Real Prayers for Real People

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the psalms. I found them to be hard to understand and a little dusty. Then some hard things happened in my life and I landed on a few psalms that became prayers when I didn’t know what to pray. When my mother died, Psalm 42 became my lifeline. Psalm 116 was my testimony in a season when things got bad then got better. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the profound assurances embedded in Psalm 23.

The psalms challenge us to pray as if God is real. These ancient prayers give us a fresh vocabulary for prayer. In the library we call the Bible, The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and as examples of how faithful people have prayed through the ages, they can help us all find a better prayer life. Here, we find the all-too-human wrestlings of David (who wrote many, but not all, the psalms), a man after God’s heart. We hear honest cries for help and deep, worshipful devotion. We get the full spectrum of emotions, not the least of which is anger. I’ve never had the guts to ask God to kill someone else’s child, but it is in there — an assurance that God can handle it even when we are broken, raging or irrational.

What we don’t hear in David’s conversations with God is anything remotely rote. No recitations. No empty wish lists. No shallow musings. No generalized litanies of what we vaguely hope for the world. David Thomas, in his teaching on travailing prayer, writes, “The Bible seems utterly unfamiliar with casual prayer, prayer of the mouth and not of the heart.” In this, the psalms resonate.

The psalms are real prayers for real people. They challenge us to think deeply and honestly and give us permission to cry out, to feel, to get close, to give our whole heart, to be rough around the edges, and even to be wrong-headed and stubborn.

But real. Always real.

In Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, the author offers several practical tips for those who want to learn how pray the Psalms.

  • Choose a psalm to focus on. If you don’t know where to start, try googling your feelings — i,e, “psalm for anger” or “psalm for discouragement.” The psalms are so well researched and commented on that you’ll likely find several articles or references that send you to a starting point. Don’t get sidetracked with the article; go to the psalm.
  • Read it through aloud — slowly and thoughtfully — to get its sense. Make it interactive. Reading scripture aloud can make a huge difference in how you hear it.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the first person (as your own prayer for yourself). Don’t hurry. Wallow in it. Savor it. Mean it. Feel free to stop here and journal what is revealed, or make notes in the margins.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the second person, as an intercessory prayer on behalf of some other person.
  • Stay there until God shows up. I realize this isn’t great theology. Of course, it isn’t God who doesn’t show up, but us. But from an experiential place, we can admit that when we don’t have patience for the waiting it can feel as if God is nowhere to be found. It isn’t that he doesn’t show up, but that we refuse him entry by rushing too quickly past the moment.
  • Don’t end your prayer when the psalm ends. Let this psalm springboard you into the rest of your day’s prayers for current issues and persons that the psalm has brought to your heart. Let the psalm shape the day’s prayer list.

Even if it isn’t theologically accurate to say it this way, I stand by this good advice: Stay there until God shows up. If he doesn’t show up immediately, he will show up eventually. How do I know? He promised!

Stay in the place of prayer. Jesus himself said the fruit of an abundant life is in the abiding. May you find your stride, your purpose, your anchoring and your fruitfulness in that place of abiding, travailing, real prayer.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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