prayer

Expectation and Entitlement: Basically a Ton of Questions and No Answers

I grew up believing in a God who bestowed favor on his children in all kinds of tangible ways. When I snagged the last pair of shoes that just happened to be in my size and, surprise, they were on sale…divine favor. When the vending machine accidentally dropped two bags of chips instead of one…divine favor. When the closest parking space to the door became available just as we pulled up…divine favor.

We prayed big prayers with loud voices. We lifted our hands and we claimed the “promises of God,” whatever we thought that looked like in a given situation. We were bold in our requests and confident in the outcome. We cursed the devil and all of his works, from cancer to witchcraft to democrats.

We were like horsemen, using prayer to direct a mighty power, the way the rider uses reins to tell his horse which way to turn. 

In college I discovered theology for the first time. I learned about different forms of biblical interpretation and different faith traditions, and I started probing into the “why” behind what I believed and how I expressed it. Along with many other things I questioned, I started to feel like there was something pretty arrogant about telling God what you’d like him to do and how you’d like him to do it. 

If the favor of God* was evidenced by material gain, physical comfort, or what many would deem “good luck,” what did that mean for the mother trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to provide for her children and hopeless to find a way out? Or for the child who was abused while the world looked the other way? Or for the man who was shot and killed because the color of his skin sparked fear in the heart of someone more powerful? I could not accept that God was answering my prayers and showing favor by arranging a convenient parking space while another woman died from a lack of clean water. 

The result was that over time my prayers became more vague. Now I pray for peace. I pray for God’s presence. I pray for direction. I pray for the faith to trust in God’s provision. I rarely ask for anything specific. This is partly from the theological conviction that we are not God’s puppetmasters, but if I’m honest, it might also partly be to protect myself from his silence. If I pray “God, please help my husband find a higher-paying job,” I am set up for disappointment if it doesn’t happen. If I pray, “God please be with me,” I am guaranteed a positive answer. God is always with us. Crisis of faith avoided.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am living through a season of tremendous uncertainty. Every plan I had for the future and everything I thought I knew about the shape my life would take has changed. In about 4 months I will become a mother. On a very practical level, I do not know yet how we will provide for our child financially, what our childcare situation will be like, how my mental health will be impacted postpartum, or how long we will be in Hong Kong. These are concrete questions that need concrete answers. But I find myself unable to ask God for any of these things. I haven’t prayed for a higher salary or that I wouldn’t get postpartum depression. I’ve just prayed for “provision” and “peace.”

Is it a theological issue of believing it is wrong to pray for the things I want? Or is it that I no longer believe in God’s ability to impact real-world scenarios? Do I pray in big-picture terms for God’s provision because it isn’t my place to try to dictate how God should provide? Or is it because I don’t believe he is powerful enough or interested enough to change my circumstances? Do I dare ask God to provide a way for me to stay home with my baby and still save money for our eventual move home? Is that an arrogant request in the face of a world with so much real need and real suffering? Or is it holy boldness? The kind that gave Peter the confidence to say to the lame man, “Stand and walk” ?

Can I ask God for something and believe wholeheartedly that he can make it happen without believing he should make it happen? And if so, how do I ask with expectation-with hope–but without entitlement? ________________________________________________________________________________

*I wrote a post a long time ago now about how my understanding of divine favor has changed. You can read it here.

 

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Thankful Thursdays Guest Post: I Choose Life

Today’s Thankful Thursday post comes from Crystal Tripp, a woman whose inner grace and humility seems to shine through everything she writes. I am honored to share this lovely reflection on what it means to choose gratitude.

I Choose Life

The obligatory Sunday visits completed-cards have been opened, gushed over, and filed away for safe-keeping. The flowers have withered. Another Mother’s Day has come and gone. Before long, the grills will be fired up & the ties will be retired to the back of the closet after their one time mandatory display around the necks of our fathers. Father’s Day will soon be a memory. These rituals play out in most homes across America and love is expressed whether true or feigned. I personally do not particularly care for these Sunday ceremonies as I believe the two people given the designation of my mother and father have long since let me down. As He is faithful to do, while typing that hostile statement, my heavenly Father speaks to me in that ever-present, still, small voice – reminding me that He has provided. I have not been forgotten.

I often fall into the trap of discontent, thus allowing the seeds of bitterness to sprout which subsequently leads to a failure to live – essentially death. I am frequently reminded, like so many other things, gratitude is a choice. This choice (that I have to make on a minute-by-minute basis) has nothing to do with my biological parents (or anyone else for that matter) or even my particular life situation…it’s about me! In the middle of a seemingly ordinary life filled with mountains and valleys, I choose gratitude. I have countless things to be thankful for, too numerous to discuss here but in this season where moms & dads are celebrated, I choose to honor those men and women God placed in my life that have love for me beyond my comprehension. I know that my omniscient Creator hand-picked all of these people (including my biological parents) just for me – each with a unique purpose like a tapestry with bright and dark colors included to create the most beautiful picture. I am grateful that His thoughts are not my thoughts because I don’t always know or understand His plan.

Father, I know so many times I come to You with an obnoxious list of wants & desires. I dare not say needs because I know You have already provided for my every need. Forgive me for failing to always realize that You are the Provider and You have not forgotten this child despite my ever-wandering heart. As Your word says, Your grace is sufficient for me. Lord, You have gifted me with a multitude of mothers and fathers in my life – most of whom would willingly take me in as their own. These dear hearts often don’t understand the choices I make, but they love me just the same. These beautiful men and women have mirrored the love of Christ – accepted and even forgiven my faults, cheered me on during personal struggles, demonstrating love for me that cannot be denied. Some are young and some are old. I am grateful for all of these-some have shared their parents with me, never fearing that the love shown for me would detract from their own supply; the many who have served as mentors when I was wandering; and the few that have allowed me to perform some of these same duties for them. Father, I thank You that all of these people have taught me Your promises, corrected me when I erred, encouraged me when I hurt, & demonstrated for me what it means to love. There are specific memories I’d like to thank You for – I’m sure I will fail to mention them all but Father, please know, I am grateful for Your divine hand of care. I can still remember sitting on the front porch with the two ‘seasoned’ ladies next door as a small child. Never once did they grow tired of my presence and endless questions or ask why I wasn’t playing with children my own age – they frequently allowed me to pick the blooms from the flowers they had nurtured for years. They accepted those plundered petals as if they weren’t treasures that belonged to them anyway. My heart warms as I remember their kind eyes and the comfort of their pats on the head. Once again, Lord, I thank You for them. You also provided me with a priceless 4th grade teacher – she never questioned why I arrived at school at such an early hour and was always glued to her side. She bought all the useless items I was trying to sell and placed them on her shelf as if they were her most prized possessions. I don’t know if she was aware of the life-long impact she would have on my heart – now she is with You and I can’t tell her myself. Will you tell her for me? I have precious friends and their dear parents – essentially relatives who in a world of ‘trying to be good enough’ & feeling ‘the need to explain’ give a quiet acceptance, never expecting anything in return. Lord, I thank You for their hearts and am grateful that DNA is not the only way to be a family. I will never be able to adequately express the gratitude I feel for those who love me so I’d just like to say thank You-Your grace is unspeakable. Amen

Wisdom has taught me that a life without gratitude is not worth living. That isn’t to say I am thankful for every situation and never express sadness or fear but focusing on my blessings allows me to keep it in perspective. I choose gratitude…I choose life.

And from His fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace. John 1:16 ESV

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

– Thornton Wilder

About the Author: I’m a simple woman leading a complicated life but am maintained by the unspeakable grace of a loving God as I struggle to care for an aging ad difficult mother..  I have found that He is teaching me profound lessons through ordinary, everyday things.  In addition to my love for writing, I enjoy reading, gardening, & Cardinals’ baseball (GO CARDS!) When I can find the time for it I blog over at diamondonashelf.wordpress.com

On Prayer, Lost and Found

I once believed that ancient, corporate prayers were for those of shallow faith. I thought that written prayers were a cop-out for those too lazy or uncreative to pray on their own. At best, they were the training wheels of prayer—the “Now I lay me down to sleep,” prayers we were meant to outgrow as our faith deepened and swelled into something vibrantly alive. At worst, they were an indication of a faith that was not your own. A faith you’d borrowed from those who came before you. A faith you claimed because it was comfortable and required little of you.

In the church I grew up in, we often prayed out loud, everyone at the same time, a clamor of voices crying out to God together, but individually. It was a charismatic gathering where people prayed in tongues which we were taught to view as private prayer languages between a person’s spirit and God. Every prayer language was different, unique, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in that person.

While I no longer hold to the faith of my childhood, I have no wish to disparage these people or their undoubtedly earnest prayers. I simply reject the accompanying belief that prayer must be original to be sincere. As if a hundred “Father God, we just ask that you just…” ‘s were more authentic than St. Augustine’s prayer, “Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy,” simply by virtue of their spontaneity.

How can these old words spoken and written by people whose bodies withered away before you were even thought of accurately represent what you need to say to God today?  I once asked with scorn. And now, in this season, those ancient words have come to stand in the gap for me.

How strange, to turn from a faith where prayer was a private language of syllables that spoke from my heart straight to God’s ear, to a faith where prayer is grounded in the repetition of words set out for me by men and women who lived long before I, or my mother, or my grandmother or her grandmother, had taken our first breaths on this earth.

I am not alone in this. Many of my generation who were raised in evangelical traditions are turning now towards more liturgical gatherings. Anglican and Episcopalian churches are filling with those who long for a sense of rootedness they felt they lacked in the churches of their parents. Some have moved away from Protestantism altogether and have embraced the Orthodox or the Roman Catholic church.

I don’t know what I am right now. I don’t know that I’m evangelical and I don’t know that I’m not. In some ways living overseas has exempted me from making that decision. My local church community is a house church made up of people from various traditions and there is no label on our gathering.

What I know is this – at some point I lost prayer. I ran out of words or out of the will to form new ones. And it has been the prayers of the saints, past and present, that have given me the words I couldn’t find on my own. These words have an integrity that is entirely independent of me. These words are pillars that stand even when my faith feels frail and brittle.

I pray the words of St. Francis or of St. Benedict,  of Mary’s “Magnificat” or Anne Lamott’s “Help. Thanks. Wow.” and I find myself standing in the presence of God once again, on the shoulders of those who stood here before me.

 Image Credit: John E Lamper on Flickr.

How I Am Fundamentally Incapable of Making Decisions

This past weekend Jonathan and I took a mini-vacation up to Asheville, NC. We had never been to Asheville before, but had been talking about going for a while. About a month ago I sneakily researched and booked a cabin in the mountains a few miles north of Asheville. Then I sneakily requested time off for Friday afternoon and I sneakily packed all of our things. I got home around lunchtime on Friday and told Jonathan we were taking a trip! I was a little nervous about the cabin since I’d seen pictures of it on the internet, but obviously had never been there. Pictures can be deceiving. But it was absolutely lovely! See!

Welcome to Chestnut Cabin

The cabin was built in the early 1900’s, but the inside was fully renovated and there was a stocked kitchen and two little bedrooms and a nice living room where we could watch movies and everything. And the best part of all…our own giant hot tub in the back yard! It was the perfect location. It only took 5 minutes to get to a grocery store and 20 minutes to get to downtown Asheville, but the cabin was very secluded and quiet and peaceful. We had two gloriously bright and beautiful days and nights clear enough to see more stars than we’ve seen in a long time. Also the planet Mars. : )

This is the view from behind the house if you are standing up on the deck where the hot tub is.

We hung out in downtown Asheville on Saturday. It is a really unique city. Most cities you visit have some unique qualities, but more or less the same feel to them, but I can honestly say that Asheville is different. I have never seen so many hipsters in one place. It’s a small city, but there were street musicians everywhere, some sort of protest against nuclear power plants going on in a little park (after which the protesters marched single file through town silently except for a few people who were banging on pots or drums. I am positive that at least half of them had absolutely no idea why they were there), and people openly passing joints back and forth while waiting to cross the street.  Asheville is one of those places where you feel obnoxiously preppy while wearing skinny jeans a plain blue sweater and Toms.

View from the front porch.

We had dinner Saturday night at this fantastic little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Nine Mile. I found it on Yelp and am so glad we picked it. It is in a really weird location in the middle of this historic neighborhood where the houses are old and enormous, but pretty run-down. You’re just driving down the street through this neighborhood and then there is randomly this one building on the residential street that has a little corner grocery store and this restaurant in it. It’s an interesting little restaurant, long and very narrow, with a purple tin ceiling and old wood floors. The atmosphere was great, pretty intimate and nice, but not fancy, and the food, which is Caribbean-inspired, was delicious! Jonathan had jerk chicken with a creamy mango-y sauce and veggies and I had mahi mahi with a banana mango relish over linguine with peppers and a coconut cream sauce. AMAZING.

OK, one more picture and then good-by cabin. 😦

Over the weekend we also had a lot of time for talking. We talked through (and over and around) lots of possibilities concerning me going to grad school. I got accepted to NC State to do a Master’s in cultural anthropology. It’s a two-year program, but it’s not funded (at least for the first year) And I would only be able to work part-time while going to school. Which means cutting my income at least in half and also taking out a loan to cover tuition which would be adding to a decent amount of student loans I already have from Wheaton. I was also still waiting to hear from Ohio State regarding an MA/PhD program I had applied to there and had some positive interactions with a professor in the program who seemed very interested in working with me.

After talking about all of the options for a while we landed on a possible solution to the dilemma of wanting to go to school and wanting to be able to afford it. We decided that if I got into Ohio State I could look into the possibility of deferring for a year and we could spend this next year working and saving as much as possible. That way we could enjoy another year in Raleigh (which we love), but still have a concrete plan for what we were doing next and something for me to really look forward to. Because the program is an MA/PhD I felt comfortable deferring for a year because after I was in I’d be in for good and wouldn’t have to worry about applying to PhD’s etc. And Jonathan felt good about this plan because he could continue to apply to Ohio State’s MFA program (the entire time I was doing my degree if necessary) because it is one of his favorite programs.  And we both felt good about this plan because if our present income remains steady we should be able to save a little every month barring a huge crisis.

We thought, “We are geniuses! This is perfect plan” (at least, that’s what I thought.) We (I) started making all kinds of plans. I found a little house for us to rent next year that costs barely more than our apartment. I started planning a trip to visit Jonathan’s brother in South Africa next summer (where he is not yet 100% certain he will be.) Also potential side-trips from that trip (you know, long layovers in Europe, that kind of thing.) And also a mission trip this year to either Uganda or Romania (effectively spending all of the money we’d be “saving” during that year, I know.) I felt happy and peaceful and excited and thankful that God had finally given us an answer.

And then…we returned home. Away from the magical mountain cabin I discovered three forms of rejection from Ohio State waiting for me—one online and two hard copies, just in case I didn’t get it the first time….they really, really don’t want me.

I was beyond frustrated. Honestly, I am still really frustrated. I feel like all I want is to do the right thing—to pursue what I should pursue in a financially responsible way, and to be selfless in making sure whatever we decide doesn’t keep Jonathan from being able to pursue his goals as well. I mean…these are all good things. And yet, not matter which way I look at it, it seems like the sort of decision where somebody loses. Where something important is lost. If I don’t go to school I think I’ll regret it. If I go to school and it keeps Jonathan from being able to do what he wants, I’ll regret it. If I go to school and we end up tens of thousands of dollars further in debt, I will regret it. There just isn’t an easy solution. In fact, right now it feels like there isn’t a solution at all. And the days keep ticking by til April 15th, the day we have to officially make a decision. And I genuinely feel further away from a decision than I felt when we first started talking about it.

Last week in our community group we were discussing a sermon our pastor, Tyler had given about prayer and about Moses’s relationship with the Lord through prayer. The passage we focused on was from Exodus 33:12 where Moses says to the Lord, “You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you.'” As I have gone through this week of frustration…of thinking I’ve finally found an answer and then discovering that I haven’t got a clue… of honestly deep frustration with God over his lack of a clear answer, I have been really impacted by the thought that God knows me by name. He knows me intimately…what I’m good at and what my desires are, my hopes and my fears. And it occurs to me that maybe the prayer I should be praying is not, “God, what should I do with my life? Should I go to grad school or not? What is the right answer to this question?” but rather, “God, teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” And somehow learn to trust that the God who knows me by name really does know what’s best for me. That I don’t have to try so hard to figure it out on my own. Even when God doesn’t seem particularly interested in telling me which way to go. 🙂 Jonathan put it this way—that instead of praying for God to tell us what the right decision is, perhaps we should pray that God would change our hearts to be the kind of people who make right decisions because we are directed by the Holy Spirit.

I will be honest. I am not completely comforted by this. And I haven’t been able to completely stop myself from trying to figure out solutions. But I do think there is truth here. And I know that, more than anything else, I need God to show me His ways.