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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But God…

One universal truth is that at some time or another in this life, we all face storms. In fact, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Into each life some rain must fall.” This can come in a myriad of forms – cancelled plans, sick children, wayward spouses, failing businesses, you name it. These can appear to us as anything from the proverbial raining on your parade, all the way up to the complete and utter devastation of a category five hurricane. The one thing we can be sure of is that at some point a storm will come along and we do well to be prepared up front, then to handle it as best we can during its onslaught.

I have read – from both grammatical and psychological perspectives – that the word “BUT” negates all that goes before it. For example, if someone tells you 99 great things about yourself, then adds, “but you leave wet towels on the bathroom floor,” this last comment is the one you remember.

Another case in point. Say you ask a friend to go with you to the mall. Consider his responses:

  1. I’d love to go with you to the mall, but I am so tired.                         (Interpretation = Your bud is bailing.)
  2. I’m so tired, but I’d love to go with you to the mall.                           (Interpretation = He’s riding shotgun.)

In nerd-like wonder, it occurs to me that it is not just the words we say, but the order in which we say them that is important. (See what I just did there?)

When storms come, I try to make it a habit to practice the goodness of God: to recall Who He is, His attributes, and His promises to His children, of which I am one. Lately, well actually for the last two years, I’ve been in a doozie of a season. It’s been sunshine and tornadoes and everything in between. My efforts to beat down the storms with this goodness of God have gone something like this:

  • God is faithful, but man, I am weary in this fight.
  • God is truth. His Word endures forever, but my heart is broken.
  • Jesus love me, but I just want to scream.
  • The Holy Spirit gives wisdom to anyone who asks, but I feel so incompetent.

Then recently, in one of those lightbulb moments while on an outdoor run, my mind connected these dots. By putting a “but” after a promise or statement about God, I (in my mind, and therefore eventually in my practice) negate His strength and His truth in comparison to the difficult circumstances of life. In doing so, I am essentially saying that the power of God is not really a match for my particular storm, that this is the one thing in the history of all time that He simply cannot handle.

Wait. What???

Doing this is agreement with the enemy who does all that he can to undermine our understanding of Who God is and His heart towards us. With that in mind, let’s rearrange those statements.

  • I am weary in this fight, but God is faithful.
  • My heart may be broken, but God is true. His Word endures forever.
  • Sometimes I just want to scream, but Jesus loves me. He holds me in His arms. He rejoices over me with singing and quiets me with His love.
  • I feel so incompetent right now, but Holy Spirit gives wisdom to anyone who asks.

Now the promises of my Father are negating the struggles. And that’s good, so very good!

This is new territory for me, so I’m sure it will take some time to make this the automatic response to the challenges life throws my way. I trust that in two weeks, two years, two decades my perspective will change as I learn, little by little, to see past the problems and fix my gaze firmly on my Father. He is, after all, the ultimate Authority here.

 

Photo Credit: https://goo.gl/images/C3NnvV

When The Going Gets Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough go tromping through mud and wet grass for a three-mile run. It was a great plan. I’ve been in such a purple funk lately, fighting my way back to solid ground after letting the circumstances of life toss me about. Over the last few years, running has been both my physical fitness activity of choice and my emotional release from the stresses of life. It was the obvious choice.

I had determined that this summer would be the time I got my running game back on track. Or at least on treadmill. And wouldn’t ya know it, we have experienced one of the rainiest summers in recent memory. On any given day, once I got finished with work or whatever else needed doing that day, the monsoon had begun. I do own a treadmill. It is totally accessible. I just hate using it. So, most days, I don’t.

This particular day was surprisingly sunny, though not surprisingly, humid. I suited up in a cute runner girl ensemble and headed out the front door for a run around our property. To say that I went for a run is, I must admit, a liberal use of the term, but I was running at some points, so you will have to give me the benefit of the doubt here. Truth be told, our land has never been pane-of-glass smooth, but after a visit from Hurricane Matthew last year, it was even less so. Running in the grassy sections would be unwise because there could be a hole there and I would never know it until I found air instead of solid ground beneath my feet. So mostly I was doing some brisk power walking through two sides of the rectangular area and running when I hit the road and my driveway. It was a great plan. Until it wasn’t.

In my closet there are any number of running shoes, various types for various purposes. I wore my old favorites because they are comfortable, and I wasn’t too worried about getting them all muddy. It seemed like a logical choice at the time. I was about halfway through my distance goal of three miles. There were about five running strides left before I shifted back to power walking. Without warning, I did a face plant. I’m not even sure what I managed to trip over, but in a movie-like slow-motion sequence, I watched the muddy ground get closer as my left ankle twist painfully and awkwardly to one side. The ridiculous thought that raced through my mind at the moment I bounced off the terra firma was, “Woman! You have trail shoes in your closet!”

In one slightly less than fluid motion, I picked myself up and scraped the worst of the mud off my legs. The ankle was none too happy but could support weight, so I took a step, then another, and decided to press on with the run. After one slow and steady lap, I felt confident that there was no damage and returned to the running segments. While I was chugging along, I remembered a time when I’d had a much more serious fall while running down a street in near-total darkness. With the help of my friends, I hopped up, ignored the blood, and kept on running. Recalling that incident gave me the courage to not wimp out this time. If I bounced back from a tough run once, I could surely do it again.

That made me think about King David. Long before he assumed the title of king, David was the runt-of-the-litter little brother who was left behind to take care of the sheep while his older brothers, by all accounts burly and impressive young men, who were off having exciting exploits as members of Israel’s army. Only things weren’t going so well for them. David showed up and offered his assistance. When the brawny brothers pointed out that David was indeed a runt, he remembered times in the past when he’d faced tough situations and how the God of Israel had strengthened him. He said, “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (2 Sam 17:37). You might say that David had a giant problem. This is quite literally true because David was about to face off with a giant, not in a figurative sense, but in the original, honest-to-goodness, for real and for true giant named Goliath who was nine feet tall and not at all a nice person.

In that moment, David recalled the way he had faced challenging situations before and triumphed. He knew that his God provided the strength necessary. He didn’t cower in fear and run for cover. He didn’t complain about how he’d been in much better shape when he faced the lion, or that the conditions had been better on that day. But what he did do was remember a success from the past, which in turn gave him the courage to face the giant on this day.

Now I don’t claim to be a David, and getting up after a small stumble may not be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. But perhaps there are some lessons we can learn here.

  • Remembering the trials we have overcome in the past can give us courage to face different, but equally challenging, difficulties in our present.
  • We often need to think of our circumstances differently. In a crisis situation, it is easy for molehills to become mountains in our minds. Taking a step back and calming down can do wonders for our perspective. When we are calm we simply make better decisions.
  • Sometimes we just have to develop the best plan we can and go for it. I’m sure David’s sling and rock attack didn’t look like an especially wise military maneuver to anyone else. But he trusted his God and slung that rock. The results speak for themselves.
  • My Faith not in my Strength – that comes and goes – but my Strength is in my Faith. More specifically, my Strength is in the One who is the source of my Faith.

Psalm 121:1-2, written by David, this same shepherd boy turned mighty warrior, says, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (NIV)

When the going gets tough, the tough call on Jesus.

I Didn’t Read My Bible Today

I’m sort of an OCD kind of person. Actually, I am a really OCD kind of person. Structure and organization give me a sense of calm, and nothing makes me happier than having a good plan and seeing it through to completion. That’s just how my brain operates. The same principles that held true when I was an English/Social Studies teacher are relevant in my personal life. I like for things to be in their “proper place” – in the refrigerator and in life.

When it comes to my personal quiet time/devotion, I also like normalcy and order for the most part. One of the first things I do each morning is to read my Bible, usually working my way slowly through a specific book or topic; read a daily devotion from Oswald Chambers; and record key quotes or personal reflections in my journal. Then I pray about whatever God has brought to mind or any specific issues I’m facing, before beginning the day-to-day part of my day.

This is a pretty doggone good system. I love communing with God before I have to face the rest of the world. Keeping a journal is also a great way on those tough days to look back and see the last thing God said to me.  This helps to anchor me when life seems crazy. Seeing His fingerprints from days gone by remind me that He is still very much in control today.

One day recently, though, I did not do that.

I gathered my materials, a meeting of ancient and modern, with both an iPad and a soft, leather-bound journal, and just sat there. I simply could not bring myself to read the Bible. I couldn’t. On this particular day, I was more than just bothered by something; I was distraught. My mind was locked up almost. I could not think straight. Reading was out of the question. I tried to pray, I really did. Nothing was coming out right. My sentences were a tangled jumble that made absolutely no sense, and I’m sure they even contradicted each other as I attempted to bring my petitions before the Father. Then the tears started – not polite little drips, but monsoon-caliber torrents accompanied by much wailing and a fair amount of snot. It was not a pretty scene.

In that moment a couple of things happened. All that Scripture I had hidden in my heart from the time I was a young child came rushing back to me. I wasn’t worried about chapter and verse, but the words from the greatest love letter that has ever been written flooded my heart and my mind and my jumbled up prayers. A line from this verse, a line from another, swirled together, all pointing to the faithfulness of my heavenly Father Who is at work behind the scenes in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.

I also understood a passage I’d always heard, and have probably referred to on more than one occasion, in a totally new way. Romans 8:26 says,  Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (NKJV) This is one of those really great verses to pull out when times are tough. I expect I had done that before. But on this day, I totally got it. I was so wiped out, emotionally, spiritually, and physically; I had nothing left. The only word I could utter that made any sense at all was, “Help!” I reached the end of me, and allowed Holy Spirit to take over, which He had probably been patiently waiting for me to do. Somehow, I knew, whatever the outcome might be, God was very much in control of the entire situation. I could rest in that truth and quit trying to resolve this on my own.

So, is a carefully planned devotion time or simply winging it the better option? To this question, I would have to say, Yes. There is a time and place for both. There is a danger, of course, in being toooooo orderly all the time when spending time alone with God. It can quickly become more of an itemized checklist than ever-deepening relationship. Years of diligence in study, reflection, journaling, and memorization combined to lay a foundation upon which I could depend when I needed it most. Sometimes though, you just have to chuck the plan and go with the moment. When I had no words of my own to offer up, Hope – stored away in a lifetime of memorized Scripture, along with the promised presence of the Holy Spirit – filled in my blanks.