The Examined (Church) Life

Last month in my post, “Bouquets for God,” I wrote about my experience with an ancient prayer practice called “examen.” It is basically a way to prayerfully invite God to reflect with you on your day. As you do this, you discover where He was present and where you may have missed Him. Another way of doing the reflection is to look at what parts of your day brought life and what parts drained it. Ignatius of Loyola, who is credited with first suggesting the practice, called the life-giving, God-present times “consolation” and the life-draining, God-seemingly-distant times “desolation.”

I am accustomed to doing examen on short increments of life—a day, or perhaps a week. But God led me to do something much different with examen recently—something that was surprisingly helpful to me.

For the past nine months, I have been visiting local churches. At first I enjoyed the process, but frankly, it’s getting kind of old now. I’m feeling ready to settle down—but whenever I’ve asked God to show me where to settle, I haven’t heard much. Then a couple of Sundays ago, right in the middle of a church service, He gave me an unusual idea. He invited me to do an examen on church. I’d never heard anyone suggest anything like that before. But then God does tend to be creative.

I hardly knew what doing an examen on church would involve, but I figured God would. So I set aside some time.

As I sat on my deck one lovely summer morning, I asked the Holy Spirit to walk with me through a lifetime of church experiences. I prayerfully called to mind every church I’d been part of from childhood on. First  I asked Him to show me where I’d encountered Him and where I’d experienced His life.

Memories bubbled to the surface. Life-changing conversations. Welcoming small group gatherings. Unusually convicting sermons. Spirit-led times of worship. Challenging and rewarding relationships. Seasons when I was in my ministry sweet spot. Times of unity and joy.  Answered prayer. I jotted them down, and was surprised to notice some patterns.

Then, I asked the Holy Spirit to show me times of desolation, times when Jesus’ life was drained from me rather than replenished. More memories came. I wrote down examples of feeling out of sync with the church’s vision. Seasons of spiritual stagnation. Periods of striving. Occasions when I didn’t seem to have the gifts or passion for the ministry in which I was serving. Tensions over teachings and practices. Again, patterns emerged.

I noticed that in my experience, no one church had the corner on “life-giving” or “life-draining.” I have engaged with God’s life and presence in all of the churches I’ve been a part of. I’ve also experienced desolation in all the churches I’ve been part of—it’s not the hallmark of just a certain kind of church.

Still, God brought clarity to my search for a church. He helped me see that some things I’d considered insignificant to what defined “church” for me were actually very important. And some things I thought were deal breakers really aren’t. He helped me see that certain “preferences” I have are not just selfish whims—they are essentials for my spiritual well-being. He cleared up misconceptions I’d had that had made me hesitant about certain sizes of congregations.

God didn’t give me the GPS coordinates or web address for my next church home. I was a little disappointed in that. But He did lovingly reassure me that He is very much in this discernment process. He knows my heart. He knows my gifts. He knows my needs. He cares about all these. And someday—I don’t think it will be much longer now, He will make the specifics clear.

Be Careful What You Pray

A few weeks ago my daily Bible reading had me in Matthew 25. As I contemplated the ways people had served Jesus without even knowing it (“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me”, verse 35) my heart was moved.

Jesus, I prayed, I want to welcome You. Are there strangers You want me to welcome? I don’t want to miss the opportunity to minister to You!

With that prayer, I closed my Bible and got ready for work. And completely forgot all about it.

Early one morning a week or so later, I received an email from a friend. She knew of a young woman who needed housing. She knew I had a spare bedroom. Would I be interested in hosting her? And oh, by the way, she would need a lot of emotional support.

Well, I’m pretty tired when I get home from work. I like my space. I like my quiet. And I don’t want to have to adjust my schedule around someone else. Not somebody who needs a lot of support, anyhow. So that decision was easy. I was crafting my response in my head as I headed to the shower. I’d tell my friend, “I really don’t think this is a good time for me. I’ll pray you find someone else.”

Does God speak to you in the shower like He does me? If so, you will not be surprised by what I say next. Completely out of the blue (it seemed) I heard a quiet little Voice ask, Do you remember what you prayed out of Matthew 25?

Hot water streamed down on me but a shiver race up my spine. Yes, of course I remembered.

Inside I thought Crud! I really need to be more careful about what I pray!

But out loud, I said “Yes, Lord, I remember. And when I welcome strangers, I may be welcoming You.” (Yes, I know that God knows my thoughts, even if I don’t say them. I’m just being honest, okay?)

Throughout the day, I prayed about my friend’s email. I asked the Lord to help me align my heart to whatever He had for me. I asked Him to help me with the fears and reservations I felt about opening my home to a stranger with heavy emotional needs. I asked Him to give me a more generous heart about giving up time, energy, and privacy. By the next morning, He had done His quiet work in me. I was open to the possibilities, and even had a sense of wonder at what special opportunity He might be offering. I asked the Lord how to proceed. I sensed Him saying I should ask questions about what the young woman needed and let her know what I could offer.

My friend and I had a good talk. She promised to get back to me with answers. When she contacted me three days later, it was to tell me that the young woman had already found a place to live. There was no need for me to host her. And though I was happy for her, I was a little disappointed for me.

Lessons learned? There are several.

  • God speaks, directs, and invites through Scripture. I never would have thought about welcoming a stranger if I hadn’t been reading Matthew 25 that day.
  • God takes my “Lord I’m willing to be stretched, I’m willing to be used” prayers seriously!
  • God is patient with me to remind me of what I’ve prayed—even when I forget.
  • Sometimes God tests me so I can see what is in my heart. He didn’t actually need me to host the young woman—but He let me see that I was willing to do so. He truly is growing my trust in Him. That encourages me!

By the way, God did still take me up on my prayer, but in a different way. During the fires last week*, a friend called. She needed to evacuate. Could she, her husband, her dog, and two cats please come to my house immediately? I was happy to have her and her husband—the dog and three cats were another story. With my two cats, it would be a veritable zoo. But I remembered Matthew 25. I remembered my prayer telling Jesus I wanted to be ready to welcome Him in whatever form He came. Smiling at the mental picture I had of Jesus with a dog and two cats, I said, “Yes, of course. Come!”

 

*Concerning the Colorado Springs fire, as of this morning, two people have died, 509 homes have been declared a total loss, many others have suffered heavy damage, and hundreds of people are still evacuated. However, thanks to the tireless and courageous work of firefighters and first responders, and some spectacular rains sent by God, the fire is now 85 percent contained. Thank you for praying for Colorado Springs. Please continue to pray for us. Our community is hurting.

 

 

 

Lord, Have Mercy–Again

Another fire rages in Colorado Springs—my beautiful city. It started around 1 p.m. in a wooded residential area on the northeast part of town, and by evening, was burning homes to the ground. As of this morning it blazes across at least 8,000 acres, is uncontained, and has claimed at least 100 homes. Thousands of people are displaced. We fight back tears as we ask each other about our friends—did they make it? Did their homes make it so far? But there aren’t many answers yet.

Colorado Springs had just started to recover from its devastating Waldo Canyon fire that took two lives and nearly 350 homes last year at this time. It’s painful to face a tragedy like this again.

Last year, I asked readers to pray the Jesus Prayer for our city: “Lord, Have Mercy.” I humbly ask you to pray that for us again. And I also offer the Scripture-based prayers that I wrote a few years back when I worked at NavPress. These prayers have helped thousands of people pray in all kinds of large-scale tragedies: tornados, shootings, earthquakes, and hurricanes. I hope they will help you to pray for Colorado Springs. We need your prayers.

  1.  Dear Lord, if these hurting people have not called on You before, may they begin calling on your name right now; may they find You to be their refuge and strength, an ever-present help in their time of trouble (Gen. 4:26; Ps. 46:1).
  2.  Lord of heaven and earth, encourage these friends to seek You, reach out to You, and find You because You are not far from them. Give them hope that You are with them so that the waters they are passing through will not sweep them away, and the fire they are walking through will not burn them (Acts 17:27; Is. 43:2).
  3. Living Word, make Your Word come alive to those who suffer. When their souls are weary with sorrow, strengthen them according to Your Word. Give them longing for Your precepts, and preserve their lives by them. Comfort them with Your promises. Use this affliction to bring them near to Your ways. Sustain them according to Your promise, and do not let their hopes be dashed. Give them a love for Your law, Lord, so they will have great peace and nothing will cause them to stumble (Ps. 119: 28,40,50,67,116,165).
  4. God of peace and unity, bind affected families together in love. When one member is weak, fill the others with strength and compassion so that the one who falls will have someone to pick him up. Help them not to lose patience with each other, attack each other, or in any other way be separated by these tragic circumstances; instead, knit them together in love and strength (Eccl. 4:9-12; Mt. 19:6).
  5. Loving Father, draw the children involved in this tragedy to Yourself. Let them come to You without hindrance. Strip away any foothold in their lives that Satan may try to gain through this tragedy. Rather, use it to refine their faith in You (Mt. 19:13-14; Lk. 17:1-2; Eph. 1:27; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).
  6. Stir Your body to action, Lord Jesus. Surround these hurting people with those who will minister to them. Send believers who will offer food, visits, and other ministry in Your Name. Prompt Your people to reach out and offer the comfort they themselves have received from You. Give them opportunities to share the reason for the hope they have (Mt. 25:37-40; 2 Cor. 1:3-4; 1 Pet. 3:15).
  7. Eternal Father, prompt these friends to view their circumstances from the perspective of eternity. Help them to consider the fleetingness of life, the vain bustling around, and the storing up of wealth. Cause them to ponder the eternity You have set in their hearts. Give them a heart of wisdom as they realize that all our days are numbered (Ps. 39:4-6; Eccl. 3:11; Ps. 90: 10-12).
  8. Sovereign Lord, help these dear ones to be like Job, to see You as good and find reasons to praise You even though You have taken away. Grant them faith to accept trouble from You as well as good things, and give them confidence that even though You slay them, they can still hope in You (Job 1:21, 2:10, 13:15).
  9. Great Redeemer, protect these friends from feeling persecuted. Bless them with confidence that You intend good for them. Please redeem every loss and every painful memory, and use them for the saving of many lives. Help them to know that You understand how they feel because You also suffered (Gen. 50:20; Heb. 4:15-16).
  10. Author of life, on behalf of these friends I come before You to resist every attempt of the evil one to steal and kill and destroy through this tragedy. You are the resurrection and the life; bring the blessings of life and fullness into these friends’ lives (Jn. 10:10, 11:25).
  11. Merciful Savior, help these friends to see Your grace clearly and seek it to guard themselves against any root of bitterness (Heb. 12:15).
  12. God of all hope, help these friends to not lose sight of the plans You have for them—to prosper them and not to harm them, to give them a hope and a future. Help them, Holy Spirit, to hope in You and not in circumstances, so their strength will be renewed. Fill them with joy and peace as they trust in You so that they may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 29:11; Is. 40:31; Ro. 15:13).

Scripture prayers are from the NavPress prayer card, Prayers of Hope in Times of Calamity, by Cynthia Hyle Bezek. Available at http://www.navpress.com.

He’s Praying My Song

I have a friend who wound up in a wheelchair after he broke his neck in a bicycle accident. He nearly died, so we’re all grateful that God kept him here. Still, it’s a gross understatement to say that his (and his wife’s) life changed radically. Sometimes in ways you wouldn’t even think about.

For instance, reading. My friend has trouble using his arms and legs, right? So why is reading a problem? Well, because it’s hard for him to hold a book. It’s hard for him to keep his neck in position. It’s hard for him to turn pages. And for my friend, this is a Big Deal and huge loss because reading had a major role in his life.

But there have been surprising gifts, too. My friend says that God has given him heightened enjoyment of music. Music had never been a particular hobby of his before. But since the accident, it moves him deeply. It’s become a significant source of joy in his life.

One day my friend and another man were talking about songs they liked. They spent hours together “trading” songs. They took turns sharing favorite songs and what they liked about them.

Moved by how meaningful the experience was for him, my friend had an inspiration. He started “collecting” songs from his friends. He asks his friends to share a song that is meaningful to them for whatever reason. He then loads it onto his iPod. Whenever he listens to that song, he thinks of his friend and prays for him or her.

I was their house the other day. He played several songs for his wife and me—a wide variety including country (which ordinarily he dislikes, but he loves listening to “She Loves Me Like Jesus Does” because it reminds his friend). His play list includes hymns, rap, rock, Christmas songs, worship choruses, classical pieces, and more—40 songs in all. He listens to at least one song a day, using that song as a prompt to pray for the person who shared it.

Before I left on Sunday, he coaxed a song out of me. I have no clue how he will pray this song, because the words are in Latin and the tune comes from Mozart’s rather bombastic Requiem. But as we talked about songs that we both love, that one bubbled up. So now when he hears it, he assures me that he will be praying for me. And I am grateful.