow deeper in our faith, Jesus is right there beside us. It is His hand we cling to. His Word promises that He will never leave us or forsake us. No matter what our fears may try to tell us, no matter what the circumstances look like, this is a truth that is steady and unchanging. When we go through deep water, He is there. Always.

Adventures with Carlos the Cardinal

Not too long ago, my husband and I received a pet we neither expected nor asked for. A cardinal has taken up residence on our porch in a most bold fashion. We’ve all seen the adorable pictures of bird nests in mailboxes and in attic rafters. In all fairness, birds are creatures of nature and in many ways we have encroached upon their habitat. As such, they tend not to recognize or respect our property lines. While I don’t blame them for that, the simple truth is that sometimes their presence can be cute and charming, at others, annoying or even destructive.

As spring bravely attempted to arrive in GA (truthfully, this took several tries), our back yard was suddenly filled with birds – bluebirds, cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, sparrows, and doves. In a flurry of stunning songs and colorful feathers, they clamored and flitted and staked out nesting sites. It was quite a spectacle for several days, I must admit. Eventually turf was established, nests were built, and things generally settled down into a comfortable rhythm. Then there was Carlos.

Carlos is a beautiful red male cardinal. He and Mrs. Carlos have a nest among the wisteria vines on the trellis twelve feet off our back porch. We’ve had nesters here before and were perfectly content to share the space with them. We’ve always enjoyed having birds around, especially now that we don’t have an attack cat trying to single handedly consume the entire Southeastern bird population.

I learned that there is quite a bit of mystique about cardinals. Here’s what Google had to say:

“Cardinals have long been symbolic of beauty in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of sorrow, and renewal in the midst of winter. Whether these symbolic meanings came from the folk proverb, or the proverb came from the traditional symbolism, in any case many people are reminded of the presence of a departed loved one when seeing a cardinal bird land nearby. “

I was home alone a few weeks ago, just wiping the sleep from my still-groggy eyes when I heard a racket on the back porch. Our elderly chocolate diva Lucy is now rather ottoman-shaped and more inclined to napping than frolicking these days. Surely that wasn’t her. It sounded for all the world like someone beating on the back glass. I dressed quickly and tentatively stuck my head around the corner to see what it might be. There he was. Carlos. Rather I should say, the cardinal-soon-to-be-named Carlos. When you invest this much time in a bird, he gets a name.

Carlos sat on the porch swing, then hurled his body at the window, wings spread wide, beak crashing into the window. Over and over and over again. For thirty minutes this went on. I thought surely he would eventually tire of whatever game this was and move on to catching worms or something. Surely I was wrong. He never stopped. That sucker was relentless.

I did some further research and discovered that male cardinals are prone to this behavior. They see their reflection in the window and believe it to be a rival male. They are highly territorial and seek to ward off the offender. Swell.

In an effort to distract Carlos and end this madness, I decided to cover the window. In doing so, I reasoned that it needed to be outside so he wouldn’t continue to see his reflection. Wouldn’t you know it? There are no curtain rods on the outside of my house. Eventually I duct taped a beach towel over the window then added a piece of cardboard at the bottom. Success! The window was covered! Carlos inspected this new development and flew away. For about ten minutes. Then he was back – at the next window. Have mercy!!!

So it has been all day every day for the last two weeks. Sunrise to sunset. On and on and on he goes.

Since this is how my brain works, I began to consider what observations we might take away from Carlos the Cardinal, or as I sometimes call him, Tenacious C.

  • He bravely defends what’s his

Those soon-to-be-born baby chicks have a father who valiantly defends those under his care. He is not afraid to take on that shiny red bird in the window if it means protecting his little brood.

  • He never seems to tire

Day in and day out, Carlos never calls in sick and he never sends the Mrs. out to do his job. He is fiercely dedicated and untiring in his efforts to protect his family. His beak must be throbbing, yet he shows up again bright and early the next morning.

  • His focus is entirely wrong

Like Don Quixote, Carlos spends his entire day fighting a foe that is no foe. The shiny red bird in the window is an illusion. There are, however, bigger birds and probably snakes in the vicinity of his nest. None of these seem to have his attention. How often do we burn emotional energy on all the wrong things, while very real dangers go ignored?

  • He does not want or welcome my help

I went out of my way to help Carlos. In the past, we’ve had birds come crashing full-tilt into our back door, knocking themselves to the ground. The moment they landed, there was a dog or cat, highly offended at the encroachment upon their home, who gobbled them up without blinking. I was hoping to spare Carlos this fate. He did not recognize my assistance for what it was and simply moved on to the next window. This can happen to us as well when we see someone else’s need and step in to offer assistance. Sometimes they are too deeply involved in their circumstances to recognize that they even need help. Sometimes they don’t appreciate us butting in uninvited. Sometimes we are the towel hanger; sometimes we are the bird. Not every situation requires our input. It takes wisdom and discernment to know the proper time to offer and to receive help.

  • He made a mess

Having camped out for two weeks on my porches, Carlos has left behind some tangible evidence of his presence. There is bird poop strategically placed near the porch rail, the bench, the swing.  My windows are covered with literally thousands of marks his beak left behind. I can tell exactly where Carlos has been. Eventually someone will have to clean all that up, and you can rest assured that it won’t be Carlos.

  • He’s incredibly distracting

It is hard for me to even hang out in my own living room right now. The fluttery attack, tap-tap-tapping on my windows take place ad nauseam. It is difficult to think of anything else. I keep hoping that it will be like having a home near the railroad tracks and eventually acclimating to the rumble so that you don’t even notice the trains anymore. We have not yet reached this point. While I appreciate his efforts as a good father, I must confess that there are days I contemplate cooking up a little Carlos cacciatore. (I’m kidding. Mostly.)

  • He’s both endearing and frustrating

Some days I feel sorry for Carlos. He will never, ever defeat that bird in the window. Likewise, he will never completely rest because obviously attacking that shiny bird is always on his mind, his first and last act each day. Some days I’m amused by all the flutter. Some days I’m frustrated by the non-stop tapping. It can be that way as well when dealing with problems in life. Something that should be a minor irritation, when it continues and continues and continues, can grow into something much bigger in our minds. Our attitudes definitely shape our perspective.

Short of reapplying our wooden Hurricane Irma window coverings, I’m not quite sure what to do with Carlos. Like the rest of us, Carlos is a mixed bag of positive and negative attributes. We can be fiercely dedicated to an ideal and invest every ounce of our time and energy into it – but it matters greatly whether or not that passion, that chosen path, is worthy of our time and effort. Is it really accomplishing what we hope it will? Or are we wearing ourselves out over illusions – perhaps well-intended, but illusions just the same?

How can we tell the difference? I leave you with two verse of Scripture that speak to this question.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” – James 1:5

“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think on these things.” – Philippians 4:8

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Cardinal info found online: http://www.usurnsonline.com/memorials/cardinal-appears-yard-visitor-heaven/

 

Prayer Ax Part 4 – Diligence

Our daily prayer times have much in common with chopping wood with an ax. We achieve better results when we understand the order of things. Our efforts are improved when we use the proper tools and prepare ourselves. We achieve more when we are focused rather than swinging away at anything and everything. Today we turn our attention to one last, necessary trait that prayer and wood cutting have in common: diligence.

You know what I tend to think would be incredibly terrific? If God would just go ahead and answer my prayer before the words were out of my mouth. I mean, seriously, wouldn’t that be fantastic??? Well, maybe not. Sometimes I am overly emotional or angry or scared when I sputter a prayer, and on those occasions I might blurt out things that I don’t mean at all once I’ve calmed down and rational thought returns. Then I am incredibly grateful for the calm patience of our loving Father. He never gets in a hurry. He never gets flustered. He has thoughts of us and plans for us that go so far beyond our current level of comprehension. Left unattended, my thoughts and plans would just create one big ole hot mess after another. His timing, His responses are perfect.

During our regular, consistent conversations with God, we need to go in expecting some wait time. God’s timetable is rarely as quick as ours. We want Him to use a microwave, when He’s actually got some nice coals smoldering under a stone oven. The outcome probably won’t be quick, but it surely will be good. With this in mind, it is so important that we learn to be diligent in our prayers.

  • There’s more than what meets the eye

Roots – even those for pine trees – don’t grow straight. One root has many attachments that you don’t see at first. Actually, much like an iceberg, what’s underneath the surface may be a whole lot bigger than what you can see. When God leads us to pray about some particular topic or character issue, it can seem like no big deal. So we pray. And expect immediate results. Which don’t come immediately. So we pray some more. Through it all, as we seek God and read His Word, learning and growing in the process, we begin to see that there was so much more to that issue than we ever imagined. Often there are smaller attachments that need dealing with as God grows our roots deeper in Him.

  • Dirt gets packed in over time

One of the things that makes cutting up tree roots so difficult is the accumulation of dirt, decades’ and decades’ worth of dirt. It packs in tightly and does not want to leave its cozy spot. But If you are going to successfully chop up the root ball, the dirt has to go. Our lives can get dirt-packed over time as well. Sometimes these are things we have done; others are things done to us. We need the cleansing power of Holy Spirit to lead us through to repentance, forgiveness and sanctification.

  • Stir up ants

Sometimes once you start chopping wood, you stir up tiny woodland creatures who are never happy to see you. They are grumpy and they bite. As we draw closer to God, we suddenly find ourselves on the enemy’s radar. Make no mistake. This is an all-out war. There can be physical manifestations of a spiritual battle. Our enemy is sneaky and stubborn and he wants you gone. However. Take a deep breath. This is a time for faith, not fear. 1 John 4:4 reminds us that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

  • Keep plugging away

Once you start swinging that prayer ax, you are eventually going to get tired. Don’t quit. Every stroke is one step closer to breakthrough. Sometimes praying the same thing more than once feels like a lack of faith. Actually quite the opposite is true; it shows faith not to quit. Even as we make that same request over and over and over, God is refining us, shaping us. Just like the man in Luke 11 who kept knocking on a neighbor’s door and eventually received the bread he sought – not because of their friendship – but because of his “shameless audacity”, we are admonished to ask, seek, and knock. And knock some more.

  • Know when to take a break

When I got to whaling away on those roots, I could tell my newly-developed form was beginning to slip. I was approaching exhaustion, but I had a goal and I was flat out determined to accomplish it. No. Matter. What. When the ax began to sink a little lower with each swing, however, I finally gave in and took a small break. Five minutes and some cool water gave me the boost I needed to finish strong(ish). Sometimes when we diligently apply ourselves to praying for a specific matter, we run out of gas, whether emotionally or spiritually. Our prayers become like chewing the same piece of gum long after the flavor is gone and our jaws are aching. It’s not a bad idea to take a break from that particular topic for a day or two, then you can resume when you are rested and refreshed. You may even need to ask for help. In both prayer and log chopping, we are certainly better together.

  • You need a shower 

After hard work, especially of the manual labor variety, you kinda stink. You need a long hot shower to wash away the grime and to relax your weary muscles. Similarly, after a particularly strenuous season of prayer or ministry, you need a break. Spending time alone with God in nature is an amazing way to recharge your batteries. Living in a coastal area, one of my favorite mini escapes is a walk on the beach: no prayer list, no agenda, just showing up and allowing the Father to nourish my soul. If there’s a sunset or sunrise included, that’s just gravy.

  • Weakness at the moment makes you stronger later

Swinging an ax for more than six seconds was difficult and awkward for me. The weight distribution is weird, and my puny upper body strength was quite apparent as that ax head landed anywhere except where I wanted it to. It took determination and focus; eventually my technique improved. The second time out things were better still. So it goes with prayer as well. Our first attempts at praying through a difficult time or learning to trust God can be equally as pitiful and awkward. We need to stick with it in spite of all that. We will learn a great deal along the way, and we will grow in the process if we don’t give up.

  • Blisters today = roasted marshmallows tomorrow

…or a house or a table or a bonfire. In prayer as in life, when any kind of skill is involved, whether learning to play the guitar or drive a car or do long division, we have to pay our dues up front. But that is more than okay. Eventually the results will come. Small successes, or even failures, today prepare us for the future.

  • All you can do is all you can do

Just because we pray about something, we are not guaranteed to get what we want -or what we are convinced at the time that we absolutely need. We like normalcy and order. We like things to make sense to us – using our own logic as a frame of reference. Neither God nor tree stumps work according to the rules we would create.

A.W. Tozer says, “We do not pray in order to persuade God to change His mind. Prayer is not an assault upon the reluctance of God, nor an effort to secure a suspension of His will for us or for those for whom we pray….God will never be other than Himself.”

Prayer is not about us turning the head of God with our clever words. Prayer is about relationship, about developing intimacy. It is, in its simplest form, a conversation aligning ourselves with Him, not the other way around.

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Prayer Ax Part 3 – FOCUS

As we continue comparing chopping wood to a daily time of prayer, today we turn our focus to, well, focus. Such a simple but important thing.

  • Random whacks here and there accomplish very little

My first attempts at chopping wood were rather pitiful. I was whaling away with great gusto, but you never would have known it to look at the log. There was about a three-foot span that bore the scars of my higgledy-piggedly swings. There was no discernable method to my madness, more like a beaver with ADD had happened by on his way to someplace else. Our prayers can be like that when their primary focus is to present a daily wish list to God: “Give me this. Do this for me. Here’s the plan, Lord. If you could make this happen, that’d be great.” Certainly our God is both able and willing to supply our every need, but if all we do is fling out orders in our prayers, we have sadly missed the point.

This reveals one of my concerns about the traditional prayer list. At any given time, these tend to be made up, I’d say about 95%, with sick people. Now does God care about sick people? Of course He does. We are admonished in James 5 to pray for the sick. When I am sick, I certainly hope that my friends will be praying for my healing. But that not the ONLY thing we are supposed to pray for and about. God is more concerned with our character than our comfort, and sometimes (though no one enjoys it at the time) it is through illness and adversity that God reveals things about Himself that we would otherwise miss.

A related issue I personally experience with an extensive prayer list is that I find it overwhelming and hard to focus when I look at two columns of bullet-pointed requests. They start to blur together in my mind and I find myself resorting to blanket statements, like, “Please heal all the sick people,” or “Bless all the needs listed here.” I simply do better with one or two specific needs to concentrate on. The other thing is that I am very forgetful. When someone asks me to pray for them, my best plan is to do so right at that moment. Even though my intentions are absolutely to intercede on their behalf, the six hours that pass before my regularly established prayer time will consist of thousand different thoughts. Will I remember that particular one? Maybe. Maybe not. It is easier for me to honor my promise if I do so right away. (These last two paragraphs are not intended as an attack on prayer lists. We cannot intercede for someone if we don’t know they need it. If prayer lists are meaningful to you, by all means use them. These are merely concerns based on my own personal struggles with using them effectively.)

  • It is not necessary to chip up the entire log

Once I finally got that ax sort of headed in the right direction and there were actual wood chips flying through the air, I started to feel pretty good about my lumberjack skills. Then I paused to take a look at my portion of the tree. Hmmm. Now if I had intended to create a dugout canoe, I’d have been well on my way. Only I was indeed NOT trying to make a canoe. I wanted to turn the giant root ball into smaller, burnable pieces. What I needed, and so obviously lacked, was focus.

Each night before we go to sleep, Jeff and I pray together. Jeff is a concise kind of guy. He can say all he needs to say in about five minute. I, however, love words. Sometimes I will catch myself going on and on about every little thing you can possibly imagine. It pops into my mind and I pray about it. He and God both must wonder sometimes if this ADD chick (not beaver) will ever get to the point.

One of the things that I’ve found helpful is a mental outline to keep me on track. Certainly the “Lord’s Prayer” gives us a structure to follow, and an acronym like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication – aka requests for yourself and others) makes it easier to stay focused.

  • Lock in and don’t let up

When swinging an ax, where you look is what you hit. At different seasons of our lives, God will reveal certain things we need to turn our attention toward, whether a character trait we need to develop, or preparation for a new job, or a relationship that needs attention of some kind. In our daily, concentrated times of prayer, we turn our hearts to these matters regularly and consistently. We speak to God then listen to what He has to say to us on these matters. This can take time. Lots and lots of time in some situations.

  • Have a plan, but don’t hesitate to try something a bit unconventional 

I love order. I love having and executing a well-made plan. But one thing I learned from 20+ years in a middle school classroom is that while a plan is a great place to start, don’t think for one minute that you will be able to follow it to the letter every single day. Some days you just have to toss the script. In the classroom, it seemed like those were often the golden days when real learning took place.

While I was inadvertently creating that dugout canoe, I’d been chopping away from the same position. I moved my feet over just a few inches and took a left-handed swing. Man! What a difference! Even though this was definitely not playing to my strength, attacking from another angle gave me a fresh perspective on what I was doing. When it feels like our prayers have become stale, sometimes we need to mix it up a little bit, whether that means ditching the normal routine, going to a different location, speaking out loud, or adding a musical soundtrack in the background. Even strategic prayer can become rote, and our minds disengage. Every so often, we just need something new.

  • Learn from others

Jeff realized I was making that canoe a few minutes before I did, but he was smart enough to wait. When the ax started gliding over the top instead of removing chips of wood, I stopped and cocked my head to one side, as I do when I’m thinking. He asked if I wanted some help (SUCH a very wise man!) and I gladly accepted his offer. He showed me how to make a small V that led to a point of ever-thinning wood. Ohhhh. Now I get it!

There is so much we can learn about prayer from other people. There is no reason for us to try and reinvent the wheel. We have examples in the Bible from great pray-ers like David and Daniel and Solomon, we have books written by mighty people of faith over the last few centuries, we have people in our churches and circle of friends who just seem to know how to talk to God, and as Romans 8:26 reminds us, we also have the promised Holy Spirit who will lead us in our times of prayer.

  • Generic wishy-washy prayers get the same result

If we are not careful, a daily and consistent time of anything, including prayer, can fall into a rut. Just like swinging the ax all willy-nilly does nothing but waste my time and effort, so too can a half-hearted time of prayer. Our daily communication with God should be specifically targeted and deeply personal.

  • Not quick, but very effective

It sure would be a whole lot quicker to lop up those trees with a chainsaw, and sometimes that is exactly what we do. Other times, however, it is the slow work done by hand that brings great satisfaction. When we pray each day, our intent should not be to get it over with as quickly as possible. Sometimes God is gracious and answers our prayers right away. More than likely, however, it takes time. Lots of time. More time than we would prefer. But in the end, as we look back, we can see the incredible value of the leisurely pace. After all, this isn’t about getting what we want when we want it. It’s about developing a relationship with our Father and growing into the likeness of His image.

~~~~~

Just as a quick aside, my two favorite books on the subject of prayer are The Circle Maker by Mark Batterton and Moving Mountains by John Eldredge. Both revolutionized my personal times of prayer.

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Prayer Ax Part 2 – Tools & Preparation

Prayer is one of those amazing gifts from God that is as simple or as complex as you care to make it, kind of like the advertising for the game Othello: minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. Some of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard were from brand new Christians who hadn’t learned all the flowery language and rhetoric that can slip in over time. They only knew that they were in love with Jesus and He was in love with them. Prayer can be lovely in its simplicity. It can also be deep and complex, without being complicated, which is also beautiful. At its core, prayer is simply talking to Jesus, then listening to what He would say to us.

Just like my back yard, scattered with downed trees after Hurricane Matthew, opportunities for prayer are all around us: a friend rushing her son to the ER, communities around the globe in need of medical care and clean water, an upcoming real estate exam, deciding where to attend college, the need for forgiveness, and any of a thousand things that may come to your attention during the course of an ordinary day.

In considering the idea of the prayer ax, I am referring to our regular, consistent times of communing with our Father in prayer. Certainly there are times of emergency or despair when our approach will change. And, please bear in mind that this is simply an analogy. Anytime we compare the spiritual with physical things, eventually the analogy will break down. This is not intended as a deep theological treatise, but rather a few word pictures that helped me solidify some understandings about time spent talking with God.

So what does chopping wood have to do with prayer?

  • There is an order to things

In chopping wood, it is important to properly prepare and employ tools that are effective. So it is with prayer. We are not manipulating God, and we’d be ridiculous to even think that we could; rather we are learning Who our Father is and aligning ourselves to His will.

  • Use the right tool

One of the best tools we have for prayer is Scripture. While Facebook memes, or even advice from well-meaning friends, may sound quite clever indeed, if the words don’t line up with absolute and unchanging truth of Scripture, they are simply someone’s opinion. You can whack away at a tree all day with a plastic spoon but achieve no results. Same principle applies here.

  • Use a sharp ax

Similarly, make sure your ax is sharp. It is important to spend time in the Word of God in order to know the heart of God. As we meditate on the Word, we become sharper, and our prayers more effective. In addition to your own time spent with God, it is SO helpful to be aligned with like-minded believers. Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” We need godly people, iron, in our lives. A dull ax is highly ineffective, no matter how strong its wielder is. It is important to have – and to become for others – properly prepared tools.

  • Use the correct end

One of the things we love to do is grab a certain Scripture out of context and apply it to our situation. My sister says that we love to scan the Bible for verses that make us feel better about our circumstances. Certainly there is a time and place for that. The Bible is, after all, His Story. We were given the words of God as a guide for knowing Him and for living our lives as His children. When we take things out of context, however, we are again losing effectiveness. Some things in Scripture are general principles and some are specific promises; some are intended for everyone and others for a certain group of people at a certain moment in time. It takes a great deal of discernment to tell the difference sometimes. Beating on a tree for hours using the blunt end of the ax will only produce a badly bruised log. Use the sharp end.

But what if you don’t know what the sharp end is? Ask God: Does this particular Scripture apply to my situation? What is a promise that I can claim here? How would You have me pray about this?

  • Sometimes you only need a hatchet

Not every situation requires the full resources of heaven. Sometimes short and simple will be sufficient. Other times, a season of intense prayer is required. I experimented with three different sizes and weights of tools before I found the Mama Bear medium-sized ax was my best fit; on occasion, however, a tiny handheld hatchet was just the ticket. Use the right tool for the job, but understand that it may change periodically.

  • Let weight of ax head do its work

We can work ourselves into a frenzy trying to “help” God do His work. Here’s a real news flash – You are not the ax. You were never meant to be the ax. You just need to apply the proper tool in the proper way at the proper time. Then it can do its work.

  • Maintain solid footing

When I first started swinging the ax, I was all over the place. My feet kept shifting and I was unstable. I may or may not hit anywhere in the vicinity of my target. Flailing away required a great deal of effort but produced no meaningful results. Eventually I figured out how to stand firmly and to calmly approach the task at hand. So it should be with our regular times of prayer.

  • Watch your eyes

For the first few minutes, I just hacked at the tree root. A few minutes in, as my swings became more efficient, I actually began removing chips of wood….which flew straight at my face. So, I got the safety glasses I should have been wearing all along. When you begin a time of regular, consistent prayer, make no mistake, stuff will come flying at you. We are engaged in a spiritual battle. Anyone who thinks that the Christian life is one of absolute ease has never paid much attention to the life of Jesus or His disciples. As we draw closer to God, the enemy takes notice. It is essential that we protect ourselves. Fortunately, Scripture teaches us how to do that.

  • Start small and build up

This is sound advice for any new endeavor. My first few swings were with an ax too heavy on a root too large. Jeff, recognizing my imminent failure, quickly helped me adjust my tool and my focus. I also had to change my technique. With an experience base from the gym rather than the forest, I began chopping wood with what can only be described as a dipping bird method, which used my legs and back but not my arms. And ax-wielding is all about the arms. (That name comes from a garish pink plastic bird my grandmother had back in the 1970s. It dipped its beak in water for some reason, stood upright, then did it again. All day long.) Once I got the idea of how an ax operated, I was able to move on to larger tasks with greater success. With prayer, too, we do well to start small then progress to more complex issues. If you are in the beginning stages of establishing a regular prayer time, you will likely find that the nature of the topics you discuss with the Father become deeper, richer, more intimate over time.

  • Dress for the occasion

My first attempt at becoming a lumberjack diva was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I trotted out to the tree line wearing a pair of shorts and old running shoes. Both tangled briars and angry ants found my exposed ankles. I spent an embarrassing amount of time flapping around trying to get away from both. The next time out, I donned a pair of jeans and some work boots. My footing was more solid and there were less distractions to deal with. On a spiritual level, Ephesians 6:10-18 elaborates on how important it is to clothe ourselves in the full armor of God: the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel, helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and our only offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Putting on this armor every single day – not just in preparation for the five or fifty minutes we may spend in prayer – but for the dangers of everyday life is nothing short of crucial.

Now we have our preparation and our proper tools. Next time we will turn an eye towards our focus when praying.

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Prayer Ax: The Overview

About two years ago, Hurricane Matthew paid a visit to the coast of Georgia. We lost about 30 or so trees on our property and the task of removing them has been neither quick nor easy. The pine trees, slim and tall, assaulted by the intense wind and rain, fell over from the roots. Whereas an oak tree has a shallow and wide root system, a pine tree has a tap root – straight and deep. Even when the tree is on the ground, a pine tree’s root is still firmly in the ground and it takes quite a concerted effort to extract it. Once the storm passed, my family cleaned up the tangled mess of oak limbs right away and used chainsaws to chop up the pine trees somewhat in order to clear major pathways. Then we waited. Pine trees, of course, are full of pine tar, which surely must be the stickiest substance known to man, so we gave them some time to dry out.

My husband is one of those outdoorsy guys who has trouble sitting still. After a hard day at work, he will come home and work in the yard for relaxation. Perhaps this goes far to explaining why, at age 53, his jeans are within one inch of the waist size he wore at age 20. Another thing about Jeff is that when he gets stressed about something (or frustrated with me) he will go outside and chop down trees – with an ax. It’s his special kind of therapy and it has certainly served him well over the years.

A few weeks back, he stood up from supper and announced that he was going outside for a few minutes to chop wood. My eyes flew open wide and my mind began to race: “Oh no! What did I say???” He looked back over his shoulder, and added, “It has nothing to do with you.” Whew! I felt myself release the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

Jeff went straight to work. Have mercy, there’s certainly plenty of material out there. From my current vantage point I can easily count over a dozen trees yet to be processed. He chopped and burned off small bonfires of stout pine logs, making a small dent in the lingering storm destruction of 18 months ago. Three or four nights each week, this has become his regular practice.

Last week I was feeling frustrated about some things, including the fact that every month I pay $48 for a gym membership I cannot seem to rouse myself to use. It’s one of those crazy Catch-22s of life: I love working out and feeling strong; yet getting in the car and driving ten minutes to the gym just feels like some sort of Herculean task. So, I donned my most ancient running shoes and joined Jeff at the tree line. If he was shocked to see me there, he was at least kind enough not to show it. Nor did he laugh when I said I needed to chop wood too.

After a pine tree has been felled, one of the first things after lopping it into manageable-sized segments is to get the root out of the ground. This is quite a task, you may be assured. Tree roots are deep and incredibly heavy, partly because they are packed with dirt, or in our case, red Georgia clay. Dirt doesn’t burn, so it is important to remove as much of the soil as possible in order to fully extract the root. Jeff assigned me one root and gave me his smallest ax. I began whaling away with great gusto, expending a great deal of energy but accomplishing nothing. To his credit, Jeff still did not laugh.

While I was whacking away at that poor root, I felt my mind free up, much as it did when I used to go on long runs. I began to think about how chopping wood with an ax is a great analogy for prayer.

In the coming days I will share with you some of the parallels that came to mind. The next installment of this four-part series will focus on Proper Tools and Preparation.