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.

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Getting back to basics

By Joe LaGuardia

It is important for Christians — clergy included — to get back to basics sometimes.  You go through the journey of faith, learn new things, meet new people, take on new ministries and adventures.  Life happens, and it seems that life happens too quickly.  You have to slow down.  You may need a season to get back to basics.

This happens to me about once a year.  I read books, write sermons, have conversations, go on retreats, pray and do Bible studies–personally and in groups–but then I hit a personal spiritual wall, and I long for simpler times.  I usually devote a few months to read something that is basic, a beginners-type of book.  Sometimes it is on the Bible, other times it is on spiritual formation–usually something tied to fields related to my doctoral work.

A couple years ago, I read Spiritual Theology by Diogenes Allen.  I picked it up from a Catholic bookstore in Georgia, and regretted that I did not know the book existed before then.  It would have been mighty useful for my dissertation (on spiritual formation and caregivers) back in 2008-2009.  It was a great, basic book on spirituality.  It brought be back to the basics, a good refresher in more familiar waters.

This past season I’ve been reading An Introduction to the Old Testament by James King West.  Published in 1980, some of the scholarship is dated and it is from an ecumenical school of thought, but the writing is good and I am enjoying West’s archeological and anthropological insights.

I am editing and publishing a book of essays on the Old Testament, so I am also reading the introduction to make sure I have all of my facts straight.  Thanks to this basic book, which I picked up at my local used-book store for a dollar, I already found one error in my own book– it was Amnon, not Absalom, who raped Tamar.  If I remember correctly, I think Absalom might have killed Amnon for it.

Getting back to basics helps us remember information that can get lost in translation over time.  It can also correct falsehoods that entangle us or befuddle us–not because we intend to believe things that are false, but because when we juggle too much information, it tends to meld together.  It helps us re-align our priorities and put first-things first.  For a preacher who has a head full of stuff, I find that getting back to basics helps me de-clutter in my brain.

This is not just for preachers.  A seasons-cleaning can help us in our relationship with Jesus too.  Sometimes we study about Jesus so much, we forget to spend time with Jesus in a personal way.  We talk about God or study God’s Word often, but forget to make time for God in prayer and worship.  Getting back to the basics strips us of all the chaff that clogs our spiritual arteries in this information, hyper-technological age.

What do you need to do to get back to basics?  What does Jesus want you to jettison in your knowledge about him because it gets in the way of getting closer to him?

For the Love of the Bible

By Joe LaGuardia

Some time ago, I wrote a column on the Christian sub-culture (or underworld?) of premium Bibles.  In it, I uncovered a whole new community made up of folks who love, review, purchase, swap, and talk Bibles.  These are not just any Bibles, mind you–rather, they run the gambit from hand-bound, high-priced Bibles to reviews of Bibles you can get at the Dollar store.

I became ensconced with these videos because I, too, have always loved Bibles.  When Cokesbury had a storefront in Atlanta, I would spend hours perusing all of the Bibles, Bible helps, and Bible gadgets (highlighters, rulers, maps, you name it).  I did not know that others liked Bibles like I do.  You know all of those introductions and translator’s notes that are found in the beginning of Bibles?  I read those for fun.

There is, however, a big difference between reviewing and loving Bibles to actually reading the Bible.  Smelling the leather of a newly, cracked-open Bible may be therapeutic, but only by reading the Bible–spending time with the Bible, studying God’s Word, listening to the Holy Spirit, and responding to the Spirit–makes any difference.  The rest is just for fun.

My friends and I are not alone in this.  A recent survey published by the Barna research group shows that the Bible still plays a central role in American households.  Nearly half the people in our nation engage the Bible at least four times a year, and a third do so on a weekly basis.  Over half of Americans say that the Bible informs their values, and nearly half say that the Bible has transformed their lives or have led to positive outcomes in the spiritual growth.

The Bible is also a way to witness to others: Over 60% of people claim they are interested in what the Bible has to say about current events, God, and about their lives or the lives of those around them.  Christians should capitalize on this trend and bring up the Bible in conversation with non-believers–people want to talk about the Bible, wrestle with its content, and inquire about the good, the bad, and the ugly that one might find in its pages.

Christians who study the Bible and communicate its contents can be pivotal in helping people overcome their preconceived notions about Scripture and experience the Bible as the Good News God intended it to be.  Christians also have an opportunity to correct the misinformed along the way.

There are times when I ask whether the love of Scripture can go too far.  In a recent Youtube video, one of those Bible reviewers expressed their love for their Bible, even going so far as to say that they love their Bible as much as they love Jesus.  As Bible-believers, we should never lose sight of what the Bible says about the Word–Jesus is the Word made flesh, and it is Jesus who has authority over us.  The Bible, according to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, is the record of God’s revelation to us.  And, as Arun Gandhi once noted, we who are People of the Book should never place the Book above people.

Our love of Scripture should not be an end to itself, and our study of Scripture should not be for the sake of studying alone, but to draw our hearts towards Jesus, our mind towards the things of the Spirit, and our actions towards helping our neighbors.  There is such a thing as “Biblolotry,” and I have seen people who have abused others by taking the Bible out of context or failing to follow the Holy Spirit beyond the pages of scripture.

Barna’s research is a good reminder that we need to engage the Bible: It is good for us, it helps us grow in Christ, and provides the Holy Spirit with an opportunity to shape our values.  It can also be a tool to help others experience Christ.  We can love our Bibles–we should use them often and know them, inside and out–but our love should never exceed that love we have of the Lord and of the people He has placed in our lives.  So read it, then minister; pray, then walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.