Category Archives: Prayer

No Fail Too Epic

"Head in Hands" by Alex Proimos

“Head in Hands” by Alex Proimos CC 2.0 via Flickr

Moving from one country to another, I’ve often identified with Jacob’s prayer for God’s protection and provision as he runs away from home. But just lately, the earlier part of Jacob’s story in the Bible challenged me.

While Jacob and his twin Esau are in the womb, God tells their mother Rebekah that the older brother will serve the younger. As soon as Esau leaves the womb, it is clear that Jacob is the younger. Jacob is chosen by God before he is born. He does nothing to deserve that blessing.

Yet the rest of his life he keeps acting like he has to earn it. He acquires a firstborn’s inheritance rights by taking advantage of Esau’s hunger. He tricks his father into blessing him, again by feeding a family member at the opportune time. Then he runs away from home because his brother is angry enough to kill him. He works for his uncle Laban, using superstitions methods to increase his herds. When he meets Esau again, he sends ahead a parade of pacifying gifts. He had asked God for provision and protection, but when it comes down to it, he trusts his own conniving.

Yet God keeps turning these mistakes and selfish actions towards his initial plan – to make Jacob into a nation. Maybe if Jacob hadn’t been such a grasper, God’s plan would have happened in a straightforward way – perhaps receiving blessing without a brother’s death threat. But God gave Jacob the freedom to take the inefficient path to blessing if he so chose. Or maybe God knew all along how Jacob would acquire the blessings. But God chose him anyway.

Jacob’s sons weren’t born in happy succession either. Jacob was tricked into marrying both of Laban’s daughters – two rival sisters. Leah and Rachel kept bearing sons as a way to compete for the affection of God and their man. God used the family’s trickery and rivalry to birth founders for the twelve tribes of Jacob, also called Israel. Perhaps another way would have fostered more brotherly love. But then maybe they wouldn’t have sold one brother into slavery in Egypt, who strangely later saved them from famine. Maybe Israel would have starved before it got started.

Why did God use selfish tricksters and jealous siblings to build his people? It’s not a great fireside story about a nation’s founding father.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the point is to remind God’s people that they would keep trying to help themselves, but they didn’t need to. That even if they went wrong, God was committed to his end of the deal. As long as they were his people and he was their God, he would recycle their mess in super creative ways.

I am scared of messing up. What if I don’t choose the path God has for me? We fear the wrong college, career path, or relationship. Why did I do that stupid or selfish thing? Surely God can’t work with me now.

But God can. God wants us to obey him because it’s a lot better for us in the long run. I’m not saying that we can turn our backs on God or that we will avoid all consequences for our mistakes. But our actions do not make such a big difference that God can’t transform them for his own ends. We keep thinking we have to earn everything, but God gave us his love and forgiveness before we did anything to deserve it. If we’re sincere about wanting to follow God, he’ll work everything out for our good in the end. We can trust that things will go according to the plan of this God who controls everything. We are free to try and to fail and to fall into a cosmic net of grace.


Haggling with God

Shortly after my graduation from college, I posted a poem quoting Jacob’s prayer at Bethel: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Gen. 28:20-22).

Untitled

Jacob made his vow after dreaming of a stairway to heaven – Untitled by Michael Keany (Own work). [CCo] via Flickr

Like Jacob, I was on the move and concerned about life’s basic necessities. I had debated between opportunities with Christians for Biblical Equality, InterVarsity and my multicultural church. But I didn’t feel at peace walking down any of these paths. God called me – over Skype in the person of my dad’s dinner guest – to join the team working on the Africa Study Bible. Since my parents live on the same campus as some of the Africa Study Bible reviewers, a few months later I found myself returning “safely to my father’s house.”

But like Jacob, my life after this bargain with God was a struggle. When I arrived in Nairobi, I started from scratch. I developed systems to organize and track 2000 pieces by 250 writers through the editorial process. With my high school friends gone and most of my work being over email and Skype, I had to start over with friendships as well.

I felt helpless – like I was unraveling. But when I stepped back, I realized God was weaving threads back into my life in a providential pattern. In addition to my sociology and English majors, old skills of French and technology came in handy. Christians for Biblical Equality contracted me to write a Bible study guide for groups of young adults. In Minnesota I had planned to help out with a church plant or youth group. Instead, two months after I moved back to Nairobi, my family’s church invited us to help with a church plant nearby. I was asked to co-lead the teens class.

Like Jacob, I gave God a tenth of what he gave me. It only multiplied my blessings. Living with my parents enabled me to save money. I was able to pay off all my student loans within a year of graduation. My contract writing paid for a Kilimanjaro summit to celebrate twenty years since I first landed in Tanzania. God went above and beyond providing food and shelter.

Instead of helping out with InterVarsity, this weekend in Nigeria I met with leaders of their sister movements in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. We were defining a partnership to create a Bible study guide compatible with the Africa Study Bible. I marveled, “How in the world did I end up in this room with international leaders working on a project that could impact the continent?”

Jacob thought he was driving a hard bargain by nailing down the specifics of God’s provision. But he hadn’t listened closely to God’s unconditional promise the night before: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying… All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land…” (Gen. 28:13-15).

When God told Jacob he would bless him and make him a blessing to many nations, Jacob haggled for clothes and food instead. But God didn’t agree to settle for Jacob’s meager terms. Jacob had no idea of the scope of what God was going to do for him and through him. I’m beginning to realize that I have no idea either.


Feel 03: Overwhelmed

Image by Gwydion M. Williams (Flickr)

Image by Gwydion M. Williams (Flickr)

“There’s steam coming out of the car!”

As the van climbed a hill in the strong afternoon sun, the temperature gauge had been climbing too. But my dad and I hadn’t noticed. Finally, the pressure cracked the plastic top of the radiator. It said, “Stop! You can’t keep ignoring me!”

Later that week, my emotions did the same thing. The temperature kept rising until the gasket broke. For three separate situations, I sat down with a list of feeling words and wrote: “I feel anxious because… I feel angry about… I feel afraid that…” It took a lot of tissues to mop up all that escaping water.

It was an answer to prayer.

Of course, I didn’t realize it at first. I asked: “What are you doing, God?”

Writer that I am, I journaled… for three full days. I listened to my feelings. I listened to music. I listened to the Bible. If emotions were like food, mine were as processed as sausages.

A Sanctus Real song echoed my thoughts: “Whatever you’re doing, inside of me / it feels like chaos / but I believe / you’re up to something / bigger than me / larger than life / something heavenly.”

Work tasks and deadlines were part of my stress. Finally, I tearfully told my boss that I was worried I would disappoint everyone when our project wasn’t done on time. I felt shame because my work wouldn’t be enough. I asked for management solutions, a more detailed plan, and clearer expectations.

They listened, then reminded me that it wasn’t my work. It was God’s. I only had to take responsibility for my part. In fact, I realized it was proud to think I could do it all myself. I read a familiar passage about Jesus’ humility. Just below it, I saw: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13). Work humbly – because God works in you.

I read: “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires… the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace… The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again” (Rom. 8:5, 6, 15). Focusing on what had to be done made me feel fear and shame because I couldn’t do it. My supervisors encouraged me to focus instead on what God had been doing – and replace my anxiety with peace.

With another situation I was anxious about, I imagined the opportunity in it. I remembered what God had done before and decided this might be another step in the same direction.

Then I took a big picture look at all the emotions of the past couple weeks. What are you doing, God?

Cracks and growth

Cracks and growth

I remembered that I recently prayed for a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit.

I’d hoped for really powerful prayers and maybe a miraculous experience. But I also told God to do things his way recently. So he put me in a situation where I need the Spirit’s strength. My boss called this my “baptism by fire” into ministry work. The phrase means a painful initiation, but in the Bible, being baptized with flames is a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I often think of listening to the Spirit as sitting quietly and waiting for thoughts that are too profound to come from me. But I realized – music, journaling, the Bible – they’re all ways the Spirit speaks. I guess we have gotten closer lately.

I’d also asked to become pliable so God could mold me for his purposes. I’d prayed for humility.

Another supervisor compared this challenging time to how Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry. The devil tempted Jesus: “Prove yourself. Show your power and get the glory now – forget about the painful cross.” The liar tells me I’m not enough too, and I question whether all this is really necessary.

But Jesus fasted and chose the humble way. In fact, that’s where we get the 40 days of Lent from. We so often stuff the cracks in our lives with comforting distractions. But ‘tis the season to make peace with the cracks. This year I don’t have all the friends, ministry roles and accomplishments I often rely on to boost my self-worth. I’ve had to face the cracks and let the Spirit fill them. Maybe the Spirit’s leading me to the wilderness to prepare me for ministry, shape me for what’s next.

The crack in our radiator, annoying as it was, saved the engine from damage. Overheating forced us to stop – right in front of a car wash. We filled the radiator with buckets full of water and made it home. It took days with the mechanic, but our car is finally ready for its next adventure.

I feel… hopeful.


Not My Plan

whiteboardI love planning.

For Lent a few years ago, I felt convicted to give up my whiteboard. I realized I was consulting it more than God when deciding what to do in my day. I had “Shower” on there at one point. I’m not even kidding. I’ve been freed of my whiteboard ever since.

But I still look to my plans to give me security in uncertain times.

A friend asked me what’s next in life for me. When I replied with a five-year plan, she smiled. Maybe she could tell it’s a recent invention to buffer against the unknown. Halfway through reciting my tentative future to someone else, I realized he could’ve given me great advice if I would ask and listen. Sometimes, I rely on my plans rather than allowing God and God’s people to care for me.

Sometimes my plans prevent me from caring for others. My Dad and I have been training for a half-marathon together. One day, he got home late and it looked like we’d have to cut our run short to avoid running in the dark. I was angry for most of the run. Then I realized I was valuing my running schedule over my relationship with my dad.

So, I decided to let go of my running schedule for a few days and spend more time praying. Part of the time, I rambled about my feelings. Part of the time I sang Psalms about God’s character. I also closed my eyes and traced my finger through a mini-labyrinth I’d made.

My labyrinth artwork

My mini-labyrinth

When I first walked a labyrinth a couple years ago, I would think I was walking toward the center, and then I would hit a barrier and have to go way back out to the edges again. But in labyrinths, unlike mazes, there are no dead ends. There is only one way: the path is made by walking. Every disappointment actually pointed me closer to my goal. I compared this experience to times in my life when God didn’t give me what I asked for, because God could see the birds’ eye view. With time, I too saw that God gave me something better.

After my recent prayers, I didn’t notice much change in the areas I’d rambled to God about. But, out of the blue, someone called me back who I had been waiting to hear from for months. I was upset about a work meeting, but it ended up resolving big questions I’d had. I also randomly discovered a friend was moving to my city. The product of my prayers was not the results I’d selfishly hoped for. Instead, my prayer produced an awareness of God doing his own thing. It awakened a new Psalm in my own heart.

I sang this song in journal entry I’d written just before college: “All of my plans, all of my dreams, I lay them down before your feet. Because you are the one, only one who dared to give it all away for me.” The song suggests that Jesus gave it all – even his plans – for our relationship with God.

I don’t mean that the crucifixion was a surprise for him. He knew what he came to earth to do. But at the last moments, he prayed, “Daddy, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” He asked if there was any other way to deal with the world’s sin and glorify the Father. But he didn’t push for it. His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death and his body sweated drops of blood. But his spirit was willing. He accepted that even if there was a Plan B, he would let the Father do the best way. God submitted to God.

When Jesus surrendered to the Father, an angel came to strengthen him. It comforts me to know that when we give everything to God, God gives us strength to carry us through. When I’m overwhelmed by my responsibilities at work, I have a playlist called “Rescue Me.” Combined, the songs say: Ni Mungu, Sio Mimi, atendaye kazi (God, not me, does the work)… I can’t go on without you… Peke yangu sitaweza (on my own I won’t make it)… Please be my strength.

I want to learn what it really looks like to rely on God’s strength. Jesus’ story suggests it has something to do with prayer. So here’s a start: God, I’ve told you what I want. But your plans are better. Please do what you want in my life, even when I ask for something else. Make me weak and pliable so your strength can shape and use me. Your will be done.