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How long should I keep praying?

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There’s something I’ve been praying for a very long time … if you consider six years a long time. It certainly seems like forever when you pray for the same thing nearly every day.

Toward the end of last year, I was getting discouraged. Truth be told, I’ve been discouraged on and off throughout the past six years, but it was really coming to a head last fall. Over and over, I heard Psalm 13 in my head: “How long, Lord?”

It was around the same time I kept coming across messages on the persistence of prayer—on the radio, in devotions at work and in the devotional messages I was reading on my phone. Just last month, I read a particularly encouraging post about waiting on Boundless.org.

OK, I’ll be persistent, I thought. But for how long? When should I stop praying about it?

I wondered if maybe God had already given me an answer but I just didn’t realize it and kept praying in vain. I wondered if He was trying to change me instead of the circumstances, but, I reasoned, even if I change, the situation has to change, too. It has to. It’s too toxic, too destructive.

This can’t possibly be His will long-term. … Can it?

I know God’s answers aren’t always what I expect. Sometimes He answers no. Sometimes He says wait. Those are valid answers, too. It’s not just “an answer to prayer” when I get what I want.

On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t endorse giving up.

So how do I persist without begging? How do I approach God in confidence without questioning His will?

I always come back to this: God is God and I am not.

I trust that He’s smarter than I am. If He wasn’t, He wouldn’t be much of a God. He knows why things happen, whether we understand them or not, and as Creator of the world, has every right to operate in His own time. Who are we to argue with that?

I know my prayers aren’t falling on deaf ears. I know I’m not praying to an imaginary presence in the sky. I’m praying to the God who knew me before I was born. The God who calls me by name and whose presence lives in my very soul.

I also know through experience all the many ways He has answered me in the past. I have emails to friends and page after page in my prayer journal to prove it.

And so, after six years of praying for this particular thing, I’m still praying. Yes, I’ve taken brief breaks now and again when I’ve grown tired of praying for the same thing, but I always come back to it, hoping and believing I’ll someday hear a “yes.” Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe it’s just not time yet.

Has there ever been a time when you were ready to give up on praying for a certain thing? What did you do?

 

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New year, new word

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For the past three years, I’ve picked a one-word focus for the 12 months ahead of me, and at the end of that time, I evaluate how it went.

I started off with the word “humility” in 2014, followed by “simplify” in 2015 and “calm” in 2016.

Throughout 2016 (it’s weird to talk about it in past tense already), I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job of sticking to my word. I would forget about it many days, despite it being taped next to my bathroom mirror, and there were many times I didn’t feel very calm, either on the inside or outside.

But today as I thought more about it, I decided there have been some changes.

  • There were several times I wanted to get upset about something but remembered my resolve to stay calm and let the upsetting thing pass.
  • I altered my work schedule a bit so I don’t get so crazy in traffic, which has helped me stay calmer on my commute.
  • When a couple of unexpected things came up last year, I tried not to freak out about them (in either a bad or good way), but slowed myself down to process it all and give a more level-headed response.
  • When people annoyed me, I made a more conscious effort to be patient and not get snippy.

I don’t know if I’d call 2016 a success as far as my word goes since I think I could’ve done much better, but at least I saw a little improvement, which is better than nothing.

By early fall, though, I’d already started thinking about my next word and was pretty positive what it should be. I actually thought about using the word last year, but I think 2017 will be a good time for it.

My new word is “balance.”

There are too many days that I feel like my free time just slips by. Too many times I feel like my priorities are out of whack or like I’m barely keeping afloat with all of life’s commitments. I did tackle a bit of this when I focused on simplifying a couple years ago, but now I need to round it out.

I again taped my word next to my mirror, and this time wrote out, in order, what my priorities should be to find that balance: God first, followed by marriage, then family and friends, then work and everything else.

Even though I work for a ministry that starts each day with devotions and prayer, it’s no substitute for my personal time with God—something I’ve gone back and forth with this past year. I’ll get into a routine of reading my Bible every day or praying regularly, then it tapers off, then I do it again, then it tapers off. There’s a huge difference between putting Him first in my life and not, so this year, I’m going to try my best to do it consistently.

Here’s an excerpt from a devotion I read just before Christmas:

The world has become too much a part of us, and we are afflicted with the idea that we are not accomplishing anything unless we are always busily running back and forth. … We believe in having “all our irons in the fire” and that all the time we spend away from the anvil or fire is wasted time. Yet our time is never more profitably spent than when we set aside time for quiet meditation, talking with God, and looking up to heaven. We can never have too many of these open spaces in life—hours set aside when our soul is completely open and accessible to any heavenly thought or influence that God may be pleased to send our way.

Someone once said, “Meditation is the Sunday of the mind.” In these hectic days, we should often give our mind a “Sunday,” a time in which it will do no work but instead will simply be still. …

Time spent in this way is not lost time. A fisherman does not say he is losing time when he is mending his nets, nor does a gardener feel he has wasted his time by taking a few minutes to sharpen the blades on his mower. …

—from Streams in the Desert

After God comes my marriage. I do devote a considerable amount of time to friends and work and other things here and there, but I need to be sure marriage comes before all that. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not, so again, I’m going for consistency here.

Here’s my game plan for achieving balance this year:

  • img_6679Pete and I are going to start reading YouVersion’s Verse of the Day as our devotional time together. We weren’t crazy about the devotional book we went through last year, and the verse will be good because we can access it on our phones no matter where we are.
  • I’m going to go through A Passion for Purpose, which gives you a one-page devotional each day. I started it once and really liked it, but never finished.
  • I want to create a Gratitude Jar. More on this later, but my hope is that it’ll keep me focused on all of life’s little blessings and remember what’s important.
  • I’d also like to finish reading Margin. Mom and Dad got me this book maybe two Christmases ago, and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t finished it. I think I have 4 unfinished books at the moment, but this one is all about balance and I’ve already underlined lots of stuff in the parts I’ve read.
  • img_6676I want to be more diligent about praying for my friends and family. I just got a new planner that came with a small dry erase board where you can write down your prayer focus for each day of the week. I already wrote down friends’ names in each space for the first week of January.
  • And finally, to build on my goal of simplifying from 2015, I want to give more thought to things I say yes to. I can’t do it all, and I don’t want to spread myself so thin that I do nothing well.

Although I think all of these are good goals, I’m not going to beat myself up if I miss a couple of days of devotional reading or forget to pray for so-and-so on Tuesday. I don’t want to be so lax that I’m not working toward balance, but I also know I’ll need grace now and then.

Let’s see how it goes!

Wrong way: When it’s time to turn around

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A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to work and noticed big, dark clouds hovering in the distance.

I checked my rear view mirror—clear and sunny. Up ahead—not so nice. I half expected alien machines to burst out of the charcoal clouds, brandishing metallic octopus arms like in those Armageddon movies.

I wanted to turn around, but I doubt my bosses would have been happy if I’d cited “foreboding weather” as a reason for being late.

It made me think of all the times we’re headed for something bad and have a chance to “turn around,” in a sense, but don’t. In this case, I stayed on course because I had to get to work, but other times a detour may serve me better.

Here’s an example: At least once a week, I get words caught in my throat. It may be a pending criticism, a bad joke, a bit of gossip, a petty complaint … whatever it is, I know I shouldn’t share it, but sometimes I do anyway. And immediately regret it.

I may have the chance to stop myself and say something else—something constructive or uplifting—but sometimes I just don’t.

Here’s another example we can probably all relate to: Overeating.

Say it’s Thanksgiving and you’ve already had a plateful, plus a bite here and there when no one was looking. You know you should stop stuffing your face, but (again) it’s Thanksgiving, so you spoon out more mashed potatoes or try the other kind of pie, knowing you’ll regret it.

An hour later, you’re mad at yourself for ruining a diet, giving yourself a stomach ache or at least a food coma.

Why do we do stuff like that?

Maybe it’s not an untamed tongue or an undisciplined appetite you’re dealing with, but an addiction, abusive relationship, toxic job or road rage—something you know needs to change.

Think for a second about the last time you had someplace to be.

When you’re trying to get somewhere and miss your turn, you don’t keep going, knowing it’s the wrong way. You turn around and get back on track.

So why is it so difficult to do that in other areas of our lives? Why do we keep doing the same things, knowing they’re not good for us, or heading the same direction, knowing it’s the wrong way, when we could do the right thing or go the right way instead?

Maybe because it’s harder? Inconvenient? Unknown?

One Proverb says this:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
—Proverbs 14:12

Yikes, sounds pretty serious.

Maybe you’ve watched a friend head down a destructive road, bracing yourself for a result you know can’t be good. Or maybe you’ve traveled that road yourself.

One thing I’ve learned over and over is to not underestimate my conscience, not ignore that gut feeling. When that feeling or that little voice takes over—when those dark clouds are looming ahead—it’s time to refocus, reevaluate, make changes, get help or whatever it is, while you still have time.

Are you going the wrong way today? Maybe it’s time to make a U-turn.

What a night in Wyoming taught me about God

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That’s me, somewhere outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Ryan Carl Smith.

“He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”
—Isaiah 40:26

Three weeks ago, I visited Wyoming for the first time. I was there for work, but did have a little adventure one night with a few people from our team.

A couple of them had heard there was going to be a meteor shower, so we waited ’til it was good and dark and ventured outside of town. We turned down a gravel road surrounded by trees, parked and looked up.

Back home, it’s never dark enough to fully appreciate the millions of lights shining down on you. But in that field in Wyoming, it looked like a giant had filled both hands with glitter and blew it into the sky.

As the other folks on the team worked on getting video footage of the meteor shower, I thought about how each of those sparkling specks has a name—each and every one.

“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.”
—Psalm 147:4 

That means for every dot of glowing gas suspended in the sky, there’s a name assigned to it. It is known by God. He put it there and knows exactly how many of them there are.

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about the vastness of God. I’ve read verses about it and even taught Sunday school lessons about how big and great and mighty He is.

But when I stood in that field, freezing and tired, it really hit me just how limitless God is. His reach is immeasurable. His boundaries non-existent. Even when I laid on the ground, gazing up to take it all in, I couldn’t wrap my head around the enormity and power of our God.

In the weeks since, I’ve thought about that meteor shower often. I’ll go back and look at pictures of it and for a moment pretend I’m there again.

It’s not just that it was a gorgeous night or that I got to see something I don’t normally see. When I look at the pictures, I think about how God’s got this. Whatever concern I have, whatever unknown I’m facing, whatever my shortcomings or limitations, He is bigger than that.

And just like each of those flickering stars up there, He put me here and knows my name.

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“You have set your glory in the heavens” —Psalm 8:1. Photo by Ryan Carl Smith.

 

Olympic Divers Boldly Share Their Faith. But Do I?

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Photo credit: WashingtonPost.com

Olympic medalists Steele Johnson and David Boudia have made headlines the past few weeks, not only for difficult synchronized diving acts but for making bold statements about their identity in Christ. In multiple interviews, both men have spoken about Jesus Christ as second nature.

“This is exciting, this is fun, but this is not what my identity will be in for the rest of my life,” Johnson said last month after qualifying for the Olympics. “I’m here to love and serve Christ. My identity is rooted in Christ, not in the flips we’re doing.”

“We can’t take credit for this,” Boudia added. “God be the glory. This is why we do what we do, day in and day out.” He went on to say how grateful he is for the sacrifices of his coaches and family but said “nothing compares to the sacrifice we’ve had in eternity.”

The pair reaffirmed the peace they have in their relationship with Christ, whatever the outcome of the Olympics, after competing earlier this month.

Their interviews got me wondering why it’s so hard sometimes to be outspoken about my faith. Not the shove-down-your-throat, I’m-right-you’re-wrong kind of outspoken, but the Romans 1:16 kind of outspoken.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes …”

I admit I’ve been guilty of lowering my voice in a public place when I’m discussing Jesus matters. I don’t even know why; I just do. I’ve heard cashiers discuss religion and didn’t jump in. I’ve seen a waiter’s tattoo that could’ve sparked a fabulous discussion about beliefs, but I didn’t want to get spiritual.

All the open doors I didn’t go through.

And while I know not all opportunities are meant to be taken—maybe it’s not the right time or place—I can’t chalk it all up to that. My timidity is definitely part of it.

But why?

I mean, I went to seminary, I work for a ministry and I go to church, for heaven’s sake. I know how important this is. So what if I ruffle some feathers? Sometimes discomfort is a good thing. So what if I get on someone’s nerves? Worse things have happened. Those aren’t my goals, of course, but it’s not up to me how someone reacts.

Am I really going to pass up the chance to “plant a seed,” as they say, because I’m not in the mood?

Maybe it won’t make any difference.

But, then again, maybe it will.

Jesus vs. Christ

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I visited a temple once where people burnt incense to create positive energy between them and the universe.

I’ve seen shrines meant to honor, worship and appeal to some higher power.

I’ve known people who consult horoscopes for a glimpse into their future and people who collect trinkets meant to bring good luck from above.

I’ve met some who offer prayers to the sky, not knowing what might be up there but hoping something is.

All these things have led me to change the way I refer to a particular person in my life.

Over the past few years, I’ve started using the name Jesus more. I used to stick with “Christ,” but as I’ve been exposed to other faiths, I’ve become more and more grateful that He and I can be on a first-name basis.

Jesus isn’t some unreachable, unrelatable being, but a person. Someone who understands me. Someone to talk to. Someone who listens and cares and is involved with my life.

Yes, He’s God, too, but He’s also a person.

During His 33 years on earth, Jesus was seen and touched. He traveled, cried, formed friendships, ate, prayed for people, attended weddings, occupied a fishing boat, taught, worked, healed and felt pain.

Of course it wasn’t just those 33 years.

While He may not walk around in sandals and robes anymore, He’s as present as ever. And I’m not just saying that because the Bible says so (although I think that’s a good reason); I know it for a fact because of the impact He’s had on my life.

It’s the way He’s transformed my thoughts and actions—how He’s made me more hopeful, more compassionate and, little by little, less selfish. It’s the way He’s been there when no one else is and how He’s always faithful even when others aren’t. It’s how He knows my name and makes me feel valued and cherished with all my many, many flaws.

I know there’s nothing wrong with calling Him “Christ” or even “Jesus Christ,” but when I know people well or have a personal relationship with them, I tend to use their first names.

And I gotta say that being on a first-name basis with the Savior of the world is pretty darn cool.

After a week of shootings, finding a place for compassion

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Dallas Police Chief David Brown pauses at a prayer vigil following the deaths of five police officers. Source: NPR.org

I remember as a kid seeing my parents walk away from the TV, shaking their heads in disgust as the news droned on in the background. Now I find myself in their shoes, fed up with one tragedy after another, wanting to change the radio station or stop scrolling my news feed but unable to escape the constant feeling that we’re all waiting for the next kill.

Here’s my reaction to the past week, plus a challenge to us all.

Heartbreak

It started Tuesday morning, July 5, in Louisiana. Alton Sterling.

It continued Wednesday night in Minnesota. Philando Castile.

The next night, five Dallas police officers and a Bristol, Tennessee, mail carrier.

With one shooting after another—plus recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq and France just today—my heart literally hurts.

Another vigil. More tears. Another protest. More outcry. Another picture of the deceased on a happier day. … When does the madness end?

I know the Bible verses. I know Jesus has overcome the world. I know one day every knee will bow. I know He’s for us so who can be against us? I know He wins and good triumphs in the end.

But until then, I struggle with my own emotions over it all. I’m angry. And heartbroken. And about 10% afraid I’ll go to the grocery store one day and never come back.

It’s also getting closer and closer to home. The Minnesota shooting wasn’t far from my in-laws. The one in Tennessee is near my family. I’m beginning to feel like no one is safe, no matter how you live your life.

And that’s where I think there’s something deeper to learn here.

Compassion

I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man pulled over for a traffic stop. I don’t know what it’s like to be targeted for the uniform I wear. I don’t know what it’s like to have a gun in my face because someone feels threatened.

So how can I say what I would or wouldn’t do in those situations?

I learned years ago in journalism class that we all have our biases. Our race, gender, how and where we grew up all shape our thoughts and actions.

Even so, one thing we can all do is show compassion.

I know it’s hard to sort through the noise as the media pieces together this seemingly endless, jumbled chaos, but at the most basic level, people lost their lives. Today, dozens around the country are coping with the loss of a husband or wife, son or daughter, parent or friend.

It could have been your spouse or your child or your friend.

And while it’s tempting, I don’t think this is the time to shake your head and walk away. Talking about it with people who don’t look or think like you can get you out of your own bubble and help you see more than one side. (I’ve actually done that and it’s been enlightening.)

It may be touchy at first, but if we’re too afraid to talk about these things, we certainly can’t expect them to get better.

Whatever other emotions are coursing through our veins right now, now isn’t the time to set compassion aside.