God, You Ruined My Life! Confession of a Middle Aged Teenager

No matter how hard I try sometimes, the words I pick seem so often to be the wrong ones.  The single parent life, being father/mother gives us plenty of opportunities to be humbled.  If you ever thought you might be a bad parent, yeah, the single parent life will remove all doubt: you not only confirm your fears you might be a bad parent, you get to confirm it multiple times a day!

You try to say the right thing and it comes out wrong.  You want to be encouraging but you are tired and the tone of your voice betrays the irritation inside.  You don't pick up the right item at the store or you forget to wash an item of clothing the "right way" and suddenly you have..."RUINED MY LIFE!!!," so says your teenager.

You know what? I kinda feel the same way with God sometimes.  I mean, it is not hard to look at things in our lives and world and say to God, "Seriously? Did you just let that happen?!"  Oh, I know God is sovereign over all and I believe God is all-knowing but there are moments, where we release our inner two-year-old and stomp our feet and scream, "It is not fair!"

No.  It is not.  I get so tired of the theological prancing around of this issue.  Somethings in life are simply not fair.  Just because bad things happen or people act like scum of the earth, it does not necessarily mean God intended it.  But you know what? I am also tired of the idea God does not care or we cannot depend on God to be present in our time of need.

Just because people's actions smell like a porta-potty in 100-degree temperatures in Atlanta in July, why throw God out the window?  I mean, really, sometimes we need to look in the mirror and consider, "How many times have I DESERVED to be thrown out the window?"  Ugh.  Yeah, sure, some of the worst things in the world are done in the proverbial "name of religion" but it does not mean God did or God endorsed it.  We make choices.  You make them.  I make them.

When it comes to facing this issue of God in our messy lives, I always found one particular description of the Bible to be helpful.  Think about it like a play:

Act 1: Genesis 1 & 2 describe God's plan for us and paradise.
Act 2: Genesis 3 puts the characters in crisis: the worst situation possible.
Act 3: The rest of the Bible till today: The resolution - redemption.

Oh sure, argue about why we're here, who is responsible, or whether it is fair.  This doesn't change the reality we really just want to blame God or religion.  You and I want a scapegoat. We want to do anything we can to not accept our responsibility for our own actions.  I do not need to point the finger at Adam and Eve - I've made enough of a mess of things on my own.  The evidence that I have a "diseased love" is all around me.

I need help.  I need healing.  Yes, I need to be saved.

I need a change of perspective - a change of heart. I need to respond to the grace God has given.  I like the way St. Hesyochios the Priest said it, "If you wish to be 'in the Lord,' do not just SEEM to be [Christian], and good, and gentle, and always one with God, decide to BE such a person in truth."  He does not mean just be GOOD or that you can earn salvation by works.  He also wrote, "...let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath..." meaning, call upon Jesus always for the ability to live the life of a Christian.  

I need help.  I need healing.  I need to be saved.  I need a savior.

No amount of kicking and screaming or temper tantrums will change your scenario.  The same goes for me.  No, it comes back around to the same thing we all need.  We need Jesus.

Images used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/angry-sumo-1503055

Hearing God's Voice In The Valley of Suck

I won’t lie.  Writing has not come so easy as of late.  I get the writer’s block angle but it is not just this, I think it is the journey.  It is dealing with the long, tiring slog full of fits and starts in the valley of suck.  

Yesterday, my kids and I visited a church that was new to us.  We are doing a lot of visiting of churches together.  I am finding this to be really good for us as a family.  Not only do we have time together but I get a chance to teach them and they can experience, just how big Jesus’ Church really is!

During the service, I was led from being a parent caring for his kids and a pastor observing the flow and experience, to being part of the worshipping congregation.  The second song of the morning (which I didn’t know before Sunday) brought me to tears as the words eloquently described the wonder of what the Wesleyan-Methodist movement terms “prevenient grace.”  Take a listen if you have time:

“His careful hands they hold us
Safe within His promise
Of calling and of destiny
I will sing of all You've done
I'll remember how far You carried me
From beginning until the end
You are faithful, faithful to the end”

Just to clarify, “prevenient” is just a descriptive word (not found in scripture) to describe the grace (revealed in scripture) at work when we are completely clueless of God working (John Calvin, I believe, describes a similar grace termed “common grace”).

Now, I am not nor have I been, clueless to the reality God has been at work in my life and all around me.  I do not question “...God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28).”  

Here is one of the many problems of pulling out this verse too early as a means of comfort for many people in deep grief: we don’t care.

I’ve noted some other things before such as I do not believe God took my wife and the mother of my children.  She died because she (and we) are mortal creatures - mortal because of the soul wound which we suffer with since Genesis 3.  She did not die because there was not enough prayers or some secret, unconfessed sin.  Please. Spare us all - you did not know my wife that well and God did not put some secret wisdom on your heart (that reeks of the heresy of gnosticism. Sorry, but it does).

In the midst of great grief, there is not space in a heart to deal with any mystery more than the death of a loved one, in my case, my spouse.  There is mystery enough abounding in our lives as we witness physical life ending for the person we know best.  There are multiple questions abounding but no answer ought to be expected (even if we act like it would help). But really, we don't care if God has a plan or not for things to work good. It hurts. We weep because we know pain and loss. We sob because we are human - and we have lost. There will come a day when we can wonder about God's purpose - but the day will be a day when WE are ready.

It has been over four months now.  And it was not until yesterday, singing and seeing the words of "Faithful Till The End," when I got an answer (or maybe more of a non-answer/answer).  It was not the WHOLE answer.  I am not expecting it and to expect it, would just be silly.  But it was the start of God responding. I have been praying and seeking and waiting for God to say something.

It was like, well, it was like writing.  God gave me the first sentence of the larger answer.  It was God saying, “Look back.  I know you know but look anyway. - I was there.  I came to you. I was there with Heather and you know she is with me...AND I am with you and your kids now.  I have more to say but today, this is all you need.”

Grief is a tremendously long journey.  No one has to know how God is going to work suffering and pain for good in our lives.  I would argue, it may not even be good for us to know too soon.   Humanity needs humility.  Death brings us all to the same place. Humanity has yet to find a cure for death and for all the stories of mythical fountains of youth, we are not going to find what we want. And though we don’t get what we want, in God’s promises and God's actions, we can find what we need.

“Faithful to the End” is the song quoted:

Picture Used with permission:

Becoming More Mindful Through the Valley of Suck

Respect your elders.

It is an idea which has gone by the wayside.  I know for me, it was marked by how I addressed adults: “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am.”  While there might be a perception youth today don’t respect because those are not commonly heard, respecting elders has more to do with a mindset.  Respect also has to be earned.  Not surprisingly, many young people question whether some of their elders are deserving of unquestioning respect when those behaviors don’t warrant it.

My elders taught me to be respectful but they also taught me to ask questions...let me rephrase that, they taught me to ask good questions.

By that, I don’t mean they taught me to just blanket question everything out of some neurotic need to justify my place in the world or to be part of a movement to deconstruct systems and beliefs.  The model of questioning Jesus gives us is one, I think, calls us to explore not destroy and it requires listening as much as, or more so than it requires us to speak.  Matthew 5:17 records one of the most relevant statements of Jesus on this point when he said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

I’ve written about elsewhere about the desert mothers and fathers of the early centuries of the church.  Dr. Roberta Bondi has been a true gift to the Church in helping recover their wisdom (see To Love as God Loves).  But more than that, she has been a mentor to me in learning to “respect my elders” and learn their ways.  One help in that has been reading from the Philokalia, a collection of the teachings of many of these writings and an important text for the Orthodox Traditions of the Church.

Journeying through the valley of suck, that place of struggle and pain many caregivers experience, is a place of soul searching.  Honestly, it takes you down into the darkest regions of your soul if you let it.  To offer your life to care for someone at the end of their life, especially a spouse, is a place where you come to question many of your own convictions and motivations.  It can be a very spiritual place to say the least.

The desert mothers and fathers wrote frequently for the Christian to be “mindful” and practice “watchfulness.”  They did not intend this to be some obsessive behavior either; not another “to-do list” of a pharisee lifestyle.  It comes out of love for God which pours out of our hearts - even our intellects - as we come to desire all God offers to us.  Of course, they also didn’t live in our fast food - made to order - microwaveable culture.  

We have little patience for...well, patience.

They encourage us to unceasing prayer, a “prayer that does not leave the soul day or night.  It consists not in what is outwardly perceived...but in our inner concentration on the intellect’s activities and on mindfulness of God born of unwavering compunction…” (Nikitas Stithatos, Philokalia, pg 101).  The Jesus Prayer is the foundational practice of these elders but any prayer issuing from our hearts desire for God would be acceptable as well.  

What is encouraged here is for us to begin actively participating in our faith; to listen and learn from the Spirit of God living within us.  Our tendency seems to be that of trusting only those we know - the popular, the current, those with a good marketing plan and slick graphic arts.  We listen to voices that sound like us without trusting our elders because, well, they're old...ancient even!  They use words unfamiliar to our vernacular.  Well, thank goodness there is Google!  Besides looking for new cat videos and pictures, you can look up some of those less common words and begin discovering what our elders really would like us to know.

I can say, as I have made the Jesus Prayer and breath prayers part of my life, I find mindfulness and watchfulness not a burden but habit and behavior far more easily practiced...almost like checking e-mails or Twitter.  There is LIFE in coming to respect our elders, in our true elders, those whose desire centuries ago was to pass on what they had learned.

May I Suggest? Take up praying this week's breath prayer at the top of the blog. Consider that by making any breath prayer a habit, it in fact, teaches you mindfulness. By calling on Jesus, we invite His presence to be more alert to the temptations with face AND the grace given to overcome.

#Simplespirituality: Creating your own Breath Prayer

“If we are bored by our own prayers, it is unlikely that God will be very interested in them,” Simon Tugwell (10, “Prayer in Practice”)   

You don’t know me and I do not know you, but I suspect, when it comes to the life of prayer, there is part of you, at some time in your life, got bored with prayer.  I don’t know if this is right now for you or not.  But it is my hope and prayer, as you read through my notes (raw and unedited) if nothing else, you leave here with a prayer you are not bored to pray.

I think our problems with prayer starts with a desire to want to keep the supernatural; the spiritual; under our control.  This isn’t odd though because we generally like to keep everything under our control.  In his class on the Old Testament, Dr. John Oswalt taught us a great deal regarding the Ancient Near Eastern cult religions.  All of these cults are based off the idea of man “discovering” gods and making sense of their world by rituals intended to control these gods.

But in the Judeo-Christian tradition we have recorded that it is God who initiated, God who reached out, and God who first loved.  We understand Scripture to be a result primarily of revelation and not evolution.  The Wesleyan-Methodist concept of “prevenient grace” the grace that “goes before” makes this a vital foundation to prayer:  God speaks first.  What we do is a response to God’s action.  And the conversation that begins between us and God?  That is prayer.

In his book “Shattered Dreams,” Dr. Larry Crabb makes the observation: “It is in the pain that we discover our desire for God.”  Now, pain can take on MANY forms.  The pain that drives us toward God maybe related to work, to family, to faith, to health, and the list goes on.  For me, you can combine all of these and a few more but none so transformative as being my wife’s caregiver and living through her death from colon cancer after a 20 month battle with the disease.

Pain and prayer have gone hand in hand for sometime.  And in observing the life of Jesus and the lives of the saints, both those who lived by the Law of the Old Covenant and those who followed Jesus after the New Covenant, we find their spiritual lives governed by a more simple spirituality.  Jesus sums up the Law:  
Matthew 22:35-40 ESV  And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  (36)  "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"  (37)  And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38)  This is the great and first commandment. (39)  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (40)  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

While we Methodists point to a number of practices which fall under the title of “Means of Grace,” in his sermon by the same title, John Wesley points out three practices: Prayer, Scripture, and Communion as the primary practices for us to grow in faith.

We are not given the gift of an abundance of time today so we are limited to one of these, and by request, it is on prayer.  But let me put out one idea which does apply to them all that being:“Practices of Faith, practiced when we choose, are practices available when life does not go as we choose.”  My practice of the Jesus Prayer and breath prayers, is one example.

As part of my first 5 Day Academy of Spiritual Formation in 2011, we were encouraged to read, “The Way of A Pilgrim.”  It is a spiritual classic from the Eastern tradition of the Church, by Eastern, I mean the Orthodox Tradition.  It tells the story of a pilgrim who learns to pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  I began praying it and found it a wonderful gift and way to pray.  As honest confession, I had long struggled with praying until reading this book and learning to pray.

A couple of years later, I learned of about breath prayers.  A way to pray based off the idea of the Psalms and the Jesus Prayer.  Rev. Ron DelBene, and Episcopal clergy, wrote a series of books on it called “The Breath of Life” Series.  From this point, I have continued to explore breath prayer as a more active and dynamic practice.

When we read and study the narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings, we often neglect, I think, to point out the ongoing practice which has been so much a part of our Methodist-Wesleyan tradition: Jesus was an itinerate teacher.  He was always going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue and venturing across the waters ways of Israel.  Today, we are more stagnate and passive, not only in our lives but also in our faith practices.

My daughter, Jay, and I were planning to start section hiking the summer of 2014.  We had planned to do 50 miles of the Georgia section that first time out.  In preparation, I debated about what to carry - namely to take a Bible and/or devotional.  But it was “The Way of a Pilgrim” that won out.  No, I didn’t take the book, I took the narrative - I simply took the practice of the Jesus Prayer.  

Up and down the mountains of the AT, I prayed the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  That was it.  But what BEGAN happening was far more personal and transformative.  I began to breath it in and out and meditate on each phrase, then each word.  The rhythm of my feet, my heart, my mind and my soul came to resonate with it.  This is what the pilgrim spoke about = coming to “pray without ceasing”

Abba Matoes, one of the early desert fathers of the church, said, “The nearer a man draws to God, the more he sees himself a sinner.  It was when Isaiah the prophet saw God, that he declared himself, “a man of unclean lips.”’ (Isaiah 6:5)  It is hard to miss that truth over the many steps taken saying you are a sinner.

It is also hard to miss the power and magnificence of the word, “Mercy.”  Just that one word becomes a prayer too.  And suddenly, you have the basis for another form of Simple Prayer called “Centering Prayer.”  Referring to the book, “The Cloud of Unknowing (Ch 37),” Simon Tugwell mentions how powerful a one word exclamation can be: “Fire!” yelled by someone running from a burning home is sufficient for a response.  Consider simply “AMEN” and how it is traditionally defined to mean “So be it” or “I agree” or “Lord, make it so.” (9/29/16. http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/amen/), it becomes a prayer. Pick any word found in Scripture: Love - Peace - Patience - Faith - Hope - Grace - Jesus - Savior - Spirit: each word, like MERCY, holds a multitude of prayers to be considered.

In just a few moments, we’ll work on a simple pattern for creating your own breath prayer.  My first breath prayer that I used for some time was “Our Father, my God, grant me you.”  But when my wife’s diagnoses came, and I began a journey into what I call "the valley of suck," this prayer seemed so lacking and I chose to go back to praying the Jesus Prayer.  And it was in this STEPPING BACK INTO the practice of the Jesus Prayer, I saw it as a way to INTERCEDE for others especially my wife: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on Heather.”  I would add my kids to my prayers in this way.  

I didn’t have to think of words to say, they came over and over again.  Why?  It is was the practice of being on the trail.  By this time, I was using an Orthodox Prayer Rope and then prayer beads.

When Heather and I received the news in January that her cancer was not responding to the chemotherapy, we were both heartbroken.  As I prayed I found something new rising in me and from it came a new breath prayer: “Jesus, have mercy and grant me comfort.”  It too became a prayer of intercession for Heather and our kids.  Most days, my prayer boiled down to and still does, to “Jesus have mercy” or “Mercy Lord.”

And, this began a pattern of listening to the Spirit more regularly for how I might pray, what is it that I feel or experience a burden for?  It is not just from my heart either, as the Psalms and other scriptures provide guidance as well for how you might pray.  

These steps are nothing magical.  They come in part from Ron DelBene’s pattern but let me say, if you’re attentive to God’s voice, you may find breath prayers coming from other sources.

  1. SIT with God
Find a good time and space where you seem to most connect with God.  However, sitting with God may include other activities.  It is just a way of saying “be aware” of God.  The Spirit of God can speak anywhere.

  1. SENSE God speaking
Ignatius of Loyola was a big proponent of using our imagination in spiritual practice.  Imagine God is speaking and asking: “What do you want?”  But listen carefully too.  God may also be asking you to pray something specifically.  God may say, “This what you are to pray,” or “Look for my words to your prayer.”

  1. SHARE with God
This is practicing “active listening” with God.  Whether it is a word like “mercy” or “forgiveness” that comes or a Bible verse, what resonates with your soul?  This is largely the time of forming the core of your prayer, what the Spirit is speaking to you.

  1. SPEAK God’s name
What is the name of God which fits best your prayer?  That may seem odd.  Ron DelBene encourages the reader to think of a favorite name but I try to consider the wealth of names which are available OR the one which fits the tone or meaning of the prayer.  “Savior” may not be a significant as using “Spirit.”  

  1. SETTLE on a prayer
Here you put it together: the prayer with the name of God.  Speak it out loud.  Chew on it quietly.  Consider its rhythm and where God’s name fits best.  Be willing to change it as you continue to pray it and learn from God.

In the sidebar of my blog are samples of breath prayers. Each week, I take time to listen to the Spirit and my heart and have conversation with God. Using these practices and others, I consider what is a prayer for my week. I share these through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (look up "jedipastorken") and if they are helpful, I encourage you to take them and share them but more importantly, to pray them. Whatever you do, I encourage you most of all to just pray but don't pray boring prayers!

Here are further links you might find helpful.
Ron DelBene's Site  For downloads of Ron's books and links to his YouTube Videos.  

Prayerworks Studio  For the writings and prayer beads of my friend Kristen Vincent.  If you're interested in prayer beads, start here.

JEDIPASTORKEN on YOUTUBE  I have a number of resources here on my blog but also I'm over on YouTube and here is one of my videos giving a quick overview of prayer.

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