Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"The Waiting is the Hardest Part"

These words come from “Gospel” of Tom Petty: J
The waiting is the hardest part.
Every day you get one more yard.
You take it on faith; you take it to the heart;
The waiting is the hardest part.
Tom definitely wasn’t writing his songs for use in church—far from it.  Nevertheless, sometimes their simple lyrics “preach” to me. 

Sometimes, “secular” music stumbles upon Sacred truth.

Waiting can indeed be hard. These days between Easter and Pentecost are a time of waiting for the Church. We all celebrated the miracle of resurrection a few weeks ago and the church was packed. But now, the miracle has given way to the mundane—and we find it hard to sustain our belief.  We begin to question if it was “really Jesus?”  Come back a few Sundays after Easter, and most churches aren’t as full.  Many people seem to have quickly returned to “normal”—which, for increasing numbers in our world, doesn’t include regular Sunday worship.

Scripture reports that Jesus’ first followers had several encounters with him after the resurrection. During one of these meetings, he told them explicitly to wait in Jerusalem until he returnsActs 1:4-5.   You would think that this would be easy enough for them.  After all, they had just seen their friend and teacher—who was executed on a Roman cross—standing in their midst, talking to them—even eating meals with them.  It seemed impossible to believe, but Jesus was alive!  They had seen him with their own eyes!  They touched the nail-scarred hands.  If anyone ought to be able to wait on Jesus for a few days, it should be them.  

But even when we see Jesus “face-to-face,” human nature is hard to overcome. 

When Jesus doesn’t show after a few days, the disciples start getting impatient.  They hate waiting—just like you and I hate waiting.  They want to do something.  So, they decide to “move on” from Jerusalem and return to life as they knew it before they met Jesus. 

Jesus finds a group of them fishing along the Sea of Galilee, doing what they were doing when Jesus first called them three years earlier—John 21.  He finds two others walking on a road toward Emmaus with their hopes and dreams shattered. These two apparently missed the news of the resurrection entirely and are “headed home” to try and pick up the pieces of their old lives and start over—Luke 24:13-35.

We can certainly relate to those early believers.  It’s hard to wait!  We live in an “on the next [1]culture.  We want instant gratification, and if we don’t get it, we move on.  We have little tolerance for the wisdom of the Psalmist:  Be still… have hope… and wait for the LordPsalm 27:14

If Jesus doesn’t show up the second we need him, immediately and obviously, we tend to assume that he’s not here—and that he’s not coming.

But as the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.”

Whether living “ordinary” life—e.g., sitting in beltway traffic or balancing family responsibilities—or seeking “deeper truths” about our identity, God seems to have hard-wired waiting into the fabric of human existence. Like it or not, there are some things in life that can only be gained as we wait.

Strength for our journey is found as we wait on God. Being still, having hope, and other things we do to create space for God in our lives can seem counterintuitive. But through these counter-cultural practices, we encounter Jesus, the Risen Lord, who promises to defend us from our enemies, comfort us when we suffer, and lift us up to sustain us on our journey.

As we step off life's treadmill, as we wait for The Lord, we begin to "see" differently. No, the world has not changed, but we have...

We do not wait for the Lord so that we can escape the world and its problems, but rather so we can engage the world head-on with God's love and justice.  As we go forth to love and serve God, our friends—and even our enemies—as Jesus did, God's glory shines in us and through us.

As we walk with our Risen Lord, God's power and love pours out like rain on our parched souls and flows to the world through us—through our bodies and through the Body of Christ. As we wait, we are changed; we can never go back to the way things were.  Once we encounter Jesus, we are never the same again...

Lord Jesus, teach us to be a people who wait well. Help us to trust the Spirit's unseen work in our lives—that often happens while we wait for The Lord. As we wait, we ask you to open our eyes to let us see all of the places your Presence is "with us" in our daily lives. May seeing you high and lifted up in our world inspire us to live life to the full and become all we have been created to be. To the glory of your name. AMEN.

[1]  Those familiar with the Sci-Fi channel’s show, “Ghost Hunters,” may recognize this phrase.  Jason Hawes typically says it at the end of each investigation.  I used it here to describe our culture’s chronically short attention span.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Short Prayers" Alone Won't Cut It

From my journalApril 9., 2013It’s another morning in the life of the Ward family.  A busy day in the midst of a busy midst of a busy week, in the midst of a busy month, in the midst of a busy life! 

Laurie has an early meeting today, so everyone had to be up and moving early. Since Laurie had to leave early, I dropped the kids off at school and daycare. The car is scheduled for service later this morning.  

I have about an hour, so I search out the ubiquitous Golden Arches. Granted the “food” is greasy, but it's tasty and, most of all, QUICK! As I sit here, I feel led to pull out my phone and journal—writing down my prayers to God. As I sit and consume food for my body, I also nourish my spirit…

Busyness seems like a "way of life" for me these days. For a family of four trying to juggle two careers, ministry activities, two young kids, and all the normal tasks and trials of daily life together, we are virtually always on the go—and often tired as a result.  It's rare to find a "quiet moment" unless we intentionally plan it.  (We have to schedule it, just like everything else we do.)  For someone who by nature is an introvert, and seemingly can’t get enough “me-time,” this can be a challenge.  

Can man live on "fast food" alone?
I do the best I can to find “balance” in the midst of our busyness, but it is not always easy. Our family eats out frequently—probably too often. I have to confess that this wasn't my first visit to McDonalds this week. In fact, we typically consume "fast food" more than once a week. I say that we do it because we must, and although we can and do debate that fact in our family, there is no denying that “fast food” is a reality in our very modern, über-busy world!  Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets, and countless other “edible items,” have come to fill a needed niche for an “on-the-go” society. 

“Fast food” is okay in moderation.  It can nourish and sustain a human being for a while.  It’s when we try to live on it almost exclusively on it that we run into problems. We put on weight, feel lethargic, and/or have other health issues resulting from consuming too much concentrated sugar, salt, and fatty grease.

I believe something similar can happen in our spiritual life if we aren’t careful. About halfway through my McGriddles meal today, it hit me that I have not had much quality time with God recently.  Hardly a blinding revelation, I suppose, given the pace of life I have just described.  But sometimes we get so caught up in getting through each day, that we can become oblivious to what ought to be obvious.

Now don't get me wrong; I talk to God all the time. I have learned that I don't have to be in a particular place or posture to pray. I can and do practice the Presence of God often, “chatting” with God about what I sense God is doing through me—or despite me—in a given situation. This is a very helpful practice to know about and use given the ever-present reality of a “too busy” life.

On the other hand, much like a diet that is too heavy on “fast food,” trying build and maintain a relationship based almost exclusively on “quick conversations” with God probably isn’t best for my long-term spiritual health.

Short little prayers aren't going to cut it anymore.Staci Eldredge

My experience suggests that Staci’s quote above is right on target. She and her husband John were in a very "intense" time in their life and ministry when she uttered those words. I am quite sure it would have been easier for her to say: "I'm okay. I'll get by with ‘quick prayers’ until things calm down." Who would fault her if she felt that way?  We might not always say it out loud, but isn’t this what we all tend to do when we're “too busy” living life?  God gets put on the proverbial “back burner” as we scurry around doing the best we can to get through each day.

What I think Staci realized, however, was that making time for more extended times with God on a regular basis is vital to a thriving spiritual life.  It’s not really optional and—though it might seem counterintuitive—that’s especially true when it feels like we're "too busy" for it.

Staci knew all too well that when we make an intentional effort to set aside time for extended conversation with God, we are able to “go deeper with God” and get to know each other on a deeper level than is possible with “short prayers” alone.

Here is an analogy that might be helpful.  In today’s world, friendships can certainly be born on-line or through social media like Facebook or Twitter.  My marriage is a living testament to that[1]!  That said, my Facebook friends tend to be people with whom I have an existing relationship, and I use Facebook to maintain our connection during the times we can’t see each other face-to-face.

We might view “practicing the Presence of God” as the spiritual equivalent of posting a Facebook status update.  This spiritual practice tends to be most effective for maintaining an already well-established relationship with God.

Sometimes—like this morning—when I am busy, I feel a little guilty spending some time with God—writing the words that became this article.  Inevitably, I am aware that there are at least three or four other things I ought to be doing with this time.  Spending time with God sometimes seems like just another item on a “to do” list that already seems too long! Stopping for a few minutes to pray, meditate, or journal seems somehow wrong.  After all there's all this "other stuff" that needs doing.  How can I justify sitting in McDonalds for almost an hour, jotting words on my i-Phone, “talking” to someone I can’t even see?

But then I wonder if this is precisely “the Enemy’s” game?  However you conceive of that “entity” which opposes God’s will being done in this world, I think we can all agree that it would be threatened by—and actively oppose—our efforts to grow closer to God.  It would make sense, then, that this “Enemy” would want us to doubt the validity and value of the time we spend with God, and would throw up “barriers” that make it harder for us to connect with God—using whatever means necessary.  As we become more aware of that spiritual reality, we may have a different lens with which to interpret certain circumstances that seem to impede our relationship with God—i.e., it may not always be “random stuff” that happens to us. 

While I emphatically don’t mean we should blame “the Devil” for every bad thing that happens in our lives[2], I do think we should take the existence of evil more seriously than we sometimes do.  We should be aware that as we seek to progress in our walk with God, we will have to intentionally choose to “go deeper.”  Growth won’t just happen; we’ll have to work at it—and our efforts might well be opposed.

Whenever I sense the Spirit’s impulse in my life, I try to pay attention and respond—as opposed to “pushing it down” and going about my day.  God sometimes uses this prompting to show me exactly what I need to be doing in this moment.

These Spirit impulses can function like a warning light on the “dashboard” of my life—telling me I've been living on "spiritual fast food" for too long.  At the risk of sounding cliché, in these moments: "I'm too busy NOT to pray."  It may not always seem like the “logical” choice for how to spend my time right now, but when it comes to walking with God, logic only takes you so far.  At some point, you step out in faith and simply obey God’s voice.  Sometimes, I just need to be intentional to create more space for God—and trust that all of the other activities on my “to do” list will find proper balance in due course. 

If I am in relationship with God, in frequent contact with Jesus, and in step with the Spirit, then I will be a person who is able to do what needs doing when it needs to get done.  That is the essence of a spiritually disciplined life.  

[1] I would argue that, even in the cases of relationship that begin on-line or via social media, in order for the relationship to flourish, the “friends” eventually need to meet in person.  Such was the case for Laurie and me.  After getting to know each other on-line, we met face-to-face, and our relationship progressed from there.
[2] For example, we lost our infant daughter about five years ago.  I don’t view that as a punishment by “the Enemy,” but I do acknowledge the existence of a coherent force in our lives that seeks to oppose God’s goodness and could use a tragedy or other life circumstance to get our focus away from God.  

Pondering the Patterns of God's Garden

Creation is messy… Creation sometimes appears random. Until you look more closely… I have the largest flower bed on our cul de sac—ma...