“Open a channel”: Prayer

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(This is a chapter from my book, Don’t Eat the Cat Food!, now available from Westbow Press.)

“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” – Martin Luther

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you doubtless remember how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise interacted when approaching a new planet or unfamiliar ship. But for the “non-Trekkers” out there: in such cases, Captain Kirk would tell Lt. Uhura to “open a channel.” In doing so, he was trying to establish two-way communications. Uhura would use the resources at her disposal to send a message, and ask for a reply. She would sometimes have to use her considerable linguistics skill to translate the messages, but the “Universal Translator” was usually able to handle it. (And it was so good at its job that almost every alien spoke perfect English!)

If you’ll excuse the prosaic analogy, in order to restore the connection with was so painfully lost in the mists of human history, we need only to “open a channel”. We have been given the ability to communicate directly with our Creator — an incredible privilege! Thanks to the redemptive and substitutionary role of Christ, who now stands at God’s right hand, we are able to open a channel directly.

A lot of people trip over the idea of prayer, because they don’t know “how to do it.” Some people think it means knowing all the “thees” and “thous”; something you have to do in church, with your eyes closed. But that’s totally missing the point; a gross over-thinking.

Prayer is simply a conversation, a two-way exchange. God wants to hear from you, and for you to give him “the desires of your heart.” Scripture tells us to “pray without ceasing”; to me, that means keeping God in the crosshairs of your vision. God is a real being — a person – who is right beside you in the form of the helper, the Holy Spirit. (John 14). This helper-advocate is with you all the time; he is God. He wants to be involved in all the decisions of your life, whether it’s deciding whom to marry, whether to buy that house, or what color paint you’re going to get for the living room.

The great theologian Charles Spurgeon noted that we must

“…go to God with childlike confidence, which makes us pray as none else can. It makes a man pray for great things, which he would never have asked for if he had not learned this confidence; and makes him pray for little things which a great many are afraid to ask for, because they have not yet felt towards God the confidence of children.”

For me, I find that just thinking about God helps open the channel of conversation. An unbeliever would have no reason to think of God, other than to recoil at the shame as he realizes his fallen state. But if you find your thoughts going to God, it could be that he’s trying to open the channel of communication.  You may be tempted to dismiss such thoughts as your own, or to think it’s just your subconscious dredging up old ideas. But, as a Christian, you are more than yourself. If you are truly saved, your heart has been converted and is no longer like that of other men or women. You are his.

So talk to him, and listen with your heart. You may find ideas coming to you that you didn’t come up with yourself. This is the “still, small voice” referred to often by preachers and hymn writers; it’s the same voice Elijah heard in the cave.

So, how do you open the channel? For me, I need a place without distractions; a dark closet, perhaps. I have had my most profound spiritual moments in a dark room, with the door closed, away from the possibility of any distractions. Remember when I asked you to imagine yourself in a city at night, and what it would be like if the lights suddenly went out and you could see the stars for the first time? Likewise, we need to shut off the sensual noise to which we become accustomed in our busy world. In Matthew, Jesus told to do this very thing:

“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – NIV, Matthew 6:6

Primarily, the passage deals with avoiding outward demonstrations which bring glory to you, not God. However, it has application here as well. Getting alone, by yourself, without distractions, you can listen better to hear the still, small voice of God.

Many people smarter and wiser than I have held forth on the topic of “how” to pray. Of course, Jesus taught his disciples – and us – how to pray on numerous occasions. But I’d like to pose this question: when talking to your oldest and dearest friend – especially one you haven’t talked to in a while – how would you do that? God is, in every sense of the word, your oldest and dearest friend.

After all, it was his fingers that built you, cell-by-cell, in the cradle of life, and his voice made you giddy when he was building your fingers and toes in the indescribable comfort of the womb.  He guided the hands of the doctor when he pulled you out, and it was God who watched over your crib and comforted you as you slept in the blissful peace of childhood. It was his voice you heard whispering in the trees outside your bedroom window when you had to spend the afternoon in your room, and his laughter you heard in the wind as you lay, barefoot, enjoying the cool grass of summertime.

It was God’s finger that pricked your heart you when you wanted to steal that piece of candy in the convenience store, and it was his finger which wiped away your tears when you faced the first pain of unrequited love. It was his eyes which pierced the veneer of the façade you had built for the world to see, and illuminated the sin which lay, festering and poisonous, in your heart. And it was his heart that reached out to yours that day; calling you to be healed and whole, and you invited him in. Those hands, those feet, those eyes, that heart; you know them as well as you know yourself.

And since you’re a Christian, there’s something else: you know him as the One who saved you from certain destruction. He’s the wise king, the righteous judge, the one who deserves all your reverence and awe, and in whose presence you would stand powerless, insignificant and hopeless. But, because his nature is love, he emptied himself, becoming one of us (Philippians 2).

And because the curtain in the temple was ripped in two — from top to bottom — at the moment Jesus’ spirit rose from his body and left the tortuous cross, the curse was broken. No longer did we have to have a priest intervene for us to speak to the Creator; we can speak to him ourselves, because of his sacrifice on our behalf. God is there, he is speaking, and all we need to do is stop, listen and respond.

Challenge: Today, pick a hymn or spiritual song, and as you go about your day, commit to singing it (out loud or in your head) every time you get up or move. As you sing, think about each word. At the end of the day, reflect on whether you learned any new spiritual insights because of it.

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Don’t Eat the Cat Food!

CoverartMadison, Miss., January 29, 2016 – Are you in a rut in your Christian life, spinning your wheels helplessly as things spin out of control? Do you feel as though the “abundant life” has eluded you? Or perhaps you’re a new Christian, or are just trying to reset your life and priorities. If any of these apply to you, a new book has been written just for you.

Mississippi author Bill Moak has just released his first book, entitled Don’t Eat the Cat Food! The book is designed to help awaken our senses so we can tune our spiritual antennae to the frequency of our Creator, who has been urgently trying to get our attention. It addresses how we Christians often miss the abundant life we are promised, resulting in a mediocre existence. But that’s not what God has planned for us! He’s in control of all the resources of the universe, and can provide for us from unlimited resources (and wants to!)

“Jesus promised us that, if we trusted him, we could have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10),” Moak explains. “Sadly, though, many of us take that huge first step, then live their lives as if nothing has changed. We stumble through life much as we did before, waiting for something big to happen. The reality is that things have changed, but we have to grow.”

Don’t Eat the Cat Food! has been published through Westbow Press, a unit of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. It is being published in paperback, hardback and as an e-book, and will be available through all major book retailers and at specific sites.

Despite its humorous title, the book is a serious look at how we satisfy ourselves with the “cat food” of a mediocre existence, when we could be sustaining ourselves through the infinite provision of God. The book comes at the issue of the abundant life from many angles:

  • God is a distinct person, with unique qualities and personality attributes.
  • God’s economy is much different than ours.
  • We were once connected to the Creator, and long to be reconnected. That longing is reflected not only through creative and investigative activities such as art and science, but also in our trying to fill the spiritual needs in our lives through money, possessions, fame and pleasures.
  • God is in control of nature, demonstrated not only by creation itself, but through the miracles of Jesus and countless times in Scripture. He can be counted upon to provide for us from limitless resources.
  • We blind ourselves to the truth by building walls which we think will protect us, only to find that they stand between us and our Creator.

“My mission in writing this book is to give Christians some things to think about,” Moak explained. “We are meant for far more than just to muddle through life, never having tasted the joy that comes when we rely on God and begin to understand him better.”

Moak is a lifelong writer, having served for more than two decades as a journalist, public relations practitioner, and association executive. The Lincoln County native also writes frequently on consumer topics for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper and website, and is a Paul Harris Fellow and past president of the Madison-Ridgeland Rotary Club. He and his wife Lori have two sons, Daniel and Caleb.

Don’t Eat the Cat Food! is available from major booksellers such as Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, as well as directly through the publisher and from the author. For a complete list of availability, visit the author’s website, wordsbybill.com.

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Finding peace in stormy seas

This is a chapter from my upcoming book, Don’t Eat the Cat Food! 

“Peace! Be Still!” Jesus said to the angry waves as they tossed the tiny boat that day on the Sea of Galilee (See Matthew 8, Mark 4 and Luke 8 for the story). It had been a long day. Jesus had poured out his heart to the crowd, and he had to get away to recharge his batteries. So, taking a few disciples with him, he told his disciples to take a boat to the other side of the lake.

Finding a nice, quiet spot on a cushion in the stern, the Lord was soon in peaceful slumber. But outside, things were getting nasty as a “furious squall” came up. Water splashed into the boat, threatening to swamp it. The disciples were doing their best to bail and hold on for dear life. They must have been amazed that Jesus would have been able to sleep despite the tossing and splashing. So they decided to wake him.

“Don’t you care if we drown?” asked the incredulous disciples, as Jesus rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Turning to the howling wind and surging waves, he spoke to the storm, and suddenly, it was calm. “Oh, you of little faith!” he said, turning back to the disciples. Once again, Jesus demonstrated his control of nature, and the disciples were astonished. They shouldn’t have been surprised at Jesus’ miraculous power, but they were – every time.

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Illustration by Jeffrey Yentz

Similarly, we too seem surprised when Jesus brings peace into our lives and calms the raging seas that boil inside us. It seems that we are on a treadmill, having to learn the same painful lessons over and over again like the arrogant weatherman Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.

But one of the key attributes of God is that he is able to bring peace. There are few more frequent descriptions of God than those associated with peace. But what is peace, really?

When they hear the word peace, most people think of a tranquil state of mind, such as you might encounter on a beach somewhere, or on a high mountaintop. All your cares are gone, and you can just let your mind drift, unaccompanied by worry or fear. It’s probable that your idea of peace is different from everyone else’s. But true peace isn’t just the lack of conflict; it is a steady reassurance that comes from letting go. (It has a first cousin: faith.)

If we will study God’s word and ask for understanding, we can begin to grasp it. It isn’t an “ignore-your-problems-and-they’ll-go-away” peace or a “name it, claim it” peace, like out of some cosmic vending machine. It’s far simpler than that.

As Christians, we can drink from the bottomless well of peace granted to us by God through Christ. As we sit at his feet, learning from him and knowing that we can trust him, we can relax. But getting to the point where we can let him give us peace can be difficult and sometimes painful.

Many pilgrims who cross into a deeper understanding of God’s abundance do so after a painful experience. Sometimes it’s through loss of a loved one, a transition in career, a battle with addiction, disease or loss, or some other shock to the system. In these painful moments, it would be easy to think of God as the cause. But just because there is pain in the world doesn’t mean God means us harm, that he isn’t real, that he’s mean, or that he just doesn’t care. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Of course, when we’re going through the valley, most of us don’t want to be told to persevere, or even be encouraged. We just want the hurt to go away.

Jesus understood this. When he approached someone in pain, he didn’t try to preach to them, throw platitudes at them, or remind them of their infirmities. (They wouldn’t have been able to listen!) Instead, he acted to remove whatever it was that was causing them pain. For blind Bartimaeus, Jesus restored his sight. For the woman about to be stoned to death, Jesus forgave her and challenged her tormenters, who skulked away in shame. For the demon-possessed man in the tombs, Jesus evicted the demons which were tormenting him. In every case, once the psychic noise caused by their personal pain was removed, they could hear and understand. With their newfound peace of mind, they could receive the true peace he offered!

For the disciples in the boat that day, or you and me facing whatever storm in which we find ourselves, it should come as no surprise that God will – and wants to – help us. We are helpless on our own, at the mercy of nature. But if we take the time and effort to build our side of the relationship with God, we will find that our faith will grow to the point that we, too, would be able to sleep during the proverbial storm because we know that he’s got things in hand. This, my friend, is true peace. It cannot be found in a bottle, or a drug, in the relentless pursuit of things, in a fat bank account, or in praise from mankind. It is only available from the Prince of Peace!

God Pursues

This is a chapter from my upcoming book, Don’t Eat the Cat Food! 

We have seen how God is passionate about his work, and he wants us to be passionate about it, as well. But he doesn’t just wait around for us to get the idea; he pursues us. Why? Because he loved us first. It pains me when I hear somebody say they feel worthless or unimportant. When my boys have doubted themselves after some kind of setback, I have always been quick to ask them if God makes mistakes. “No,” they always reply. “So,” I respond, “God made you, right, and you are trying to let him guide your life?” Of course, they respond “yes,”, because we’ve taught them that. Then I’ve got them. “So, if God doesn’t make any mistakes, how could you possibly be a mistake?”

Our creator has demonstrated that he cares about us. And because he does, he will pursue us to the ends of the earth. Of course, however, he is not going to make you do anything you don’t want to do; that’s why you have free will. But you’ll be miserable. Just ask anybody who’s been called to full-time Christian service, and ignored the call. Or read the story of Jonah. We just are not complete without him, and it is his prerogative to put us to work. Just look at God’s track record.

God created a perfect world, and placed in it perfect beings. Adam and Eve had it made. Every need was taken care of. They lived in harmony with the Creator, and communicated with him constantly. But the enemy was there in the garden, too, skulking in the shadows. Sensing his opportunity, he attacked the first couple when they were apart, zeroing in on the one thing that God had told them not to do. And they did, willfully and purposefully.

Suddenly, the connection was broken. God sensed it immediately, and so did Adam and Eve. Looking around, they felt unprotected and vulnerable for the first time. Awareness of their nakedness was a sign of the innocence they had lost. And there was more; since humanity had now broken the connection, they were no longer fit for the perfect garden, and had to stand outside while the gates closed.

But the separation didn’t stop God’s love for them, his longing to be connected.

So, through the ages, he pursued.

Out in the wild world, having to contend and compete with nature, mankind reverted to his animal self, following his instincts instead of his creator.  When people had rotted to the core, it was time to start over. But the legacy of sin followed, even after the incredible promise rainbow filled the sky and Noah’s family had been saved from the surging flood. Sin went along for the ride, and blossomed like an unwanted thistle in the fertile ground left after the waters receded.

But God was far from finished. He pursued his people through the prophets and the patriarchs. He took down the biggest superpowers in the world because of his love for them; the Pharaoh’s chariots and horses still lay shattered on the bottom of the Red Sea, their legendary power broken before the One True God. The mighty Assyrians and Babylonians are known now only to history.

He promised them only the best; a land flowing with milk and honey, just over the mountains. But their devotion was short and fleeting. They cheated on him even when he was giving Moses the instructions that would show them how to live, and they found themselves wandering in endless circles for 40 years. But even when they began to worship false gods and turn away, and got their deserved punishment, he still pursued them. Over thousands of years, he pursued. He heard their prayers to be free from their bondage, chains and exile, and their promises to come back and live as he told them to.

Sometimes, they would come back for a short time, but they always regressed; the pull of sin was too strong, drawing them back like a black hole from which there is no escape. He did everything for them. He would have been justified in washing his hands of them!  On through the years, through waves of disobedience and repentance, he loved them and pursued them.

Then, in the most incredible act of giving in the history of the universe, God did the unthinkable: he sent part of himself, his royal, unspoiled, perfect lamb, to become one of us. What did we do with this perfect gift, who lived a perfect life of loving, healing and example-setting? We (collectively, the human race) spit on him, mocked him, whipped him, and nailed him painfully to a cross.

But was that the end? Not even close. Down in that dark tomb, light began to shine, burning away the infection of sin that the perfect Lamb had taken on his shoulders. God infused Jesus’ body with life once again; but this time, death wouldn’t have the last word!

Jesus became the necessary sacrifice, the ultimate love letter from our Creator. When he did that, he gave us the ability to restore the connection. No longer would we have to go to a priest to find God, or sacrifice the blood of sheep and goats, or worry about taking too many steps on a given day. Now, all we have to do is accept the gift, and it’s done; the connection can be restored, along with our potential to once again walk and talk with our Creator. What an incredible love story!

Be Still: Getting Away from the Clutter

This is a chapter from my upcoming book, Don’t Eat the Cat Food!

“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” – George Washington Carver

Being still and quiet is getting harder and harder to do in our world. We are besieged on every side by noise. Not just sounds; it’s also the “busy-ness” of life. We let this happen to us; although we might play the “victim” card sometimes, we live this way because we choose to. I’m no psychologist, nor do I play one on TV, but I do know myself. I notice that, sometimes, my life is programmed to the minute. There’s always “one more”: one more meeting; one more event to attend; one more job to do. And I will admit: a lot of it could be done by somebody else; no one is indispensable.

A few years ago, I took a look around and realized I was too busy. At the time, I was serving on three different boards, was volunteering with the local scout troop, and would always stick my hand up when someone asked for volunteers. (And all of that was in addition to serving at church). I would often get home late, exhausted. I wanted to be that guy; the one you could count on, the one who showed up. Deep down, I guess I was looking for validation, for someone to punch my ticket, pat me on the back and tell me they appreciated me.

But in reality, all that busy-ness did for me was to exhaust me. You may notice that the list I just made didn’t include time with my wife and boys. By the time I got home from work or some meeting or other, there was precious little of me left. And honestly, trying to do all of those things just spread me too thin. In reality, every person and every cause I loved was getting short-changed, because I just didn’t have the time or resources to devote my full attention to any of them.

But once I had realized I had a problem, I dealt with it. I started learning how to say “no”. I made a decision that I would try to leave work at work, and not work late unless there was absolutely no other way. I would try to make time to spend with my family. Sometimes, I didn’t — still don’t — hit the mark. But I was trying.

Remember when we talked about the wall we build up, or the city lights? Busy-ness is another obstacle. By filling our lives with constant noise, we can’t hear our own voice, much less anyone else’s, and most importantly, God’s.

Do you recall in Scripture that even Jesus had to get away from it all sometimes? Often, the demands of ministry were just overwhelming, and he had to make time to get away. For example, in Matthew 14:22, Mark 6:45, Luke 4:42, John 6:15, the gospels note that there were always crowds of people following Jesus, and he had to take time to meditate and pray.

A lot of famous leaders have found that they can only be creative when they are alone. Anne Frank noted, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”

We spend a lot of time running around trying to please God. It’s easy to think we’re making a difference with all this frenetic activity, but in reality, we must look pretty silly. God didn’t call us to run around looking for something to do; he called us to watch, listen, learn and respond to his call. Years ago, I heard someone turn an often-used phrase on its head, and it stuck with me: Don’t just do something; stand there! A little research indicates this saying has a murky past, and trying to find out who said it first is difficult. It’s been attributed to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clint Eastwood and others. But it’s really a powerful directive; what if, instead of trying to “make yourself useful”, you tried to “make yourself quiet?”

When was the last time you stopped, went to a quiet place where you could truly be alone with your thoughts, and just listened? For me, I like to visit my old family home place, which is away from my daily life. I like to get out by myself and just be. There’s no pressure, no phone, no email, no sounds except the whisper of wind in the pines and the distant hum of traffic on the highway, the gentle breeze and the smells of nature.

It’s in these times when I find I can focus, re-center and think about God, and find myself in his presence. But if we’re to really perceive God’s presence, we have to cut out the clutter in all our senses. Since ancient times, people have commonly believed we have five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. But recently, science has suggested we actually have many more senses than those. In addition to the five named above, we have the sense of balance, temperature perception, pain, and something called Proprioception (defined as “body awareness”; this is how we know somebody has entered our “personal space”). And this is actually a short list. The very concept of senses is hard to define. For example, the senses of taste and smell are closely related, and it’s hard to determine where one begins and the other ends.

But regardless of how many senses we actually have, it’s important for us to shut out as much of the clutter as we can, so we can become more attuned to the presence of our Creator. And it’s not just sensations that bombard us; the very complexity of our lives can do that, too.