Talking to God about what we are doing together

I thrive when I have someone with whom I can process ideas. This has been true all my life – be it my wife, Barb, my kids, fellow co-ministers or co-workers. I have always been at my best when I have been able to process my thoughts and ideas with others. It’s when creativity comes to life for me.

I remember many times meeting various people for coffee to brainstorm solutions to an opportunity, talking over my ideas, and suddenly the solution presents itself in an obvious manner. After our time together, I would thank the person for their assistance in the matter, to which they often responded, “I’m not sure what I did to help. You seemed to figure it out by yourself.” I don’t think I’m the only one to have such experiences. It points to the brilliance and simplicity of Dallas Willard’s description of prayer from his book, The Divine Conspiracy

I have mentioned Willard’s description of prayer a couple times previous (Pondertude and Practical “Right Things”). I think it is so powerful and revolutionary that it deserves additional consideration. I started reading The Divine Conspiracy about 20 years ago, shortly after publication. It is a dense read, thus I would read a section, pondering for a time before continuing. After reading his treatment of prayer, however, I stopped reading the book altogether, not wanting to miss the significance. As a reminder, Willard described prayer as simply, “Talking to God about what we are doing together” (p. 243). In the book, he went on to say:

That immediately focuses the activity where we are [in our walk with God] but at the same time drives the egotism out of it. Requests will naturally be made in the course of this conversational walk. Prayer is a matter of explicitly sharing with God my concerns about what he too is concerned about in my life. And of course he is concerned about my concerns and, in particular, that my concerns should coincide with his. This is our walk together. Out of it I pray.

I think this is exactly what the Apostle Paul meant when he encouraged the Christians in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I don’t think Paul made this up – it was certainly modeled by Moses, the writers of the Psalms, the prophets, AND Jesus (see Pondertude).

I suspect prayer is another area in our journey with Jesus that we have made far too difficult and awkward. Talking to God about what we are doing together seems so natural, so simple, and so straight-forward. And revolutionary. It revolutionized my prayer life. May it do so for you as well.

Pondertude

About 20 years ago, I was introduced to the Franciscan retreat center, Pacem in Terris. It was founded and developed to provide Christ-followers a place to retreat in silence and solitude. Located near the community which I served as a Young Life Area Director, I couldn’t wait to “try it out.” After my first experience, scheduling a couple 2-day retreats per year at Pacem in Terris became a staple of the last 20 years of my ministry.

I am a fan and a proponent of the concept of blocking out regular times for silence and solitude, times for pondering scripture and encountering God, times for discovering what he is up to in my life, ministry, and the world at large. Though not a guided silent retreat, we were directed by Pacem in Terris staff to arrive with only our Bible and journal, allowing God to speak directly into our life by encountering him in scripture.


A Typical Hermitage at Pacem in Terris

Something Jesus modeled (and I assume wanted his followers to emulate) was the practice of solitude. A couple well-known examples are found in the Gospel of Luke: Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God (Luke 6:12-13) and Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). When we read passages like this, we tend to agree with the concept, agree that we should do likewise, and THEN DON’T! Guilt sets in so we steer clear of similar passages.

Several years ago, while mentoring a Young Life staff trainee, he and I discovered that an expectation of a staff person was to schedule one day a month for solitude – a withdrawal from normal stuff to be with God. I gave the trainee the assignment of interviewing a couple senior staff persons to discover how they took advantage of their monthly day of solitude. He couldn’t find anyone who regularly scheduled times of solitude with God. Why was that? Jesus modeled it, then strongly suggested we follow suit (“In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you”John 20:21). Why do we not do it? Over the years, I have discovered a variety of reasons we give for not emulating Jesus’ example:

  • We think we are too busy to take chunks of time for solitude and reflection. People in ministry are as bad at this as anyone, if not worse. I often wonder how much of this is connected to an exaggerated view of one’s importance.
  • Fear seems to be a powerful justification for not spending time alone with God. “What if I ‘hear’ him speak into my life and I don’t like it?” I have heard this more than once from people reasoning why they shy away from solitude.
  • Many people speak of not knowing what to do or how to spend time alone with God. This is the brilliance of Pacem in Terris’ suggestion – simply reading scripture and reflecting. The late Howard Hendricks suggested reading for a 20-30 minutes, then reflecting for 20-30 minutes. And if I fall asleep? Then I fall asleep reflecting on scripture and God. How can that be a bad thing?
  • A common justification of us “doers” for not engaging in solitude: “I can’t shut my brain off.” Then don’t. Let your brain loose to reflect and ponder the scripture you are engaged with.

This is where the late Dallas Willard’s description of prayer is helpful – talking to God about what we are doing together, pondering together what’s going on my life. Picture Jesus’ times with God as exactly that. Picture Jesus pondering, “I really like Peter, though I know he’s a hothead. I wonder if he is someone I should develop as a follower?” (Or, more likely, “Peter? Seriously, Father? One of the Twelve?”) I can picture Jesus pondering with God, looking for ways to help his followers understand the reversal of the kingdom he was inaugurating. Maybe it was through times of pondering and talking with God about what they were doing together that he landed on the idea of passing through Samaria instead of around it as they traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee (see John 4).

Out of my experiences of solitude and pondering, plus a desire to make the experience less mystical for others, I coined the term pondertude. It describes the reality of my times with God – alone with him (solitude), pondering what we are doing together. Pondering what we are doing together in all my roles in His kingdom – as a husband, a dad, a grandpa, an engineer, a supervisor, a ministry leader, a math tutor, etc. Though I love Pacem in Terris, pondertude is a frame of mind more than a place. It’s a choice to regularly be with the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, who has our best interests in mind. Why wouldn’t we want to block out times for pondertude?

Practical “Right Things”

After writing blog posts about “right things” (see Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Right and Doing Right Things), I was asked by a couple of people that I mentor what doing right things has looked like in my life over the years. Hmm…great question! I sat down one day a month ago and jotted down things that came to mind. What a great experience! I am going to list them below in bullet form without a lot of explanation and in the order they came to mind (which is roughly chronological, because us engineering types tend to think linearly)…

  • Spontaneous dates with my wife, Barb.
  • Shopppppping with Barb, as opposed to just shopping – i.e. it’s about the hunt, not the capture. (Thank you, Gary Smalley)
  • Regular times of Pondertude – usually at coffee shops, scheduled and unscheduled. (Pondertude is my term – a combination of pondering and solitude)
  • Continuous reading of the Gospels.
  • “Stopping what I’m doing to play catch” – point being, if my kids wanted time with me, I tried to postpone what I was doing if at all possible.
    • Similarly, “Let my kids crawl on me while fixing the dishwasher” (and now, my grand-kids!).
  • Camping with the kids. I often took each of our kids camping one-on-one for a 24 hour overnight – no agenda, no plans (we usually stopped at the grocery store on the way for the necessary supplies!).
  • Incorporating a mantra (Abba, I belong to you) into the rhythms of life. (Thank you Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and others)
  • Create memories. (Thank you, Tom Scheuerman)
  • Go to our kids’ (and now, grand-kids’) stuff. (Again, thank you, Tom Scheuerman)
  • Just show up. (Thank you, Young Life)
  • Lead from a servant’s perspective. (Thank you, Robert Greenleaf)
  • Focus on a few things, do a few things well.
    • Likewise, focus on a few people – The “Jesus way” (He poured most of his effort into a few – Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha).
  • Keep learning. (Thank you, Dad)
  • Know Him and make Him known.
  • Be good news to those around me.
  • In more recent years (i.e, the last 15-20 years):
    • Learn gratitude
    • Learn submission – I don’t need to be right, I don’t need to get my way. (Thank you, Richard Foster)
    • Pay attention to the other – People that are culturally different, the one that doesn’t look like me.
    • Talking to God about what we are doing together – best description of prayer ever! (Thank you, Dallas Willard)
  • Everything’s a surprise – Allows for spontaneity and is theologically accurate.

I noticed a few things as I went through this experience. First, most of these items have a faith and family focus and are not outcome-based. However, as I pondered this, I recognized an integration of the practices into all aspects of life – faith, family, ministry, job, career, etc. And any outcomes were up to God (see the Seed Scattering post).

Secondly, please know that I have not practiced all these for the past 40 years. If someone had shown me a list like this 40 years ago, I would have thrown up my arms in surrender, knowing I couldn’t incorporate all these into my life. In reality, they showed up as needed and, I assume, as God deemed them necessary (here I think of Acts 15:28 – it seemed right to to us an the Holy Spirit). Simple math tells me that one of these right things showed up every couple years.

Finally, I discovered that over time, a number of these practices have become second nature, to borrow a term from NT Wright. I was watching the Twins game the other night, noticing the right things players did that had become second nature, things they didn’t need to consciously think about anymore. (One could argue that Rocco Baldelli’s success as a manager has been the encouragement of players to do the things that have become second nature for them.) Same thing when we practice doing right things (the operative word here is practice). To be clear, some of these practices are NOT second nature for me. They still take a lot of thought, intentionality, and practice on my part. Maybe, just maybe, 20 years from now a few more will have become second nature.

Note: I am fully aware that the explanations for these right things are brief. I can can certainly expand on any of them – just ask and I will do that (after all, it was a couple people’s asking that led to the creation of this list).

The Opposite of Eisegesis…

Old habits are hard to break. After living in Red Wing, MN, for seven years we moved to Memphis, TN, at my company’s urging (meaning, my job moved to the corporate headquarters in Memphis). After moving, I still needed to return to Red Wing periodically for factory visits. It was a bit odd staying at the local Best Western located a mile from our old home.

During one visit, after a long day at the factory, I headed to the hotel in my rental car. I drove right past the Best Western to our old house, unaware of the mistake until I drove down the street and saw unfamiliar cars in the driveway. Old habits are hard to break.

Last week I introduced the term eisegesis (ˌī-sə-ˈjē-səs), which is the reading of a text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” meaning we speak into the text our preconceptions. The opposite? Exegesis (ek-sə-ˈjē-səs). The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of,” meaning the reader allows the intent the text to “come out,” informing his or her beliefs.

I suspect we have been in the habit of reading scripture though the lens of our preconceptions for so long that we drive right by exegesis and end up at eisegesis. The Good Samaritan parable might be adequate proof of that reality. We have been flying upside down a long time as Dallas Willard would remind us. So, how do we get right-side up? First, we recognize we are at the wrong house, change our mind, and head the other direction (this is the definition of repent). Then we rethink how we approach Scripture. Here are a few simple questions to ask as we invite Scripture to speak into our lives:

  • What stands out to me? How might God be trying to grab my attention?
  • What is being said in this passage?*
  • What is NOT being said? (This is a biggie)*
  • What does this passage tell me about who God is?
  • What does this passage tell me about who I am?
  • So what? What am I to do with these thoughts? How might God be asking me to change my mind?

There are plenty of other questions we could address, but this is a good start. It takes practice. Anyone that has played a sport knows of what I speak. Changing a swing, serve, stroke, or stride takes time, effort, and thought until it becomes second nature. Same with the shift from eisegetical to exegetical Scripture reading. But when it does become second nature, Scripture comes to life, transforming our lives! (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Romans 12:2)

* Case is point: Several years ago I was meeting weekly with a group of college-age young people. We were working our way through the Gospel of John. When we arrived at the well-known John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life), I asked them to close their Bibles (or Bible Apps) and paraphrase the verse. They collectively thought the verse was about them going to heaven. None of them saw the word world. None! (And they were also a bit surprised to discover that heaven is not the same thing as eternal life, but we’ll save that topic for another time.)

First Things…

“You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”

C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock. (My emphasis)

I first heard this quote about five years ago as part a Sunday morning message by Bjorn Dixon at The WHY Church. At the time, I was wrestling with my dissertation topic as well as looking for ways to describe Jesus’ focal message of God’s Kingdom in ways that not only made sense, but that might lead to transformed thoughts and lives. Hearing this simple statement was an aha! moment for me. It was the missing link for which I was looking (though likely at the time I wasn’t even aware what I was looking for!). It was the cement that brought together much of what I have been processing in recent years (keep in mind that recent years for me has been the past 15-20 years).

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, spoke of a young military pilot who was flying her fighter jet through a series of maneuvers. In the process, she got disoriented. In her disorientation, she had been flying upside-down unbeknownst. She decided to take her jet into a climb and promptly drove it into the ground.* Willard suggests that American Christians have been flying upside down for so long, we don’t know what right-side up looks like. What’s worse, we are cruising along at 1500 MPH, thinking we are doing just fine – until we find the need to climb, only to crash and burn. We are all witnesses of Christians that have crashed and burned along the way.

Dallas Willard is onto something worthy of our attention. I suspect that our western-influenced version of Christianity has focused on ‘second things’ for so long that we might not know what would constitute ‘first things.’ I have witnessed this many times over the past couple years. In a number of group discussions with various youth ministry leaders, I suggested we create a white-board list of First Things and Second Things. Invariably, what people suggested as first things were, in fact, second things. We have been flying upside-down for a long time!

Rereading the previous post, one can began to see that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a direct outcome of a long-standing focus on second things – like how we are to act, what God can do for us, etc. And a long-standing focus on second things will require more than one blog post. Stay tuned as we continue this discussion…

* I remember this crash that took place in the 90s. It led to creating a gyro-related system to eliminate future such events. Its the same technology that is used in ‘steadycams’ used in film-making.