Thursday, September 20, 2012


If I'm going to be honest with you, I have to admit that one area of my spiritual life that has always been lack-luster is prayer. While my grandmother didn't have a problem with prayer, I have always struggled with the notion. I recall watching her, from a distance, my head peeking through the screen door. She was knelt down in the flower bed, her hands sifting through the black dirt and pulling weeds. It was there my grandmother didn't seem to have a care in the world. She was enjoying the beautiful weather and  carrying on a conversation with...herself; or so it seemed. This was a regular occurrence. One day curiosity got the best of me. I stepped out from hiding and confronted her right there in the serenity of the moment. "Who are you talking to Grandma?" I asked with the most puzzled look. Her response will forever be etched into my memory. My grandmother, in the most serious, yet loving voice, echoed some of the most comical, yet profound words a young boy would hear. "God, he's the only one who will listen!" But it wouldn't be until later in life I realized how true that was.

You see, my complacency with prayer is deeply embedded. To begin with, prayer wasn't really something that was consistently modeled throughout my formative years. This is partly due to the fact that I didn't grow up in what most people would call a Christian home. On second thought, I did grow up in what most of America would call a Christian home. We went to church just about every Sunday. My parents dropped me and my brother's off at our Wednesday night services every week. Summer camps were even a highlight of the year for me. But, you see, a lot of times that was the extent of it. The only time prayer was a significant part of life was in church. Even then, it seemed like it was more of an afterthought or "this is just part of the routine" kind of thing. On occasion, prayer made it's way into the routine of regular life. There were times it was part of the routine for family dinner on Sundays. And my mother would occasionally ask me to pray when the proverbial, uh...stuff...hit the fan. If things weren't going well, that was the time to turn to God in prayer.

My other hesitancy with prayer has always hinged on the idea of opening up and sharing my hopes, dreams and feelings with this invisible, omniscient being. I'm a guy, so I tend to shudder at the thought of baring my soul to another person. What made this even more awkward was the fact I was supposed to do this with someone I couldn't see. To me, this seemed like a ridiculous notion. First off, since God wasn't physically present I always felt as though I was talking to myself. And they lock people up in padded white rooms for less. To top it off, if God knew everything already why did I have to voice it to him anyway. The way I saw it, I was doing the big guy a favor. He had better things to do than listen to my first world problems that he was already aware of. By remaining silent, I was allotting God more time to take care of more important things like world hunger.

If any of this sounds familiar, you're not alone. I'd go out on a limb and say that you are probably in the vast majority. And take comfort in knowing that prayer was just as awkward and confusing for those who walked with God in the flesh. Even Jesus' closest friends seemed to be at a loss when it came to prayer. The crazy thing is they saw it modeled right in front of them on a regular basis. Jesus would retreat to a quiet place. Jesus would break bread with them and offer prayers toward heaven. When he healed the sick and crippled, he would lay hands on them and pray to his father. But still, the disciples weren't sure about the whole thing. Eventually, curiosity got the best of them as well. The time came when they approached Jesus and asked if he would teach them how to pray. Of course, Jesus obliged (Luke 11:1-4).

When it comes to prayer there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what that means and how it looks. Here are some lessons I have learned (rather, am still learning) about prayer. A lot of these principles have come through trial and error. Even more have come from Scripture and the examples Jesus gave us (like in Luke).

Just start praying! Anything is better than nothing. Does that seem too simple? Well, it is! But somehow the most basic things have a tendency to turn into the most painfully difficult and laborious activities. Open your mouth. Put letters together to form words and words together to form sentences. Big theological words don't impress God. They don't increase the chances of your prayers being heard. They don't make God work faster. You aren't required to speak some crazy language. Prayer is all about opening up the lines of communication between you and God. He's there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And the craziest part of all is that he is eagerly waiting for you to talk to him. If speaking is too difficult, just sit there in silence. When words aren't adequate, Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:26).

The next thing is to pray consistently (Philippians 4:6). I'm not talking about retreating to some secluded place and setting aside hours at a time every day. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, I have a hard time making it happen. I'm quite envious of people who can do this. Unfortunately my mind starts to wander off after a few minutes. So I have to attempt to offer shorter prayers throughout the day. When my patience is wearing thin because traffic is at a stand still, it's time to stop and pray for patience. When I get some exciting news, I try to take a moment and thank God in prayer. Those short prayers offered every so often keep me constantly in communion with God throughout the day. In addition to that, pray for the same thing. Again and again and again. Until you have an answer. Do I fail at this sometimes? Of course! But, I just pick up right where I left off.

The next two coincide with one another. When you pray, pray specifically and pray big  (John 14:12-14; 1 John 5:14-15)! It seems to me we utter these broad prayers that can be taken numerous ways. "God, please provide for my family." Provide what? He's given you a house. You've got a steady job. How do you want him to provide? If you're $100 short for bills this month, specifically ask for it. I wonder how often we don't reap the full benefits because our faith is so minuscule. We limit the blessings God is waiting to bestow; all because we tend to lob the ball over the plate in order that it will be easier for him to knock it out of the park. That way, if God doesn't come through the way we hoped it requires less explanation, we are less disappointed and it's easier to make excuses. In short, we have a tendency to limit God. It's here I should offer a disclaimer. Just because you pray specifically and pray big doesn't mean God will grant that request. It may not fall in line with what he is working out for you right now.

Navigating the path of life and coming to wise decisions requires communication. And as my grandmother pointed out, sometimes God is the only one who will listen. So keep praying. And do so audaciously, because of this you can be certain--he will answer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


On my left wrist is a yoke (Not to be confused with a yolk. You'd be surprised how many people make that mistake.) with Matthew 11:28-30 inscribed below. I got this tattoo with my intern in Wyoming after hearing a compelling message on the beauty of the yoke. Behind this tattoo you will find a story about my difficulty completely surrendering to God. This tattoo represents a specific story, but know that there are times every day when I have trouble trusting God, walking with him in faith and allowing Him to lead...especially when I have no clue where he is taking me.

To understand everything, I should inform you that I like to drive. I get such a weird feeling sitting in the passenger seat; especially when it is in my own vehicle. You see, when I'm behind the wheel I make the decisions. I determine the speed. I determine the stops. I determine the course. Ultimately, being behind the wheel means I am in control. When I'm in the passenger seat, everything changes! I tend to get a bit antsy. The future of me and my vehicle is in the hands of someone else. Things start going through my mind like "I would pass this car. We should be in the other lane. That route would have been quicker. You better slow down so you don't rear-end them."

Often times, this spills over into my spiritual life. Here's how it usually unfolds. After a time, I relinquish control of a certain area to God. As time goes on and we navigate various twists, turns and detours I begin to get antsy. That's when I resort to being God's back-seat driver. I begin asking questions like: "Do you really know where you are going? How is this all going to play out?" And then I reach for the wheel and offer God some advice along the lines of: "You should speed this up. We should change directions. I really don't want to go there. How about we take a different route."

Now for the story behind the tattoo. I was about a year into my first ministry position. To say things weren't going as I hoped and expected they would is an understatement. I was a young man with visions of grandeur! I was going to make a difference. I was going to change the church. I was going to change the world. I would be someone! About the only thing I became was frustrated and discouraged. The reality of ministry and my expectations were separated by a vast canyon. There were lots of meetings, a bunch of paperwork, and plenty of other boring responsiblities. I felt very little of my time was actually spent doing anything worthwhile and productive.

That first year I had my fair share of disappointments and struggles. There were numerous battles to gain the trust of the parishioners (in their defense, previous staff gave them reason to be wary). The anemic youth ministry gathered two evenings a week--one night about 5 Jr. High students would gather and another night was reserved for about 3 or 4 Sr. High students. Mediating between parents and teens in the youth group created struggles I hadn't foreseen. The parents wanted to see a thriving ministry of small groups, outreach events, mission trips and various other programs. I wanted the same things but to be honest, putting hours into prep every week, not even knowing if anyone would show up became exhausting. It took months for others to agree merging the two groups into one night a week would be beneficial. A while later the youth was granted a room dedicated to the ministry I had envisioned. Momentum was building and on a weekly basis we saw 30 some students come through the doors. There was just one problem, in my mind, nobody still seemed to get it. And then things seemed to plateau.

Some of this was partly due to my feelings of inadequacy, but mainly because of my own unrealistic expectations. Throw into the mix a new city and a new marriage at the age of 21 and you might see the picture a bit more clearly. There were mornings I woke up, so stressed and full of worry, I spent the better part of breakfast--how do I put this delicately--throwing up. I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. It was then, the summer of 2006 at youth camp, the speaker delivered a message on the yoke.

I was certain the message was directed right at me! It was as though he had been following me around for the past year making notes on my hopes, dreams, frustrations and struggles. And now, he was able to see all the symptoms and diagnose my ailment. I was trying to be self-sufficient! I was doing everything on my own strengths, according to my own passions, out of my own giftings. I was no longer following God's vision but my own. And to top it off, I hadn't tapped into the source of true strength he was offering. That is why I felt the way I did. That is why the ministry seemed to become stagnant. That is why I was nearing burn out.

In his message, he talked about the the yoke as a symbol of submission. By using this illustration, Jesus was pointing to the fact that we are to submit ourselves to Him every day, in every way. None of this wasn't anything new to me. For those of you who don't know what a yoke is allow me to give an explanation. A yoke was a wooden crossbar with two U-shaped pieces placed around the necks of a pair of oxen. Usually a younger, more wild ox was yoked with an older, more mature ox. This way the younger ox was not allowed to stray and kept focused on the task at hand. It also was a way to allow the older ox to harness the power of the younger. A yoke caused the two animals to rely on each other. It kept them in balance and unified their effort. As I mentioned earlier, the word yoke tends to have a connotation of submission. For many of us, this tends to be a bit negative. It reinforces the improper idea that we are under God's control and have no freedom. No wonder we hate this idea!

Let me paint a little different picture for you. First you should understand that a yoke was usually hand carved. This means time and the utmost care was taken to make sure it fit the neck and shoulders of that specific animal. A yoke isn't a one size fits all kind of thing. The reason being, the customization was meant to prevent pain or discomfort. Creating a perfect fitting yoke was a labor of love. That's why Jesus says "his yoke is easy and his burden is light." That day, I began to understand the yoke is more about sympathy, understanding and grace than it is about limitations and suppression. I could now see the freedom offered in the yoke.

On it's most basic level, this tattoo serves to remind me that I am yoked with Christ. The two of us are walking this sometimes rutted, narrow path of life together. While he is not physically present, his spirit resides within. Whatever comes my way, I am not alone! It reminds me he has been in far more desperate circumstances than I...and yet he did not stumble. It reminds me that if only I will submit, the burden will be more bearable. It also symbolizes that in my submission, I am able to rely on his strength to carry the load when I no longer can. The image of the yoke brings to mind a couple of verses in the fourth chapter of Hebrews, "This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most."

Understanding this makes it a little easier to willingly place my neck and shoulders beneath the weight of his yoke.