A Daily Prayer

Faith comes easily to me. For as long as I can remember, I have believed down to my toes that God loves me, Jesus died for me, and the Spirit guides me.

And yet. As an emotionally-driven individual, my attitudes and actions may tell a different story. Too often, I don’t act like I believe a loving God cares about my life and the world I inhabit.

Life is good, and hard. Life is beautiful, and brutal. As Glennon Doyle puts it, Life is brutiful. Faith—trusting that we’re not alone or left to our own sometimes pitiful resources—helps.

But it’s easier declared than lived on the daily.

Of course I try. Yet as I think of seasons in life where we have faced significant challenges—illnesses and injuries, job stress which increased financial stress, losses of one sort or another—I know I prayed, and still what I felt smacked more of grief than hope. (Interestingly, I also recall several people telling me during one of those difficult seasons that I glowed with hope; God is good).

During desperate times, faith can be hard-scrabble, tooth-and-nail dug deep.

When one son vomited for weeks on end, repeat every few months for years, missing school and eluding (for a long while) diagnosis. When another son suffered a severe concussion that not only affected his abilities but changed his personality, again for too long. When help seems unavailable and despair unavoidable, then what?

That’s when I turn to one of my favorite biblical prayers:

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

God knows I believe, but I need to grow in asking Him to help me believe all the time, in life’s common nonsense and torrential storms alike. Pray with me?

Dig deeper…

Connect
Share about a recent power-full experience.

Study
Read Mark 9:14-29.
Describe the scene Jesus returns to (vv14-20).
What do you think the disciples and teachers might have argued about (vv14-16)? How might their argument have affected the disciples’ ability to help the child?
How does the crowd respond to seeing Jesus (v15)? How does the spirit respond (v20)?
Who do you think Jesus intends to include in His rebuke of the “unbelieving generation” (v19)?
Put the father’s interaction with Jesus in your own words (vv17-24).
Read Mark 3:14-15 and Mark 6:7, 12-13. Since the disciples have received from Jesus power to cast out spirits and have done so previously, what else might be going on (vv28-29)?

Live
What can we learn from this story about belief, prayer and power?
How do you hang on to faith in desperate circumstances?
How can others’ faith or doubt affect your own belief?
If you can, share about a time when you experienced Jesus’ power.
What might change in your life if you daily/regularly prayed the father’s prayer?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Ask God to increase your belief.

Family Share Questions
Use these questions to reflect on Mark 9:14-29 individually and with your family.
When you think of someone “powerful,” who comes to mind?
How does Jesus help the boy and his father?
Ask God to help you believe.

 

 

 

Advent 4: Stand Firm (2019)

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. How are you doing in the whirl and swirl of holiday preparations?

Our tree is up, lit, and half-decorated. I was at work when Guy and Q15 got that much done; C21 still has his box of decorations to add, if he gets around to it.

The mantle is decorated, but the boxes that hold the decorations eleven of twelve months clutter all the corners while awaiting their return to the attic.

Later today the boys and I will brave the mall for one last gift. The college kid had finals one week, the high school kid had finals the next, and either I or the college kid have worked most nights…coordinating our schedules has been ridiculous, holidays aside. Honestly, I had stress dreams about trying to park amidst the holiday crowds, only alleviated this morning when I realized my son who works as a valet can park my car.

No presents have been wrapped. I’m not even sure what we’ve purchased.

My refrigerator looks like an explosion went off and we haven’t finished shopping for the holiday meals. Guy called an hour ago to say we’ll have four extra guests for Christmas Eve, all good and now it actually does matter if a) the house and b) I am ready to receive guests.

I tried to make a list of all the things that need to be done by tonight so I can enjoy tomorrow, and it’s incomplete because I’m not even sure what needs to be done. It’s that overwhelming. I will just do one thing and then another until I collapse into bed.

Oh, and Q15 fell asleep with his glasses on his face, which tweaked the frames, so we have to fit in an emergency visit to LensCrafters. Meanwhile, he’s wrapped them in scotch tape.

So, no surprise that the Advent mediation I’d meant to write yesterday didn’t happen. Instead, I took the dogs on a walk, cleaned myself up, and went to a lovely holiday party to connect with friends for an hour. Both the walk and the party felt more important to the state of my soul than the sorry state of our house or my self-imposed deadlines.

(Having read about my disorganization, does anyone feel better yet about their own life? You’re welcome!)

Yesterday’s Advent invitation was to “Stand Firm.” The beach is my favorite place to wiggle my toes, and I love the feeling of shifting sand under my feet as the flowing water pulls at the grains. I love less the metaphorical feeling that the sand beneath my feet is shifting, that change is coming and is now here and I don’t know what that means for today let alone tomorrow.

How to stay calm, how to stand firm and resist the all-too-easy temptation to worry? Jesus. Yes, it sounds cliche, but it’s also true. I have been hanging on to the prayer I wrote last summer, that Jesus would plant my feet on solid ground. And the only true solid ground is the knowledge and experience of His grace and love. I don’t deserve it. I can’t earn it. And still, He offers Himself. As Max Lucado writes, “…when the world goes wild, He stays calm.”

What matters most is not that I get my house perfectly clean and organized, or that I put on the best-ever holiday meal, or that the presents are beautifully wrapped. I am not a Pinterest-perfect mama. What matters most is that I take a few deep breaths, do what I can do, and then enjoy the company of Jesus and my family and friends.

May we all, today and this week and into next year, allow Jesus to set our feet firmly on the solid rock of His loving presence with us. Merry Christmas!

For your own set of the cards I’ve used as an Advent calendar, which can be used throughout the year, please click here.

Advent 2018 Wk3 – Faith

The year C20 had his first birthday, Guy and I both turned 30 a few weeks before and after. Our birthdays span November to January so Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s got wrapped up in the fun. We created a list of small celebrations we could enjoy each day during those eight weeks, simple activities like sweetening a mug of hot chocolate with a candy cane, going for a walk together, or watching an animated Christmas movie. We celebrated our lives and the holidays with flair.

As I spent this last week reflecting on joy, I realized that I might be doing Advent wrong. Or, at least, wrong for me at this time.

Other than chomping the daily chocolates in our Advent calendar, I didn’t grow up with an Advent tradition. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was simply Christmastime, when we listened to Christmas music and shopped and wrapped and enjoyed the season.

I appreciate Advent for its thematic focus, its intentionality, its lens on waiting for Jesus. But over the years, our church has adopted a fuller Advent tradition, limiting Christmas music to Christmas Eve and the following Sunday (and the annual Christmas concert, the one exception to the rule) in favor of Advent hymns. And since there are only two popular Advent hymnsCome, Thou Long Expected Jesus and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel–the music sounds like the rest of the year. So even though I used to start listening to Christmas music in October while I planned the church Christmas materials, I have mostly stopped listening to Christmas music before Christmas.

And I’m missing it. I’m missing the joy. I’ve employed the discipline without reaping the benefit, and I’m sorrier for it. I feel dry and dour.

Perhaps traditional Advent observance might also necessitate the observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas–Christmas celebrations commencing on Christmas and lasting until King’s Day on January 6. But I’m not there; when Christmas is over, it’s over. And since so much of life necessarily involves waiting for Jesus, I want to enjoy Him now. I want to celebrate Him today. I don’t want to wait any longer.

Besides, there is way too much good Christmas music to limit it to a day.

Those of us who follow Jesus live in tension between the already and not yet. Jesus has come, and He will come again. We have the joy of salvation now, but we won’t experience the fullness of life in His Kingdom until the second coming. So we wait.

But why in the world am I intentionally limiting the joy of celebrating His birth? Sure, His birthday is next week, but He’s already here. This year the discipline feels a little absurd, like not talking to my son for the month before his birthday just because his birthday hadn’t yet happened… What sense would that make?

This week’s focus is faith, that God will direct our paths even (especially) when the way seems foggy. I’m staring intently down some foggy paths of my own, and I do believe that Jesus will show up, that He will hold my hand and walk gently with me. And I’m going to celebrate that reality today, with some Christmas music, even as I wait for His eventual arrival.

Week 3 – Joseph’s Faith 

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light three candles (two purple, one pink): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope, joy and faith.

Read Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Read: A good man, Joseph found himself in what looked like a bad situation. While he quietly planned a way out, an angel assured him that he had no reason for fear: what seemed like bad news would be good news for everyone. Mary’s baby wasn’t just any baby—this would be God’s baby, Immanuel, God with us! When we accept God’s plan, God turns our fear to faith and our faith to joy.

Pray: Holy Spirit, where we feel fear, plant your seed of faith. Grow our faith into joy in your presence. In the name of Jesus, we wait and pray. Amen.

Monday Deuteronomy 7:8-9 How does God’s faithfulness inspire your faithfulness to Him?
Tuesday Psalm 93:1 How do you hang on in faith that God is in control?
Wednesday Isaiah 26:3-4, 12 What worries do you need to put in God’s hands?
Thursday John 14:27 Let go of your troubles and receive Jesus’ peace.
Friday Colossians 1:3-4 Who can you thank God for as an example of faith in Christ?
Saturday Hebrews 11:1 How do you define faith?

Suggested Activities
Make a list of things in which you put your faith, for example, that your alarm will go off in the morning or that the lights will come on when you flick the switch. Try to count as least ten. Then ask: Is it (or, why is it) sometimes easier to trust in these mundane things than to trust in the God who sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior?

Incorporate silence into your daily routine and use it as a chance to talk with God. Drive with the radio off. Go for a quiet hike. Sit in silence with your morning cup of coffee. Read your Bible, and let God share with you His perspective on what you’re facing each day.

Journal
When have you seen God show up in your unexpected or unwanted circumstances? Where do you need to experience His presence currently?

“It is faith that what happens to me matters to God as well as to me that gives me joy, that promises me that I am eternally the subject of God’s compassion, and that assures me that the compassion was manifested most brilliantly when God came to us in a stable in Bethlehem.” –Madeleine L’Engle, Glimpses of Grace

Kids’ Connections

Long ago I had the privilege to lead this sweet young lady in following Jesus. Truly, it was a joy to walk together and I’m sure I learned as much from her as she did from me. Now she has the privilege of leading others… I love how that works!

Guest Post: Sara Pantazes

The opportunity to run our church’s mid-week children’s program was a perfect fit for me–resume-worthy job experience I could easily fit into my already full life of grad school, homemaking, and kid-raising.

The directive, however, wasn’t as easy: “Like youth group, for kids.” As a Christian educator in training, I felt up to the challenge. By Wednesday night kids have been in school and shuttled between activities for three days. Our program was part of that hamster wheel. Kids didn’t need another classroom lesson. But I didn’t want to spend that precious hour only on games. How could I balance the kids’ need to move and play with my desire to use that time for faith formation?

Providentially, inspiration came in a book I read over Christmas break. One chapter told the story of a children’s minister who focused her Wednesday night children’s program on contemplative practices. Quotes like these lit my imagination:

Rather than mirroring the media-driven culture, might churches instead provide space for children to step out of the fast-paced world and enter into meaningful community?

…these children will be called to something that means they will have to know how to find stillness and quiet in the midst of chaos and confusion.  If we do not provide them with this, we will have failed this generation.

Reading about this program helped me narrow in on a concrete goal that felt right for my program–connection with God. That children hunger for the ability to be still caught my attention, and teaching children how to quiet themselves in order to hear and connect with God sounded like challenge worth exploring. So I created my own format loosely based on the structure described in the book. It looked like this:

Welcoming: 15-20 minutes of games, usually Legos and tag

Sharing: The kids help me lay out a blanket for us to sit around and we turn on lamps and turn off overhead lights. We share what has been good and bad about our days, giving us a chance to calm ourselves and relax together.

Worshiping: We sing a simple song, the same one each week, with words and/or signs, to remind us that we are stepping out of our everyday lives and into a special time with God.

Listening: I narrate a Bible story using Godly Play materials (simple wooden carvings of the characters and setting of a story) and the narratives from Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman’s Young Children and Worship. Once the story has been told, we discuss “I wonder…” questions to help us think about the story, what the characters might have felt or thought, and where we might find ourselves in the story.

“She describes the approach as respectful of children and trusts that God will speak to and through the children as they enter the story together. She does not feel compelled to control the process but trusts that God is at work, drawing the children into relationship with him…”

Reflecting: We end with individual reflection. I give them a question to consider on their own through writing or drawing. After a few weeks I also let some children stay on the blanket to retell the story as they move the figures around themselves.

One child’s reflection on the Last Supper

Our program year is done now and, while I appreciate summer break, I’m already excited for next year. Our time wasn’t always perfectly reverent–kids will be kids after all. But it was truly amazing to witness how quickly they settled into the rhythm, how much they wanted to help with set-up, how attentive they were to the stories, and the insights they shared.

I’m hopeful that seeds have been planted, that–in one hour in the midst of their busy week–they were able to rest in God’s presence, and that it left them hungry for more.

We can connect to lots of things in our lives to fill us, sustain us, or maybe even help us thrive. Asking children to connect with God might sound like a tall order, but I had faith it could be done. It takes some work, but the results are truly beautiful.

 

Sara is wife of Tom and mom of Ben and Matt. Their family life started in Williamsburg, VA but they now live in a beautiful rural-suburban corner of southeast Pennsylvania. A recent graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Sara is beginning to transition from full-time stay at home mom to part-time Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of West Chester, a transition which will fully challenge (and hopefully enrich) her own ability to stay connected with and rooted in God.

On My Mind

This weekend as I deadheaded the roses going crazy in our front yard, a woman came to mind, an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in some time. I have no idea why she popped into my head.

As I do when someone comes to mind, I prayed for her.

Thinking of the one woman brought another woman to mind. I’m not sure if they’re friends, but I met them around the same time. So I prayed for her, too.

This week our church is holding a kids’ camp, 330+ kids and 150 volunteers swarming our campus with joy, laughter, crafts, song, skits, and other shenanigans. It’s a magnificent mess and one of the best weeks of the year.

Yesterday I saw both women who’d come to mind over the weekend. I told them each, separately, that I’d thought of and prayed for her over the weekend. One had a fluke encounter with a cow while hiking with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and has a broken shoulder; she might be facing surgery.

The other looked at me skeptically: “Well, that’s odd. Did you hear what happened to me Friday?” On the way home from setting up her camp area, she noticed two dogs loose in the road. She pulled over to help them, and one seriously attacked her; she had to call 911 and required stitches in the back of both thighs.

We looked at each other. I said, “Well, I guess you really needed some prayer…”

She said, “I sure did! Thanks for praying.”

Random, but not random at all…

Last night I had a lonely, woe-is-me moment. Then I wondered: God had put two women on my mind seemingly without occasion. Who might have me on their mind? Who might be praying for me, unbeknownst to me?

 

Milestones

Annie burst into the bar exclaiming, “What IS this place?”

“It’s the best little wine bar you’ve ever stepped foot in, but tonight it’s also a karaoke bar!” came my response.

Without a glance at the menu, she ordered a sauvignon blanc and a song list. Her two friends, obviously indulging Annie’s whim, didn’t even want water.

Annie danced in the heart of the bar. And when she sang, she did so as badly as you might imagine—off-key and off-tempo—and with so much joy we all laughed along.

She told stories, and laughed at her “L.A. friends, who think they’re really something, but they’re missing out,” danced some more, and completely whooped it up. She brought the party.

Before she left she asked for one more song, a special song she sang to her kids as they grew up: Que Será, Será. I smiled, because my mom had sung it to me, too.

I couldn’t have told you Doris Day sang it originally, but I knew the words:

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty
Will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que será, será
What will be, will be

When Annie got to the third verse, tears filled my eyes:

Now I have children of my own
They ask their mother, what will I be
Will I be handsome
Will I be rich
I tell them tenderly

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que será, será
What will be, will be

While I haven’t sung this song to my own children, in my own way I encourage them to have faith, that God knows the plans we don’t. I regularly repeat to them another of my mother’s lessons: “You do your best and let God do the rest.”

What will be, will be…

C19 finished one year at the only college he ever wanted to attend, and it didn’t go the way any of us had hoped. He gave up what he had thought would be his dream major and came home. He’ll work and attend community college as he pursues whatever will be next for him.

Q14 graduated middle school last week. We are so proud of his tenacity, because this so-smart kid can’t seem to figure out how to “do school” well. And yet, he loves school. He enjoys his friends. He adores band. He has a curious intellect and genuinely wants to learn. And learn he does, he just doesn’t perform accordingly. Our frustration increases as no teacher or learning specialist we’ve met so far has been able to determine why, or how to help him.

And yet, these young men are all caught up in the fabulous work of becoming. C19 matured so much in his first year of college. He advocated on his own behalf in several situations. He sought healthy outlets for stress. He joined a sports club and made friends. He determined who he didn’t want to be as much as who he might like to be.

Q14 composed his first piece of music. He went on a nine-day trip to Europe with peers and teachers; and he endured a migraine in a foreign country with as much grace and peace as one could possibly have under the circumstances. And the weekend following graduation he was thrilled to go on his first backpacking trip.

So we sing: que será, será, whatever will be, will be. Because God only knows what will be. And still we trust that these kids, with their gifts and talents and challenges, with their twists and turns on life’s roads, will be just fine.

 

[photo credit: Steve Bartis]

The Sad Song

I had a rare treat last weekend: a Barnes & Noble sat across the street from the hotel where we stayed. Since most bookstores in our area have closed, I relished the opportunity to spend an hour meandering, collecting a stack of books that attracted my attention for various reasons, and sitting in a corner with them, slowly turning pages.

One book addressed our fear response to life’s hard times. The author wrote, “We habitually spin off and freak out when there’s even the merest hint of fear. We feel it coming and we check out…The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).

Yes, and yes. Life is hard. We feel badly. We check out and cheat ourselves.

Or we could not. Listen to my friend Mike advocate for a different approach…

re:create recess #19: Mike Loretto

I might be a little bit odd.

I had this thought recently when I was feeling the need for a break–for recreation–and my first impulse was to reach for…

…the saddest music I could put on.

I love sad songs. I love them. And I love them because–hang with me now–they make me feel sad. I actually love feeling sad. I know. It’s weird.

When I’m in the thick of the busyness of life and feel that internal prick of “I need to recreate, to play,” I have learned that some of the things that felt like recreation when I was younger don’t call to me as much. In those needful moments, I still might reach for the remote control, a tennis racket, a video game, a drink, a book, or any number of other things. Some of the time those things are the right decision; some times they’re really not. Most of them have no inherent goodness or badness. They all have the potential to be informative or celebratory or good exercise or just plain fun. They all also have the potential to be avenues for escape.

And I’m prone to escapism. Some combination of my personality, my experiences, and the myriad ways that modern culture offers us to escape our reality have, for me, led to 37 years worth of finding creative ways to escape. To not be present to what’s really going on in my life. To not be attentive. To not, in all honesty, be fully alive in many moments.

Sadness and grief can be paralyzing. Depression is no joke. I say all of this from experience. Intentionally diving into the waters of sadness isn’t always the right move, either–sometimes escape is a survival technique. Everything in its season, and everything in moderation. But I find that my default setting is one in which I’m not really letting myself grieve the big or small rips in the fabric of life that I encounter. The ways I’m broken. The ways the world is broken. The pain of people I love. The pain of people I’ll never meet. And I need regular doses of art, conversation, experiences that will prod me to do that grieving.

That’s where, for me, sad songs come in. A well-written, well-performed sad song has the capability to take me right to the core (or at least to dig into the mantle) of feelings I’ve been avoiding. When I turn on Patty Griffin’s “Rain,” or the soundtrack of the musical “The Last Five Years,” I access the pain and grief of relationships not going like we thought they would, hoped they would, needed them to. When I listen to Jason Isbell’s “Elephant,” I’m seared by the sadness of death and dying and of loving someone deeply. I remember in college listening to David Crowder’s “All I Can Say” on repeat, and feeling the desperation of spiritual longing, of the “dark night of the soul.”

Sometimes the sad song might end on a hopeful note. Many of the best don’t. The hope is found in the alchemy of turning grief into beauty, and in the “Oh, you too?” recognition that breaks us out of our isolation. There is something incredibly moving to me about a piece of art that tells the truth about the hard parts of life and somehow begins to redeem it in the beauty of the telling. The craft of the lyrics, the choices of instrumentation and rhythms and chord progressions, the sigh of a steel guitar line or the weeping of a mandolin, the voice soaked in the waters of experience–the right combination of these things cracks me open and brings me to my knees.

My faith and my experience tell me that the world is (and that I am) flawed and broken, and also that even good things must eventually burn down to let something better rise from the ashes. Being intentional about accessing sadness is, for me, a way of sifting through those ashes and finding the building blocks of new creation. As an (often frustrated) songwriter, I find that listening to a song that gets me in touch with my sadness is one of the best avenues for finding the head- and heart-space in which I do my best creative work. It’s a way of touching the live rail that energizes creativity. It hurts, but the hurt motivates and animates.

So here’s to the sad song. Turn it up and cry it out, my friends.

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com