When I was growing up, there was a handful or so of different types of prayers. There was Grace at dinner which was the same prayer every night (Come Lord Jesus…), bedtime prayers (Now I lay me down to sleep…), the Lord’s Prayer, and then the liturgical prayers offered up by the pastor on Sunday morning. And, of course, there were always also the, “God I need something,” prayers which some people refer to as the, “ATM Machine God” prayers, because you call on God only when you’re in trouble or want something. Mind you, none of these are bad prayers in any way but, to me, prayer felt like more of an obligation than an opportunity, a generally unthinking- ritual without much substance or depth.
My small group is now reading Prayer, Does it Make Any Difference by Philip Yancey. This book tackles a really challenging topic and it’s full of meaty insights. One of these insights is that God wants to have a conversation with us and that we should, in fact, talk to God like we’re talking with our earthly fathers as a sort of dialog. (Yancey discusses a wide variety of types of prayers in this book and goes into depth about why prayer is important, but that’s a topic for another blog).
A while ago I started trying this approach to prayer. When I’d go on a walk, I’d ask God to join me. Sometimes that would work, sometimes not depending on my frame of mind at the time.
I learned something new, however, about this dialog approach to prayer while I was on a recent 12-day business trip to England and India. On occasion, while in England, I’m able to get together for dinner with some friends I have there but for the most part, I’d have breakfast and dinner alone. Outside of work, I don’t have any friends in India so I’d pretty much have breakfast and dinner alone all of the time.
Except now, I don’t have my meals alone. I invite God to join me.
At dinner, for example, I say a silent Grace and then I begin a dialog with God. I talk (silently of course) about my day and things that went well and things that went poorly. I’d ask His counsel on challenges, problems, and opportunities. I’d share my concerns about taking care of my family while I’m away. Mind you, this feeling is particularly acute when you’re in India which is pretty much literally on the other side of the planet – it would take you about 30 hours to get home in the best of conditions. I found myself feeling a bit lonely, but having a dialog with God at meals and throughout the day offered me three things:
· It eased my anxiety about being so far away from home.
· I wasn’t lonely eating by myself anymore. In fact, I kind of looked forward to my time with God.
· It helped me figure out what happened during the day, think it through and find ways to make tomorrow better.
As my small group digs further into Yancey’s book on prayer, I’ll be curious to find out how it’s changed their daily routines. I know that, over the course of our studies these past years, we’ve all become more mindful of the power of prayer but now, I think we’re starting to get a sense of why it’s important to us and to God.
I know that having God along on my trip sure made it a much more enjoyable and enriching experience. From the readings in my small group, I’ve learned that having a conversation with God can be a very enriching and comforting experience. It helps me experience fellowship with God in a new and different light. Give it a try sometime!
Grace is a word that I didn’t come to understand until recently and then primarily by benefit of my small group. In the church in which I was raised, grace was not a strong theme. In my mind, we were taught to feel guilt and then receive forgiveness…pretty much on a weekly basis. You had to wait until Sunday for the pastor to absolve your sins (and guilt) to wipe the slate clean. Aside from saying Grace at dinner, I don’t recall that I really thought about grace all that much. It certainly wasn’t a key component of my faith.
One of the first books my small group read was What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey. If you haven’t read this book, I can’t recommend it enough. I would say that, apart from the Bible, it may be the most amazing book on faith and Christianity ever written (well, top 10 at least) and it is written in a way that lends itself well to a small group study. Grace is the dominant theme in most all of Yancey’s books.
In an interview, when asked to define grace, Yancey responded:
I don’t even try. Jesus talked a lot about grace, but mainly through stories. I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?” The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one-hour grace period.” So I asked, “Oh really, what is grace?” And she said, “I don’t know. [They must not cover that in Hertz training classes.] I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.” That’s a good start to a definition.
As we all know, we are supposed to pay for our sins but God, through Jesus, paid for them for us. It’s by his grace that we are saved.
Yet how often do we pass that grace along to others? Or, rather than offer grace, how often do we instead offer up grace’s alter-ego of judgment?
After reading What’s So Amazing About Grace? and other books on the topic of grace in our small group, I’ve started to understand what grace really means and come to realize that it is the cornerstone of my faith. Grace is not just my faith in and thankfulness to God, but also how I should represent my faith to others. Yet, for those of us who should know that it is by God’s grace we are saved, how quickly we can turn around and become hypocrites, judging others without a shred of grace.
Yancey cites a story in several of his books about a friend who was a counseling a prostitute and, at one point, in regards to getting help, the counselor asks her if she had ever thought of going to a church. The woman replied “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
Sadly, I’ve been to churches like that – quick to judge and exclude. Fortunately, SFC isn’t that way. I believe we’re a grace-filled group that strives to share the grace we’ve received with others around us and welcome anyone into our fellowship.
As I come to understand what grace means, I realize I need to be appreciative of it and comprehend the responsibility I have to share it with others. Doing so does take practice, and from reading, talking and listening to stories in my small group, we’re learning how to show grace with each other without passing judgment. A small group is a great place to start showing grace. When we share our challenges in a grace-filled group, we receive support, encouragement and – when necessary – forgiveness instead of judgment and condemnation.