Jesus, Take The Wheel (Of My Prayer Life)

fall-foliage-road-trips-kancamagus-highway-jpg-rend-tccom-1280-960Some people take prayer walks. I’ve been one of those people. But lately, I guess I take prayer drives.

Day-to-day drives past joggers, bikers (of the Harley Davidson variety and the Lance Armstrong variety), construction workers, and panhandlers. Or longer road-trip drives like I took this weekend through the hills of rural Virginia.

Inevitably, I made observations about my surroundings. Miraculously, some of the observations turned into little prayers. And, suddenly, some of the little prayers turned into little slaps upside the head.

The GPS happened to take me a scenic route off the interstates, abounding in autumn beauty and lacking in public restrooms (unfortunate since I was drinking coffee the whole time).

I counted one “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” and rolled my eyes. Then, something happened and I wondered what Jewish-Christian relations might look like if everyone who’s ever had that bumper sticker not only stood up for their Jewish carpenter boss but also stood up to modern-day anti-Semitism. Then, something else happened and I prayed for the probably-perfectly-nice folks in that minivan, for their faith and family and “traveling mercies” (to quote both my grandma and Anne Lamott, which is a funny thing to be able to do).

I counted two Confederate flags and cringed and prayed for black local residents or highway passersby who might be reminded of and affected by systemic racism. And then something happened and I prayed for white local residents, for the flag owners and land owners, community members and maybe KKK members.

I counted five Trump-Pence 2016 banners and two lingering Clinton-Kaine signs and sighed and prayed for those who have been hateful (which I hated to admit might be all of us) and for those who have been hated.

I counted couldn’t count all the churches. Some dilapidated, mostly lovely. And here’s my wish for them:

“Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.” (BCP, 816).

No matter what I prayed — whether for “local” or “foreigner,” “friend” or “foe,” “conservative” or “liberal” (all terms that I’m finding hard to define much less affiliate with these days) — these prayers felt tinged with tension amidst a recently hyper-politicized, hyper-polarized nation and world.

All I know is that Christians are absolutely, unequivocally called to sit with tension and pray even — or especially — for those whom we find hard to define much less affiliate with. To pray for red and blue. To pray for black and white. To try our feeble finest to follow the life and teachings of Jesus. Teachings like this:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:44-47 (RSV)

Trust me, it rarely occurs to me to pray like this. Liturgy helps. Accountability and prayer partners and spiritual directors help.

And God more than helps. God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, hears and challenges and pushes the boundaries of my prayers. All the way through rural Virginia today. All the way through life eternally.


If the Shoe Don’t Fit

If the shoe don’t fit…wear it.???????????????????????????????

That’s not how the saying goes. But I think, in some cases, that’s reality.

When you try on a new pair of shoes in a store, there’s some discomfort. You wiggle your toes, inspect with your eyes, stand up, pace the aisles…and make a decision as to whether or not the pair in question will, over time, become fitting to you and your feet. The decision is based more on contemplation than comfort.

Why all the talk of shoes? It’s not that I’m advocating for uncomfortable footwear. (Let’s be real; I don’t even wear heels. Like ever.) I’m advocating for discomfort in our lives — that appropriate degree of discomfort that we have to push past in order to find something fitting to our soles (or our souls…yep, I went there).

This is the metaphor that I return to time and again when I consider that I became, very unexpectedly, drawn to the Anglican tradition in the past year and some months.

I tried on the Anglican tradition shoe in January 2014 and stuck with it for much the same reasons one would stick with any church community — because the people at the parish seemed kind and the sermon seemed good and the pastors I emailed after Visit #1 replied more efficiently than the pastors at the church down the street. What’s more, in their emails, they offered to grab coffee and get to know me. (That was a clincher. We didn’t even go to coffee, not at that point anyway, but an offer like that communicated a genuine desire to know me as an individual rather than just a desire to grow their program attendance.)

Within weeks, I was asking questions about infant baptism and Communion and why priests wear collars and go by “Father So-and-So.”

In April, I got a Book of Common Prayer and started flipping through it many mornings, marveling like a kid in an ice cream shop that there could be so many flavors of prayers and thanksgivings.

In May, the unthinkable happened. I crossed myself. And when I say I crossed myself, I mean two things: first, that I raised my right hand and traced the sign of the cross over my body — forehead, sternum, shoulder, shoulder, back to sternum — and second that I crossed over from  a place of my own stubborn comfort toward a place of stirring contemplation.

I used to criticize the practice of crossing oneself as a mindless ritual (which I imagine it could be). But then I heard it described as a wordless prayer. A prayer-action that enlivens our prayer-words. A reminder of the baptismal covenant that we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

And in the midst of all that? Like a bridge that maybe nudged me across myself? Holy Week. Maundy Thursday with its foot-washing, Good Friday with its funereal facing of death and darkness, Holy Saturday with its fanfare over life and light. I don’t know that I’d ever simultaneously understood something so little and loved something so much — and not even been bothered by that potentially conflicting state of mind.

Because maybe love trumps understanding. It’s like there’s time enough for understanding, but what matters now is love — love that leads us gradually into understanding.

Love that whispers “Shoe don’t fit? Wear it.” Stretch it. Break it in.

Walk a while. You won’t walk alone. 

What I’ve Been Reading: Love Does

I used to think that a book I’ve been hearing about, Bob Goff’s Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, would be just another compendium of motivational sayings and self-help steps. But now I know it’s an adventure story.

That phrasing of “I used to think…But now I know…” is exactly how Goff starts each chapter of Love Does. He describes how Jesus repeatedly told his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said…But I tell you…” (Matt. 5). With this parallelism, Goff draws attention to the dramatic difference Jesus brings between how we’re used to thinking about life and how Jesus invites us think about life.

A few examples of Goff’s sayings, and how I’m interpreting them, include the following:

“I used to want to fix people, but now I just want to be with them.” We’re used to aiming for perfection; Jesus invites us to aim for presence. This tells me to put down my phone, put aside my schedule, put off my advice, and just be — just listen, at least for a little bit. 

“I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” We’re used to aiming for “successful”; Jesus invites us to aim for “meaningful.” This tells me to care less what difference something might make on my resume (and care more what difference something might make in my own and others’ lives.

“I used to think clenched fists would help me fight better, but now I know they make me weaker.”
 We’re used to retaliation; Jesus invites us to reconciliation. This one needs some explanation: Goff isn’t so much describing physical fist-fights as he is describing our posture toward approaching others. Apparently, in his work as a professional lawyer, Goff instructs his clients to sit in court with their palms up — never with their fits clenched. Studies show, Goff says, that clenched fits make a person look and feel angrier, unhappier, and less patient, whereas open palms make a person look and feel kinder, happier, and more patient. I’ve tried it when interacting with customers at work and talking with friends at home, and it makes a remarkable, instantaneous difference.

In each chapter of Love Does, after offering one of those sayings, Goff tells a story that illustrates the saying. He describes failing embarrassingly at his first job as a waiter, getting his undergraduate degree in forestry, getting into law school through sheer persistence, winning over his wife’s affection through more sheer persistence, taking his kids on travels around the world, and helping to start a school for orphans in Africa, and helping to free innocent prisoners in Africa — just to name a few escapades. Through all the stories, the common thread is doing.

If you love something, do it; don’t just sit around making excuses that it’s hard, expensive, scary, or uncool or that you’re inexperience or unqualified. If you love someone, tell them. If you fail, get up. If you’ve been hurt, try to offer forgiveness. If you’ve been forgiven, receive forgiveness.

We’re used to thinking we have to deserve; Jesus frees us to know we can serve and be served. Because that’s what love does.

Revisiting "Love of Work": How to Love Unlovely Work

I just re-read my blog “Perfectionism and ‘Love of Work’” from March 2013, which ended with the line: “‘love of the work’ may be one way to have high standards without perfectionism.” That line begs the follow-up question: Can I have “love of the work” when I’m doing work I don’t love? If so, how?  

Yes, I think we can have “love of the work” when we’re doing work we don’t love. How? I’m going to address that with a story.

In high school, my AP English teacher, Mr. Dumaine, was enthralled by words. He would bounce on the tips of his toes, animatedly explaining the subtle differences between two synonyms or the implications of a metaphor — and at 8:00 a.m. no less. 

Unfortunately for us students, Antigone and Hamlet had some pretty convoluted words, and we didn’t always share Mr. Dumaine’s amazement with them. 

One day, I told Mr. Dumaine that I was having trouble starting a paper. 

“Are you interested in what you’re writing about?” he asked.

“Not really,” I admitted.

“Find a way to be interested in it,” he said. “There are at least 200 pages in this book. One of them — even half of one of them — must be interesting if you think about it.” 

So I thought about it. One of the last pages was interesting (it had beautiful language) and one of the middle pages was interesting (it had the same beautiful language!), so I wrote about those pages.

I think tackling just about anything in life could be like writing an AP English paper.

Not interested in your textbook? There are at least 1,000 pages in this book. One of them — even half of one of them — must be interesting if you think about it. 
Not interested in your job? There are at least 40 hours in the work week. One of them — even half of one of them — must be interesting if you think about it.
Not interested in things overall? There are at least 365 days in the year. One of them…well, you get the idea.   

Focus on one interesting aspect of the work, and see if that motivates you to get through the rest.

Perfectionism and "Love of Work"

Last night I heard a hard-hitting talk about perfectionism at William & Mary InterVarsity large group. (Entire talk available here:

It gave me so much to think about that the topic could probably sustain me for at least 2-4 blog posts. 

So for right now I’m just going to set the stage with what perfectionism is, where it can come from, and what further questions I have about it.

What perfectionism is

The Oxford English Dictionary defines perfectionism as the following:

  1. “a system or doctrine based on the belief that moral, spiritual, social, or political perfection is attainable, or has been attained; the pursuit of such perfection as an ultimate goal”
  2. “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”

Psychology Today gives the following, more illustrative, summary of perfectionism:

“For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance.”

Where perfectionism can come from  

Perfectionism can come from any number of environmental and personality factors. How perfectionistic are our families, friends, schools, and churches? And how susceptible are we personally to the pressures of those families, friends, schools, and churches?

The Psychology Today summary of this issue goes on to say that “perfectionism is usually transmitted in little ‘messages’ from parents to children, some as silent as a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A.”

I can absolutely relate to this source of perfectionism “messages.” (And so can a lot of people, at least judging by all the nodding heads during last night’s talk.) Growing up, A’s could get me praise from parents, a class ranking at school, and sometimes even free pizza at Cici’s Pizza. In a child’s mind, all of this pairs achievement with reward and pairs failure with not-reward or even with punishment.

Then, in College, at least at William & Mary, we sustain those perfectionism “messages” by normalizing and even popularizing long hours at the library, all-nighters, perfect resumes, perfect grades, perfect this, perfect that. Yet, we deny or defend our perfectionism in a number of ways:

  • by saying that “everyone else is doing it” (Really? Everyone else is getting straight A’s? Uhh…pretty sure that’s not possible, if only because it would throw off the bell curve.) 
  • by saying that “we need it to get into grad school” (Really? If you get even one B you can’t get into grad school?)
  • by saying that we don’t have “a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”…we just have “high standards”! (OK, I have a hard time refuting this one. But I’ll try in the next section.)     
Further questions

How can we have high standards without having perfect standards? How can we work hard and do well without feeling like we have to work hard and do well? Is it even impossible? I think so. I’m just not sure yet how.

I’m reminded of this diagram that I once saw:

A lot of perfectionists fall into either “habits” or “fear of failing.” We put in lots of work because it will impress our parents/professors/employers/admissions committees but not because we’re personally invested in the work, winding up with habits (just “going through the motions”). Or we’re personally invested in the work such that we couldn’t stand the thought of failing at it, so we self-handicap by putting forth little effort.

Based on this diagram, the solution is “love of the work.” As the saying goes, “Do what you love and love what you do.”

I understand sometimes that doesn’t seem possible. Sometimes we all take boring classes or work less-than-appealing jobs. But, whether we like what we’re doing or not, we can put our heart into it. And whether we feel good at it or not, we can put forth effort.

So….”love of the work” may be one way to have high standards without perfectionism.