Restful urgency

Last week we returned to Thailand after a hectic three months in Cape Town. We had shaped a to-do list that was never going to squeeze into our ninety day box. So, apart from a small block of get-away time in the middle, we were facing an impossible chase to tick all the boxes. The things on the list were good and important – most were urgent – but, unless we wanted to miss the view (see the last two blog posts), we were going to have to prioritize resting above racing.

Relaxation and inner rest are different. It’s possible to be busy, yet at rest. It’s also possible to relax quietly or socially and yet be without inner rest. Resting in the Lord is about choosing to agree with him. Jesus calls us into his yoke to rest; it’s a yoked relationship in which our being and doing conform to his viewpoint (Mtt 11:28, 29). It was easy for Sandra and me to spread our entire to-do list before the Lord and ask for favour and help, but outcome success is not an indicator of inner rest. It’s possible to believe in God’s love and yet allow room for panic and stress. Each task has an unrest potential, so we needed to deliberately bring each into the yoke. We needed his perspective on the value of each plan or task. That is:

  • How does it (even the most mundane, must-do job) fit in our journey of pleasing him?
  • What opportunity does it open for us to admire him – perhaps in ways we might have missed without that task?

So the task became a focus of conversation with him. Making it a Throne-zone conversation piece either clarified its importance to our journey, or showed us the need to cut it loose. Seeing a task’s value makes it easier to voice thanks for it as a holy use of time and energy. The merit of the task isn’t just in the outcome but in the offering; however simple or menial, it becomes a work done unto him (Col 3:17). And it becomes a trigger for prayers of admiration – praise for his wisdom, favour, generosity, or whatever aspect of his nature the task draws attention to.

Often our ‘drawing of tasks into the yoke’ was not done in the quietness of set prayer times, but on the move – while driving to a meeting, unpacking a storage unit, or waiting in a municipal office. As the tasks were given a ‘home’ in the yoke of agreement with Jesus, it removed the stress of making them happen and the complaint about unwanted outcomes. Our list was still long and the tasks important, but we were learning to move through them with restful urgency.

Make the most of the view

Try to imagine our sensory experience after we’ve been “raised in glory” . While the images might be exciting, they are probably small and bland compared to what is actually waiting for us. If the glory of the Eternal Day exposure to Jesus was shown to us now, the overload would blow our human circuitry. And yet, the Lord does want us to see him in this day, not just wait for that one. So he gives us “eyes of the heart”,* a Spirit-managed ability to see what he is like. We don’t get the full picture of that glory all at once, but he keeps adding light for more depth and detail of his beauty… long as we keep wanting to see him. All of life – not just the ‘religious’ times and activities – is an arena for seeing and admiring something about the Lord. The likelihood of that happening in the day’s busyness grows when we train the eyes of the heart to do it in our fixed prayer times.

Our inner eyes are God’s gift for taking in the view of him. And the clearest way to do that is to notice what he says about himself. Not just reading Scripture, but SEEING the truth carried in the words. I unpack this more in the book Shaped for Prayer Enjoyment, Chapter Two – A View to Fascinate the Pray-er, and Chapter Nine – Expanding Prayer Language.

Last week, a group of us were praying for someone seriously ill. Verses about the Lord’s power to heal flowed, and that was good. But when we slowed down to see the truth about him carried in the words we were quoting, the praying shifted. We moved from knowing that he heals to seeing his beauty as Healer. The seeing fed admiration of him, and admiration strengthened passion for him to show his glory as Healer. We went away having asked, but more than that, having taken in a fresh seeing of the Lord. When we work it into our fixed prayer times, the seeing of him (and our response) is more likely to keep surfacing throughout our day.

None of us (as far as I know) lives in monastic seclusion where, every couple of hours, a bell calls us to assemble and re-center on the Lord. I mentioned in the previous post how, on life’s busy highway, it’s easy to ‘forget’ the truth of God’s presence in a side-street. Our challenge is to not divorce life from awareness of Presence, but to make seeing and responding to him the frame for living. It’s helpful to have ‘bells’ through the day that call us to a quick review of how we’re doing and to refocus us. Some choose to set regular alerts on their mobile phones. It might not be possible to drop everything when the alarm sounds and take time out, but the alert does break into the highway’s distracting noise and invites the heart to see the Lord in the busyness. However, I prefer making association points, where certain activities become the bell(s) in the day.  An association point can be a particular mealtime, mid-morning coffee, bathroom break, boarding a train, starting a vehicle, changing a diaper, relaxing in a particular chair, etc. The plan is to associate one or more of our regular activities or places with an awareness of the Lord’s presence and a response (the view of him is often a replay of what was seen in a fixed prayer time). Initially the association must be planned and managed, but soon the discipline becomes a habit, a way of life in which the association points become triggers for centering on the Lord. Try it, and let me know if it helps you make the most of the view, seeing the Lord not only in the fixed prayer times but also through the busy day.

Right seeing, restful heart

Years ago Sandra and I were at a retreat center in Malaysia for a conference. Each morning a visitor would sit outside the glass doors of the prayer room and listen to the praying. We greeted him, tried to make conversation, but got zero response. We later learned why. The man was on a spiritual pilgrimage that included a vow of silence.

Bangkok traffic – freerangestock

Seclusion and silence are uncommon disciplines in today’s life in the fast lane. Could we benefit from occasionally leaving the busy highway to be quiet and alone, with no agenda other than to ponder the Lord and hear his voice? Absolutely. But the bigger challenge is learning to quieten our inner noise while still on the highway. The sights, sounds and circumstances we are exposed to in a ‘normal’ day can drag our hearts from one end of the feelings-spectrum to the other, and keep our minds racing with activity. The end of the work day doesn’t necessarily mean an end to inner noise. We’ve become so accustomed to living with noise that we fill our recreation times with lots more of it through social media and entertainment. Unrest becomes the order of the day…. unless we plan a different journey, one in which we learn right seeing.

We know the Lord is with us constantly, but unless we practice seeing him the truth makes little difference to our journey. A few days ago someone asked me what area of prayer I want to grow in most. This is it – the Acts 2:25* prayer lifestyle, where seeing the Lord (and responding) is worked into the being and doing of each day…..more and more.

Awareness of the Lord’s constant presence is a big comfort, but the truth has a much larger lifestyle impact. All of life and work, even the simple routines of sitting down to a snack or pouring a coffee, are done in and unto him.* Our big learning challenge is to see him in the day’s chaotic journey, not just at the breakfast start or bedtime end.

The Present One wants to be our primary view; to be seen at all times. By default, our seeing tends to focus on the bustle of this moment, the one we passed through or the one we’re heading for. The activities and issues on the highway fill our awareness, and the truth of Presence is inadvertently parked in a side-street, often forgotten until our next scheduled prayer time or church meeting. If we are to quieten (or filter) our inner noise for a journey in rest, the seeing of the Lord must become the frame for doing life. The Colossians chapter three call to anchor the heart and mind “above”*(on Christ) wasn’t written to an isolated group of monastics, but to ordinary men and women busy with daily life and work. It was written with us in mind.

The next post: more about right seeing, and how association points can help us in the prayer growth journey.

*I saw the Lord always before me (from Ps 16:8)  *1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23   *Col 3:1-3

Beyond the Christmas shake

It was Christmas season and the prayer meeting in a friend’s home was about to start. But I was distracted. A picture had popped up on my mental screen: an ornament, a small glass ball containing a snowy landscape. When the ball was shaken, the white stuff swirled up and created a magical scene of falling snow. But it didn’t last long – which is exactly the way it was designed. For more magic it had to be shaken again and again. It turned out that the picture wasn’t a distraction but a focus for the praying: the urge to live beyond the occasional shake; the welcoming of a God-given shaping that brings lasting changes to life’s landscape.

Once again the Christmas ball is being shaken to stir up an image of seasonal magic and the flurry of celebration. This is a time when the heart of the Church should be reaching, more than ever, for a deeper experience of God-with-us. The Immanuel truth is the greatest miracle in history, one that completely redresses our living. Christ became man to redeem us; he rescued us so we can live with him. That starts now not in the future. The immense God, at home in our tiny lives…. Wow!! We live every second Coram Deo (before the face of God); his presence makes the ordinary day extraordinary. Life becomes a journey of learning to enjoy the Lord from close-up, and prayer is at the core. Prayer is a lifestyle response to his presence, while the awareness of his presence feeds prayer enjoyment. Presence and prayer are inseparable constants.

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23)

Before he left them, Jesus whet his disciples’ appetites by telling them of the plan he was looking forward to, one that would cost his life. Then the risen Lord would, in Spirit, come live with his followers. That Immanuel miracle is happening now, a present-moment enjoyment, and the One who planned it wants us to participate in it… .more and more.

The Christmas shake will come and go, but encounters with the Immanuel truth leave us marked and changed. Whatever our level of experience of God-with-us, there is always much more. The journey we’ve been given is as endless as the size of God. And he will keep taking us beyond current boundaries, as long as we keep welcoming his (sometimes uncomfortable or painful) shaping in Love.

Prayer lists: yes or no?

In Shaped for Prayer Enjoyment I comment: “Listing prayer items is not wrong; noting the prayer needs, scriptures applied to them and answers received are useful parts of prayer administration.” So, is maintaining prayer lists a good habit? Yes…. but lists can work against prayer growth and enjoyment when they are used to drive rather than serve our prayer times. They can be useful accountability tools, reminding us of commitments to pray for specific people or situations. And they help us to keep a record of changes in, and answers to those needs. But when the lists dictate our prayer times, there are three big losses:

  • Admiration. Lists are usually about needs. The needs might be Kingdom-relevant and urgent, but should not drive us along a highway of asking at the expense of admiring the Lord. Each need is intended to draw our attention to something about him that we can celebrate. There are viewing points all along the highway of asking, but if all we’re seeing is the need we’ll miss the beauty of him!
  • Listening. We hear his voice because we make space to listen. When the list drives us hurriedly from one request to the next, we disengage our praying from the largest, most important part: response to him. What is he saying about that situation, the solution and (most importantly) how it will best serve his glory? We honour the Spirit’s management of our praying by wanting him to be the lead Speaker.
  • Love. Intimacy and agreement with the Lord are at the heart of enjoyable prayer relationship with him. We pray as his Bride; our asking for others is a love-overflow from life in the first great command: love for him above everything. Needs bring us into fresh encounters with Love. The asking points are opportunities to ‘feel his heart’, and to rush away from this too soon is loss.

Asking points are usually things we are concerned or passionate about, which is why we don’t want to hurry through them, ticking them off like chores on a to-do list. Ask the Lord which need is to be drawn into your next fixed prayer time. That doesn’t make the others on the list less important. They can be distributed through the day: drawn into a conversation with him while driving, mentioned before a meal, muttered while shopping, etc. Format and structure (including prayer lists) are important to earth our prayer values into practice. But we need to keep checking that they are serving us, not defining us, and are changing with us as we grow as pray-ers.

A journey beyond duty

When Philip Yancey started exploring the subject of prayer for his book, he interviewed ordinary people. “Typically, the results went like this: Is prayer important to you? Oh, yes. How often do you pray? Every day. Approximately how long? Five minutes – well, maybe seven. Do you find prayer satisfying? Not really. Do you sense the presence of God when you pray? Occasionally, not often. Many of those I talked to experienced prayer more as a burden than as a pleasure.” (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p14)

Our own answers might differ from those interviewed, but the questions highlight challenges we all face. Freedom in Christ opens up areas of responsibility we weren’t able to step into before. But it’s a freedom-journey that takes us beyond the familiar orbit of duty. Prayer is much too pivotal to confine to a must-do list. The Lord offers us the enjoyment of himself and the more we grow in this, the more the ‘want to pray’ overtakes the ‘must pray’.

Today’s favourite enjoyment

Responding to the Lord will be our supreme enjoyment forever. Our big challenge is to experience prayer as favourite enjoyment in the busyness and distractions of today.

Unless we keep prayer in the framework of God’s constant presence, it’s easy to lose the ‘response core’ that energizes enjoyable prayer life. How does the God-with-us truth impact us as pray-ers? Where does a raised heart take us that the unraised heart won’t. Can hunger for God reformat a prayer life?

We’ve been designed to live best with prayer as the nucleus, but how do we do that? Learning to agree with God in prayer is a lifelong adventure of learning. How can we use his thoughts to shape what we say to him? In other words, how can we learn to let him be the Lead Speaker in the prayer relationship? Our hearts are designed with a huge capacity for response to the Lord, but how can we stretch our prayer language to give our hearts that freedom?  What are some keys to upgrading corporate prayer times for greater authority and deeper enjoyment of praying together?

These are some of the areas covered in Shaped for Prayer Enjoyment, which came off the press yesterday and will be available in online bookstores soon (and, at this point, retail stores in UK). The book is an invitation to enjoy the prayer life adventure we were designed for.

WHY a book on prayer enjoyment?

WHY a book on prayer enjoyment? Most of us would score really good marks in a test on prayer beliefs, but we don’t do as well in prayer practice. The gap between belief and practice will never completely disappear as long as we’re imperfect people in a chaotic world. But the good news is: the gap shrinks as we grow in the enjoyment of prayer.

Authentic living means allowing the truth we believe to shape the way we live. We believe that:

  • God is the Guarantor of prayer joy, and
  • enjoyable conversation is at the heart of the God-us relationship, and
  • prayer (even the battle-and-burden ones) is his gift for our enjoyment of him.

But we want to translate these great beliefs into prayer life experience. As long as prayer is little more than an obligation, a dutiful service or a panic button for use in crises, we’re unlikely to reduce the gap. It’s when prayer becomes a favourite enjoyment that there’s real change in the gap size!

Recently, after teaching on ‘Enjoyable Prayer’, someone told me how they had grown up in a church culture where prayer was important, but enjoyment of it was irrelevant, even frowned on. The message seemed to be: the holier the work, the less we should enjoy it. That’s contrary to Kingdom values, isn’t it? Our transfer into Christ’s Kingdom has placed us in the realm of his perfect joy. Redeemed life is an adventure in the fullness of God, including his joy. And prayer is the main highway for our enjoyment of him. Shaped for Prayer Enjoyment was written out of the conviction that growing in enjoyable prayer is at the core of life in God’s company and is the cutting edge of Kingdom advance.

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More on the satisfying prayer meeting

The previous blog (What makes a satisfying prayer meeting?) touched on the importance of AGREEING with the Lord together. It’s much easier to grow agreement with each other in a prayer group when all present put high value on lining up with the Lord’s thoughts on whatever is being prayed.

Look at this interesting record about Moses’ prayer times (emphases mine).

 “When Moses entered the tent of meeting to SPEAK with the Lord, he HEARD THE VOICE speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord SPOKE to him” (Numbers 7:89)

This isn’t a record of one particular prayer session, but of a pattern. Moses would go into the Tent to pray. By this time he had learned that prayer is an exchange, not a monologue, and that God is the one best qualified to be the Lead Speaker. He had things he wanted to talk to God about, but, more importantly, God had things to say to him. So for Moses, it was a time for hearing the voice, not just being a voice.

Moses would probably feel uncomfortable in many of today’s prayer meetings (and I’m sure we wouldn’t be totally comfortable hosting a man whose face radiated a fresh encounter with Glory). Prayer times today are usually not exchanges; they are characterized by us voicing more than hearing. So, rather than the Lord being the Lead Speaker, he is the main Listener. By removing (or reducing) the practice of hearing his voice, we dial down our ability to AGREE with him on the things being prayed.

Why do we cut the prayer encounter in half? Why do we so often major on being a voice and leave out the part where we hear the voice?

I think it’s because we remove praying from the frame of Presence. Not doctrinally, but in practice.

When Moses stepped into the Tent, beyond the veil, and stood beside the mercy seat in the penetrating but veiled brilliance of the Shekinah, I suspect he didn’t lean lazily against a cherub wing and begin talking. Wonder, awe, and holy fear probably left him bowed low in the close-up encounter with “I AM”. He had things to say, but nothing so urgent that he would (or could) grab the role of Lead Speaker for himself. In the Presence, it was right that he hear the voice.

Is it because we are too matter-of-fact about the Presence of God? Or perhaps we ‘forget’ that we actually believe he is present? Present to not simply listen, but to speak. So that by hearing the voice we are able to shape ours to AGREE with him. And so, be part of another satisfying prayer session, satisfying to the Lord and to us.


What makes a satisfying prayer meeting?

On Monday the focus in the Prayer Room was a nation in South Asia. This morning it was on one in S.E. Asia. In the first, our praying was a mix of lament and enquiry: lamenting the nation’s pattern of disasters and struggle, and enquiring about the root issues behind their chaos and about what the Lord wants us to ask. The second was quite different: from worship we went into asking for a shining of Christ’s love in the nation to break the power of fear in hearts. The two sessions were completely unlike in tone and type of praying, yet both were heart-lifting, satisfying prayer times. What is it that makes prayer meetings, even diverse ones, deeply satisfying?

When the Lord first began showing us the importance of ADMIRING him in prayer, our sessions were quite often totally given to prayers of celebration, praise, thanks, adoration and hunger. At first it bothered me that we weren’t getting to the list of ‘asking points’. Then we realized the Lord was shaping something in us: he wasn’t devaluing the asking, but was teaching us the primacy of admiring him. Of course, we could cut the admiration short and push ahead with asking, but we were learning that when a shift takes us out of sync with the perfect Manager of prayer sessions, it usually puts us in the dry and tiring place of joyless prayer. The top line in our praying became: stay in agreement with him. He knows best what we should be praying and how.

So, this morning’s prayer session followed the Spirit’s prompting into bold asking. On Monday, it was lament and enquiry that was on his heart for us. The sessions were different, but both were deeply satisfying because they were tethered to the same goal: agreement with the Lord.

The mark of a satisfying prayer meeting is not the number of asking points covered, the volume and participation of the pray-ers, or even the quality of the worship music. It’s the shared love of agreeing with the Lord. So every prayer session becomes an opportunity to learn this, and the learning feeds growth in our enjoyment of him as pray-ers.