For the third year in a row, our family attended our church’s winter family getaway over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. We enjoyed the company of over 40 families from the church, swimming in the hotel pool and singing and studying scripture together. Our attempts to sleep in new and unfamiliar arrangements were thwarted by the kids’ enthusiasm for all of the activities, so when we arrived home on Monday afternoon, we were all exhausted.
But fortunately, I had signed up ahead of time for all six of us to attend the Many Helping Hands MLK Day of Service that has become an annual tradition in Cambridge. Needless to say, the kids didn’t want to go, even though an afternoon activity was necessary to tide us over until a hopefully early bedtime. To their protests, I put my foot down, explaining that this service opportunity was a perfect way to apply all of the lessons we had learned over the weekend.
Our family pastor had led us through a series of illustrations to teach us ways to show honor to those around us. Our memory verse for the weekend came from Romans 12:10:
“Honor others above yourselves.”
My kids wrote the verse on a neon green poster board which we displayed on one of the walls in our hotel room. We needed constant reminders to stop complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14) and instead to focus on how we could:
I expect that while it may not be necessary to memorize this definition of honor in three parts, the components of honor as they are described here help provide a foundation for how to treat others the way we want to be treated. It was great to return to these ideas once again...and try to directly apply them.
That Monday afternoon we pried the kids off the couch, explaining that what better way to honor the memory and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than by serving the needy of Cambridge, by treating them as special and doing more than what’s expected. On the drive over to City Hall, I suggested that while we would participate all together, it was up to each of us to decide what kind of attitude we would bring with us, a good attitude being more enjoyable for everyone involved, of course.
Upon arrival, we all struggled with that for the first few minutes as we joined the large shivering crowd already gathered on the front lawn of City Hall where we listened to the tail-end of a speech given by one of the organizers. But after that, we slowly climbed the stairs with the crowd, adorned ourselves with MLK Day buttons, and joined in the work.
The kids waited in line patiently to fill bags of groceries, donating some canned goods we brought in the process. Then we found seats at a table (where it was great to run into some neighbors!) and proceeded to craft Valentine’s Day cards to residents in nursing homes. At that point, we called it quits, especially given everyone’s fatigue level. Other residents continued to sort books, craft blankets and scarves, and write their stories about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work inspired them. We decided that maybe next year we could return to do it again, and add one more service project to the afternoon.
Later that evening, when I walked into the living room and discovered that one of my sons had straightened up the couch pillows like I asked (on the first ask!), I felt honored. And I felt hopeful that maybe we learned something that weekend about how to serve others and create an environment that breeds honor, and through that, love.
Of course, the next couple of hours until bedtime were fairly rocky. We still have a long way to go, but I am thankful for the start we’ve made, and for the reminder to return to these lessons again and again.
I used to be more comfortable praying in front of others, but I fear I’m out of practice. I often feel like I don’t have the words to dress the large emotions within me. And when others pray? I often find my mind drifting. I have never been an auditory learner. I take notes compulsively during a talk or a meeting, using my pen and paper to keep me grounded and focused. When I pray privately, I do so more often within a journal -- listing prayers of praise and thanksgiving first, ending with petitions for the day ahead.
Within the churches I have attended throughout my life, prayer has been a staple segment of the Sunday services, punctuating breaks in between scripture reading, praise songs and sermons. I have never been a part of a church tradition that spends hours in prayer on a regular basis. But prayer has been there, regularly.
Why? Why do we pray?
This month I had a few opportunities to consider the role of prayer in my day-to-day life. First, a friend gave me Gordon T. Smith’s small book Teach Us To Pray. Then, our congregation began a sermon series about what we can learn about the very first church, including how they devoted themselves to prayer. Finally, my husband and I joined others from our umbrella network of churches in order to engage in an annual morning of prayer -- prayers of praise, thanksgiving, discernment and petition, with requests both close to home and our churches as well as the needs of those in our cities, country and world.
Why do we pray?
I remember the first time I asked this question as a child. My mom told me that we pray because Jesus tells us to. And indeed, you can’t get more clear than his direct instruction.
“This is how you should pray,” as he recited what we have come to name the Lord’s prayer:
“Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 2:2-4)
I have been thinking about the Lord’s prayer this month, particularly when it comes to prayers of petition. My family has been in a season of uncertainty, and I have been praying for our “daily bread” in so many ways. As I reflect on the past several months, I am amazed by how we have been provided for. We have had enough, every day. So every time I begin to worry about what tomorrow will bring, I ask God to remind me of his faithfulness. Why do I pray? I now think of another reason: Prayer fosters gratitude.
The Bible tells us in Acts 2:42 that the first church “devoted themselves to pray”. When Peter was imprisoned, the church gathered and prayed for him. Why did the church pray? I’m not sure we know the beliefs of the first church well enough from the description. Because my first assumption is that they prayed because they believed God would do what they asked. After all, they had witnessed the resurrection! They had witnessed the Holy Spirit come down like tongues of fire on Pentecost! But when Peter miraculously walked out of prison and knocked at the door, they concluded that it must be his spirit, not him in the flesh. Maybe they prayed out of custom or because Jesus told them to. But when they gathered to pray, God answered.
At the start of our church prayer gathering recently, our pastor suggested that when people gather to pray, God does great things. We don’t know the why of it. We just see it born out. We took some time to celebrate how, over this past year, God has answered the prayers of our congregations that we prayed at our last annual prayer gathering.
I have to admit though, that while I believed in and supported the purpose of our gathering, when my family needed to leave the prayer gathering early, I was a little relieved that I hadn’t needed to stumble through praying out loud.
In his short book Teach Us To Pray, Gordon Smith suggests that the length of the prayer doesn’t matter, and that even the words don’t matter much. He reminds us that God knows more about the issues we’re praying about than we do anyway.
Then why do it?
Smith encourages the reader to establish a regular prayer pattern, echoing the advice of my pastor who preached on this recently. My pastor suggested one pattern that has worked for him over the years. Following the pattern of the week, he prays this way:
On Saturday night, he prays for the church, because Sunday is coming.
On Sunday night, he prays for the working world, because Monday is coming.
On Tuesday, he prays for the nation, because elections are held on Tuesdays.
On Wednesday, he prays for himself, because it’s midweek and he probably needs a spiritual boost.
On Friday night, he prays for his family and friends, because the weekend is coming and he’s about to spend time with them.
And how should we pray?
Smith offers this approach:
Smith urges us to follow each step, and to remember that as we pray for God to act, “these prayers are never an “out” or a justification for our inaction. They are rather the deep longings and hopes of the world, the church, and our own hearts and minds--our pleas that God would act, that God would be present, that the grace of God would invade our world.” (108)
This is why we pray.
As I cracked the cover on a brand new calendar designed by my grandfather-in-law, I anxiously tried to map out how many of those squares I could designate for writing days. I wondered if I could even estimate how many writing blocks I needed in order to complete and hone my manuscript and writing sample in time for my submission date in March...and the conference dates in April. And like writers Rachel Hollis and Glennon Doyle, I needed to work at silencing the sabotaging voices in my head.
First, I had to silence the voice that told me I can’t do this because my writing isn’t good enough.
I tend to take rejection pretty hard, so this past summer, after applying to two competitive writing classes, I was discouraged by being rejected for one and waitlisted (and never accepted) for the other. Fortunately, I had already internalized a version of the advice Rachel Hollis gives in her book Girl, Wash Your Face:
And then, in the middle of lunch on a Thursday, there it was in my inbox:
Congratulations, your application has been accepted!
I smiled. And then I marked down those dates in pen. I wanted to keep learning the craft of memoir, and I wanted a class to hold me accountable to my project.
In the past few weeks though, there have been other voices that attempt to distract me. One says, you have other things to do besides this…
Writer Glennon Doyle shares her complicated relationship with writing in her book Love Warrior:
If you follow my blog, you’ll have noticed that I spend a lot of time reading. A lot. And I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to write about before I spend the time actually writing it. So I also take time to consider what else I could be doing with all of that time.
But last week, as I was walking to my local coffee shop to tackle another writing block, I realized that I was about to spend the day exactly how I always had wanted to -- by writing for several hours before returning home to spend the afternoon with my kids, dinnertime with my husband as well, and the evening out at a community event. Really, I decided, the only way the day could have been better was if I had been wearing a sundress. The winter cold has been biting lately, and I always look longingly toward summer this time of year.
I am not escaping from my life by writing about it, I reassured myself. And I don’t think writing is always an escape for a writer like Glennon Doyle. It comes down to this: it is in me to create. It has always been in me. I read and write as much as I do because I can’t stop it. Just when I think the well is running dry, I feel overpowered by an idea or observation and I have to take the time to pursue it and flesh it out. I have written about this before.
But I suppose it is a bit tiring at times. And at those times, I have to fight a third voice, the voice that suggests a rest would be nice… Because while it might be fun and relaxing to stream movies and be entertained for awhile in the evenings, while it might be warmer to sit by the living room fireplace then venture out in the cold to go to community events, Bible study or writing class, there’s a rest I find more satisfying when I am out engaging with the world and with the purposes in front of me.
So, with new January resolution, I have something to say back to the voices:
True, I have heard ‘no’ in the past. But I have also heard ‘yes.’
I could do things other than spend time writing. But I write because I love it.
And lastly, thanks to my favorite singer/songwriter of all time, I understand “there’s a rest in your work that you can’t get out of sleep.” (Rich Mullins, When You Love)
What are the voices holding you back, and what will you say to them?
“If I die, it will be in the most glorious place nobody has ever seen.”
Jill Heinerth is acutely aware that when most people picture cave diving, they wonder if she is out of her mind. She mentions the story of the Thai team on page 25 of her memoir, and on page 234 she says this:
“When I describe the act of cave diving to most people, they think I have a death wish. Why would anyone want to spend all their spare income to enter a world of complete blackness where a single mistake could leave you dead?”
Deep into her book, she points out that her “genetics may be driving [her] to seek adventure and partake in what is seen as risky behavior.” (234)
Scientists have found that about 20% of us have a gene (DRD4-7R) that drives curiosity and exploration. I am definitely not in this group. But the people who are risk-seeking have gone into the unknown in a variety of fields and have broadened the horizons for all of us.
The tale Jill (lives to) tell isn’t the story of a desk worker who ran away to the Cayman Islands (although that is true). It is the story of an awakening and a search for purpose, meandering for a long time, and ultimately finding a call to advocate for herself...and for our planet’s most precious resource -- water.
She documents her journey to become a film writer and producer and the lengths she goes to in order to educate others about the urgency and necessity of water conservation. The drawback to her book is that by the end, her readers are no more educated. While she gives us a glimpse into the universal story of sharing our planet’s resources, she offers no practical steps for us to take immediately. This is her personal story and needs to be, but I wonder if she could have widened the lens at times in order to move her readers to action. Many people want to help and yet don’t know where to begin. While this might not have been her chosen platform for educating us (she has produced many videos and books on diving and underwater photography instruction), her other works are not accessible to all. You can watch her documentary “We Are Water” about water conservation on Amazon. She also co-wrote a children’s book about a manatee who needs children to help him clean up the water he lives in. These are all available for purchase, although my town’s extensive library system doesn’t have them. Her memoir is the first widely published material she has created, and I wish it had contained her larger message about water conservation.
What is conveyed unmistakably in her descriptive prose is how vast our planet is and what majesty lies beneath its lands. We dance around on the surface, creating industry and pollution, while underneath, an ancient rhythm persists, with a deeper truth of the ecosystems that will silently crank the planet back into balance. We must humbly accept that we are just a small part of the greater forces at play.
If you don’t fancy donning a wetsuit, challenge yourself to at least dive into Jill Heinerth’s book and let her take you to an underwater world that will open your eyes in new ways.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.