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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Will God forget to bless us?

If God is merciful, why do we pray?  Psalm 86:15 says, “1But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”  Later in Isaiah 49:14-15 when the Israelites lament that God has forgotten them, he reassures them: 14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,  the Lord has forgotten me.”  15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”  If God will not forget to show us compassion, then why do we have to intercede in prayer for ourselves and others?  Can we change his mind if he was not initially planning to be compassionate?

Can we change God’s mind?

If God is infallible, why do we pray?  Indeed, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 calls us to “pray without ceasing,”  to a God that we are told in James 1:17 does not change, that is “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”   On the other hand, in Exodus 32:9-14, after the Hebrew people make sacrifices to idols, God tells Moses that he intends to destroy them, but then repents when Moses pleads with him:

9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”  11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

This passage suggests that maybe we pray because we can change God’s mind, but that contradicts the steadfast nature of God that is mentioned elsewhere in the bible.  The only answer I know to this issue is that prayer changes me.  It makes me calmer, and still, and I feel like sometimes I hear guidance from him.  It brings me into a relationship with God because there is no relationship without communication.  These are good reasons to pray – peace, wisdom, communication.  But if my prayer doesn’t change anything except my own perspective, why do we pray for other people?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  I prefer to think that my God is so great that there is nothing that I could say that would change his mind, but then I’m not sure why I intercede in prayer for others.  I just do it anyway.

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I practiced meditation for a half hour each day after school as a kid in elementary school.  Sometimes I fell asleep, but mostly my mind raced.  I learned the rosary as an adult to help fight off panic attacks.  Despite not being Catholic, it occurred to me because of movies about exorcisms because panic is like a demon inside of me.  After using this method for more than a year, I discovered that repetitive prayer or actions can actually help meditation.

I have a hard time sitting still and letting go of my racing thoughts when I try traditional meditation, but I’ve discovered that doing certain things at the same time can help me stay in that state of mind.  For instance, if I just think about a bible verse on worry, it’s not enough to hold my attention, and I’m soon pulled under again by whatever anxious thought is stalking me.  However, if I visualize in my mind writing that verse out in cursive, it’s a sufficiently difficult task that I can focus on it.  I have to think hard about how to make some cursive letters, and the visual component of this makes doing it in your mind absorbing.

Another example is the rosary.  I used to just say the prayers over and over again during panic attacks because repeating something I had memorized helped distract me.  Then I learned the way the rosary was meant to be prayed by people who are actually catholic and don’t just suffer from anxiety.  After you say the creed, on the first 3 beads above Jesus’s head you say one hail Mary each for the increase in the world of faith, hope, and love.  That’s my very favorite part.

While your mind is babbling (I prefer to say my rosary in Spanish) the same repetitive prayer, you can hold the intention in your head of there being more hope in the world.  I think of something different all the time – children in armies in Africa who need to believe there is life outside of war, people who’ve made such terrible mistakes that they think no one will forgive them, families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.  I imagine the hope growing in their hearts while my mind carries on with the prayer.  I can hang onto this train of thought without getting sucked back into my worry because saying a prayer in Spanish while you visualize sending hope to the hopeless is complicated.

When you get to the decades of the rosary (the 10 little beads between each big bead in the chain), Catholics meditate on one mystery per decade.  (There are luminous mysteries, joyful mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries…there’s a schedule for each day of the week.)  For instance, if they were doing the joyful mysteries, they would meditate on the first decade about the annunciation, on the second decade about the visitation, on the third about the nativity, then the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and then finding Jesus at the temple.  I don’t know the mysteries unless someone is announcing them (which they do when you pray the rosary in a group), but I like to think about one problem per bead or per decade, depending on how big the problem is.

Thinking about both the prayer and the problem simultaneously helps my mind not to wander off.  I don’t need a rosary to pray this way anymore – I can do it in my head or on my fingers, in English or in Spanish.   I think I associate the litany now with peace and calm, so even if my mind is too full of racing thoughts to meditate, trying to think of two things at once is just my (manic) speed.  When I start to feel panicky, I find myself automatically reciting the words in my head and I begin to calm down.  Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia, el senor es contigo…

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “just” recently.  When we use this word, we’re often using it as a marker that minimizes whatever phrase comes after it.  For instance, if someone offers you a bag of candy and you say, “I just need one,” you’re telling this person, “I [this request is really trifling] need one.”  The way that this word is used by clients, by women at work, and by evangelicals while they pray is fascinating.

Client requests:

Nothing pisses me off more than when my clients say, “Can you just [insert crazy request here].”  It’s almost as though they think that by adding the word “just” they are somehow making their request last absurd and labor intensive.

If I had to gloss the way they are using the word “just” here, it would be something like, “Can you [this idea isn’t insane – it’s something you should be able to do quickly and easily] send me a new dataset in the next 10 minutes?”  I’d like to forbid them from using this word because it’s insulting to those of us who are going to have to fulfill their requests.

Women in professional missives:

I often find that when I draft emails, I insert “just” liberally in places to soften the impact of what I’m requesting.  However, when I re-read my emails before sending I invariably delete out 3 or 4 “justs” because I think it makes me sound less authoritative.  There’s a whole argument here relating to whether women sounding authoritative really means women speaking like men (who traditionally dominated the work place), and the double bind of women who speak like women being weak but women who speak like men being pushy.

That topic is a post for another day, but in the meantime I can’t seem to break myself of the habit of starting an email, “I just wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”   In this context, I mean “I [please don’t be offended by what I’m about to say because I don’t think it’s that serious] wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”

Evangelicals in prayer:

I find that young evangelicals are often contemptuous of formulaic prayers.  They have a personal relationship with Jesus and they don’t need anyone to intercede for them.  They value speaking from their heart and think there’s nothing rehearsed about their style when they pray out loud.  I listen to a lot of prayer like that, and they actually all sound very similar.

“Father God, I just want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I just pray that you would grow us as disciples. ”  Here, the repetitive (almost every sentence) “just” is marking how great we think God is and how small we are in comparison.  “Father God, I [the only thing I can offer is amazement and praise] want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I [I’m asking for something that’s easy for you since you’re almighty and the only thing I can do is request your help] pray that you would grow us as disciples.”  And yes, “grow” is a transitive verb when you’re evangelical.

I think it’s fascinating that we’re all using this word, but that it doesn’t  have a lot of intrinsic meaning.  It’s more of a flag that says – pay attention to what comes next, and know that I’m minimizing it somehow.  Maybe I’m asking for something I think is easy, or trying not to offend you by downplaying the gravity of your oversight, or what I’m about to say comes from a humble place of recognizing your power.  It’s amazing that this one word can mark so much depending on who is using it.

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The next insight I had this week regarding stress concerns the amount that I can accomplish each day.  I like to pray in the morning for my husband and for me the same things as I walk to work:

That we would have the energy, efficiency, attention and optimism to accomplish what we need to accomplish today, but that most of all we would be your hands and your feet and the words that you speak.

I’ve prayed this prayer for about 2 years faithfully, but I had a flash of insight this week reading that packet by Chuck Swindoll.  He noted that Jesus’s ministry on earth ended when there were still lepers wandering around.  People were hurting and needed to be healed.  There was suffering that he could have relieved, but when he died, he said, “It’s finished.”  How can this be?  There was more to accomplish.  It seems that it wasn’t his task to heal every leper in the whole world before he died.  He had that whole dying for our sins gig going on and when God asked him to, he didn’t argue.  He just came home because his work was done.

It occurred to me that I may think I need to accomplish x, y, and z today, but maybe God only needs x from me today.  If I get x done, then I have lived successfully today, regardless of how much I have crossed off on my to-do list.

I stay late at work and my husband calls me to see when I’m coming home.  So often the answer is that I need just another half hour, just another hour, and then I’ll be home.  How do I decide that these things are so urgent?  I mean, I’m not even healing lepers.  If I didn’t finish it all today, maybe I finished all that I was supposed to, and that notion gives me peace.

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I have been worried lately about a medical diagnosis that looms over my head.  I’ve been tired for years without an explanation, and the doctors I’m seeing are slowly crossing out the (treatable) diseases I would rather have had.  I have never drowned before, but I feel the way I think it would imagine to be in a sinking ship with the water rising above your head.  I’m gasping for air, and sometimes I get a lungful of stinging salt water instead, and sometimes a bit of precious oxygen.

I see the dreams that I had slipping away and I’m only 25.  My hopes for finding a fulfilling job and being a mom and traveling the world.  I feel frustrated with myself that I can’t even work full-time and keep up with the basics in my life, liking making dinner, cleaning a small apartment, going to church, seeing my friends, buying groceries.

I feel angry that I have been given so many gifts, and then this major limitation.  I am so focused and motivated and when I decide that I am going to do something, I have an amazing ability to make that goal happen.  I’m smart and I want to help people, and yet some days I cry when I wake up in the morning because I am so tired.  Why would God give someone intelligence and ambition, and then make them weak?  Doesn’t God know that if he gave me energy, I would accomplish so much?  That if I can make myself get into a good college and finish my master’s degree early and get a job immediately and pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and fight the biggest battle of my life to get my husband permanent residency – if I can do all of these things with crippling exhaustion, what things could I do if I felt strong?

I don’t understand.  I don’t understand why I pray each morning, why I have prayed each morning for so long, to be healed, and I am not.   I think of Paul and the thorn in his flesh that he prayed that God would remove.  I think of God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Really, God?

The only thing I know today is how grateful I am for my friends and family.  For people who went out immediately and bought me panda snow hats with ears, because I’ve always wanted one of those.  For people who left the library to talk me through those first hours of despair.  For my husband, who told me that no, he was not about to accept my offer of a divorce and find someone healthier.  For my friend, who told me that I am not a statistic, that I am not my genetics.  For the people who didn’t even know, and yet showed their love anyway.  “The world moves for love.  It kneels before it in awe.”  I am loved and upheld by so many people.  In their hands, I see God reaching out to me.

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