For Thanksgiving this year, I was able to enjoy a delicious meal with my family. My husband and I drove out to Orange County and stayed with my dad and my stepmom Kim. On Thursday, my aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents came over and we spent the day cooking and enjoying one another’s company. It was a great time together!

I enjoy Thanksgiving so much not only because of the time I get to spend with family and the delicious food, but because it is a time to take a step back and reflect on all of the things that I have to be thankful for. God has blessed me with so much. I have an amazing husband and a deeply fulfilling marriage. I have a wonderful family including three parents who love me, two brothers who I can share life with, and many aunts, uncles, and grandparents who make my family the colorful, fun, and loving group of people that it is. I have my best friends, Taylor and Halston, and so many other close friends to fill my life with joy. I have the best pets in the world, Marley, Booda, Rocky, and Nilly.

Besides all of those things, I am blessed to have all of my needs taken care of. I have a comfortable place to live, plenty of clothes, and I’ve never gone hungry. I have luxuries that so many people in the world don’t even think to wish for. I am in good health and have a body that works the way that it should. Overall, I am extraordinarily lucky to have the life that I do. As easy as it is to take all of that for granted, I try to remember each day to be thankful for what I have. Although many people have less or more than I do, I believe that everybody can find something to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is an extra special day to take some time out to think about all that we have, no matter how little or how much that may be. Of course, for those of us that have a lot, I also think that Thanksgiving is a good reminder for us to give to others who don’t.

I feel saddened by some of the attitudes that people have adopted towards Thanksgiving. It seems that more and more people are beginning to see it as a day to indulge, instead of as a day to give thanks. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good meal, but I believe that the food is just a bonus, a way of celebrating all of the things that we have in life. More concerning to me is the growing Thanksgiving tradition of commercial indulgence. This year, many stores started their Black Friday sales on Thursday, and even before this latest trend there has traditionally been a huge emphasis on the goal of buying things immediately after Thanksgiving. I, for one, truly do not understand this. It’s as if Thanksgiving is seen as a day to give thanks for all that we have, right before we go out and acquire more things just for the sake of it. It has become the holiday of commercialism.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that there is anything wrong with taking advantage of a Black Friday sale to buy something that you already were planning on buying or that you “need.” But what I have seen way too much of lately is people planning on going Black Friday shopping just to see what they can find. Why not spend that money and time on something more important, like helping those in need? There is an abundance of worthy causes in our broken world that need financial support and volunteers. When people have so much money and time that they can go searching for ways to use it up, I believe that they have a responsibility to start giving something back. More than a responsibility, though, giving to others in need is a gift. It is a surefire way to find joy and fulfillment, because humans helping other humans is one of the most beautiful acts that we are capable of.

I didn’t want to write this post as a judgment to people. The truth is, we are all guilty of this greedy and selfish attitude to some degree. Who am I to say when somebody has taken it too far? All I know for sure is that Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful, not greedy, and that we should all strive to live that way every other day of the year as well. Nobody is perfect, but we can and should all strive to be less focused on ourselves.

What it all comes down to for me is people. When I look at the world from God’s point of view (or at least as close to His point of view as I can get), I see people. I remember that God created every human being with love and care, and that He treasures each one of us beyond what we can know. That applies to the friendly cashier at the grocery store, the annoying little kid who’s screaming in the mall, the rude man in the fancy car who just cut you off, the woman who was trampled to death at Wal-Mart on Black Friday four years ago, and all of the people who let their greed take over enough to run her down. It applies to every single person that you casually pass by every day. And sometimes, or in my case at least, quite often, we forget that. We forget that people are the most important thing in this world. We arrange our priorities so that money, work, school, achievement, power, our hopes and dreams, and our opinions come first. Perhaps because of the sheer number of us, people become common and unimportant. That, I can’t help but feel, is a sheer tragedy.

Thanksgiving is a reminder to me to reevaluate my priorities. It is a reminder to be thankful for what I have, but also to be humbled by what others lack. It is a reminder to me that, when it all comes down to it, greed is the reason that our world is as broken as it is. And it is a powerful reminder that I need to strive every single day against my greedy and selfish nature, because if I don’t, then I am throwing everything that God has blessed me with back in His face by ignoring the most important thing that he cares about; people. When I think about it that way, I feel most thankful for the one thing that I have that I truly need, the one thing that nobody can take away—Jesus. Because of Jesus, I don’t have to feel guilty for my failures. Because of Jesus, I can push forward towards a more Godly version of me, the version who is selfless and generous and who makes the world a better place. And that is truly something to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers, and I hope that we can all strive to be both thankful and generous during this holiday season. Even better, I hope that we can all strive to be that way every day.

Pray – Part 4

In Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer, he mentions the idea that prayer is a lot like sex. (I bet I’ve got your attention now!) I can’t help but agree.

Think about it— in the movies, on TV, in books, and in songs, sex sounds amazing. Not only is it always fun and exciting, but it is also easy and satisfying. For some people in real life, this is a reflection of reality. For most people, though, sex is much more complicated and often less wonderful. I hope that the majority of people have experienced or will one day experience God’s intended plan for sex— sex in a committed and loving relationship that is intimate, connective, satisfying, and fun. But even if this is the case, I feel fairly certain that sex isn’t like that the majority of the time for the majority of people.

Prayer is the same way. When people in movies, on television, in books and in songs pray, they are eloquent or beautifully simple. Their prayers are meaningful and deep. And in the end, prayer leaves them feeling deeply fulfilled or at least leads them to some great discovery. In real life, though, prayer isn’t always like that. Prayer can feel monotonous, empty, useless, enraging, disappointing, and ridiculous at times. Prayer may have the potential to be wonderful, but the daily reality for many people falls short.

I hope that in some small way, God can use me to change that. Even if just one person reads this and learns something from it that improves their prayer life, I will be satisfied. Because the truth is, prayer is a gift from God (just like sex!) and learning how to do it may be the most important thing that a person can do.

So what is the right way to pray? There is no right way! Instead, I am convinced that prayer was designed to be diverse, a reflection of the people doing it. God created each person to be unique, so why should prayer styles be any different? The way I see it, there are only two requirements for prayer— authenticity and presence. No matter how you pray, it should be honest and you should bring your whole self. The fact is, God knows, sees, and understands everything about you whether you acknowledge it or not. Prayer is all about relationship and intimacy with God, and being yourself is a key ingredient to finding fulfillment through it.

There are so many different ways to pray, and they are all the right way. Many people pray in a fairly traditional style; they sit or kneel, bow their heads, close their eyes, and talk to God. There are a vast number of alterations just to this style of prayer alone! Some people stand, some lay down, some bow with their faces to the ground. Some speak aloud, some whisper, and some think the words in their heads. There are many styles of prayer beyond these, though. For some people, prayer is best done on their drive to work, on a daily hike through nature, or as they fold the laundry. Some people journal; others sing. For some people, prayer doesn’t even involve words— they prefer to sit quietly and just bask in the presence of God, perhaps letting thoughts flow freely from their mind to God’s without ever articulating them. All of these are perfectly valid ways to pray, and they are beautiful to God.

Finding a way to pray that suits you is a wonderful way to honor the unique personality that God gave you. He loves you for exactly who you are, and He designed you to pray as yourself, not somebody else. I strongly encourage you to find a way to pray that suits you! However you feel you can be connected to God, both mentally present and authentic, is a great way to go. Prayer is meant to be a spiritual, mental, emotional, and relational retreat into a special place with God, and that can happen anywhere and anyway that it works for you.

I encourage exploration for anybody who is seeking a more fulfilling prayer life. Formulaic prayers from the Bible can be the most satisfying way for some people to pray. The Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, prayers from Biblical figures, and prayers from Jesus Himself can all be helpful examples. Some people may prefer to meditate on the words of these prayers from the Bible, or perhaps follow their formulas to create similar prayers in their own words. These methods can be helpful for new believers who are just learning how to pray and for any people who want to explore different styles of prayer. They can also be useful during times when prayer or connecting with God becomes more difficult— sometimes called “seasons of spiritual dryness.” Some people may even find that formulaic or classical Biblical prayers are their preferred method of praying all of the time, and that is perfectly fine too.

It is important to know that as life experiences change, so do we. Likewise, our most effective ways of praying can change throughout life. For me, prayer was once best accomplished through journaling and writing my prayers to God like letters. At another point in my life, I felt more connected to God when I sat by myself and listened to worship music, reflecting on the lyrics and finding peace in God’s presence. Now, I have found that the most effective way of praying for me is to write a simple list of requests and another list of things that I am thankful for, and then sit quietly with my eyes closed and focus on connecting with God. As my life changes, I am sure that my favorite style of praying will change too. It can be helpful to periodically reassess your spiritual health to determine how well you are connecting with God and if necessary, make positive changes.

Sometimes, even when we have found our most optimal way of praying, problems can creep into our prayer lives to mess things up. Feeling unworthy, feeling like you’re “doing it wrong,” and dealing with distractions are some common problems, but I think that there is a simple way to handle them; relax. God hears all prayers, no matter how unworthy you feel or how badly executed you think they are. There is no need to over think the process of prayer— it’s as simple as being yourself in front of God. If you feel unworthy, then tell Him. Remember that nobody is worthy of God’s love, but that He gives it freely anyway. If you were worthy, then you wouldn’t need Him and you wouldn’t be praying in the first place.

If you get distracted easily, then you can try to eliminate as many of the distractions as possible. Silence your cell phone, jot down extraneous thoughts that come to mind if you don’t want to forget them, ask your spouse to watch the kids and then retreat into your bedroom and lock the door if necessary. Some distractions can be turned into prayers; for instance, if you can’t stop thinking about some problem at work then why not pray about it? God wants to know what is on your mind, and when you pray for things that are on your mind then you will likely feel much less distracted. Praying for things that you think you should pray for is silly anyway, because God knows when your heart isn’t in it.

The last piece of advice that I’d like to give you is to never give up. Everybody feels discouraged and empty at times, especially in their relationships with God. Prayer is a discipline, and learning to do it consistently even when you don’t feel like it is analogous to exercise. The more you work out, the fitter you will become, and the easier exercising will be. Don’t neglect to exercise your spiritual muscles! I believe that prayer becomes more fulfilling the more you do it. Even on your worst days when you have no words to say to God, you can rest assured that if you show up in prayer and bare your soul to Him, then He will hear you. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf when we cannot pray for ourselves, and if we can have the faith to just “show up,” as Yancey puts it, then that brings us one step closer to pulling through to the other side.

Prayer is the heart of a relationship with God. I hope that this series has been helpful and that you never stop growing on your journey with the Lord!

“Prayer invites us to rest in the fact that God is in control, and the world’s problems are ultimately God’s, not ours. If I spend enough time with God, I will inevitably begin to look at the world with a point of view that more resembles God’s own. What is faith, after all, but believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse?”

From Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? By Philip Yancey



Pray – Part 3

For the last two weeks, I have been M.I.A. because I’ve been so busy with school! This week hasn’t been any better, and I predict that I will probably be this busy for the rest of the semester. Fortunately, I’m beginning to adapt to the workload and I hopefully will be able to keep up with my blog now. =]

This week, I am continuing my series on prayer. I’ve been reading the book Prayer by Philip Yancey and finished reading through the second part today. My thoughts on prayer are still not crystal clear– in fact, they are still quite jumbled. I think part of the reason is that I am the kind of person who wants complete, irrefutable answers to all of my questions… and unfortunately, my current human condition doesn’t allow me to get them. I have to accept that I will never be able to know or understand certain things completely while I’m here on this planet. I’m sure that God has His reasons for this, but I think an even bigger reason that I’m often left in the dark is that I simply cannot understand things the way God does. My human brain is limited. Don’t get me wrong, it can do amazing things! But compared to God, I may as well be blind, deaf, mute, and paralyzed. And while saying that we simply can’t understand all of the mysteries of life may seem like a cop-out to some people (and in a way I agree), that doesn’t mean that it’s not the truth.

My point with all of that is that I cannot pretend that I have all of the answers. I can’t even pretend that all of the answers are out there, just waiting for us to find. Instead, I can only share my own limited, humble understanding. I can share my own reasons for praying, even when I have doubts, and I can share the revelations that I have discovered from reading the words of wise followers of Christ. That is what I intend to do, and I hope that in doing so I can bring answers to some of your questions, too.

Last week, I focused on the aspect of prayer as a key tool in our personal relationships with God. How can we have a relationship with someone if we never talk to them, after all? Not only is prayer a way that we draw close to God and maintain our relationship with Him, but I also believe that the act of prayer changes and affects us in ways that help us to grow spiritually. Through prayer, we learn to rely on God. We humble ourselves so that we can be lifted up by our Father.

This week, I want to focus on what prayer does. Does prayer change God? Is it effective? Or is it just an exercise that’s meant to change us? Should we even bother to ask God for things?

I found my answer to this particular question in Jesus. As simple as it sounds, one good reason to pray is that Jesus did. When I have doubts about my faith, the one thing (I should say person) that I fall back on is Jesus. That’s because Jesus is the material, physical, literal manifestation of God. Jesus was. And because of that, Jesus is the foundation that I build the rest of my beliefs on; He’s the one thing that I can trust without trying.

Jesus is my model for living, and Jesus prayed! Not only did He pray, but he asked God for things. The Son of God prayed for things that the Father already knew about, cared about, and wanted. Even more bewildering, He prayed for things that were not granted to Him. That’s right! Jesus had unanswered prayers.

This is very comforting to me. First, I find it comforting that Jesus prayed to His Father and that He asked Him for things. Yes, most of the things that He asked for were pretty darn selfless– He was perfect, after all. But at times, or at least one time that I know of, Jesus asked God for something that would only benefit Him, that would in fact be a detriment to everybody else in the world. He asked for God to spare Him from His fate. He was afraid of what was going to happen to Him on the cross, and He asked for a reprieve! It is important to note that after wrestling with His fear and dread in prayer, He eventually surrendered to God’s greater will, which was for Him to die. But for a few moments there, Jesus asked for something just for Himself.

In our prayer lives, as imperfect humans, we very often ask for things for ourselves. Jesus may have only done it a few times, but we (or at least I) do it all the time. I pray for the problems in my life to be solved and I ask for things for my friends and family. My prayers aren’t usually for things like world peace. Instead, they are focused internally on myself and my own life. But I actually think that that’s okay! Prayer is supposed to be honest, and when I pray for the things that are weighing on my heart, I am sharing myself with God. That’s what He really wants anyway.

So Jesus proves that prayer is important and useful, and that we can and should pray to ask God for things. He also shows me that sometimes, God doesn’t give us what we ask for. He didn’t even give Jesus everything that He asked for, which is mind-boggling considering that Jesus was God. If you think about it, this means that God asked Himself for things that He did not grant Himself. Strange, isn’t it? Maybe, but maybe not.

You see, I’m starting to think that Jesus praying to His Father was like God talking to Himself, even reasoning with Himself. It’s something that I do on many occasions and I don’t find it strange, so why should it be strange when God does it? One of the fascinating traits of the Trinity is that each part– God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit– represents a part of who God is. God the Father is often seen as the part who most values justice, and Jesus is seen as the part who most values love and mercy. Could it be that when Jesus prayed to His Father, He was petitioning the just part of His personality to show mercy and love? Since the Father and Jesus are both the same God, it wouldn’t be God changing if He decided to go with mercy and love based on Jesus’ petition. It would just be Him responding to a prayer in a way that is consistent His own nature.

Based on that model, I believe that prayer can and does affect how God intercedes in our world. When we pray, we are participating in a partnership with God. He makes the final decisions, but only after considering the input from His valuable partners. No, we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes, God chooses not to intercede because He has something better in mind for us. Sometimes, I think He might choose not to intercede simply because He’d rather respect our collective freedom to make choices and live with the consequences.

As harsh as that may sound, I believe that it is a decision He makes out of love. As Philip Yancey wrote in his book, “The Bible draws a strong contrast between the freedom-crushing style of evil and the freedom-respecting style of good… Even when he senses his close friend will betray him, Jesus does not intervene with a freedom-crushing miracle.” Miracles are just that– rare, unexpected, gifts that change things from the way that they logically should have been. But when God performing a miracle means taking away somebody else’s freedom to make a choice, even a bad one, and deal with the consequences, then it becomes contrary to his character. God respects freedom even when the result is a broken planet full of broken people.

The key here is that respect doesn’t mean accept. God respects our freedom, but He does not quietly accept the mess that we’ve created with it. He mourns for every pain that every person goes through. He does more than mourn, though; God sees our suffering and takes action. He took action when He sent Jesus to die for us, providing a way for us to escape from the meaningless suffering that we experience here on earth. He freed us from our mess. Circling back around, this is the very reason that we can pray in the first place. Jesus made a bridge between us and God, interceding in the biggest way possible. We enjoy the freedom that He gave us by sharing a meaningful relationship with God.

I believe that prayer is important not only because of what it does to us and our relationship with God, but because it actually works. I still don’t believe that God is a genie who grants all of our wishes, but I do believe that He listens to our prayers and responds according to His nature. Sometimes, that even means that we get what we want. And it always leads us to experience things that God will in one way or another use for the good, so long as we let Him.