A Final Thought on My Word for 2021

My word for this year was ASK.
I intended to steep myself in good teaching on prayer.
And I did.
I determined to establish a more consistent prayer life.
And I did.
I set out to ask, seek and knock.
And I did.

Now, as the year winds down,
it seems God has one more lesson for me on asking.

I tend to think of asking as always asking for something. I add to my list of prayer requests week after week, hoping for a positive outcome — to get what I’m asking for. I am looking for a result with a good benefit and it doesn’t get checked off my list until I receive that answer. Even when asking for “spiritual” things, the desire is still there for action, change, fulfillment.

Then God began to ask me some questions.

What if there is another kind of asking?
The kind that isn’t focused on results?
What if you asked different types of questions?

Like:
God, what do You want me to know before I go into this day?
Should I buy this ____, or wait?
What books do You want me to read?
Where would You like us to go on vacation?
Who do You want me to reach out to today?
What should we write about today?
Lord, what other questions do You have for me?
What are You asking of me?

A year spent exploring prayer, and the whole time my emphasis was on my words — how to pray, what to pray, when to pray. And I learned so much. But the fact that this new insight didn’t come up until the end of the year makes me wonder if God couldn’t get a word in edgewise until now.

I’m grateful for the invitation to ask.
Ask and it will be given to you.
Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened to you.

I’m grateful for this new invitation to ask better questions.
And learn to be a better listener.

My Top Books of 2021

I like reading end-of-the-year posts that reflect back on favorite things, especially books. Sometimes I find a few titles to add to my TBR list. Sometimes I shake my head and screw up my nose at people’s taste in reading. These lists are pretty subjective and mine is no different. So take what you want and feel free to leave the rest.

I read 53 books in 2021, 12 of which were fiction, which is a new record for me. Because I focused on prayer this year, there are several titles on that topic. Here we go!

10. How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People, by Pete Greig
Pete is the head of the 24/7 Prayer Movement. Back in 1999, a simple student-led prayer vigil in England went viral and people all over the world joined in to pray. And it never stopped. Twenty-two years later, Greig has learned a thing or two about prayer. This straight-forward, approachable guide was a good reminder of basics that I needed.

9. God On Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer, by Pete Greig
What happens when the head of a global prayer movement doesn’t get an answer to his prayers? Greig’s wife suffered a series of seizures that almost took her life and she continues to live with a debilitating disease, despite prayers for healing. In this book, Greig gets personal and honest about his own struggle and helps us wrestle with the hard reality of unanswered prayer. He reads the audio version of his book — you can hear the pain and the hope in his voice.

8. Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, by Tish Harrison Warren
Drawing on her own painful experience of loss and doubt, Warren was grounded by liturgical prayer when she had no words of her own to pray. She writes about going through hard seasons in a way that helps us see the beauty in the midst. Her book opened up to me the world of ancient prayers given to the church through the centuries — rich prayers that are deep and vibrant.

7. The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
One of my reading goals this year was to find a novel set in Montana in the early 1900s. Why, you ask? My great-great-grandparents went to Montana in the late 1800s and homesteaded near Lewistown. I have a pile of letters written by Great-Great-Grandma Harriet to her daughter Kate (my great-grandma) in Wisconsin. I have long idealized what life was like for them out in Big Sky country. This novel helped me enter into their world. Plus, it’s a really enjoyable story.

6. Reading Ruth, by Leon Kaas and Hannah Mandelbaum
Our church did a women’s Bible study this summer on Ruth, so I downloaded this short volume to read along. It is written by a Jewish man and his granddaughter, which I thought was charming. Although Kaas is not a Jesus follower, his insights into Jewish tradition and the Hebrew meaning of words really enriched the study.

5. Night Driving: Notes From a Prodigal Soul, by Chad Bird
This is the story of an arrogant pastor and driven seminary professor who destroyed his marriage and career with affairs and addictions. With his life in a heap of ruins, he started driving a semi-truck through the Texas oil fields at night. After ten years of bitter struggle, grace and healing finally won his heart. He was a prodigal soul who found his way back to God. Chad Bird became a humble servant who now writes like no one else. Other books by this author that I read this year include: “Your God Is Too Glorious”, “The Christ Key”, and “Unveiling Mercies”. I will read everything this man puts out there.

4. Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle, by Alistair Begg
This book caught my eye at a radio station where PB and I were doing an interview. The host told me to take it home with me and since I can’t turn down a free book, I slipped it in my purse. I was afraid this little paperback would turn out to be one of those “name-it-and-claim-it” kinds of things. I was skeptical. I was wrong. This small gem held many nuggets of truth that I’m still thinking about.

3. God of All Things: Rediscovering the Sacred in the Everyday World, by Andrew Wilson
At the time I read Wilson’s book, I thought it was okay. But then I kept taking it off the shelf and referring back to it over and over. He takes the simple, ordinary things of this earth and weaves them around scripture, tying the holy to the common. My favorite chapter was entitled “Pigs”, but each short chapter holds its own treasure.

2. A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, by Winn Collier
Collier was given the privilege of perusing all of Eugene Peterson’s personal diaries and journals, as well as compiling notes from hours of interviews with the famous pastor/writer before Peterson died in 2018. This biography doesn’t leave out the uncomfortable stuff, yet captures the remarkable life of a man of enduring faith, boundless creativity and lifelong devotion to the Word.

1. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, by Eugene Peterson
My number one book this year combined the theme of my year (prayer) with one of my favorite authors (Peterson). This book was a turning point for me in my quest to better understand prayer and become a better pray-er. “We cannot bypass the Psalms. They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive and honest.” Here is his recommendation: “That’s it: open your Bibles to the book of Psalms and pray them — sequentially, regularly, faithfully, across a life-time. This is how most Christians for most of the Christian centuries have matured in prayer. Nothing fancy. Just do it.” Most of my copy of this book is underlined. If you’re at all interested in falling in love with the Psalms, or learning to pray like Jesus did, this is the book for you.

As always, I’d love a good book recommendation!
I’ll add it to the 200 titles on my TBR list.
Here’s to a happy reading year in 2022!

10 Things I Learned About Prayer in 2021

When the calendar page flips open to December, I start a long, slow reflection back on the year. What worked? What didn’t work? Did I learn anything? Have I grown?

My word for 2021 was “ask”, which I took as an invitation to explore prayer. It’s been lovely to spend a whole year focusing on one topic, allowing it time to soak into my heart and soul. The extended time seemed unhurried, more like a leisurely stroll with a friend. It gave God a chance to straighten me out on some misconceptions and fill me up with practical truth. Here are some things I learned:

1. A year isn’t long enough to explore prayer. Neither is a lifetime, of course. Prayer isn’t something to master or figure out. There’s no code to crack or formula to follow. I want to keep growing and learning in this area, so I plan to continually have a book on the subject in my TBR pile. Here are two I’m looking forward to reading in 2022.

2. The old dead guys have written the best books on prayer, but contemporary authors are providing some great resources. The stack in the photo below are some of the books I’ve read this year on the topic. I heartily recommend them.

3. I am in a very different place at the end of this year than I expected to be in January 2021. My neat and tidy prayer lists and tabbed categories and boxes to check fell by the wayside. I’ve loosened my grip on controlled formulas and rigid routines. Even though my word was “ask”, I find myself twelve months later asking less and enjoying time with God more.

4. Many years ago, someone told me that my prayers for healing for a loved one weren’t answered because of my lack of faith. That put me in a tailspin for a while, until a more mature believer put their arms around me and gave wise counsel. I still have some residual angst about prayer and faith, so I loved Ole Hallesby’s thoughts: “The essence of faith is to come to Christ. You have more faith than you think you have if you have faith enough to pray.” The simple act of opening my heart’s door to Jesus and giving Him access to my helplessness is enough. I do not need to muster up some kind of fake confidence in order to help God secure an answer. He does not need my help, simply access.

5. I’ve learned that there are bigger things to pray for than Uncle John’s bum knee and Aunt Susie’s sore shoulder. Allistair Begg points out that praying for health issues is rare — almost non-existent — in the Bible. Paul’s prayers for other people were on another level. He prayed for the eyes of their hearts to be opened, he prayed for their love to abound more and more, he prayed for his friends to be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding. I’ll continue to bring physical needs to the Lord in prayer, but I’m learning to also pray for Uncle John and Aunt Susie to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

6. “Be with…” is the lamest prayer there is. I’ve stopped saying, “Be with her, be with him, be with us.” For one thing, it’s unimaginative and unambitious. For another thing, Jesus’ last words before ascending were, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for people the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.” (Begg) No more “be with” prayers!

7. The book of Psalms is where it’s at when it comes to prayer. Eugene Peterson recommends a daily dose of psalms on a regular rotation. He goes so far as to say the Psalms are necessary to the praying life of every believer. “They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive and honest.” Martin Luther put it like this: “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter seriously and regularly will soon give a vacation to other little devotional prayers and say, ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter.'” O Lord, I want to pray juicy prayers, strong and passionate prayers, prayers with some heat. So I will pray the Psalms.

8. There is something beautiful about praying the same prayers that saints down through the centuries have whispered. When my own words fail me, I fall back on the language of ancient liturgy and Puritan preachers. I’ve memorized the Compline, a nighttime prayer, and find that it’s a good way to end the day. As I put my head on the pillow and shut off my light, I know that people all over the world are joining me.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary, bless the dying,
soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

(From “Prayers in the Night”, Tish Harrison Warren)

9. I had narrowly defined prayer as me talking to God. Once I ran through my list of prayer requests, I was off and running into the day. But there’s more. I’m learning to pause for a few minutes and say, “What do you think about this, God?” and then actually listen. I had also narrowly defined prayer as personal time between me and God. But many of the Psalms are undeniably intended for corporate worship. “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture.” (Ps. 95:6-7) Lots of plurals there. Sounds like we’re supposed to pray with one another.

10. I will end the year with the same request I started it with: “Teach me to pray.”

Pray until you can pray;
pray to be helped to pray
and do not give up praying because you cannot pray.
For it is when you think you cannot pray,
that is when you are praying.
~Spurgeon~

Other helpful resources:
The Daily Prayer on Wild At Heart app, John Eldredge
Prayer in a Noisy World, podcast by Valerie Woerner
Lectio 365 app, 24/7 Prayer
In The Lord I Take Refuge podcast, Dane Ortland
Hidden Streams podcast, Chad Bird

Time to Pray

I’m a detail person.

If the bathroom rug isn’t even with the lines on the tile floor,
I might straighten it.

If the dish towel hanging on the oven door handle is wrong side out,
I might turn it around.

If there are two pillows on one end of the couch,
I might move one down to the other end.

I just notice things.

Sometimes I intentionally leave the rug all wonky, or the towel inside out, or the couch unbalanced just to make sure I don’t become a raging perfectionist. Details matter to me, though, so when one jumps out at me from the pages of the Bible I sit up and pay attention. Like this one:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer —
at three in the afternoon.” Acts 3:1

Why the specific mention of this exact time of day?
It seems details matter to God.

Three o’clock in the afternoon was a Jewish regularly scheduled time of prayer. It was the precise moment when the sacrificial lambs were slaughtered in the temple. People were called to the holy place to be there as witnesses to the cost of their sin and to receive forgiveness. The congregation recited a brief prayer together and then went on with the rest of their day.

On most days, by 3:00 p.m. I’m in need of a moment to pause and “re-center my scattered senses upon the presence of God”*. It’s an appropriate hour to remember the Lamb of God, who died at exactly 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.

I’ve always considered set times of prayer to be unnecessarily structured. After all, I don’t live in a monastery and I tend to throw up prayers all day long. But if Peter and John did it, I decided I should give it a shot. To make that happen, I set an alarm on my phone and at the appointed hour, the sound of angelic harps reminds me it’s time. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I stop for just a minute and say a brief prayer.

Most of my creativity and energy has been expended by late afternoon, yet there are still several hours left in the day. So I ask the Holy Spirit to fill me up once again that I may finish the day well. I thank my Father for the gift of time and pray He helps me redeem it, not waste it. I reflect on the moment my salvation was won on the cross and I express my gratefulness to Jesus.

What started as an experiment has turned into a lovely afternoon time-out to recalibrate my soul. It’s proving to be a holy habit that is keeping my spirit connected to The Spirit.

*This phrase is taken from the Lectio 365 prayer app.

God’s Prayer Notebook

The biggest and best thing I have learned so far during this year of exploring prayer is that God has His very own prayer notebook. It’s called the book of Psalms. He put it smack-dab in the middle of the Bible so it’s easy to find. God provided 150 prayers right in the Holy Book so we could have words to pray back to Him. The Psalms are God’s gift to train us in prayer!

I’ve read the book of Psalms.

I’ve studied some of the psalms.
(Remember For the Flock — a 15 day study on Psalm 23?
And The Long Song — a 6 month study of Psalm 119?)

I’ve even sung a few psalms.

But it took me this long to catch on to the fact that I’m supposed to
pray the psalms.

Here in the pages of God’s Word
I have found my school of prayer.
This is where I’m learning how to pray.

I used to think the book of Psalms was a good place to find a bit of comfort, a word of assurance or a little inspiration.
Now I’m learning that I’m supposed to live in this book, using the ancient poetry in my own conversations with my Father.

I used to occasionally open to a handful of my personal favorite go-to psalms, depending on my mood.
Now I’m learning that I’m supposed to be nourished by all 150, on a regular basis, even when I don’t feel like it.

I used to believe that these songs belonged to King David, predating Jesus by hundreds of years.
Now I’m learning that Jesus dwells in the lyrics, and that He Himself often quoted from this beloved hymnbook, even on the cross.

I’m learning.

“The Psalms are the perfect prayers
for they are God’s words to us
that become our words back to God.”
Chad Bird, The Christ Key

Next: Time to Pray

Supplication Standstill

My grand plans of dispensing wisdom on the topic of prayer hit a brick wall this summer. Make that a brick wall with cement and steel reinforcements. I whizzed through the first three words in the acronym A.C.T.S. in past posts:

A = Adoration
C = Confession
T = Thanksgiving

When it was time to talk about supplication, I decided I needed some time to think about it. That was back in June. It is now October. I’m still thinking. And re-thinking a few things. God has been kindly restraining me, pulling back on the reins, setting a guard over my mouth.

Back in January I boldly proclaimed that my word for the year was ASK and that 2021 would be the year I finally became a woman of prayer. I even had a notebook to prove it. I was going to crack the code and figure out this thing once and for all. God smiled and patted my head, then took me by the hand and led me down a surprising path.

This is not the first time. Twenty years ago (or more) I bought a book that promised me it held the key to living a life of powerfully answered prayer. The table of contents listed prayers of healing for everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids. It laid out an elaborate system of what to pray for every day of the week so the whole world was covered. Each chapter included lists with boxes to check. For real breakthroughs in areas of struggle, the reader was “prescribed a scripture Rx”: repeat certain verses three times each, four times a day, for two weeks, and the powers of darkness would be overcome. Readers were encouraged by these words, “There is no room for doubt or wavering faith.”

After four days, I quit.
Too many little boxes.
Too much pressure and guilt.
No joy.

My propensity for lists and checks and notebooks almost got me again. Almost — after all, I have learned a few things over the past twenty years. I still have my prayer notebook, but it has become a resource I turn to occasionally when I need a reminder or some help. As it turns out, the prayer I pasted on page one of my notebook is being answered. Just not how I expected.

Help me to ask for the things You want to give.
Help me to seek the things You want me to find.
Help me to knock on the doors You want to open.

I have no wisdom of my own to dispense on this topic.
(It’s taken four months of silence to make that obvious.)
Little by little God is teaching me how to
Ask, Seek and Knock.

This I know for sure:
“Teach me to pray”
is the perfect place to start because it is
a prayer the Father delights to answer.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.
Psalm 32:8

Next: God’s Prayer Notebook

Simple Prayer

I’ve been thinking about that simple prayer of thanks I recited as a child. There’s something about it — it’s concise and unpretentious, yet honest and profound.

The author of this small blessing was Edith Rutter-Leatham and she lived in Durham, England. She published a small volume of poetry in 1913. That’s it. I scoured the internet for information and came up empty. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and her book can’t be found on Amazon. Edith was an obscure poet in Victorian England who is remembered for a simple four-line children’s table blessing. Not a bad legacy considering that a little girl in southwest Wisconsin in the 1960s put it to memory, and the now-grown woman is still thinking about it in 2021.

Let’s break it down.

Thank You for the world so sweet.

I know what you’re thinking. “Sweet? This world is sweet? Maybe back in 1913, but not in 2021!” I beg to differ. The sinking of the Titanic had recently shocked the world and World War I was about to break out. There is always turmoil somewhere on the planet. There is always beauty, too. God made us a sweet world, if we would only pay attention. Thank Him for the world, and you’ll begin to see more of its sweetness.

Thank You for the food we eat.

I am so thankful food tastes good. It wouldn’t have to, you know. God could have made nourishing mush with no taste to keep our bodies healthy. Instead, He created tomatoes and yeast and grains of wheat. He gave people the ingenuity to invent pizza. Glory halleluia! Thank Him for the food you eat, and you’ll begin to taste more of its goodness.

Thank You for the birds that sing.

What if birds didn’t sing? What would it be like to go for a morning walk and hear no birdsong? Even in town, the air is filled with chirps and tweets that we often ignore. God created a soundtrack that plays all day, every day. Birds that sing, cats that meow, cows that moo. Thank Him for the birds that sing, and you’ll begin to hear more of their melodies.

Thank You God for everything.

It’s good to have a broad-sweep statement like this. I wouldn’t be able to get through the day if I stopped to thank Him for everything. “Thank You Lord, for sleeping. Thank You for waking. Thank You for my pillow, for my bed, for my blankets. Thank you for toothpaste and bodily functions and the smell of coffee.” It would be a non-stop full-time job. Thank Him for everything and you’ll begin to live a life full of gratitude.

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Psalm 24:1
“Always give thanks to God the Father for everything.” Ephesians 5:20


Simple Thanks

A funny thing happened after I wrote the last post.

I was soundly reprimanded in my heart for slighting the little table prayer I recited as a child. I called it “sing-songy” and a “ditty” and “elementary”. Shame on me. I was urged to take another look at the seemingly simple poem. God impressed on me that if I want to learn how to offer thanks, this is a very good place to start. After all, “Out of the mouths of babes You have ordained strength.” (Ps. 8:2)

I watch my son with his three year old daughter.
Over and over and over he reminds her to say “please” and “thank you”.

Over and over and over.

“Dada, I want milk.”
“What do you say?”
“Please, Dada.”
He gives her a cup of milk.
“What do you say?”
“Thank you, Dada.”

Over and over and over.

Then one day, without prompting,
she looks up at him with those big baby blues and says,
“Thank you, Dada.”

And his heart just melts.
It makes his day.

My granddaughter reminds me what a simple heartfelt expression of thanks means to my Father. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or wordy, or theologically profound. There doesn’t have to be an encyclopedic list. And when it comes to “sing-songy” — well, God rather enjoys that.

Sing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:16

Thank God for God

It’s not November, but I’m going to ask you to think about thanksgiving.
T is our next stop on the ACTS acronym, which is a helpful prayer method. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication)

Growing up, my siblings and I each had our own special prayer to recite at mealtime. I don’t remember who chose those little sing-songy verses or they how they got assigned to us. Meals didn’t start until dad called on someone to say grace and we all bowed our heads. When it was my turn to offer the blessing, I always prayed this little ditty:

Thank You for the world so sweet,
Thank You for the food we eat,
Thank You for the birds that sing,
Thank You God, for everything.
Amen.

On Sundays, my brother would usually get the nod because his prayer was short enough to get in between plays of the Packer game: “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. Hut. I mean, Amen.”

I still often find myself rattling off a few generalized “thank yous” that sound like my elementary table prayer.

Thank You for my family,
for my food, clothes and shelter,
and for this good day.
Thank You God, well, You know, for everything.

There’s room for improvement here, but the idea of making a list of everything I’m grateful for is overwhelming. Do I actually put everything on the list? Do I go over the whole list every day? How specific does the list need to be? What if I miss something?

Lately, I’ve been approaching this part of my prayer time a little differently. Instead of thanking God for stuff I have, I’ve been focusing on things He’s done.

God, I thank You for…

  • making me in Your image, capable of knowing, loving, serving and enjoying You.
  • preserving my life thus far, bringing me through injuries, sickness or troubles.
  • Your Son, Jesus, who emptied Himself of His glory for me.
  • Jesus’ death on the cross, paying for my sins.
  • the Holy Spirit, who helps me to understand Your truth, know Your love, be conformed to Christ’s character, and serve others with Your gifts.
  • the Word of God and its wisdom, truth and power.
  • the church, especially my congregation and its leaders who help me grow in faith.
  • the assurance of salvation, that I can rest in the hope of a future eternity with You.
  • the mercies You bestow on me.
  • giving and sustaining my life.
  • ways You’ve helped me change and break bad habits.

Although this list can also go on and on, I feel like these are the kinds of things for which God most appreciates my thanks. I still wrap it up with the same catch-all phrase: Thank You God, for everything.

In other words —
Thank You God, well, You know, for You.

Let your lives overflow
with joy and thanksgiving
for all He has done.
Col. 2:7

Come Clean

People have been making confessions for centuries.
Their words can become our words
when we need help with our confession.

Today I’m sharing four short prayers —
the first from the 18th century,
the second from the 19th century,
a third from the 20th century,
and finally one from the 21st century.

Pick your century.
Choose your confession.
Come clean and then leave clean.

From “The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions”

Merciful Lord,
Pardon all my sins of this day, week, year,
all the sins of my life,
sins of early, middle, and advanced years,
sins in private and in the family,
sins against light and knowledge.
Pardon all my sins,
known and unknown,
felt and unfelt,
confessed and not confessed,
remembered or forgotten.
Good Lord, hear;
and hearing, forgive.

From Rev. George Ridding — 1867

Lord, open our minds to see ourselves as you see us.
Save us and help us, O Lord.
From pride and self-will,
from the desire to have our own way in all things,
from an overweening love of our own ideas,
and blindness to the value of others.
Save us and help us, O Lord.
From strife and division,
from magnifying our certainties to condemn all differences,
from all arrogance in our dealings with others.
Save us and help us, O Lord.

From “The Book of Common Worship” — 1906

Gracious God,
our sins are too heavy to carry,
too real to hide,
and too deep to undo.

Forgive what our lips tremble to name,
what our hearts can no longer bear,
and what has become for us
a consuming fire of judgment.

Set us free from a past that we cannot change;
open to us a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image,
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

Scotty Smith: Heavenward — 2012

I’m annoyed, irritated and wound up tight.
I have been for several weeks.
Please gentle and soften my edgy and crusty heart,
by your grace and for your glory.

I can offer explanations, but I won’t make excuses.
I just come to you as the knotted mess that I am.
You are filled with mercy, compassion and patience.
You convict me without condemning me.
You humble me without humiliating me.
You don’t just tell me what to do, you give me yourself.
What would I do without you Jesus?

I repent of keeping a record of others’ wrongs.
I repent of not repenting.

Convict me when my sense of humor reveals a lack of kindness;
when my poor manners show a lack of love;
when my words tear down more than they build up.
I pray in your powerful and holy name.