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.

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.

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.

Why Late Bloomers Rock

I recall a sunny afternoon in grade school when my friends were all discussing the churches they attended. “I’m a Presbyterian,” said one. “I’m Catholic,” said another. Eventually, it became awkwardly clear that I was the only one in the circle who had not declared a religious allegiance.

“So, what are you, Carrie?” one of them asked, because kids don’t know any better. I stared at the ground, my face growing red.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled.

“Huh? How can you  not know?” It was a legitimate question. I went home embarrassed and humiliated.

At dinner that night, I told my dad what had happened at school. “What should I tell them?” I asked.

“Just tell them you’re Methodist,” he said matter-of-factly. You know, because he went to a Methodist church when he was growing up. Problem solved.

I don’t blame my dad for giving me this advice. He was just trying to come up with a quick solution to a much deeper problem so that I could go to school the next day with something to say. But that day taught me something crucial about faith.

(c) Carrie Steckl

(c) Carrie Steckl

You can’t just say you’re something and then magically become that thing. You have to discover it, experience it, and live it in the most intimate way in order to really know who you are.

I was about ten years old when I conveniently told my friends I was a Methodist. But I didn’t even know I was a Christian. That didn’t happen until almost thirty years later.

How that happened is a story for another blog post (actually, several). But here’s what I want to say about finding Christ — really finding Him — when you’re well into adulthood:

Late bloomers rock.

Why? Because we feel like life is just starting at a time when many our age feel settled and stagnant. We see the possibilities of grace and service before us that we never knew had been available to us as children, teenagers, or young adults. We bring the perspective of hindsight to our faith, because we know how lost we were for so long, and what immense goodness God has brought to our lives compared to the spiritual confusion and despair we felt before.

You see, we want to make up for lost time. And that makes us very motivated.

And so, I hope you’ll join me on this journey to discover the wonder of Jesus Christ and how He makes everything better. As a late bloomer, I am the furthest thing from an expert (don’t let that Dr. in front of my name fool you). This is a learning, growing experience that I hope will serve as nourishment for others who are also celebrating God’s immeasurable gifts.

Oh, and one more thing. I attend a Lutheran church, not Methodist. I hope my friends from long ago will understand.