The Perfect Prayer

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (Romans 12:12)

On a cold, windy evening in Chicago, I was trudging home with two sackfuls of groceries in my arms. Things weren’t going well. I hadn’t lived there long, was lonely and unsettled, and felt the weight of past mistakes pulling down my hopes, self-esteem, and finances. It was the fall of 2009, and I had no idea where to turn.

My disillusionment kept me staring at the sidewalk as I headed toward my apartment. Stopping mid-step was the last thing I had planned to do. But something (and now I know it was Someone) caused me to halt.

As I stood there, impatient Chicagoans weaving around me, I slowly looked up to reorient myself. I was on the right street, but I was standing in front of a building I hadn’t noticed before.

It was a church.

How many times in the last six months had I walked by it and not seen it? And yet, something (Someone) made me stop in front of it that night.

(c) James Chan

(c) James Chan

It was dark out and getting kind of late, but there were lights on inside. Barely aware of my feet moving, I walked in, melting groceries and all.

A nice man in the lobby walked up to me. “Can I help you?”

I stammered a bit. “I don’t really know why I’m here. I saw the light on.”

He smiled. “We’re glad you came. Would you like to talk to someone or would you like to spend some time alone in the sanctuary?”

Solitude sounded good. He led me in and gave me some privacy. “Stay as long as you’d like,” he said.

I put my groceries down and sat. It was beautiful and peaceful. The feeling of serenity lasted about two minutes, and then perfectionism set in.

How do I pray? What am I supposed to say? There must be some structure or order to this that I don’t know. What if I don’t say the right things and He doesn’t hear me?

Feeling too embarrassed to ask the nice man for some tips, I decided to wing it.

I talked to God. And while I had felt like I needed to say a perfect prayer, what I did instead was be real with Him. And it turned out that being real was all He wanted.

Since then, I’ve prayed a lot. And although I love glorifying God through the precise, formal prayers we say in church, I’ve come to treasure the imperfect everyday prayers I lift up to Him in private. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

Prayer is about gratitude as much as, if not more so, than requests. It took me awhile to realize that prayer isn’t just a vehicle for asking God for help. That’s part of it, but it’s also about thanking Him for His infinite blessings. Interestingly, I’ve found that the more I thank Him, the less I feel I need to ask of Him. Whatever I’m worried about, I know that He has a loving, intentional plan for me. Knowing this helps me turn matters over to Him instead of trying to mold my life in ways that are beyond my own understanding.

Prayer is messy. I don’t ever know what I’m going to say, even if I think I do. And that’s okay. To me, it means that God is letting me know in the moment that He is listening and ready for me to go deeper. I pray at odd times and in unexpected places in addition to my daily time set aside just for prayer. Oftentimes, I think I’m done, only to say, “Oh yeah, and God? I forgot to tell you…” And that’s okay, too.

Prayer is authentic. If you can believe it, I used to try to hold it together when I prayed. I thought that if I was upset or lost my composure, I would be letting down God. That’s how warped my thinking had become from worldly pressures and societal expectations. But over time, I learned that God wants me to show Him exactly how I am in that moment — no sugar-coating allowed. And so, I’ve prayed while holding my head in my hands, crying. I’ve yelled. I’ve sobbed to the point of an inarticulate garble that any human would be unable to decipher. But God knew exactly what I was saying. I’ve often finished a prayer and then thought, “Did I really just say that?” Yep, I did. And best of all, I said it to the One who is completely, infinitely trustworthy with my worst demons.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (Colossians 4:2)

As a late bloomer, it took me awhile to learn that there’s no such thing as the perfect prayer. But we are perfect in His eyes, and He loves to hear from us — even when it’s really messy. In these imperfect everyday words with God, when we are watchful as well as thankful, the power of prayer is illuminated to us in ways we never could have imagined.

On CEOs and the Nudging of God

“What are you, a CEO?” my friend smirked.

“A what?” I asked, feeling a bit vulnerable from her tone.

“Christmas and Easter Only,” she explained. “I never see you go to church, and now here you are in your Easter best. What a joke!”

Take a trip with me back to 1992, when I was a senior in college. It had been a wonderful, difficult, fun-loving, tumultuous year. I was going to graduate in a few months, and Easter was upon us. On a whim, I decided to attend an Easter service.

(c) Bartek Ambrozik

(c) Bartek Ambrozik

This wouldn’t have been a big deal if I had attended church growing up, but the truth was that I was 21 years old and had never attended an Easter service before. Ever. And so, I decided to take a risk.

Why was such a seemingly benign activity a risk? Because — while my college friends may not have guessed this — I was deeply insecure about entering situations in which I was a novice. I was never exposed to the idea that my significance came from God’s love for me, so I had come to believe that my self-worth depended on my performance and the approval of others. And so, placing myself in an unfamiliar environment — church on Easter Sunday — provoked extreme anxiety.

But I went. And I loved it. I recall my heart feeling full as I walked from the church to the student center for lunch. I was still in my “Easter best.”

And that’s when my friend called me a CEO.

I love this friend; I am still in touch with her, and I forgive her for saying these things. But I can’t deny the damage those words incurred.

Sure, the feelings of inadequacy, of being a fake, of being unworthy of going to church because I hadn’t made a habit of it, of the whole idea being a big mistake — these were all painful and lingering. But the greatest damage that was done was revealed in my response: I didn’t go back to church the next week.

Looking back, this deeply saddens me. I hadn’t really chosen to attend Easter services on a whim — God had nudged me, and although initially I listened and acted upon His nudge, I ultimately ignored Him in the face of ridicule. At that time, I was so susceptible to the opinions of others that I deferred the most important relationship of my life — my relationship with God.

Now, as a late bloomer to Christ, I can’t help but think about those who might be going to their very first Easter service this Sunday. It might be easy to look at them and think about their unfamiliar faces, or how perhaps the only other time we’ve seen them was at services during Christmas.

It might be tempting to think of them as CEOs and shake our heads.

But because I’ve been on the receiving side of this assumption, I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about people who might fit this description.

Each of these people has been nudged by God in some way, and that is something to praise and celebrate. Those discovering Christ have to start somewhere. What better time than Holy Week? I choose to see the good in their participation and will make a conscious effort to welcome and encourage new faces instead of assume their attendance is fleeting or ceremonial. The last thing I want to do is crush their enthusiasm and hope as mine was shamed long ago.

The way God nudges people continues to humble and amaze me. His knack for meeting people where they are, at the perfect place and time, is unrivaled. I pray that those who are nudged to attend Easter services this Sunday receive the kindness and nurturing they need to deepen their relationship with Christ throughout the coming year.

On Lent and Going Deeper

As a late bloomer, this is the first year I’ve actively participated in the season of Lent. Before then, I simply knew that some of my friends would give up a vice — caffeine, sweets, and alcohol were the most common — for a tortuous 40 days.

“Why are they doing this?” I wondered. And yet, I didn’t ask because I was afraid of looking foolish or, worse yet, offending someone (after my cringe-worthy faux pas on a long-ago Ash Wednesday, my fear of offending was palpable).

I assumed the “giving up” was to evoke some kind of transformation. But I was confused when I saw people go right back to their vices when the Lenten season came to a close. What was transformed? I felt I was missing something.

(c) James Chan

(c) James Chan

Fortunately, I stumbled upon an eloquent article by the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America called Looking into the Mirror: A Lenten Reflection. Here, I learned that Lent is more about realigning our relationship with God than tackling a specific vice.

Sure, I could choose to deprive myself of a tangible item as a way of contemplating what I really needed versus what I simply wanted. But as a late bloomer, I felt I needed to go deeper.

The article explained that Lent entails reflection, repentance, and renewal. We must look into the mirror and face the demons that have been tormenting us and surrender them over to God.

And so — although I certainly could have used a 40-day hiatus from Oberweis ice cream — I opted to make a list of the events in my life that haunt me.

Things I’ve done. Things done to me. Things I’ve seen and participated in that I wish I could erase. Things in the past that still hold power over my sense of self-worth.

And then, I devoted myself to spending time each day praying about these things in the context of three forms of forgiveness.

I told God all about each thing that happened (even though He already knew, of course). Then, I repented for the role I played in each event and asked for forgiveness. I also prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill me with forgiveness for the people who hurt me, and asked that they be blessed. Finally, I prayed for the capacity to forgive myself and to surrender over to God any guilt and shame I had been harboring within my heart.

It hasn’t been easy (there’s a reason we avoid facing our demons; it’s painful) — and I’m not done yet. But it has been truly transformative. I feel closer to God than ever before, and the stunning gift of salvation through Christ has renewed my sense of purpose.

I have nothing against giving up a specific vice for Lent, and I may try that some day. But for me, a bit of God-searching helped me realize that this year, the real vice I needed to let go of was the past.

Don’t Be Afraid to Change

As I mentioned in my very first post, I didn’t truly find my faith until my late thirties. But that doesn’t mean it was a sudden epiphany.

Instead, it was gently tugging at me for years. Wondering, questioning, praying without a clear sense of why, wandering into churches on random Sundays but not returning, reading the “Great Thinkers” — these were all symptoms of the tugging of God.

But there was a stalwart barrier preventing me from letting God into my life.

It was fear.

I have not asked other late bloomers about this, but I know that my own journey to Christ was fraught with fears. Worldly fears, that is, because I didn’t understand that my significance was found in God, and God alone.

(c) mrpuen at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

(c) mrpuen at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here are the three primary fears that kept me from changing (my own unholy trinity):

Fear of having my intelligence questioned. We’ve all heard the stereotype that Christians are intellectually challenged because of what they believe. This speaks to the commonly held myth that religion and science are incompatible (but that’s a topic for another blog post).

Several years ago, I was close to someone who said that anyone who is a Christian must be “dumber than a box of rocks.” Because — at the time — I thought my sense of self-worth depended on this person’s approval of me, how could I tell him that I disagreed or that I was curious about Christianity?

I was reading Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ when the “box of rocks” theory was professed. I was so intimidated by the prospect of being called stupid that I stopped reading it after completing only three chapters (thanks be to God that now I am reading it in its entirety without fear).

Looking back, maybe this person was right about the “box of rocks” theory, just not in the way he intended. God is my Rock, and I would never claim to be as intelligent as Him!

Fear of rejection. This is common for anyone going through a transformation of some sort. We feel that our family and friends have come to expect us to be a certain way, and that is part of the reason they love and accept us. If we change, will they still love us? Or will they reject us because we don’t fit their idea anymore of who we should be?

Remember how I stopped reading The Case for Christ because I was afraid of being called stupid? I didn’t stop there. I was so fearful of being rejected that instead, I began reading Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion in order to fit a different mold.

I’m not saying we should never read an opposite perspective — it’s helpful and good for the brain to be aware of what others are thinking. But that’s not why I was reading Dawkin’s book. I was reading it out of fear.

Many years later, God taught me that the real delusion I had been harboring was the idea that I needed approval and acceptance from others in order to feel significant. The truth is that our real significance comes from God’s love for us. I also learned that family and friends who truly love a person will continue to love that person, even if they don’t agree with or understand the person’s newfound faith.

Fear of being called a hypocrite. As humans, we are quick to point fingers to the past as evidence that the way a person is now is a betrayal. “You used to be different.” “I remember when you (did or said something that undermines what you now believe).” “You’ve changed.”

It’s one thing to lie about who we are, but it’s quite another to sincerely mean something we say or do at one point in our lives and then grow and change over time into someone who wouldn’t say or do those things now.

And yet, when I found Christ and realized my life was dramatically changing, I feared being called a hypocrite for the inconsistencies that patterned my life over many years.

I think late bloomers are particularly vulnerable to this fear, because the more years you have behind you before finding your faith, the more surprising the transformation appears to others.

Here’s what the Holy Spirit has shown me: There’s no reason to be ashamed of the inconsistencies in your life, because they are part of your story. In fact, looking back at where you’ve been evokes praise and gratitude to God for where you are now.

If you’re a late bloomer, don’t deny where you’ve been. If you do, that would be hypocritical. Instead, embrace your past as part of your ministry to others.

This unholy trinity of fears kept me from changing for a long time. And so, if you’re feeling that tugging that I felt for many years but are afraid to risk changing, I encourage you to not be afraid. Instead, talk to people close to you who are Christian. Ask questions. Read. And most importantly, pray to God that you’d like to get to know Him better.

And then, be sure to listen.

Tolerance of the Intolerant

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of my Uncle Brian’s death. Given his love of wine and cheese, I enjoyed a glass of Cabernet with dinner in his honor. But more importantly, I reflected on the lesson he taught me about exercising tolerance of the intolerant.

You might be thinking that he taught me this because he modeled such tolerance himself. However, this was not the case.

In fact, Uncle Brian was one of the less tolerant people I’ve known. While his biases regarding how people spent their time and what they believed were certainly evident, perhaps it was his intolerance of ignorance (as defined by him) that he most fervently expressed.

Nurturing good qualities is like watering a struggling plant. (c) Flavio Takemoto

Nurturing good qualities is like watering a struggling plant.
(c) Flavio Takemoto

Not knowing something he considered important was considered a travesty. An accomplished chemistry professor, he felt that anyone who delved into the “soft sciences” like psychology, history, or philosophy was inferior. And so, as someone with a Ph.D. in psychology, I fit right smack into this inferior bunch. My choice to work in the non-profit sector instead of pursuing a prestigious tenure-track academic career made it even worse.

Needless to say, this intolerance created tension — within our family and within my uncle’s other relationships. It would have been easy to respond to him with my own intolerance for his harsh judgments.

And admittedly, I did sometimes — because, well, I’m human and I’m no better than anyone else on this journey. But when I found my faith, I realized that there was a glaringly simple solution to this struggle.

Jesus taught us to not judge, or we too will be judged (Matthew 7:1). In other words, if we meet another’s intolerance with our own, where does the vicious cycle end?

Another’s intolerance — toward us or someone else — presents an opportunity to practice the one command Christ asked us to follow: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:12).

How can we not? As humans, we have failed miserably in our tasks of glorifying God, caring for each other, and caring for the planet and creatures that He created.

And yet, He forgave us. How can we not pay this forward and forgive each other? How could I refuse to tolerate Uncle Brian’s shortcomings when Jesus has graciously and undeservedly forgiven mine?

The other lesson I see embedded in Christ’s command is to choose to see the good in each other. Isn’t that part of loving one another? And despite my uncle’s intolerance, he had boundless good within him.

He deeply loved his family. He was funny and smart. He cared about his friends and was a master of hospitality. He tended the most vibrant vegetable garden of any I’ve seen. He made a mean mint julep and rendered horse racing an exact science. He was sentimental. He felt deep emotions — including joy and regret — and knew on some level that he was flawed just like the people he judged, even though he couldn’t always admit it.

And because of all of these things — the good and the bad — he was human, just like the rest of us.

By choosing to focus on Uncle Brian’s good qualities, I nurtured tolerance for his intolerance.

It seems that when we do this, the good in others is nurtured also. Perhaps this is because when we pay attention to something, we water it like a struggling plant. And the things we choose to water will be the things that grow.

As my faith has deepened over time, so has my capacity to be tolerant of the intolerant. I’m not saying it isn’t hard. I’m human, and I certainly fail my share of the time.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

So thank you, Uncle Brian, for continuing to be a consummate teacher, even now. You taught me well.

On Deer, Demons, and Staying Thirsty

It was shaping up to be a pretty rough day. Not because of an illness, an accident, or other recognizable misfortune.

It was simply because of the demons that began haunting my mind.

“You’re not productive enough.”

“You haven’t reached your potential.”

“You’re such a disappointment.”

“You’re inadequate as a wife, as a writer, as a teacher.”

“As a person.”

Mind you, these words didn’t come from anyone else. My husband lovingly tells me the opposite of these declarations daily. My family loves and supports me. I have wonderful friends.

That’s why I call these intrusive thoughts demons. I know they are not true, but they try to take over my brain against my will, seemingly on a whim when they are wanting to stir up trouble.

We need to stay thirsty like the deer. (c) National Park Service

We need to stay thirsty like the deer.
(c) National Park Service

They say that Satan seeks to create division among us and between us and God. Maybe these thoughts are his minions at work.

And so, I had resigned myself to a rough day, because I had been there before. Distractedly, I poured myself a cup of coffee and gazed out the window.

That’s when I saw him.

A deer — a large buck with an impressive rack of antlers — was lying in the snow just beyond our fence. He looked peaceful…almost majestic. We often see deer wandering in the wooded lot out back, but this deer was special.

The words came out of my mouth before I had time to think about them. I spoke them out loud to an empty house:

“You’re so beautiful, and you don’t even know it.”

I remember wishing the deer could hear me. And then I suddenly realized that this precious sighting happened on purpose.

What I wanted the deer to know is what God wants us to know about ourselves.

We are all beautiful inside, but most of us don’t know it — at least, not all the time. We need to put our demons to rest and start trusting the truth of God’s Word about who we really are.

I couldn’t help but search His Word to explore why He might have used a deer to send me this crucial message right when I needed to hear it:

He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights. (Psalms 18:33)

That He did. It wasn’t going to be such a rough day after all. And when those demons come to haunt me again, I know exactly what I’ll do:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. (Psalms 42:1)

In this world full of criticisms and comparisons, we are so vulnerable to harsh self-judgments that make us feel ugly inside. But this is only what our demons want us to believe to draw us away from God and further into lies and despair.

But we are thirsty; we are panting for the truth. Blessedly, the truth is there for us to find.

And as I witnessed that morning, if we seek it, it finds us in the most unexpected places.

Ashes on Her Forehead, Egg on My Face

During Ash Wednesday worship last night, a memory fueled my appreciation for this holy day. But it’s not the kind of memory you might expect.

It happened 15 years ago, but I remember it vividly. The class was “Ecological Psychology” — one of the many pithy, arduous courses I took to earn my Ph.D. from Indiana University. Grinding through Year Three, I was spent.

Living on coffee and Cheez-Its, my brain seemed only to hold — and care about — information that would help me survive and succeed. And so, on that cool March evening when we gathered for class, the idea that anyone else there actually had a life was the furthest thing from my mind.

When Laurie (name changed) sat down, I saw a strange smudge on her forehead. It looked like perhaps she had gotten her face dirty somehow and didn’t realize it. Or, maybe it was a bruise from an injury. It was hard to tell. But hey, I thought I’d better inquire about it out of concern.

“What happened to your forehead?” I asked.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no…no, you didn’t, Carrie. Please say you didn’t.”

But I did.

Laurie’s eyes widened in an expression that seemed to be a hybrid of shock and irritation. “It’s Ash Wednesday!” she chided.

(c) Scott Air Force Base

(c) Scott Air Force Base

Feeling a wave of confusion and embarrassment wash over me, I had to think fast. “Oh! Of course. I’m sorry, Laurie — I’ve been so stressed out lately that I forgot what day it is.”

Her face softened a little, but not a lot. She looked at me differently after that night.

What I had done was bad enough, but the reason behind it was even worse. You see, although it might have seemed like I was just a stressed out, distracted graduate student, the truth went much deeper:

I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was.

Sure, I had seen it on the calendar. I had some vague notion that it was related to Easter somehow. But no one had ever explained it to me, I had never been exposed to it, and — regrettably — I had never asked. Keep in mind, I was 28 years old when this happened.

You don’t know what you don’t know. I have ached over this truth ever since discovering Christ because if I had known what I didn’t know, I surely would have asked. But we can’t agonize over how things could have been.

Looking back, graduate school was a blinding experience because I lived within an academic culture that taught that one’s significance was found in the prestige that came from earning a Ph.D. at a top research university, presenting among esteemed colleagues in the field, and publishing scientific articles in impressive journals.

In other words, we were taught to find our self-worth through our professional accomplishments and the approval of others who were deemed “important.”

Admittedly, I was seduced by this idea and, for awhile, I participated in it. And so I never sought to find out what I didn’t know about Christ.

No wonder I never asked about Ash Wednesday. I hadn’t a clue that the smudge I saw was a cross, or that the truth it represented was about repentance and renewal.

Now, through a great deal of God-searching (as opposed to soul-searching, which seems to focus too much on the self and not enough on our Creator), I’ve discovered that my significance doesn’t come from worldly things like what’s on my resume or who approves of me according to their own definitions of success.

Instead, my significance comes from the truth that God loves me, that I am His child, and that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

Knowing this has made all the difference. It has transformed my life and continues to do so every day.

And so, as a late bloomer, I participated in Ash Wednesday worship with the memory of Laurie close by. I smiled when I realized that perhaps we both had strange smudges on our foreheads last night.

If I ever see her again, I will tell her that ashes on my forehead feel a lot nicer than egg on my face.

I have a feeling that she would smile too.