Monday, April 25, 2016

A Propped Up Prayer Life

My prayer life is held up by numerous props. Were one or two of the props removed, my prayer life would teeter. A few more, it would totter. Take every prop away, and my prayer life would topple. 

But until I topple, I will continue to put my props to use. Over the years I have cobbled them together from various sources. Some are copyrighted. Others are public domain. All of them get the discipline of prayer started. They keep my mind directed. Perhaps they can help others, too.

Thankfulness Journal: After reading  AnnVoskamp's A Thousand Gifts, my wife began a thankfulness journal. She logged more than six hundred unique articles before her pen ran out. I picked up the discipline. Four or five days a week I begin the morning  by writing down four things for which I'm grateful. I take note of something related to my relationship with God, my family, and my church. I can always find something related to food that deserves thanks, too.

Kenneth Boa's Drawing Near: Boa published several collections of Scripture-based prayer prompts. Most of the Scriptures are arranged in key categories -- praise, confession, renewal, intercession, thanksgiving -- for each day of the month. My late mother-in-law gave a copy of Drawing Near to each of her daughters. I carry on her vibrant prayer life through this book.

Praying Paul: Several authors have noted the apostle Paul's powerful life of intercession. Bill Thrasher surveys Paul's prayers in A Journey to Victorious Praying. D.A. Carson more thoroughly dissects and applies the apostle's prayers in Praying with Paul. In recent months, I printed a selection of Paul's prayers on card stock and distributed them to our church body to complement a sermon series. I continue to employ Paul's prayers for my church family.

Psalms Journal: More than a year ago I started a journal through the Psalms. I read, outlined, and prayed a Psalm most mornings. Psalm 119 sidetracked me, but after a year-long digression, I have arrived at the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) with renewed verve.

Circle-Maker Notebook: After reading Mark Batterson's The Circle Maker, I dedicated a notebook to prayer circles. I initially made so many circles I felt dizzy, but my little notebook has recorded numerous specific requests and answers. I have a daily circle, family circle, church circle, career circle, and rings around my many friends. Once a month I work through this prop.

Monthly Prayer Retreat: The first Thursday of the month I spend one to three hours in prayerful reflection. During this time I journal, dream, read, listen, sing, intercede, and bite my fingernails. These retreats provide critical feedback on my spiritual growth over the years.

The Lord's Prayer: I have gotten into the habit of praying Jesus' model prayer each night as I fall asleep. I rarely make it to the request for daily bread before nightly slumber takes over.

For the longest time, my propped up prayer life caused me guilt. I redoubled my efforts, read another prayer book, learned a new habit, and multiplied my failures. Guilt increased while my motivation suffered. 

Even today my props hold me up, but have accepted them as a grace from God, not a guise of legalism. Through these props my Heavenly Father has expanded my understanding of prayer. It goes well beyond intercession to include listening, reflecting, and taking note of Him at work.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Assessing My First Quarter Successes and Failures

Reader Beware: The following blog post measures my progress for the goals I set at the beginning of 2016.* Some of my goals had plans; some did not. And not all plans are created equal. So do not be surprised if the tone of my self-assessment is mostly negative.

Fortunately, the year is just beginning. Birds have started to sing. Flowers have started to bloom. And I smell success in the air.

Before scrolling down (or clicking something more interesting), please note that my self-assessment, albeit boring, may have something to offer you, including:
  • a witty turn of phrase or two
  • examples of gracious failure
  • one boast that will likely make America great again
Goal: Run a Half Marathon in 1:25:00
After a brilliant month of running in January, my training stumbled. My Achilles tendon flared up. I researched the problem on the Internet. I started cancer treatments and learned a few new stretches.** After resting most of March, I began running again last week. Every morning my left heel screams for the first thirty minutes of the day. A half marathon seems miles away (13.1 to be exact).

Goal: Give Away $5000
I'd tell you how generous I am, but my right hand (that types) can't remember what my left hand (that gives) put in the offering basket. And the rest of our charitable donations are online and automated.

Goal: Read 27 books
I've been reading like a ravenous beast. I can't get enough. Authors' ideas fill my brain and belly. Their words are stuck between my teeth. Twelve books and counting. If learners are leaders, write me in for president. Good options are currently lacking.

Goal: Finish Two Manuscripts
Work on my manuscripts has suffered since I lost my computer. Well, technically, the airline lost it... and then found it... in Ethiopia. It awaits me. Moreover, my manuscripts are saved in the cloud, so I could get at them if I wanted to. But I don't. My backup computer is noisy and several of the keys stiiiiiiiiiiick. SEeeeeeeeeeeeee.***

Goal: Raise Blog Readership 75
Going to Ethiopia and adopting a child did wonders for my blog readership. This post, however, will likely fail miserably. (Are you still reading?) People like personal stories  and self-help tips, not church talk and introspective drivel. So for good measure, I'll throw in a picture of me and Sensi and tell you to improve your sleep by turning screens off thirty minutes before bedtime. Classic bait and switch!

On a humbling note, my wife's Ethiopia entries crushed mine. After encouraging her to blog to help her "work through" her anxiety, she's causing me to "work through" my envy.

Goal: Take My Wife on 10 "Real" Dates
See previous post to see why I haven't taken her out. Envious husbands are not gracious dinner companions. Our first getaway is this weekend.

Goal: Take My Daughters on 4 Dates Each
I took each of my daughters on a date. Margot and I saw a play and ate candy; Claire and I dined at Steak 'n Shake. I also took the girls across the Atlantic Ocean, but they didn't eat anything there.

Goal: Read the Whole Bible
Although I'm not using a systematic approach this year, I've covered much ground. Between preaching through Paul's letters and studying the Old Testament with men in my church, I have had few weeks without a significant amount of reading. More importantly, I'm reflecting on the Scriptures by keeping a journal and bringing God's word into conversations.

Goal: Empower Others to Preach 10 Sundays
I missed Easter while in Ethiopia. John Lillis preached about the resurrection. In the coming two weeks, Herb Bateman will preach through Philippians. This summer, I have Branden Pahl slated for two weeks. I'm also leaving room in the fall for a professor, some poets, and a parakeet to preach.

Goal: Reduce Sermon Time to 35-40 minutes
My sermons continue to run wild. I've tried to tame them with various countdown clocks and timers. I've altered my deliver style - cutting quotes, adding props, slowing speech, dancing a jig. I even started rehearsing outside of my morning commute. But nothing seems to help me land in the target time (35-40 minutes). In truth, this time frame is arbitrary. Hebrew numerology or studies in listening comprehension do not motivate me. Mastery does. I want to master the content and clock. And then take over the world (see Reading Goal above).

Goal: Adopt My Son from Ethiopia
Legally, Sensi is a member of our family. Formally, we await his homecoming. Once we receive his birth certificate and passport, I can schedule my flight to receive him. My arms are open.

Goal: Share My Faith 10x
I've torn a few pieces off the crust and distributed them, but I've not yet given out a loaf of bread.

Goal: Expand
My theme word for 2016 is expand. I wrote about the concept in an earlier post. Until last week, I had given prayerful attention to expand. As I worked through the passage (2 Cor. 10:7-18), I discerned the following prayer points:
  • Remember I am "in Christ" (v. 7)
  • Let me be free of SHAME (v. 8)
  • Lee me serve with INTEGRITY (vv. 9-11)
  • Guard me from COMPARISONS (v. 12)
  • Guard me from OVEREXTENDING (vv. 13-14)
  • Let my influence ENRICH others' faith (v. 15a)
  • Let my influence EXPAND (vv. 15b-16)
  • Let me BOAST only "in the Lord" (vv. 17-18)
* I recently read about the value of quarterly reviews on the Internet, and I practice everything I read on the Internet.

** The last footnote is not true. Neither are my "cancer treatments." Cancer is not a joke, but self-diagnosing our health problems with the Internet is a joke. It always leads to cancer. (This caveat was added after I was called with a question about my cancer treatments. Thanks for caring!)

*** On a positive note, I had an article published in the Grace Connect Magazine, several newsletters for the Equipping Church network, and one post on the Cyber-Center for Biblical Studies "Pastor's Perspective" series, which I edit. So, yes, I'm doing some writing.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Flexing My Emotional Muscles

My feelings surface naturally, regularly, and under my skin. I am beginning to take notice.

A month ago I observed a tightness in my chest and furrowing of the brow whenever I scrolled through Instagram. There was a particular person whose posts unnerved me. My physiological symptoms signaled envy (although, my body acts similarly at FaceSwap.)

I was following a friend who constantly captured ministry moments. His images were underscored with exuberant captions. Likes and comments abounded under each one. My ministry felt small in comparison. Note: I was the one making comparisons, not him; and making comparisons is surely a greater sin than celebrating God at work!

So what if this only got 7 likes. I ate Hatian cake!
More recently someone questioned an idea from one of my sermons. He told me he would have nuanced the thought differently. Again, my brow furrowed. I felt my head cock back, like a rooster ready to unleash a deadly assault. This was another emotional signal: defensiveness. I'm guilty as charged, and more often than I'd like to admit. But why?

This growing sensitivity to my emotional life stems from a few factors. The recent, roller coaster ride of international adoption has taken me and my wife on some steep ups and downs (and transatlantic flights). Expanding our family in this intensive way has forced me to look at family dynamics, both my family of origin and the current mix of me-plus-three-women-and-a-golden-doodle. The estrogen imbalance is pronounced.

Moreover, my reading diet from the past few months has heightened my emotional sensitivities. These works include several spiritual formation titles and The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazerro. (I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tickled when he responded to my Tweet yesterday.) So far, in three of the book's evaluations, I score somewhere between emotional adolescent and grandfather of healthy feelings.

Finally, I spent a few weeks thinking through "big feelings" for a sermon on Christian Hope amid... you guessed it, Big Feelings. I compared my ministry path my charming but emotionally explosive nephew (age 3), as well as the irritable prophet Jonah. A counselor from our church provided both clinical and spiritual insights during the message. We both agreed the Bible is no stranger to big feelings. Fortunately, God's abounding compassion is greater than our anxiety, anger, envy, depression and outbursts of hilarious denial.

I have enjoyed flexing my emotional muscles. Since feelings are God-given, they should not be ignored, but nurtured. In fact, after finishing this post, I may treat myself to a hearty cry.