The Balancing Act of Being and Doing (Anxiety and Prayer, part 2)

By Joe LaGuardia

In her memoir Leaving Church, spiritual author Barbara Brown Taylor talks about churches walking the fine line between putting people to work and encouraging people to take Sabbath rest, promoting spiritual growth and affirming that God loves us as we are, and attracting people to come to worship while being passionate about sending people out to join Christ at work in the world.

If churches get off balance on one side — say on the Sabbath, the affirmation, and the sending — then we make Christianity come off too easily, discipleship without a cost as the German ethicist Bonhoeffer might say.  Teeter to the other side — the works, the growth, and the gathering — then we threaten to forget that our faith is just as much about being as it is doing.

Taylor writes, “I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was . . . and it was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness.”

In other words, what good are we to be ministers and missionaries of the gospel if we are exhausted all of the time—how do we, as a church, find that balance?

I found this question pertaining to balance lingering under the biblical words that span from Isaiah 62 to Isaiah 63.  In Isaiah 62, God encourages Israel to put restlessness to good use (I address this more fully in part 1 of this series) .  When we are restless or working hard, anxious or unable to focus, Isaiah says to use that energy to pray.  “Take no rest,” Isaiah says to Israel, “all you who pray to the Lord, and give the Lord no rest until he completes his work” (v. 6).

In Isaiah 63, the prophet invokes a different strategy—those who focus on the Lord and righteousness by turning restless minds and busy hands towards the Lord in prayer, will in fact find Sabbath rest in the Lord just as God’s people did centuries before:

“As with cattle going down into a peaceful valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest” (v. 14).

As leaders in the church, we are stewards of a complex and growing congregation—the more programming and people we attract, the more we are called on to serve or to delegate that service.  My prayer, however, is that church—and the things that you do individually—is life-giving.  I hope that it is a source of joy and, when restlessness does come your way, it motivates you to pray, seek Sabbath rest, and seek the Lord’s face.

Ministry is about who we are, not only about what we do.  Fourteenth-century Mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote that what we do should not form who we are; rather, who we are ought to embolden what we do.   We have to put the horse before the cart, and get our spiritual ducks in a row before releasing the ducks to take flight.  Let’s not neglect the balance that the Lord calls us all to  have as we live—together as a church—in Christ.

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Turn Anxiety, Restlessness into Prayer (part 1)

By Joe LaGuardia

Because I love Zion, I will not keep still.  Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem, I cannot remain silent.  I will not stop praying for her until her righteousness shines like the dawn…O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually.  Take no rest, all you who pray to the Lord” (Isaiah 62:1, 6 NLT).

I have grown up in the church assuming that restlessness was not a good thing.  I have struggled with anxiety, and it comes out in various restless ways: fidgeting, pacing, reading everything in sight, moving about.  I have also resisted this anxiety in various ways: prayer, contemplation, meditation, Bible Study, relaxation techniques, vacations, and television.

But it has been a long journey and, after a dissertation on spiritual formation and many silent retreats, that restlessness is still difficult to ignore and remains just under the surface of my life.

Perhaps this restlessness is not something that is all that bad, however.  Maybe it is just as much a part of me as is God’s image in which I was created.  People say that God doesn’t make junk, so maybe that restlessness is a part of God’s design for me.

Recently, I was reading my Bible during my devotions and stumbled on some verses in Isaiah that caught my attention (62:1-6; see above).  This portion of Isaiah records a time when Israel was all but lost in exile.  There was judgment, but hope was on the way.  Destruction and diaspora were imminent, but God promised a new age when Israel would return to Jerusalem and live in peace among all nations.

Isaiah 62 speaks of restoration not by way of war, but by prayer.  God promises to set up watchmen who will pray “continually”.  It invites others to pray without rest, and stresses prayer as a way to keep God from resting too (v. 7).  Restlessness was not something to avoid, but to use on behalf of interceding for God’s people and the nation, for the culmination of God’s promises to come.

This I read in the New Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible.  The inspirational devotion related to this text states that Isaiah was “alert to the character and ways of God” as he takes “stock with a spirit of urgent restlessness, refusing to keep silent before God” (p. 883).  Restlessness, in short, encourages a “true Spirit of prayer.”

I never imagined that my restlessness–this unyielding demon with whom I’ve wrestled my whole life–may in fact be an angel urging me to pray for others, for God to act, and for revival in my own community and church.  Rather than rustling in the bed at night, perhaps I need to pray.  Instead of fidgeting, I should clasp my hands and bow my head to talk to God.  Rather than pacing, I should praise God for “delighting” in us and calling us his beloved (Isaiah 62:4).

It is a novel thought, and perhaps I’ll try it.  Are you restless?  If so, use it as fuel to pray.  You too may be the watchman or watchwoman that God has called to intercede on behalf of loved ones, neighbors, and the lost in your midst.

The Power of Intercession and Prayer

By Joe LaGuardia

Some time ago I was anxious about issues related to church.  There were things on my mind that I had no control over, things that should not have worried me but did.  I was driving myself crazy, my wife crazy, and distracting my kids from family time.

It did not take long before the Holy Spirit woke me up early one morning.  There are few times I wake up earlier than 5:00 AM, and when the Holy Spirit wakes me up that early, I know I need to listen!  That kind of movement is qualitatively different, and there washes over me a particular–indescribable, really–spiritual manifestation that captures my attention and heart.

In that moment I dumped (for lack of a better word) everything before God.  It was a combination of robust prayer–of boldness, so to speak–and honesty.  I said in my spirit, “God, you handle this!  This is your church, your ministry.  My life is yours, and you’ve called me to this.  You deal with this.”

A few minutes later I fell back to sleep in a posture of rest and peace that I had not felt in a long time.

This event reminded me of the power of intercessory prayer.  It is a type of prayer we see in Isaiah 37, when one of God’s children had more than he can handle, and he needed to hand it over to God.

Isaiah 36 and 37 are chapters that come from a time when the Assyrian nation threatened the existence of Judah.  Assyria had conquered most of the Middle East; Israel and Egypt were next.  The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, threatened Judah’s King Hezekiah with a royal letter: “You know perfectly well what the kings of Assyria have done wherever they have gone.  They have completely destroyed everyone who stood in their way!”

Sennacherib went on to say that the gods of other nations did not come to the rescue, why should Hezekiah expect the God of Israel to be any different?

Upon receiving this letter, Hezekiah became anxious.  The threat against his nation was very real, and the Assyrians had threatened him personally!  But instead of running around wondering what to do, Hezekiah’s sought the Lord.  Scripture says that Hezekiah went to the Temple, spread the letter before the Lord, and interceded on behalf of the nation.

As a result, the Lord responded: “Because you prayed about King Sennacherib of Assyria, the Lord has spoken this word against him.”  God affirmed that Assyria was a mere pawn in a larger drama of salvation and that God would protect Israel.

We Christians must be mindful of the power of intercessory prayer.  We must spread our own letters of anxiety before the Lord and remember that the Lord promises to take care of us.  We need to rest assured that the Holy Spirit will pray with us just as much as the Spirit captures our hearts, and gives us boldness to bring everything before Him.

In a devotional based on Isaiah 37, F. B. Meyer states, “Let us more habitually hand over our anxieties and cares to God.  God calls us to enter his rest…to place Himself and his care between us and all that would hurt or annoy.”

Intercede on behalf of those loved ones in your life.  Affirm and ask God to protect you and keep you.  In all things, surrender unto God and trust that the Holy Spirit will bring a peace that surpasses understanding.  There is power in prayer and in intercession.

Lord, hear our prayers!