Because life is a series of edits

The Power of Prayer(lessness)

In Calling, Church, Family, Friends on October 13, 2014 at 10:04 pm

praying_manA close friend of mine from Colorado texted me this today:

“Please write a blog post about the epidemic among well-meaning believers in the use of ‘just’ a million times per prayer. ‘Lord, if you would just…’ ‘In the midst of this struggle, just…’ ‘We should just depend on you…’ It’s a phony qualifier meant to make our prayers sound humble or modest. I HATE it. I just do.”

I’ve harbored the same resentful lament – first against those who pray so pitifully (for a primer, click here), then against myself for doing worse and condemning them for it.

Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner.

That one-line cry seems about the extent of my prayer life these days; sometimes I make it all the way through the Lord’s Prayer, but that’s about it. Unlike my more “spiritual” days, I don’t have any lists I keep or pray through; I don’t record requests or answers. I don’t pray (much) with my kids beyond thanking God for a meal, and I can’t remember the last time I prayed with my wife, mostly because I’ve never really prayed with Megan and the habit has mostly stuck.

The fact is, my prayerlessness is really pretty staggering. I’m ashamed of it and I’m afraid of it. I’m appalled by it and I’m alone in it (well, not really on that last part, but it feels like it sometimes).

In some regard (and forgive me if this seems a huge cop out), the only real hope I’ve found in the area of prayer is Romans 8:26-27. Everyone knows (and misapplies) Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,  for those who are called according to his purpose” – but that’s just the outcome of the means – of God’s means – found in verses 26 and 27:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

The Spirit groans on my behalf. A lot. In my sleep, in the morning, in the shower, in the car, in my office(s), in my work, in my rest, in my study, in my relationships, in my marriage, in my family, in my hunger, in my satisfaction, in my struggles, in my victories, in my doubts, in my (over)confidences…the list goes on and on. The “less spiritual” I’ve become in my old(er) age, the more I (finally) recognize how hardly spiritual I really was in my youth. Indeed, the Lord calls us to pray (and often that’s the only reason I try), but we easily forget (or at least I did) that the Spirit is the one who does so on our behalf – even when we feel like it, and especially when we don’t. This, if there is such a thing, is the power of prayerlessness.

I’ve read the usual suspects on prayer – Church fathers and theologians, Christian pastors and missionaries – and I always come away convicted and convinced that I’m somehow not doing this right. I feel even worse when I eagerly judge those who ask God to “just” do anything, self-justifying my reaction to the lazy language of evangelicalism (which I hate in all its shallow forms) rather than actually praying in a way that seems so beyond my capacity.

So I resonate with my friend’s observation and lament, but also confess my own hard heart as I desperately cling to God’s promise that the Spirit will intercede on my behalf. I take comfort in the solace of Hebrews 7:25, which reminds me that, “…he (Jesus) is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

I try to pray because he asks me to. I’m “just” glad Jesus helps me as much as he does.

(At times in the past, I’ve written my prayers, pieces of which eventually turned into songs and other forms of poetry (or vice versa). For a Theology of Prayer course in seminary, I collected some of the shorter offerings and put them together in an anthology. You’re welcome to download and read them in this Prayer Collection.

In addition, while I’ve always found the prayers of the Psalms helpful to put words to emotions, in more recent years, I’ve also appreciated prayers in The Valley of Vision and tried (but mostly failed) to follow the Book of Common Prayer.)

Addressing the Habitual

In Thought on September 5, 2014 at 9:17 pm
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Samuel Johnson
 
Often when we speak of teaching our children good habits, we do so with physical actions in mind. We hear ourselves give tangible directives – “Pick up your toys when you’re finished playing with them,” “Clean your room so you can find your clothes,” “Don’t leave the keys in the car overnight so it will be there in the morning” – with the hope that these prescribed habits will soon become their own.
 
This is right, for considering external behaviors can be good measures of what our students internally understand. But if we only address actions without attitudes, we train children in one of two ways: 1) obey without learning to love to obey (which can lead to people-pleasing and/or legalism); or 2) only do what is comfortable or self-serving (which can lead to fearful and/or selfish living).
 
It’s not a question of whether our kids will form habits or not; the question is what will those habits – of action and attitude – be? Just as we do not want poor outward behavior to become ingrained in our kids, neither should we want poor patterns of thinking or feeling to take root. For just as God disciplines His children concerning means and motive, so are we called to care not just about what our children do, but also about how it gets done.
 
Do all things without grumbling or disputing…” (Philippians 2:14). May this good habit (among many, many others) come to be evermore true of our students…and also of us as their primary teachers.

Rural Reflections

In Calling, Family, Holidays, Nature, Places & Spaces, Vacation on July 5, 2014 at 11:29 am

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“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives…but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else.” Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

After our Colorado trip and two days back in the office in Oklahoma City, we’re here in Illinois wrapping up the last of our vacation days. Altogether, it’s been a good and much-needed break from the past 18 months of school merging and managing, and I’m (almost) ready to jump back into things in earnest next week.

In the meantime, I’m making the most of our last few days here in Pike County where I – along with four previous generations of Dunhams – grew up on our centennial farm. Our girls love being here and connecting with their four Pike County cousins (I have two younger sisters who each have two kids of their own), Megan graciously tolerates the latest tales of townsfolk she has never met, and even our dog, Peaches, seems to have an affinity for the rural life (in particular the John Deere Gator rides, as shown above).

I love the farm. For as long as I can remember, it has meant much to me as a place, an anchor, a stopping-off point, a means of provision, a muse of creativity, a home…the list is endless. The stability of associating myself with a particular 600 acres of God’s green Earth is rare in today’s transient world and has always mesmerized me in its value, both felt and perceived. Even when I didn’t want to be here, or thought there was no future in it for me here, I’ve always loved the farm…and I always will.

But then I ask myself, do I love the farm or do I love the idea of the farm? The answer to both questions is “yes,” which transforms the inquiry into one of degrees (i.e. which one do I love more?). That’s when things get confusing.

There was a time  – when, for instance, I would plow the living room for hours on end as a five-year-old – that my family may have expected me to remain on or eventually return to the farm. At some point, though – exactly when, I don’t know – they let go of that expectation most likely because I did. I remember being 16 and chomping at the bit to leave for college, to graduate and move to The Loop in downtown Chicago (to do what, I had no idea), and never look back. The desire did not spring from some dislike for the rural as much as a fascination for the urban; after all, as the post-WWI song goes, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

I can’t say I ever felt direct pressure to “be about” the farm; chores (what little of them I had) never came before studies or school events, and farming was never cause for missing a game or performance or church as long as Saturday mornings were kept open for hog work. If anything, there were times in my early teens when I probably felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more to help out in the fields or on the bigger equipment in a more significant way, but God had his reasons, and my parents – perhaps seeing the writing on the wall before I did – acquiesced to those by supporting (and at times, directing) me in other endeavors.

As I’ve grown older, I confess that my pride in telling others of our family’s fifth-generation farm quickly erodes even before the end of the sentence when, inevitably, I know the next question that’s coming: “So what’s going to happen to the farm?” Many times I have felt guilty at being the only son or (though I would not trade any of my daughters for all the farms in the world) that my Y chromosomes couldn’t figure things out enough to produce a male heir to carry on the Dunham name and take to farming more than I did. Neither feeling is fair, but guilt (in particular the self-inflicted kind) does not play by the rules.

As much as the thought of returning to Pike County can be nostalgically attractive, I’ve yet to figure out how to make it happen practically; it would seem I have very little of what it takes to “make it” in the country. While the urbanite wrongly assumes that those living outside city limits are somehow “less than” because they haven’t made it to the city, he would never survive in rural America, which is why he doesn’t try beyond buying some miniscule weekend/vacation acreage upon which his existence does not depend.

I think of Thomas Jefferson’s words concerning agriculture and those who practice it:

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

Jefferson’s sentiment describes my father and my grandfather; it does not, however, describe me, a truth that at times grieves my heart and disturbs my thoughts. There is no solution or salve for this affliction, save only the choice to still care and the decision to still visit, both of which seem trite compared to the calling and effort of my forebears to sustain this land over the past 100+ years so that I might still engage with it now.

As predominant a sculptor as any in my life, the farm – as a tool in the sovereign hands of God – seems to have shaped me for something other than itself. It’s no secret that I’m eternally grateful for this, but it is also a reality that saddens me some nevertheless.

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