Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Jesus' brain confusion workout

Photo compliments of http://blog.stack.com/
This morning as I read Mark 10 in preparation for one of my morning men's groups, I had a realization of the genius of Jesus' communication style. He often taught in parables and used cryptic language to ensure that it was only by faith that someone could understand his teaching. His stories were simple, relevant and incredibly poignant, yet, if a person didn't have an openness and a humble desire to learn, then they could be confusing or antagonistic, as was the case with the pharisees who "understood that he spoke the parable against them." (Mark 12:12) This was also to fulfill the scriptures, which predicted that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven." (Mark 4:12, referencing Isaiah 6:9, 10 and others).

I don't think Jesus taught this way to be cruel or keep some people from "getting it". In fact, I think it was the opposite. He so badly wanted people to repent and acknowledge him that he made a confrontation with the condition of a listener's heart unavoidable. Jesus chose his words carefully to maximize their impact, forcing hearers to wrestle with his meaning and engage not just intellectually, but spiritually. He graciously would explain the parables to his disciples, but not after letting even them stew for a bit. I believe this is why he seemed to always avoid people's expectations, knowing that a little mystery helps til the soil of the soul. Even his silence did this (remember Pilot?)!

This methodology was made clear to me in Mark 10 when Jesus heads for Jerusalem and continues telling his followers about his death. This is his third prediction in which, instead of being cryptic and metaphoric, he speaks with painfully clear words that he would suffer, laying out his betrayal step by step. And the disciples still don't get it! It's likely that Jesus repeats himself here, because in chapter 9, after the second of the three predictions, Mark tells us the disciples "did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him." (Mark 9:32) He's trained them to look for the real meanings behind the stories and just when I bet they started feeling confident in their ability to understand their Teacher, he switches things up. He can't really mean he's going to die, right, guys?

Why speak that way and switch up his style if he knew they wouldn't get it? I believe he knew when to play with their expectations in order to bring about a faith crisis. As a brilliant Teacher, Jesus was stretching their minds and hearts, whether it was with metaphor or simple, plain truth. In the workout world, we call it muscle confusion, which is the process of mixing up exercises to "confuse" the muscle fibers forcing them to compensate for the new movements and therefore to grow stronger. Jesus used brain confusion to make the soul grow stronger.

The question for each of us then is whether we are willing to wrestle with Jesus' teaching, whether we allow ourselves to enter into the mystery of the word of God, as confusing and convicting as it may be. Are we ready to hear? Hungry to see? It's much easier to walk away saying, "Oh, he didn't really mean that," or to be offended and disengage. Have you read Jesus' teaching on caring for the poor lately? Divorce? Homosexuality? His return? There's plenty to be confused and/or offended about, but the wrestling in humility to leave your pattern of thinking for His is where faith is found and trained, and where your soul grows strong.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Abortion Proclamation

Today, I retweeted this post by Kevin DeYoung (@RevKevDeYoung):
Everyone celebrating Roe should look in the eye a woman who just miscarried and tell her "It was just a clump of cells."
It posted to my Facebook page and I received a private passionate reply, one that I think missed the point of the post, likely due to the guyser-esque emotions that this topic incites. The reply simultaneously defended fetuses as more than "clumps of cells" and sympathized with abortion as an often necessary outlet for abused and shunned women. It obviously affected this person very deeply, provoking a patchwork of dramatic statements that awkwardly quilted an argument both compassionate for women who chose (or were forced) to abort their child and sorrowful over the tiny souls who suffered death even before they could experience birth.

I myself get quickly enflamed by the subject, as I see it as a direct affront to my Christian faith, which sees children as a blessing from God and prohibits murder. An abortion swims about in a broader pool of complex social problems and failures of love, which I find all very frustrating. So as I read the response, my own emotions were jostled, knowing that the words were likely motivated by a knowledge of the subject more acute than theory, but also feeling the conviction of a holy God who weeps and broils over humankind's insistence on violence and death in multitudinous forms. I'm sad this is even a discussion. I'm angry I have cause to be angry. I also feel compelled to speak some of my thoughts and counterpoints, hopefully with some clarity, and to share a call to anyone within reach of my community that may be considering abortion.

It was rightly pointed out by this writer that there are many ills in society that put some women in the position where they feel that terminating a pregnancy is the only viable option. This may include rape, incest, and relationships tainted by abuse, drugs, etc. These cases are not the majority, though. Numbers of women (this was passed on to me by a friend at Life International who talked with many of the hundreds of women who sought an abortion at the clinic that is now their ministry's headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI), chose to abort a child simply for the sake of convenience, like the thirty-something professional woman and her husband who terminated the child in her womb thinking it would too greatly compromise the perfect two child household they had already achieved.  To say that the vast majority of abortions are emergency or abuse related is simply false. Nor can I fail to point out that an abortion, regardless of the reason behind it, is a moral decision, which a woman (and her partner) must take responsibility for. I state this humbly recognizing that there are situations which are very complex and difficult, but the way out is never through a contrary evil. I was recently counseling with someone who said, "Sometimes the only way out of a sin is through another sin." That is bankrupt thinking and one (especially from the mouth of Christian) which belies a tragic absence of faith in the power, sacrifice, and love of our Savior.

This fighting evil with evil ethic is what is behind the suggestion that abortion prevents the tragic lives and criminality of the many unwanted children who are born to women who didn't seek or were prevented from seeking a termination. These children suffer rejection and abuse and degrade society, the argument goes, which apparently is enough to remove the dignity of their existence. It would be better for everybody if they were never born. When I hear this, I wonder how many of these should-have-been-aborted people, no matter how criminal, would agree. The fact that Roe v. Wade actually caused a drop in the crime rate has been convincingly hypothesized by the Levitt and Dubner, authors of Freakonomics (2009). But I still see no ethical justification for murder unless you are a hardcore classical utilitarian, a position that is generally untenable to any person with some appreciation for equality and a respect for basic human rights.

But wherever abortion lies on the ethical spectrum, the fact remains that there is a lot of brokenness out there motivating abortion and creating just-as-bad alternatives for the babies that get a chance at life. This is where people argue against the church especially. I agree that Christians ought to do a better job, both reaching people before violence and/or irresponsibility make abortion an option and supporting mothers and fathers who choose to have the child. However, to fault Christians/society for abortions because they have failed prevent or fix the problem is a tenuous argument. It would be like me saying it's your fault I burned down your house because you didn't stop me from getting a hold of matches. If you know I'm an arson, it would behoove you to take precautions, but I must bear the responsibility for my actions. And frankly, I think Christians do more to serve and support the poor, broken, and orphaned than just about any other demographic. I know for a fact my church would go to great lengths to support and love anyone wrestling with the emotional, physical, and logistical trauma of an unwanted pregnancy.

And so rather than just stew about the world's moral decline and continue to be a part of the stereotypical problem, here is my public declaration and promise to any person, man or woman, within my community's reach who might be considering an abortion: in the name of Jesus Christ my Savior, who laid down his life for me and to whom I am eternally accountable, I will lay down my life for you. If you need help, my family and my friends will be there for you. We will listen. We will cry. We will share. We will work. We will celebrate. We will adopt. We will change diapers. We will make meals. We will love you and we will find a way to help you do the right thing. We will not be perfect, but we will try and maybe if you try, too, we can both find hope and life.

I can be reached at http://recastchurch.com.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Thanks for my wife, God

William Tyndale comments on Genesis 18–25, the making of the woman (emphasis mine):
The New Testament draws much of its teaching on the sexes from this crowning paragraph of the chapter, which is the dynamic, or dramatic, counterpart of 1:27, 28. The naming of the animals, a scene which portrays man as monarch of all he surveys, poignantly reveals him as a social being, made for fellowship, not power: he will not live until he loves, giving himself away (24) to another on his own level. So the woman is presented wholly as his partner and counterpart; nothing is yet said of her as childbearer. She is valued for herself alone.
I am so glad to be married to my wife. Don Filcek in his January 13, 2013, sermon sits on this important point and I found it impacting. He reminds us that woman wasn't made because men are dummies and need to be taken care of or even because the job of stewarding the earth was too much to handle. It was primarily a social need. It wasn't good to be alone (God's observation, not Adam's), and I love how Tyndale saw this: "he will not live until he loves." God is love and his breath in us gave us soul and the essence of our life is His love animating our existence, and the essence of marriage is and sharing of that love, that life. An opportunity to reciprocate life between two equals, caring and assisting each other, being intimate with and knowing another.I love you, Nicole. Thanks for being my side. Thanks for being my love.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Just the way you aren't

God doesn't love you just the way you are. He just loves you. And no, he doesn't want to leave you that way. God just loving you the way you are (as a raw human) is like saying you're totally valuable, super great and totally righteous. If that were the case, well, He'd owe you His affection and we would have a works-based gospel, but the reality is just the opposite. He doesn't love you for what you are–a disgraceful lawbreaker, hell-bent on having your own way and both consciously and unconsciously at odds with holiness–but loves you in spite of that sinful condition. That's grace–that God digs you not because of, but in spite of who you are.

When we accept the "God loves me just the way I am" mentality, we fail to understand that He in fact does want us to change. He wants us to be better, He wants us to love more, He wants us to make the world a better place, to stop doing evil and to learn to do good (word up, Isaiah). Resisting personal change and improvement because of a false sense of God's love for us results in laziness and self-righteousness.

You ask with sarcasm in your voice like any good evangelical would, "So God isn't happy with me unless I'm a good person?" Yes. That's totally, absolutely true. And He loved you enough to give you every opportunity and every resource needed to be that good person He desires, even though you don't deserve it. It's through faith in Jesus, who paid your gigantic spiritual credit card debt with His blood and through the Holy Spirit who is like your heavenly administrative assistant, that YOU, by living a life of increasing surrender and obedience, can put a smile on God's face. That's grace. He makes the way, so we can walk in it. Those who say "stop trying to please God with your life because He'll think you're trying to earn it" are wrong. They've misunderstood. If that's how you're operating, don't change your behavior (doing good things), change your attitude (from "God owes me" to "I owe God").

"What if I can't change?" you might ask. "What if it's too hard? What if I fail? What if I give myself a complex by trying to be something I'm not?" Remember, we're not earning God's love. Yes, that would suck if God would only love us if we were good and perfect. We would be doomed and without hope, heads drooped in continual despair. But he loves us, period. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. In sin and clawing out of it. He loves, loves, loves, always and forever (to quote a ballad about technology). Love does not equal happiness or approval. Love is what breaks a heart when a relationship is severed or a life is squandered. It's the fact that love remains in spite of wrong or evil or discipline that makes it hurt so good (to quote an 80's rock song). Dysfunction and mental illness come from thinking you can earn God's love from your actions, as if it will evaporate when you mess up. Health and life come from knowing that you have always been loved and always will be and that continually working to improve is the most beautiful expression of thankfulness you can offer your Father in Heaven.

So don't settle for who you are. Let the reality of being loved by God unsettle you into becoming who He wants you to be.

Now read these verses: Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:15, Psalm 18, Hebrews 9:13, John 14:24, Romans 5:6 and 8:29.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Gander Problem - Project Open Arms and OJM

Image courtesy of the Humboldt Arts Council in the
Morris Graves Museum of Art.
In the world of "wild or domesticated water birds of the family Anatidae" (thank you, American Heritage), the goose is the girl and the gander is the guy. From here we can easily surmise the meaning of the phrase, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander": if something falls into the category of ought or should for the woman, it's just as likely to be beneficial, highly suggested or mandatory for the male of the species. After some very in depth research, I discovered the phrase became popular in the propaganda materials of the fowl feminist movement of the mid-sixties, which brought about an equalizing of the roles of husbands and lady geese in the raising of goslings (true story). From there, the phrase has been borrowed and generalized by the American vernacular to bring attention to the case of the double-standard in any relationship, where one person is instructing another in what ought or should be done, without fairly including him or herself. It's in this more general sense that I've come to see a "Gander Problem" in the global church regarding the care of orphans.

To fully explain myself, let me talk about a commonly noted problem in the development sector at large for a few moments. In recent history, those who saw the paternalistic tendency of development partnerships (giving money to poor or undeveloped nations) offered stern warnings almost as soon as funding started to hit bombed-up Europe following the World Wars. Those with the economic, intellectual, and moral superiority to win wars supplied the resources and direction to the losers in a fatherly gesture of reconciliation and rebuilding. This was seen by some as egotistical, authoritarian, or "paternalistic" (if there were know-it-all fathers, then the recipients by default were children). And there was some legitimacy to these critics' observations, seen by the fact that many aid recipients were not heard or respected in terms of their needs and desires. The donors called the shots. This unfortunate reality, especially the relationship between the United States and Europe in the 1940's, was birthed from the same value womb that delivered institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, still the main drivers of global aid and economic restructuring today. Some would say the paternalistic model is still alive and well: those who know (the West) help those who don't (everybody else). This attitude has trickled down to even small players in the Western non-profit world, both globally and domestically, and into the general population.

This perspective is not totally off base, though. We the West are good at some things: we have technology, an entrepreneurial spirit and education. Our economic history and global influence lend some credibility to our super power status. Personally, I don't want to live anywhere else. I love America and we have some of the best-hearted, most generous people on the planet, but I'm also willing to admit that we're sometimes arrogant when we help others, thinking we know exactly what they need to do to "fix" themselves, while we seem fine to ignore or diminish our faults. I've had this very struggle myself working in Uganda. I've caught myself walking through fields or villages and thinking, sometimes out loud, "Man, if they'd only [BLANK], they would be so much better off," or "It's so simple, I can't believe they're not already [BLANK]..." and other lordly nonsense, which I'm sincerely trying to say less of. But am I really that great? Is my church perfect? Is my town a model of Christian citizenry in action? Is American culture without need of improvement?

If paternalism is the bad habit of development, hypocrisy is the debilitating addiction, and some of us are really strung out. It's a rush when I visit my friends in southern Uganda and teach and preach about God's "orphan justice mandate", working with all my energy to inspire and envision them to take seriously God's call to care for the least of these. It's a high to coordinate training and capacity-building that helps them flesh out this ethical obligation taking shape in their hearts. Seeing the churches in Ddwaniro, Kamengo and Kabakayla demonstrate both faith and deeds sends feelings of joy rushing through my veins like little else I've experienced. These are the benefits of this work and due to the real needs in the two-thirds world, we ought to continue to pursue such efforts with the extras of our wealth and feel good about doing it. However, my joy buzz has been killed by a nagging sense of hypocrisy, a "do what we say, not what we do" understanding of the reality back home. Many times, when I've slept in a pastor's house, where sometimes up to twelve orphans live with five or six biological children, I've asked, "Would anybody in the U.S. do this? Would I put myself out to this extent for the sake of providing needy children some semblance of a family?" In my experience, the answer is generally no to both questions. What's good for the Ugandan goose is a little extreme, and come on, mostly unrealistic for the U.S. gander, right?

Let's be fair to us ganders. The contexts are very different and developed nations have extensive welfare systems that generally meet the basic needs of the children in a way that is rarely available to even better off children in much of Africa and other two-thirds world nations. Clean water isn't so much of an issue, education is available even if not taken advantage of, and it's against the law for hospitals to not provide care in an emergency. Hunger may be more of an issue, but we have soup kitchens and meal plans. It's pretty rare to find street children in our cities these days. All of this is good. It's good that we have these systems in place (from a rescue perspective, at least). So aren't we better at caring for our vulnerable kids than anybody? Additionally, we have laws that make it difficult if not impossible to care for twelve orphans just because "God told me to." So what's the problem? As an United States citizen, aren't I way ahead of the game? Doesn't the fact that I pay taxes mean I already take care of the orphan? And sometimes I give a little to people who are willing to show the rest of the world how to be like us. Isn't that enough?

I would love to ask the more than 4,600 wards of the State of Michigan who have their proverbial fingers crisscrossed in knots that someone, some family, some where, might, just might think they're worth keeping around for more than a couple months. I just watched a video where a boy named Albert had to "sell" himself to prospective adoptive parents by saying things like "I like rollerblading" and "My favorite food is Chinese food" and "I just want a family to love me and adopt me and my sister and my brother so we can get out of the system". I wonder what his response would be. My personal answer is that if there are kids without homes, then no, it's not enough. The fact that the majority of the "Christians" in Michigan (nation?) aren't willing to take care of even one orphan reveals in us a frightening spiritual deficiency (there are 10,000 churches and 5,000 kids in MI). God help us if we exchange our obligation of personal obedience for a state run welfare system.

So here's the crux of our Gander Problem and what OJM, in support of Bethany Christian Services, is doing about it: as U.S. church representatives, we cannot in good conscious continue to challenge the international church to step-up and care for the orphans in their midst if we are unwilling to do the same. Orphan Justice Mission is based in Michigan, which has around 5,000 current waiting children in immediate need of families, which is the ultimate and primary need of any vulnerable child (not food and water). So, through an initiative called Project Open Arms, we are partnering with Bethany and various other agencies to inspire and inform people about the pressing need for adoptive and foster-care parents right here in our own state. We will promote Project Open Arms through our various media channels and through our speaking engagements as we have opportunity. And we are currently working on a volunteer-run awareness campaign, which we would love your help with.

The idea is to inform and challenge. Most Michigan residents are unaware that the cost to adopt one of these children in most cases is less than $200 out of pocket, since the State subsidizes the application process. There are also tax-write offs and other assistance options available, so the financial barrier is minimal (and yes, I'm aware of the ongoing parental provision in that statement). What is left to overcome is the "inconvenience" factor, to which my first thought goes something like, "the cross wasn't very convenient for Jesus, either, was it?", but then I tell myself not to be so sarcastic and self-righteous (I am currently a recovering gander). Yes, taking a child, especially an older one, is something that ought to be well thought out. It could go badly. It could cause heartache, and I have personal friends who could testify to that reality. It could also be the best thing you've ever done in your life. It could allow Jesus to grab you by the shoulders and look you straight in the eyes someday and say with a straight face, "well done" and "thank you". It could mean American-Dream-colored scales falling from your eyes so you can see clearly what makes life worth living: love. For me, it's going to mean loss of that sense of religious hypocrisy and an embracing of the example of my Ugandan friends. That's going to feel good. Goose and gander, in harmony again.

This has been a long introduction to our partnership with Bethany and Project Open Arms. Thanks for getting to the end, but I'll warn you: this is only the beginning. We're praying for you, for us and the whole State of Michigan and especially our orphans.

Stay tuned for more posts and updates in the future as we share ways that you can help. For now, please visit our Project Open Arms page, which links to several other Michigan adoption resource sites. And please pray about what God is asking you to do to make sure every one of our Michigan orphans has a home.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good Siblings

Adelaide, Evie and Dad
My wife recently had a bout of mom-guilt due to what she thought was an overreaction to our eldest daughter's behavior, which had been quite trying one day recently. Adelaide is a sweet, compassionate little girl, but on this particular day, beginning shortly after her emergence from bed, her attitude went sour. She was repeatedly disobedient, especially in the way she was speaking to those around her. She had an episode with a neighbor girl where she said some hurtful things, a few cases of "talking back", and then, just as the day was ending, an outburst directed at her three year old sister, Evie. As the two were playing, Evie moved a book that Adelaide had directed one of her dolls to "read" and this unauthorized interruption of pretend education caused her to harshly blurt out, "Evie! You are such a pest!" My wife, hearing this from the neighboring bedroom, had enough.  She burst into the room, voice raised and finger wagging. Nothing cruel or diminutive was said to Adelaide, but Nikki made it abundantly clear that in the Douglass house, we love one another, we don't belittle with our words and comments like hers would not be tolerated. Adelaide got the message, as evidenced by tears, and obediently apologized to her sister.

Looking back on the situation, Nikki felt bad because she worried that her reaction was too strong. An older sister calling a younger sister a pest isn't that uncommon, and there are far worse interactions between siblings. But behind Nikki's anger was the awareness that words are powerful and can damage, resulting in empathy for a child whose feelings were hurt and disappointment in another for doing the hurting. In addition to frustration, there was a little meanness in the tone of Adelaide's statement, and Nikki rightly wanted to root even that small kernel of cruelty out for fear that it might take up more permanent residence in her heart. My counsel to my wife was that she had done nothing wrong and that strong reactions to sin are for our kids' benefit. This is in fact, the example we have from our heavenly Father, exemplified here in Jeremiah 5:23, 25-29 (HCSB, emphasis mine):
But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts.
They have turned aside and have gone away...
Your sins have withheld My bounty from you,
for wicked men live among My people.
They watch like fowlers lying in wait.
They set a trap;
they catch men.
Like a cage full of birds,
so their houses are full of deceit.
Therefore they have grown powerful and rich.
They have become fat and sleek.
They have also excelled in evil matters.
They have not taken up cases,
such as the case of orphans, so they might prosper,

and they have not defended the rights of the needy.
Should I not punish them for these things?
God was tired of watching his own children treat each other cruelly, living selfishly and in disobedience and His tone is angry and exasperated. He is at His wit's end seeing those who are rich neglecting those who are poor, such as when an older sibling refuses to treat a younger, more vulnerable sibling with the care and respect of family. Through the prophet, He unleashes the chastisement of an indignant heavenly Father, warning that His wrath is not far behind if correction is not heeded.

Reading this passage, I can't help but reflect on my role as a "sibling" in the family of God. I know that I'm rich. I have a home, two cars and a motorcycle, a few investments, numerous modern conveniences and more techno toys than my time allows me to fully maximize. I have more food than is healthy for me on a daily basis and I'm highly educated with no fear of medical treatment, police protection or property rights being unaccessible. God calls that "fat and sleek" and though I honestly wouldn't count myself as a wicked man, "full of deceit and excelling in evil matters", I do wonder whether or not I've truly taken up the case of orphans, my little brothers and sisters in Christ, that they might prosper. My role as Executive Director of Orphan Justice Mission is no free pass; I must continually grow in my personal commitment to orphans in the family of God, not just in preventing myself from doing evil to them, but in learning to do good, so they might prosper (Isaiah 1:17-18).

Orphans in Africa can seem very far away from us here in America (and thus ignorable), but in today's world they aren't. It takes some effort, sure, but we are fully capable of assisting those in with dire need like never before, wherever they are found. If we don't, I worry that what God passed on through Jeremiah to Israel might be applied to us, that like my wife with our girls, His heart would be broken (and angered) to see His children behaving so poorly. I invite you, with me, to heed our Father's instruction, apologize for our negligence and start loving our little orphaned brothers and sisters as we ought. Supporting Orphan Justice Mission is a great place to start.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Encounter Retreat 2010 - What's My Prayer Life Like?

This question (what's my prayer life like) doesn't surprise me. I think it's a part of a cadre of curiosities that crop up around anybody who takes the pulpit. Whenever I listen to a speaker or preacher who has the hubris to tell other people how to live their lives or seek God, I'm always thinking, "Is this dude legit? Does he practice what he's preaching?" I'm not saying that all preachers are arrogant, but we do need a certain confidence in ourselves that we have something to say and the righteousness to be qualified to teach others. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul states, "Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified." And we know that one of the big problems in the church today (well, okay, since always) is the hypocrisy of the priesthood. It's always been a challenge for men who are called to lead others by example in pursuit of God to stay on course, especially in a discipline like prayer, which is less open to public view. It's not hard for a preacher who is telling others to hit their knees and to find he hasn't been on his in awhile.

Every preacher has to wrestle with the difficulty of presenting God's instruction to others knowing full well that he falls short himself. I had to deal with it very early on. I don't deal well with hypocrisy, especially in my own life, which was one of the reasons I left the youth ministry several years ago. I had not yet matured to the point where I felt I could consistently tell my kids to read their Bible everyday, PRAY, serve, etc., because I didn't feel I was doing them well. And speaking about living for God is a lot different than actually doing the living, so my position as a youth pastor was little comfort. Now, a part of my scenario was my own idealistic (might we say legalistic?) view of a disciplined Christian life (up at 4:30am to pray for an hour, feed the chickens with the other monks at 5:30, read the LXX from 6 to 8, go to work, worship over lunch, make beeswax candles in the afternoon and chant yourself to sleep). I was told and shown over the years that Christians pray everyday and read their Bible constantly. Those were the biggies, but what was hard for me, and always left me feeling guilty, was that I wasn't that disciplined. I couldn't pray all day every day. I got bored. I eventually realized that my struggle with those things was that my primary motivation for doing them was a sense of obligation. It wasn't that I really wanted to know God, it was just what Christians, especially youth pastors, did. It was not until I started to let go of some of my legalistic inward motivations and let my Bible study and prayer disciplines be shaped by my actual life circumstances that they became truly meaningful excercises in my life.

A word of caution here. There's much to be said for discipline, which we all know isn't usually very fun. We may not feel like praying or reading our Bible every moment or even when we know it's what we ought to be doing, but maybe we should anyway. I'm not suggesting that we should be wholly driven by feelings. As my buddy Dietrich B. has said, it's often the faith that follows obedience, not the other way around. But you may need to step away from rigid empty habits for a time in order to rediscover the romantic, organic dependence on the Spirit of God that lets you have true moments of intimacy with Him through reading your Bible or praying.

So, all that to say that my prayer life, in one word, is "improving". Prayer for me, apart from a sometimes guilt-induced exercise, has just been hard even when I approach it with a sincere heart. I grew up hearing that prayer is "just like talking with a friend". Yeah, maybe a mute friend who you only get to talk with on the phone. God seemed strangely quiet to me most of the time and our "conversations" felt like one way affairs. If you're one of those people who "hear" from God, I'm skeptical/jealous. I've asked God many, many times since I was very young to speak to me. Not fuzzy feeling, wake-up-from-a-good-night's-rest-and-have-a-hunch kind of speak; not the conglomeration-of-all-my-godly-friends'-opinions kind of speak, but "Hi, Kyle, I'm Yahweh. Now, about that career path you were considering..." kind of speak. So far, He hasn't taken me out to coffee. This expectation, however, produced a lot of frustration and even doubt in my heart. Is God really there? Is He being rude? Say something, Lord!

I've gotten past this expectation of prayer for various reasons, and it has greatly improved my prayer life. First, I've been helped by the fact that, when I look at the people God speaks to, I realize I don't hold a candle to them. Sure, they were all sinners like me, no one is righteous, not one, blah blah. But most of the folks that get to hear the voice of God were sold out mommas and papas who demonstrated crazy faithfulness and holiness. Not that they didn't mess up, but they purusued God hard. I confess I haven't put forth that kind of effort. Have I stayed up all night long, meditating on God's law and crying out to be saved from my enemies like David? Nope. Have I been exiled to Babylon and decided to eat brocoli the rest of my life and disobey a directive of the King to pray to him only at the risk of my life like Daniel? Nope. Have I wondered around Asia minor getting pummeled in every way imaginable just to share the Good News with pagans like Paul? Nope. So step one was realizing that I'm no spiritual giant and that if the fault is anyone's, it's mine. Yet, these scriptural examples of godly men of prayer inspire me and teach me and maybe someday I'll get there (God didn't speak to many young guys, btw). Secondly, human effort aside (and I would say that accounts for maybe 10% of the problem), God's will is mysterious and He shows mercy and favor to whom He will. He has not yet found it necessary to speak to me directly and He may never. I'm okay with that. My job then, is to try and overcome my spiritual laziness and pursue God through prayer in ever increasing measure. I don't expect God to speak to me anymore, I simply talk to Him and know He's listening and I'm okay with that. The other angle on this is that God sometimes speaks to those on whom He's about to put the smack down, so we ought to be careful what we wish for.

I haven't heard God speak much, but I've seen Him answer numerous prayers in my life. My wife, my kids, my job decisions are all things I've prayed over and He's blessed me. Some things I haven't gotten, but that's okay. I see in the overall framework of my life that God is guarding me, leading me, shaping me. I rejoice when my request lines up with what He knows is best for me and grants it. Many of the prayers He's answered have been weak ones, too. Ones I've just sort of thrown up, too weak to really put any umph behind them, which has reminded me that it's not by my effort but by His amazing power that His will is accomplished.

So, nuts and bolts: In reference to my description of "improving" above, I'm finding myself praying more and more and with more faith as I take more opportunities to voice my thoughts to God. I don't have specific prayer time in my day; I pray sporadically as things come to mind, in all sorts of places and at various times. Driving, mowing the lawn, reading the Bible, waiting for a download to complete or reading a friend's email are all times when I might feel the need to pray. My most thorough prayers are with friends, though. Whether at church or in a Bible study or sitting in the living room talking about life, I love those times of prayer most, when we together move some sound waves in God's direction. I pray with my kids at meals, bedtime and at other random times, too. I want them to know how to pray more than a bedtime Jesus poem. Nikki and I pray, but not as consistently as we'd like (that's definitely something to work on).

Another thing I've found really helpful is to pray scripture. If you're struggling to know how or what to pray, open your Bible to the Psalms (though many other passages work well, too) and read a couple verses and decide in your heart that the Psalmist's prayer or praise is yours, too. I've found that to be a great way to prime the pump.

That's my prayer life. I make no pretense that I'm a prayer warrior. I've often felt it was the weakest part of my spiritual walk. If I preach it hard, I'm likely telling myself to get with it as much as anybody else, trying not to get disqualified. But I can tell you from personal experience, without an ounce of hypocrisy, that if you give God an inch in your life through prayer, He'll take a mile. Imagine how far we would go if we truly learned to pray without ceasing.