The tax collector’s prayer

elderHow often do you pray?

People assume that because I’m a pastor I pray all of the time.  I certainly do pray; but like many of you, I wish I devoted more time to prayer.   We all do, so what’s the problem?

If you’re like me, you have two big hurdles to overcome (besides time, that is).  The first hurdle consists of the feelings of sin and unworthiness that arise when you come to God.  It is hard to escape the self-defeating thoughts that enter our heads when we come before the Creator of the cosmos, and our prayer is often railroaded by the dastardly thought that God might not waste His time with us because of our sins.

The second hurdle is that when you pray, you feel as if your words go to some vacuous black hole.  Instead of clear answers or at least a still, small voice, your efforts are met with a heap of distractions.  Why spend time in prayer when the only thing you can think of is how much more you have to do in order to please God, care for your family, and make that next sale at work?

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable about two men who were praying.  The first man was a self-righteous Pharisee who recalled all the good deeds he did for God.  His prayer didn’t seem hampered by self-defeating thoughts.

The other was a tax collector whose very job labelled him as traitorous and sinful because he was employed by Rome, Israel’s vilest enemy at the time.  When he prayed, he couldn’t even look up.

His prayer was brief: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Originally, Jesus used the parable to rebuke the self-righteous.  The contrast between the two men revealed the tensions that made for some good lessons: Don’t make prayer all about you and don’t think you’re holy simply because there are people worse off than you.

For folks like you and me, however, (who are probably neither self-righteous like the Pharisee nor a traitor like the tax collector), there are still lessons to be learned.

For one, the tax collector does not allow his sin, no matter how terrible, keep him from prayer.  There are too many people in the church today who have become so overwhelmed with their sin they’ve given up on prayer altogether.  This is a ruse of Satan that keeps us from a life of liberation and blessing in Christ.

Second, the parable shows us that our prayers do not have to be grandiose.  Like the tax collector, we don’t have to be in a specific place (temple or not!), in a specific posture, or speak specific words in order to make prayer powerful.

As Psalm 69 attests, even silence in the presence of God is as praise to Him (v. 1; CEB).  The tax collector had the right perspective: Prayer is about God, not about himself.

Furthermore, the tax collector shows that none of us are alone in having difficulty praying.  We all struggle and we all have our own hurdles to overcome.  God still anticipates and bids us come, not for the sake of eloquence, but for the sake of spending quality time with Him.   God seeks to empower us to pray more often and with boldness.

(If you’re interested to learn more about prayer, I have recently published a book co-authored by colleague and minister, Daphne Reiley, on caregiving, Christian growth, and spiritual formation entitled, “A Tapestry of Love: The Spirituality of Caregiving.”  I will be selling and signing copies at the Olde Town Festival tomorrow in Orrin Morris’s booth from 10 AM to 1 PM, so I hope to see you there.)

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Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (part 3)

Beth McLeod, caregiver and author of “Caregiving: A Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal,” once noted, “In a culture defined by short attentions spans and sound bites, family caregiving demands investment for the long term, often an abrogation of dreams and a wholesale reconstruction of the future, one slow brick at a time.”

In other words, caregiving is a journey that is arduous, timely, and consuming.   So consuming, in fact, that being a caregiver can very well be another spiritual discipline in and of itself.   But, like many journeys, this pilgrimage is best accomplished with a community of like-minded people, one friend at a time.

Support groups help connect caregivers

Caregivers are good at caring for others, but many wonder, “Who cares for me?”  Community provides the compassionate embrace that reminds caregivers that they are not alone and that others care.  Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how we may inspire one another toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another.”

This is difficult for caregivers who do not have the time to journey with others outside of the caregiving role.  Some spend all of their time with loved ones, while others can only socialize when help is available.  Yet others do not connect with a community because they are too tired, or they use free time to simply “get away.”

These reasons are important ones in the lives of caregivers; however, these reasons are usually what lead to loneliness, exhaustion, and depression.   It is important to connect with others, even if only once a month or a few minutes each week.

God is very much concerned about the relationships we keep.  Community is a priority in Christian spiritual formation, and “koinonia” fellowships (or divine communities) are what sustain fellow believers over the long haul.   In community, we grow as individuals because we spend time with others who encourage us, built us up, empower us, and care for us.

Aside from Sunday morning worship or Sunday school, one of the ways to seek koinonia is to join a small group or weekly Bible study.  A variety of churches offer such groups, including book clubs and hobby-focused groups.

Another effective way to grow in koinonia is to join an online community.  There are many forums that emphasize discipleship and spiritual growth.  A Google search for “online Christian community” garners over 28.9 million hits.  Though an online community is not ideal for building intimate relationships, it can provide some respite while you’re home or have a laptop handy.

A third way to connect with others is to join a support group or prayer group specifically for caregivers.  Such groups provide safe, friendly environments that allow caregivers to share feelings with others.

These groups are wonderful avenues for growth because they also provide caregivers the opportunity to meet others who are going through similar situations.  Though caregivers serve different individuals, they all share common feelings and stresses.

There are groups that currently meet in Decatur, Lilburn, and Stone Mountain.  Trinity Baptist is starting a support group on Thursday nights, beginning September 30th, at 7 PM  (a second group is starting Thursday afternoons early October).

As caregiving becomes more necessary for our aging population, I want to invite you to  actively pursue God’s presence in your life, pray honestly about the struggles you face, and connect with people who will walk with you on your journey.  Churches throughout our county stand ready to help; its just a matter of reaching out and letting your pastor or friends know how they can respond to your needs accordingly.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.

Breaking through to God in prayer, Part 2

Last week I mentioned that prayer is an important part of faith but is not something we can naturally master.  In fact, prayer can be downright difficult, and there are many things that disrupt an effective prayer life.

Guilt, resentment, fear, and sheer laziness can all hamper a wonderful, growing relationship with our Lord.  But a deeper, more personal hindrance exists.  Sometimes we find it hard to pray because we do not want to face God’s silence.

We get on our knees, close our eyes, shift our weight from bad knee to good, position our hands just right, and finally settle in.  And there, at that moment of timeless stillness, despite the occasional ticking of the nearest wrist-watch or the tumbling of clothes in the dryer, is that deafening silence.

Jesus faced God’s silence when he was dying on the cross.  There at Golgotha, Jesus prayed the first verse of Psalm 22:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Curious that Jesus chose this prayer, because if you keep reading Psalm 22, you find that the psalm plunged ever deeper into the darkness of unanswered prayer: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer.”

All of us have hit the wall of silence in our prayer life.  Too often we miss it entirely because we drown out silence with endless chatter of the television, radio, or recitations of our to-do lists.  But it is still there.

There are two sides to this coin.  Psalm 22 may expose the undercurrents of unanswered prayer, but it must be noted that the author of the psalm (and, by default, Jesus) was still praying.  Like the persistent friend in Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:5-13, the author continued to knock on God’s door even though God seemed to sleep in the midst of crisis.

Persistence is a key that turns the tumblers for effective prayer.  Continue to read Psalm 22, and the author eventually recognizes God’s presence in his life and in all creation.  “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” the author writes, “God did not hide His face from me, but heard when I cried to Him” (v. 24).

The second side to this coin is that the author of Psalm 22 was honest.  He (or she) did not hold back, and he trusted that God was big enough to handle petition and despair.

A modern prayer of honesty comes from French priest, Michel Quoist, who once prayed:

“Lord, do you hear me?  I’ve suffered dreadfully, locked in myself, prisoner of myself.  I hear nothing but my own voice; I see nothing but myself.  And behind me there is nothing but suffering.  Lord, do you hear me?”

For Christians, prayer is a school of honesty, and only when we open up to God in persistent, vulnerable prayer will we slowly recognize God’s mysterious activity in every aspect of our lives.

As a result of persistence and honesty, we remember that Psalm 22 is followed by Psalm 23, which affirms God’s presence with us while we travel in the valley of death’s shadow.

This type of prayer does not come easily.  We avoid discussing it in the pulpits of America, where we simplify prayer into cliché equations and acrostic formulas.

Truth is that we all pass through seasons in our prayer life, including seasons of death-filled winter.  But no matter where we find ourselves, Jesus tells us to pray all the same: Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened unto you.