Archives For six-month challenge

Speaking of time

September 11, 2013 — 2 Comments

   And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8


Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met?
C.S. Lewis


The end of all things is near.
Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others,
as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.
If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides,
so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

I Peter 4:7-11

In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord…These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.

Joshua 4:6-7

A year ago, I wrote about our family tradition of putting stones in a jar to remind us of God’s faithfulness. ** This year more than ever, I found it helpful to look back and see how God had worked in my life. Because when I thought about the year as a whole, I’ve viewed it as a bad dark year that I was happy to be done with. However after I went back over it, I was amazed to remember all the ways God worked, including how He brought me through some difficult circumstances.

I was also glad that this year, I kept a running tab of things I was thankful for. A few times a week, I listed whatever came to mind and then pretty much went on my way. Looking back, I found many were commonplace [such as food items which figured more prominently than I would have thought–but then applewood cheddar cheese *is* something to thank God for.

But along with the more mundane things on the list,I was reminded of several significant things God had done–things that gotten buried away under months of dealing with loss and uncertainty. So here are some signs of God’s faithfulness that will be getting a stone in the jar:

  • God’s arrangement and provision in the midst of difficult circumstances. I would have preferred not to have the hard times of course, but in going through them, there were some incredible ways God arranged people and events to bring support and encouragement.
  • Being sustained by His word–there were passages of the Bible, especially the book of Acts, that seemed written exactly for my situation this year.
  • The provision of a place for us to rest, perfectly situated on a lake with a view of the mountain [thank you D and C!]

    • God meeting me during my six month prayer challenge**. I find it has radically transformed my view of prayer.
    • Our own feeding of the 5,000 miracle. Actually it was 250 people at a wedding we hosted. We had planned for 150 people but somehow there was enough food for all who came.

      The Stone Jar

      Six Month Prayer Challenge

    Outlier: something that lies outside the statistical norm.

    Outliers is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while, mainly because Malcolm Gladwell overthrows many of our common assumptions about what makes a person successful. And he does it in an easy story-telling style.

    America likes the idea that anyone, if he or she works hard enough, can achieve great things. But Gladwell presents research from psychology and sociology to show that external factors–our family, our community, our culture, the historical moment–play a great role as well.

    The first chapter, “The Matthew Effect”, opens with a quote from the parable of the talents. For some reason he uses the King James Version: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. [Matthew 25:29] If you ever have doubted that a Bible translation can help or hinder one’s understanding, here’s the same verse in the New Living Translation: To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.

    Apparently, this is not only a spiritual principle but a phenomenon in worldly pursuits too. So the rich get bigger tax breaks, the best students get the most attention etc. It also turns out that another ‘talent’ people can have is to be born in the first three months of a twelve-month selection period. Both in sports and academics, this factor makes a big difference, thanks to the maturity gap between a child born in in month one and a child born in month twelve. If you’re choosing the best 8 year-olds for an elite team and the cut-off is January 1, chances are a child born in January is going to be faster and stronger than one born in December [given the same amount of innate physical talent]. As a result 40% of professional hockey players in Canada are born in the first three months of the year, and only 10% in the last three months.

    Another chapter entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” illustrates how our culture can shape our performance. A strong hierarchal culture [often Asian or South American] can result in a co-pilot not speaking up when a pilot is clearly doing something dangerous. You’ll be happy to know that airline experts have now changed pilot training in order to compensate for this [in part by having English be the language of the cockpit, since it is a less hierarchical language.]

    But the most fascinating chapter to me was “The 10,000 Hours Rule” where Gladwell shows that given a certain amount of base talent, the primary difference between an elite performer and other performers is the number of hours spent perfecting their discipline, whether it is a musical instrument, chess, fiction writing, criminal activity, or sports. This ‘rule’ can explain the success of the Beatles and the achievement of Bill Gates, both who had the opportunity to put in those long, long hours of practice. 10,000 hours works out to 20 hours a week for ten years. That’s a lot of rough drafts or arpeggios or free throws or programming hours.

    This got me thinking about the spiritual realm [not ‘spiritual performance’ since that strikes me as an oxymoron]. Someone once asked me if I was a ‘practicing Christian’. He meant, I think, if being a Christian was a religious label or something I did, like a doctor practices medicine. But it struck me that ‘practicing’ is a good word to describe what it means to follow Jesus, as in working to improve or master something.

    Too often, I’ve expected spiritual growth to happen faster in my life, without me spending much time or effort at it. I’ve acted like the work of the Holy Spirit is a light switch I turn on and presto, instant change. But if I thought of myself like a vine or a tree, I wouldn’t expect to become a mature follower of Jesus overnight. [on olive tree can take seven years to bear fruit, a grape vine four years.] What would my life look like after spending 10,000 hours studying God’s word, talking with God, serving God through caring for the poor and the oppressed, and laying down my life for others?

    When I underestimate the amount of time and attention I need to work on becoming Christlike in a particular area of my life, I’m apt to easily give up. I become discouraged or lose interest or turn apathetic. One of the lessons I learned from the six-month prayer challenge was that spending time day after day after day for six months made a real difference in developing my prayer muscle [so much so, that I’ve started a six-month training program to focus on another area.]

    Following Jesus isn’t a sprint. I don’t even think it’s a marathon, an image that calls to mind agony and grueling effort. It’s a lifelong walk on a path that leads to heaven, one hour at a time, one step after another.

    I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
    Phillipians 3:12-14

    I love fiction. I love reading novels. I love possibilities and drama and wondering what is going to happen next. Last year I read A Praying Life* by Paul Miller and came to Chapter 19 titled “Watching a Story Unfold”. Miller talks about how our life is a story and praying shapes us and helps us write our story. You’d think with my love of story, I’d jump on this idea. But I resisted it. I thought to myself, ‘Life isn’t a story. Life is—well, life.’

    To think of my life as a story felt too open-ended to me. If my life is a story that hasn’t finished, then how can I be sure there will be a happy ending? After all, that’s what I signed up for when I decided to follow Jesus [obviously overlooking the spoiler alert in the gospels: He suffers betrayal and abandonment and dies an excruciating death].

    Then I embarked on the six-month prayer challenge* praying every day for four specific areas, and the idea of life as story began to make sense to me. God has given me free will, and like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series* I get to write my own adventure. By praying, I was asking God to come into my story. I was asking Him to teach me what His ideas were for my story.

    Talking to Him every day has shaped my story. At the start, I treated Him more like a ghost writer. It was my story and I was going to get all the credit. Then, I was going to give Him a byline after my name. Eventually, I invited Him to be the co-author [and there are days when my choices don’t work out so well and I want Him to take over the whole story].

    Over the past months, there have been powerful and unexpected answers to what I asked for. As I shared and listened and met with God daily, it drew me closer to Him. And I developed the habit of prayer–or to put it another way, my prayer muscle has never been as strong in my life as it is now.

    My faith increased too and I ended up wanting to write a bigger story, as it were. In one area, I started out asking God for something which I thought was very bold. But it was like a novice film director asking a studio to finance a 30 minute movie. Around month four in the prayer challenge, I realized I was asking for too little. So I stopped asking for a 30 minute feature. Instead, I started asking for a 2 and 1/2 hour major motion picture with a really big and expensive and thrilling chase scene thrown in.

    But there have also been chapters that I didn’t plan to write and some of my requests remain unfulfilled. In one area, there have been a lot of struggles, failures and setbacks, far worse than anything I could have imagined. It could make me wonder if God has really been paying attention to me as I’ve talked to Him. But then I witnessed an incident at the mini-park when Sam was here and I was reminded again that prayer is not like a cash machine.*

    Sam was in an inflatable play area with a tall long steep slide. In this little scene all he wanted to do was climb to the top, and slide to the bottom. Simple and fun. He got to the top, went to the edge and stood for a moment before he slid off. But a boy, taller, bigger and older than Sam, came up from behind with a swagger. He looked at Sam waiting to go. A surly expression came on his face. He took a few steps forward and without any warning, pushed Sam off.

    Suddenly, Sam was unexpectedly swishing down the slide. Fortunately it didn’t put him off balance and he landed fine. But when he got up, he looked surprised, wondering what had happened to his neat little episode. What happened was the bully wanted to write a different story, one where he inflicted pain and suffering on innocent victims. It was a picture of how Peter describes Satan: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. [I Peter 5:8]

    I fall into the trap of thinking there is just God and me working out the scenes of the story in our daily screenwriting sessions. But there’s a bully on the movie set who wants a different story. I wish I could get him off the set. I wish God would banish him or at least silence his accusations and lies [like ‘if God really loved you, you wouldn’t have any problems, and He’d answer all your requests the minute you made them.’] But whether I like it or not, part of my story includes dealing with natural disasters, other people’s bad choices, and this bully who prowls around trying to throw me off balance.

    So my six-month prayer challenge is turning into a twelve-month prayer challenge. In fact, since the epic blockbuster movie may not be finished in my lifetime, and Satan isn’t going to be banned from the set, I expect I’ll be asking as long as I have life and breath.

    A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

    Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm…Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.
    Ephesians 6:10-14,18

    thoughts about A Praying Life
    the six-month prayer challenge
    Choose Your Own Adventure
    prayer is not a cash machine

    As I have been going along in the six-month prayer challenge, to encourage myself to pray in faith, I went to Hebrews 11 with its pantheon of faith heroes: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, Rahab, Gideon Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel. I read the glorious accounts of people who triumphed in awful circumstances:

    who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again…

    I started to cheer inside, filled with hope and encouragement. I was ready to keep on persevering. But in the middle of verse 35, suddenly the tide turns, and not for better:

    Others were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

    Oh. I had never really noticed that part before. And as I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t an isolated passage. I remembered the flogging of the apostles, [Acts 5] the stoning of Stephen [Acts 7] and Paul’s gory list in II Corinthians 11, to name a few. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.[Hebrews 11:13] They were all following after Jesus who pleaded with the Father to let the cup of suffering pass from Him, and then endured the pain of being crucified.

    It is so easy for me to think “If I keep the rules, everything will be fine and I’ll be exempt from suffering. If I do the right thing, I’ll get the right result.” I would rather forget that in this world we will suffer and those we love will suffer, including innocent children. But we will. It’s an unfortunate given of our broken world.

    So why do I keep on praying when bad things still happen?
    Paul wrote a very long chapter about this [I Corinthians 15] in which he reminds us that the reason we can keep on praying and keep on trusting God is because on the other side of suffering, Jesus was raised to glory and death has been swallowed up:
    If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless…
    If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world…
    If the dead are not raised, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” …

    Why do you think I keep risking my neck in this dangerous work? I look death in the face practically every day I live. Do you think I’d do this if I wasn’t convinced of your resurrection and mine as guaranteed by the resurrected Messiah Jesus? Do you think I was just trying to act heroic when I fought the wild beasts at Ephesus, hoping it wouldn’t be the end of me? Not on your life! It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live.

    Sometimes I’m staring into the mouth of a real lion, and sometimes it’s the mouth of a lion called discouragement, hopelessness, and despair. But when resurrection undergirds the way I live, I have hope that the struggles won’t last and at the very end God will lift me from defeat and take me to be with Him. That is how I can pray on sunny days and on dark days and through the blackest night. I know how the story ends. And that’s why I want to work at keeping ‘a long obedience in a single direction’, even when that takes me right into the mouth of the lion–for that long walk of obedience is taking me home.

    I’m heading into month six of the six-month prayer challenge. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time praying for things other than the areas I committed to five months ago. But in the midst of all that is going on, I’ve found it helpful to pray for my original concerns, in part because it reminds me the story is bigger than the chapter I’m living.

    There have been many days when it hasn’t been easy to pray. I’ve been distracted, sad, anxious; emotional states don’t foster being attentive to God. But I’ve found that the discipline of keeping a daily commitment has been good for me. In some ways it’s like showing up to work. I don’t mean that prayer is a job but meeting with God to talk about the work of building His kingdom is something I need to do even when I don’t feel like it or when my world has been shaken.

    Along the way, I’ve also continued to reflect on the foundational verses of the prayer challenge, John 15:7-8, and the commands in it: to remain in Jesus, have His words remain in me, and to ask whatever I wish— in faith it will be given to me. But when things are going badly and I get to the ‘and it will be given’ part, I hear a snake-like voice saying, “Did God really say that?”

    The answer is yes. This verse is in Matthew, Mark and John. There’s another formulation of it in three gospels, including Luke. So I think it is safe to say this verse is not a fluke. Yet if I take a quick look at my list of unanswered prayers, something doesn’t seem to line up.

    Except this is just one tiny portion of scripture, and we know it’s dangerous to go lifting out bits that were meant to be part of a whole. In fact, there are many other tiny portions of scripture that we don’t take out of the whole–which is why there aren’t a lot of people walking around with their eyes gouged out [Matthew 5:29].

    And today, reading through Mark 10, I came to a passage that expands the principle of asking and receiving. It starts in verse 32 as Jesus tells his disciples what is going to happen to him: betrayal, death, resurrection. And then James and John come to Jesus and say “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

    I read that and thought, ok, they have taken the six-month prayer challenge to heart. They’re doing what Jesus has told them to do. What they want is to sit on either side of Jesus when they get to heaven, places of honor [and I would add, of power]. And Jesus answers their request by telling them they don’t know what they are asking. Can they drink the cup He is going to drink? They assure Him they can. He agrees that they will. Then He tells them that this request is not for Him to grant. Someone else is already getting the choice seats.

    The other disciples get miffed when they hear about the request of James and John. Jesus responds by explaining how authority works in the Kingdom. Greatness comes from serving others, just like He came to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.

    This brings me back to the beginning of John 15:7: “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you…” In John, the sentence gets completed with “ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you”. But another way to complete the sentence is “take up your cross and follow Me”. [Matthew 16:24] Or “you will obey My commandments” [John 15:10], or “you will love My other followers like I have loved you” [John 15:12]. And the sentence can be inverted, as Jesus does in John 15:16: I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using My name.

    Obeying, following, loving, serving, dying, producing fruit, asking. That’s the whole package. There’s a lot more I’m called to do besides asking for whatever I wish, and most of it is difficult, hard, and painful. That shouldn’t surprise me though. Every story in the Bible about the glorious flourishing of God’s people comes out of great suffering, pain, death.

    But when we first set off to follow Jesus, what do we really know about taking up our cross? We’re given life and forgiveness and grace and power and free access to the Father and encouraged to ask Him for what we need. We think all our problems have been solved.

    And then the battle begins.

    We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!….

    ….we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.
    II Corinthians 4:8-18 The Message

    Two short quotes and a longer thought from Paul Miller, author of The Praying Life:

    “Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.”

    “You cry out to God so long and so often that a channel begins to open up between you and God.”

    “I continue to be strongly impressed that asking is very hard for us to do. Cynicism. Adultism. Independence. Don’t be selfish. Too good to be true. and etc. I started realizing at about seminar #30 that asking is by far the hardest part of praying. And yet it is so simple…or seemingly so, but it awakens a host of desires and dreaming that are unsettling yet you feel drawn by it. Last November I was doing a seminar, describing how I prayed for my son and a guy challenged me, “Why don’t you just ask that your son would win the lottery?” I.E. “how trite and simplistic…like magic”.
    I was genuinely shocked at his question. I said to him somewhat incredulously, “Why would I ever want that to happen to my son? It would destroy everything I’ve taught him about how life works. It would totally distort his view of what is important in life. What an awful prayer request.” He hadn’t drilled down into what asking does to your heart. It goes right to the will.”

    [for more on The Praying Life see

    Give ear to my words, O LORD,
    consider my sighing.
    Listen to my cry for help,
    my King and my God,
    for to you I pray.
    In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice;
    in the morning I lay my requests before you
    and wait in expectation.

    Psalm 5:1-3

    Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

    Ephesians 3:20-21

    I’m halfway through the six-month prayer challenge and my touchstone has been: “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ASK whatever you wish and it will be given to you. This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [John 15:7,8]

    The center of these verses, and the prayer challenge, is the simple command “ask”. But what a big word that is. “Ask whatever you wish” brings to mind winning a contest where you get to run around a store with a shopping cart and pile up everything you can into it. Or being a kid in a candy store who is told ‘take whatever you want’. Or going to ask Santa [in a Thai department store].

    Did Jesus really mean ‘whatever I want’? I go back and forth on this. My mind fills with things I’d love to have. And then I think it can’t be all about getting what I want.

    Last fall, we hosted a seminar based on “The Praying Life” by Paul Miller which is one of the all-time best books on prayer. [I’m sure that my embarking on the six-month prayer challenge was partly inspired by reading this book.] One of the first chapters talks about learning to pray like a child and points out that when children talk with their parents, they are focused on themselves, talking about their feelings, their problems, their life. And when they ask their parents for something, they are persistent, they whine, and they use every angle to get what they want. [If it has been awhile since you’ve been around a three-year old, or can’t remember your own childhood, trust me. This is exactly how a kid asks.]

    As Miller puts it, children ask for “everything and anything. If they hear about Disneyland, they want to go there tomorrow. How often do little children ask? Repeatedly. Over and over again. They wear us out. Sometimes we give in just to shut them up. How do little children ask? Without guile. They just say what is on their minds. They have no awareness of what is appropriate or inappropriate.”

    Case in point: I was in the car with Sam as we drove past a car showroom with a miniature dune buggy on display, just about the perfect size for a tall almost-three year old. And what did Sam do when he saw that wonderful little vehicle? “Hey Dad, can I have that?” And how did John answer? Something like ‘no’. But you can’t fault Sam. He knows his father is the giver of good gifts. He knows his father loves him. He knows he certainly can’t get the dune buggy on his own. The only way is to ask his father.

    As we grow up, we learn to dial down our requests. But Jesus says we need to become like children to enter to the kingdom of heaven. And children ask for things because although they have desires and needs and wants, they don’t have a lot of power or resources or independence. And that does pretty much sum up my general state of life as much as I’d like to believe otherwise.

    During the seminar, we stopped and jotted down a list of things we wanted. I felt a little shy about doing it. It felt a little selfish. But it was a helpful exercise. How can I ask if I don’t know what I want? Then we went over a list of things we tend not to talk to God about:
    “Mundane things: too unimportant
    Personal things: too selfish
    Change in others : too controlling
    Change in me: means admitting a problem
    Things we are good at: too easy, we don’t need help
    Material things: too selfish
    Overwhelming impossible needs: too impossible.”

    My six-month prayer challenge is focusing on that last category: impossible things. Sometimes asking feels great, like filling up that shopping cart. And sometimes it feels humbling and scary, admitting once more that I need something, and I haven’t gotten it yet.

    Ask. That’s what Jesus tells us to do. Ask. That’s my part. Ask. And ask again.

    The rest is in God’s hands.

    Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

    I have often wondered if the difference between merely rote learning of God’s word and teaching scripture through worshipful song might affect the way a believer ‘digests and assimilates’ the bread, meat and milk of the Word for growth and health in Christ, in the same way gastric juices in the tracts of the human body convert food to energy.
    We become not merely legal, literal ‘experts’of the Word, but submitted, worshiping singers of praise–whose song “breaks up” the spiritual content of God’s Word and flower it into our hearts, minds, souls and lives.

    [paraphased from Jack Hayford’s Manifest Presence]

    “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord. Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.” Psalm 95:1

    “I set Your instructions to music and sing them as I walk this pilgrim way.” Psalm 119:54 [The Message]

    If you remain in Me and if My words remain in you, ask whatever you will…
    John 15:7

    I confess that I’m not big on memorizing Bible verses. I’ve always been in awe of people who can repeat an entire poem or a passage of scripture at the drop of a hat. I don’t know if my brain isn’t wired to memorize or if its an activity that is best done when you’re ten years old, but I find it hard to do. Yet I know it’s a good thing. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He responded with scripture He had stored up in His heart.

    So I was in a quandary as I reflected on John 15:7-8, which I’m doing as part of the Six-month Prayer Challenge []: And My words remain in you. Then I remembered a CD of kids’ praise songs I bought a few years ago, “Seeds of Praise”, which has a dozen short and simple songs with Bible verses for words.

    La-dee-dah, tum-tum-tum, yeah, yeah. These catchy songs have been bouncing around in my head with their easy melodies and repetitive words. Bubble gum music, peanut butter songs that stick to the roof of my mind, contemporary Gregorian chants if you will. These spiritual pop songs have done the trick.

    There are four other CDS in this Seeds of Worship series: Seeds of Faith, Seeds of Purpose, Seeds of Courage, and Seeds of Encouragement. [You can download them on Amazon’s MP3 site, or order them from the Seeds website: ]
    That’s about 50 verses, though I have to say that listening to an entire CD is usually too much for me. How many spoonfuls of peanut butter can you eat straight from the jar? But if I listen to a two or three songs, I find them coming back to me in the odd empty moments.

    One day having breakfast in Thailand with Sam who is almost 3, we sang along to a few songs. Truth be told, we may have even boogied to the music together. Then I went off into my day and promptly forgot all about what I had listened to. In the late afternoon, we visited a park with hot springs. The rest of the family went off after an extensive without any discussion about when or where we’d meet up. I was tired and hungry. I didn’t have a book. I didn’t have a pen and paper. I didn’t have any money, didn’t know the language.** The only thing I had was a camera and three-month old Jeff in the baby bjorn [thankfully sleeping]. I was feeling just a tad grumpy and put out. All I could do was walk around the small road that circled around the park and try to console myself with how beautiful the scenery was.

    Samkhaempeng Hotsprings

    But there comes a time when beautiful scenery can’t cheer you up. Then, out of nowhere, one of the songs I had listened to that morning came into my mind. “O God you are my God….” I couldn’t remember all the words but I improvised, sticking a la-dee dah when needed. The song didn’t miraculously change my mood but it kept me going for four long laps around the park until I could get some food and rest.

    Simple songs, catchy melodies running on endless replay, the music weaving the words into my soul. Nothing profound or sophisticated, just kids’ music. Sometimes that’s what I need, like a rocking chair to calm me and quiet me, letting the Word feed me down deep.

    **In case you have any doubt about the power of song, as I was writing about the afternoon in the park when I didn’t have any money and didn’t know the language, words from another song came to me: “He doesn’t speak the language, He holds no currency.”

    That’s from Paul Simon’s “Call me Al”:

    A man walks down the street,
    It’s a street in a strange world.
    Maybe it’s the Third World.
    Maybe it’s his first time around.
    He doesn’t speak the language,
    He holds no currency.
    He is a foreign man,
    He is surrounded by the sound, sound ….
    Cattle in the marketplace.
    Scatterlings and orphanages.
    He looks around, around …..
    He sees angels in the architecture,
    Spinning in infinity,
    He says, Amen! and

    the market at Myawaddy, Myanmar

    Twenty some years ago when the Graceland album came out, I listened to this song a lot. Eventually though it got pushed to the bottom of the pile to make way for newer music. In the last decade, I don’t think I’ve heard “Call Me Al’ a half dozen times. But here it is, bubbling up all the same, a great illustration of how lyrics can remain in us long after the music stops playing.

    Listen well and be sustained.

    I’m six weeks into the six month prayer challenge where I’m asking God daily for a few things. []
    Even though I knew there was nothing sacred about asking every single day, I was a little anxious at the beginning about how I was going to remember to do it every day. I got a couple of index cards [green ones, because I love doing things in color] and wrote out John 15:7, 8. “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.”

    Below the verse, I listed the four things I’m asking God for. I sprinkled these cards around the house–one by my bed, one on my desk, one in my daytimer, one in my devotional notebook. I admit that this turned out to be a typical case of overkill. Because my areas of concern are big and important to me, I’m very motivated to talk to God about them, and by the end of the first week, I found I had involuntarily memorized the verse. Doing this every day it has made me more aware of my dependence on God. It’s been humbling every day to acknowledge that I have needs I can’t fulfill, desires I can’t accomplish with my own resources and power, that I am limited and weak and needy. I’m not the master of my universe.

    But I’m doing more than just saying “give me, give me.” Jesus begins His promise in John with: “If you remain in Me…” That’s a pretty big ‘if’. I have to stay by Him. I can’t wander off. I need to keep connected. It’s like being on life support. Unplug the tubes and things will go haywire. Practically speaking this means spending time worshipping Him before I begin to pray, looking to Him, contemplating who He is, quieting myself down, getting my focus off the pressures of my day and my worries and fears. Most days I find it helpful to listen to worship music to center myself.

    I’ve seen that another part of remaining in Him involves putting my life back under His authority and control. It means looking to see where I’ve let the connection between me and Him get broken. I’ve been asking myself, “What is separating me from God today? Where am I putting distance between me and Him? Where am I resisting Him?” Then I can ask His forgiveness and claim the grace He offers me.

    I’ve also rediscovered that if I’m going to remain in God, I need to carve out the space and time to meet with Him. Stepping out in faith isn’t fast and easy. It’s not like winging a frisbee on the fly or mumbling over the list and then saying, “There, I’m done.” Praying takes time.

    There have been days where I was really busy and I ended up grabbing a few minutes on the run with Him. It was like eating fast food–it got the job done but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as a gourmet meal. It’s much better when I spend more time with God —not because I have to but because it’s more enjoyable when I can savor being with Him, talking over things, studying, contemplating rather than just quickly throw my requests at Him before I rush off to something else. With my good friends, I cherish the times when we can sit down to a well-prepared meal and linger over it as we share what is going on with each other. My life with God is like that; it’s not a tool for getting what I want. He’s the vine, I’m the branch. The sap rises up, the nutrients flow through and fruit is formed. It’s the only way.

    I’m a firm believer in kiddie pools. I’m not the kind of person who just jumps into the deep end. I like to enter the water inch by inch so I can get used to the idea. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite movies is “What About Bob”, especially the scenes where Bob repeats “Baby steps, baby steps” as he tries to break through his fear.

    So although it may appear that I’ve embarked on the six-month prayer challenge like a leap from the high dive, that’s not true. This morning I remembered that earlier this year, I followed a 40 Days Prayer Guide put out by some folks in England at “There is Hope”. The guide leads you to pray for a big issue for 40 days, with a daily devotional and prayer points. It was like having a personal prayer coach and it definitely helped me go farther along on the journey of prayer.

    You can download the 40 Days Prayer Guide here:

    They also have a 7 day “Try Praying” booklet designed for people who are new to the whole idea of asking God for help:”>

    Baby steps, baby steps.

    As I considered starting the six-month prayer challenge, what came to my mind was “Is anything too hard for God?” I couldn’t remember where this was in the Bible. It turns out it’s from Genesis 18 when God promises Abraham he will have a son and Sarah laughs to herself.

    “Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Will I really have a child, now that I am old?”
    Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”
    Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
    But he said, “Yes you did.”

    What an encounter–Sarah giving a cynical, skeptical laugh at God’s incredible promise, then being afraid when God calls her on it, then lying about it. What a microcosm of disbelief. But God gives her a son which Abraham names Isaac or “he laughs” [which suggests to me that God had the last laugh.]

    Since I’ve been known to snicker a few cynical laughs myself, it encouraged me that Sarah’s skepticism, her fear, and her lie did not change what God did. He still fulfilled His promise.

    “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
    John 15:7,8

    Amen. So be it.

    [we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this special post]

    I was all set to blog about one of my bedtime snack books.* Then I started reading If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg because I’m working on a character who is stuck in his life and I thought it might give me some insight into him. But as it turns out, I think I’m really reading this book for me.

    It’s about risk and following God and believing Him to work in our lives, drawn from the gospel account where Peter gets out of the boat in the middle of a storm and walks on water to Jesus [Matthew 14:22-33]. Given my non-love of sailing, it would be more accurate for me to say it’s about getting into the boat. Or maybe that’s the prequel: If You Want to Sail on Water, You’ve Got to Leave the Shore. At any rate, I resonated with what Ortberg has to say.

    Obviously his main idea is that we have to get out of the boat. He says that when Jesus passed by the boat in the middle of the storm, it was similar to God passing by Moses so Moses could see His glory [Exodus 33:22]. Peter says “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Ortberg makes the point that Peter’s goal is not so much to walk on water, but to come to Jesus, and he asks for a command which he then obeys. This is so much deeper and richer than our saying, “I think I’ll just hoist myself over the side of this boat and go for a little power walk.” There’s a God-directed goal and obedience at work.

    Ortberg discusses how we need to use the talents God has given us, and how fear is not a good motivator. Fear will never go away, so it’s better just to forget that it’s there. Then he mentions that people who take God-directed risks usually pray a lot. “There is something about getting out of the boat that turns people into intense pray-ers, because they are aware that they cannot accomplish things without God’s help.”

    He tells a story about a man who became a Christian and came to where Jesus said, “Ask whatever you will in my name, and you will receive it.” In typical new Christian enthusiasm he decided he needed to pray for something, and he thought he’d pray for Africa. A friend suggested he might want to narrow it down to a country. So he did. Then the friend challenged him to pray for this country every day for six months. [They actually made a monetary bet about whether something extraordinary would happen in that time frame.] The story of what happened is one of those incredible unbelievable stories, about as unbelievable as–well pick your favorite one from the Bible.

    Ortberg asks “What are you praying for?” and suggests committing yourself to pray every day for six months and seeing what God will do.

    As soon as I read Ortberg’s idea, I knew I was up for it. There are some things going on in my life that I’ve been praying for a lot recently, and I think this challenge is just what I need to keep my eyes on Jesus as I follow him in the middle of the storm.

    I don’t think there’s anything magical about six months or about praying every day. Prayer is not putting quarters in the bubble gum machine until the big prize comes out. But there’s no downside to talking over the big things in my life with God every day for six months and reminding myself, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [John 15:7,8]

    What about you? What’s going on in your life now? Would you like to join the challenge? One thing, every day, for six months, now until May. Are you interested in coming along on the journey? Pass it on to your friends. As Arlo Guthrie sang in “Alice’s Restaurant” if three people do it, it’s an organization; if fifty people do, it will be a movement. And all we have to do is pray.

    [*Don’t worry, I’ll serve the other post next week. It’s not perishable, plus it fits in nicely with the six-month challenge.]