God is here ...

My most recent sermon is about the fact that God is omnipresent; meaning there is no place or space or moment in time where God is not present.

This changes everything.

Every moment - no matter how mundane, boring or ordinary - is a moment filled with the presence of God.

It is our job to become awake to this truth; to stop living half-asleep, dulled into using made-up descriptive words like sacred or secular, holy or unholy.

We must stop praying, "God, please be with us ..."

God IS with us. It is we who are absent. It is we who need to be invoked.

I stumbled across a piece of paper on which John Ortberg's thoughts about God's omnipresence were presented in bullet form.

See what you think:

* God is always present and active in my life, whether or not I see God.

* Coming to recognize and experience God's presence is learned behavior; I can cultivate it.

* My task is to meet God in this moment.

*I am always tempted to live "outside" this moment. When I do that, I lose my sense of God's presence.

* Sometimes God seems far away for reasons I do not understand. Those moments, too, are opportunities to learn.

* Whenever I fail, I can always start again right away.

* No one knows the full extent to which a human being can experience God's presence.

* My desire for God ebbs and flows, but God's desire for me is constant. 

* Every thought carries a "spiritual charge" that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.

* Every aspect of my life - work, relationships, hobbies, errands - is of immense and genuine interest to God.

* My path to experiencing God's presence will not look quite like anyone else's.

* Straining and trying too hard do not help.

Pay attention, friends.

Every moment is holy.

God is here.

 

Prayer and dogs, Part 3 ...

One evening, many years ago, I was preparing a Stouffer's frozen lasagna for dinner.

Our kids were watching TV or doing homework.

I was looking forward to an easy meal - just pop the lasagna out of the freezer, put it on a baking sheet and toss it in the oven. Voila! Dinner is served.

One of the habits of our old chocolate lab, Chessy, was to troll around the kitchen during meal prep hoping that a scrap or two would make its way onto the floor for her consumption. Since I am kind of a messy cook, she was often rewarded.

But this night, oh this night, she was about to be rewarded beyond her wildest imagination.

For as I pulled the cooked lasagna out of the oven and placed it on the counter to cool, something strange happened.

The baking sheet I had placed the lasagna on had somehow gotten a bit twisted up in the oven and a slight bend was created.

And as that baking sheet cooled, the twist untwisted ...

And that hot pan of lasagna launched into the air and turned upside down and landed right on Chessy's wandering back.

In a moment of extreme shock and surprise Chessy was simultaneously injured and in heaven.

Yes, the lasagna was hot.

But that hot lasagna was not only on her back, but it was on the floor and then, very quickly, in a twinkle of an eye, it was in her mouth ... all of it.

All I could do was yell, "Chuck, order some pizza!!!" and then laugh at the exquisite level of joy and amazement of my always-hungry dog eating the very best surprise of her life.

What does this have to do with prayer?

Sometimes, we don't even know what to pray for.

Sometimes, we just walk around with unspoken yearnings.

Sometimes, God hears the unspoken desires of our heart.

And sometimes, not all the time lest we become numb, God gives us more than we could ever ask or imagine and, like a flying pan of lasagna landing on the back of my dog, a gift lands in our lap, seemingly out of the blue ...

but we know from whence it came,

and our only response is to cry out in joy and gobble it up with gratitude!

This, too, is a sort of a prayer.

AMEN.

Prayer and dogs, Part 2

Our current chocolate lab, Stella, loves to eat.

We feed her the same amount of the same food every day at 7:30 AM and 5:30 PM.

We have never failed to feed her.

Yet each day, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes prior to mealtime, she starts to worry. She starts to hover around me, restless, urgently staring at me, unsettled. 

It's as if she is worried I am not going to come through for her, even though I have always come through for her.

It really irritates me.

I can't understand why she doesn't trust me.

Haven't I always been faithful?

Doesn't she know I promise to take care of her?

Doesn't she know I want her to thrive and will provide what she needs?

Why does she act as if none of these things are true?

I will feed her no matter what she does. She's my dog and I love her. 

I feel sorry for her and wish she would actually LIVE those wasted moments prior to mealtime, rather than fritter them away with anxious care. All her anxious care is a complete waste of time.

This makes me wonder if God is, at times, saddened by my anxiety, my worry that he will not provide what I need when I need it, even though he has proven himself faithful year after year after year.

When I ask the same thing over and over and over again is it like Stella circling me as if all her frantic energy is what is going to cause me to eventually give in and feed her? 

When I pray, I can rest in the knowledge that my needs and concerns are in God's good care. Yes, I can pray again about the same thing, but I certainly don't need to nip at God's heels as if he is unconcerned or unaware of my issues. God's actions flow out of his love, they are not responses to my level of energy expenditure.

God knows what I need even before I ask.

My job, it seems, is to live a life of childlike trust.

The kind of trust I wish my Stella would offer me.

Because every day at 7:30 and 5:30 I will provide what she needs.

Always have. Always will.

AMEN.

 

Prayer and dogs, Part 1 ...

When our first chocolate lab, Chessy, got old, she could barely make her way up and down the basement stairs.

Once she shuffled her way down the stairs, making her way back up became questionable. She lurched. She stumbled. She huffed and puffed her way back up to the main floor, but only barely.

Eventually, I realized that it was simply cruel to allow her to descend to the cool, concrete floors of the basement, even in the summer heat. The chance she would never reemerge without me attempting to lug her squirmy, 80-pound body up the stairs was too great.

So I shut the door.

She would walk over to the door to the basement numerous times a day and simply stand at the door, patiently, quietly, waiting for me to open it so that she could get cool.

But I refused. I did not open the door.

She would stand and wait. And eventually, after looking at me with confusion, she would shuffle off to a cooler part of the main floor and plop down with a heavy sigh of disappointment.

She had no idea I had shut the door for her own good. All she saw was the closed door.

One day, I found myself talking to her:

"Chessy, I know you want to go downstairs. And I know you don't understand why I am saying no to you. But if I let you go down the stairs, if I let you do what you think you want to do, you may never come back up. I love you too much to make you suffer in that manner. So, even though it seems mean to you right now, I am keeping that door closed. I know, better than you, what is best for you and you just have to trust me."

As I heard these words come out of my mouth, I wondered:

Does God ever whisper similar sentiments to me?

Do I ever stand in front of doors wondering why God allows them to remain closed?

Do I imagine the better life on the other side, frustrated that God won't do what I want God to do - simply open the door? 

And does God then whisper to me:

"Alice, even though it seems mean to you right now, I am keeping that door closed. I know, better than you, what is best for you and you just have to trust me."

I bet God does ...

Prayer and patience ...

God's timing is not ours.

Can we all agree on that?

So, when we pray, we wait. These two actions are inextricably linked.

But we are impatient people, aren't we?

We often interpret having to wait as God not answering our prayer.

I once heard that what God does in us while we wait is as important, if not MORE important, than what it is we are praying and waiting for.

Henri Nouwen would agree. Listen to what he wisely writes about patience:

"Being patient is difficult. It is not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of a bus, the end of the rain, the return of a friend, the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not waiting passively until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else. Be patient and trust that the treasure you are looking for is hidden in the ground on which you stand."

As you pray and as you wait, can you at the same time live the current moment to the fullest?

Can you trust that God is at work behind the scenes of your life and therefore you are free to live each day as the gift it is, rather than thinking that "the real thing" will happen as soon as your prayer is answered; tomorrow rather than today?

I love Nouwen's last sentence - "Be patient and trust that the treasure you are looking for is hidden in the ground on which you stand."

Pray, friends! But as you do, understand patience will be asked of you. But patience isn't passivity. It is standing at attention, eyes wide open to all the answered prayers that are right in front of you, in this moment right now, hidden in the ground on which you stand.

God is too good ...

“God is too good to be unkind

and God is too wise to be mistaken.

So when we cannot trace God's hand,

we must trust God's heart.”

(Charles Spurgeon, 1834 - 1892)

Live carefree before God ...

When I am anxious about something or someone and my prayers feel like they are bouncing off the walls, I move my mind toward this passage from the Bible:

"Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you." (1 Peter 5:7 - The Message Translation)

How can I practice trusting that God is very careful with my life?

Once I start to rest in that truth, releasing the death grip on all I try to control through prayer becomes easier and easier.

What if prayer is more about releasing and less about demanding?

 

Yoga and prayer ...

Psychotherapist Carl Rogers said, "What is most personal is most universal."

What we think we alone struggle with is often that which most connects us to our neighbor. This can, of course be taken to its narcissistic extreme, meaning I come to believe that whatever I think, feel or experience is exactly what others think, feel or experience. But at its most true, Rogers' words simply mean there is something wildly communal about the human experience. 

Makes me wonder if my questions, my confusions about prayer are possibly yours, as well.

I was pondering prayer this morning during a slow yoga class wherein the bulk of our time is spent holding yoga poses for several minutes, all while focusing on our breathing. Though I was supposed to stay "in the moment" my mind did not seem to find obedience to this task interesting enough, so she wandered just a bit. I found myself holding a pose, breathing deeply and thinking about prayer.

"What are the basics," my mind asked me? "If you could dumb it way down, what would you be left with?"

As I breathed, these are the phrases that came to mind:

Believe - First, I must believe there is a powerful and good Force willing and able to hear my prayers.

Seek - This Force (let's call it God) must be sought. Seek first a relationship, not just an outcome.

Ask - Once there is some sort of relationship, asking for what one wants or needs seems possible. And if God is big and sovereign and good, asking for what one wants or needs seems sane.

Trust - This is where it gets hard.  After I ask, I need to try to trust. Trust that the ask was heard. Trust that the ask was received. Trust that something that looks like an "answer" will be offered.  

Wait and Watch  - I lied. THIS is where it gets hard. God's timing is not my own. God will not be hen-pecked into acting. God will move God's hand in God's good time. My job is to wait and to watch with both patience and anticipation. I am bad at both waiting and watching.

Surrender - I lied again. THIS is where it gets THEE MOST hard. After I ask, after I trust, as I wait and watch, I must also pray the most profound prayer that can be prayed: "Not my will, but Thine." For receiving answers to prayer is not like receiving the groceries you order from the delivery service at Wal-Mart. Not even close. Receiving answers to prayer is more like opening a series of surprise gifts given to you by your friend, spouse or parent who rarely buys you things off your wish-list, but instead picks out exquisite and surprising gifts you didn't even know you needed.

I breathed my way through the rest of the yoga class, repeating these words in this order. My mind found focus. I used these phrases to help myself pray for people, circumstances, seemingly hopeless situations. It helped me remember why I  pray. It helped me remember that it is sane to pray. I helped me remember that asking is the easy part of prayer. And it helped me remember that waiting, watching and surrendering are the real work of a praying soul.

Believe, Seek, Ask, Trust, Wait and Watch, Surrender ...

That was a good yoga class.

Our hands are full ...

Too often I fill myself with worry about things I cannot control.

I ruminate about what concerns me.

I fret about the future, wondering if I can twist it into a shape pleasing to me.

I cling to anxious thoughts as cheap substitutes for prayer.

St. Augustine (who said some real dumb things about women in his day) said this:

"God wants to give us something but cannot,

because our hands are full - there's nowhere for God to put it."

Augustine's simplistic thought captured me today and made me wonder what God might fill my hands with if I but dropped all that does not satisfy.

Worry, rumination, fretting, anxiety. Why do I clasp them to me as if they have something to offer?

Have they ever provided me with what they promise?

What if I drop them, just for today, and open myself up to the possibility that God just might have something better up his sleeve?

Lent means spring ...

Did you know that Lent means spring?

Literally, the word Lent comes from the Old English word "lencten" which means spring.

Aha! Now we are talking!

This has been a brutal winter in the Midwest, to put it mildly. Frigid, icy, snowy, isolating, mind-numbing.

Long.

The yearning for spring is palpable.

It is not only my body that yearns for spring, my soul does, too.

I have been pretty numb lately. Walking around in a stupor. Stumbling through my routines, steeling myself against the frigid air. Walking with my eyes down, watching for the ever-present ice, blinded to much of what happens all around me by my incessant need to get warm.

I need spring. I need Lent.

What if Lent could be a kind of spring for me this year? For you?

What if ... as I watch the spring sun shine through my windows revealing all the dirt I've allowed to build up in the darkness of winter, I also watch for God's gentle light to reveal that which needs to be swept out of my soul?

What if ... as I yearn for the first balmy breezes of spring to remind me that the earth will soon burst into bloom, I also yearn for the winds of the Spirit to bring new life to my winter-weary self?

What if ... as I anticipate the early thunderstorms that wash the gritty streets and sidewalks clean,  I also anticipate the rivers of living water Jesus promises me right in the gritty mess of my daily existence?

What if Lent could be a kind of spring for me this year?

For you?