A Prayer for the New Year

Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1 stood out to me recently. This is what he prays…

“[May you be] strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…” (Col. 1:11)

Endurance and patience with joy. Endurance. And patience. With joy. That is what I need. That is what I sorely lack, especially in relationship with my adopted, special-needs child. And that is something only God–in his glorious might–can provide.

So this will be my prayer for myself, and for my family, as we start in to a new year. And this is also my prayer for you. The circumstances requiring endurance or patience for you may be very different than they are for me, but the need to persevere patiently is the same. If there’s a particular circumstance you would like to receive prayer for, please shoot me an email and I would be glad to pray for you.


Retreat for your life!

Taking an extended retreat in the midst of Christmas busyness feels totally counterintuitive. But here I am, in a cozy cabin set aside for pastors to retreat and rest, taking a few days to step away from the craziness and seek God’s direction for the coming year. As hard as it is to set work and family responsibilities aside in order to carve out this kind of time alone with God, I am really img_1196grateful for it.

The exclamation “Run for your life!” calls a person to frantic activity in order to save their life. (And certainly, if something dangerous is coming at you, you should run for your life!) “Retreat for your life!” is the opposite—rather than a call to frantic activity, it is the counterintuitive call to unhurried rest in God, believing that is where depth of life is found. The world around us looks for life by working harder or working longer or working faster, but activity on its own does not automatically produce life. Instead, responding to Jesus’ invitation to come to Him and learn from Him and find rest in Him is often what it takes to “recover your life” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)… and that is what a retreat is for.

So I follow Jesus’ example of regularly withdrawing to desolate places to pray (Luke 5:16). I learn from Him how to create that space in order to be filled by Him (which is what the Greek word for “withdraw” literally means). And I thank God for a family that blesses me with this time, and for a ministry like The Oaks who provides a place like this to get away.

1000 Sleepless Nights

I remember well the tears and trauma (or maybe just drama) of dropping toddlers off at Sunday school and trying to extricate oneself from clinging arms and screaming mouths, all the while promising that Mommy and Daddy will come back soon. I also remember well the times of serving in the toddler department when other parents were the ones dealing with tears and trauma–the most frustrating thing as a helper was when a parent didn’t leave but hung around and tried to calm their child. That was frustrating because it took much longer for that child to learn to be OK with the temporary separation from their parents, and they never quite gained the same level of trust in their parents. But those children whose parents left even while the child was screaming came to eventually know–not just in theory but in lived experience–that they could trust their parents and take them at their word.

In her song Blessings, Laura Story asks the question: “What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?” Just as a toddler cannot fully know (in experience, not just in theory) that her parents are trustworthy unless her parents allow her to experience the discomfort of temporary separation, so also it seems that we only come to know (in experience, not just in theory) the nearness of God when we experience that nearness night after sleepless night. But if that is the case, then most likely that means that of those thousand sleepless nights, there have been several hundred in which we did not feel God’s nearness, and may in fact have doubted His presence and wondered if He had abandoned us. And then somewhere in that long string of suffering, perhaps in night 732, something finally clicks in our heart and we begin to know that God is indeed present and near, and as those long dark nights continue, the knowledge of God’s nearness moves from mere intellectual assent to the solid conviction of lived experience.

We could add our own questions alongside Laura’s:

  • What if this chronic pain is what it takes to know You’re strong?
  • What if this job loss is what it takes to know You’re sufficient?
  • What if this broken relationship is what it takes to know Your perfect love?
  • What if the strain of showing kindness to this unlovely person is what it takes to know Your extravagant mercy?
  • What if this dark valley of depression is what it takes to know Your hope that doesn’t disappoint?

A hymn by John Newton in 1779 captures God’s answer to these questions of ours…

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

“Muscle Memory” for the Soul

Because my daughter Anah does not have the cognitive ability (yet) to figure things out by reason or logic, then the only way to teach her a new skill is to repeat it so often that she eventually memorizes it. And if it’s a physical skill like taking a bath or brushing her teeth, we have to put our hands over hers and make her actually do the movement that is required until her body just knows what to do. When a set of physical movements is so ingrained that she can do it almost automatically (without thinking about each step), we say it is in her “muscle memory.”

I ran across this quote in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook the other day that used the term “soul memory” to speak of something similar to muscle memory:

Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis.                 [pg 135]

Muscle memory is when my daughter’s hands are so trained in the steps of washing herself in a bath that she can do it on her own even if she doesn’t logically understand what she is doing or why she is doing it. In the same way, soul memory is when my heart is so trained in the ways of loving God and loving others that they just come out of my character without me thinking about it or trying really hard. To love God and love others in the ways that He commands me to in His Word is not just difficult–it’s impossible. But as I train my soul incrementally and repetitively over a long time, God’s Spirit transforms my character in such a way that obedience to those commands becomes almost automatic and easy because it is ingrained in soul memory through all that practice.

So reading my Bible and memorizing portions of it is not just something I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian. Rather, it is one way that I train my soul to know and trust in the God who has created me. Going on solitude retreats is not just getting away from it all so that I can rest, but it is another way of training my soul to be open to whatever God may be directing my attention toward. Eliminating TV is not just to free up more time for myself, but it is a way of training my soul to be more fully present to the people around me. As I practice these disciplines (and many others) over and over, I am gradually developing soul memory–habits of the heart that are bent toward loving and trusting God, and toward loving others the way Christ has loved me.