Monthly Archives: May 2017

Conscious Contact: Does God Hear Me?

I have unanswered prayers
I have trouble I wish wasn’t there
And I have asked a thousand ways
That you would take my pain away
You would take my pain away

“Your Hands” by JJ Heller

Step 11 of the 12 Steps says that, we “sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

Maybe you pray. Maybe you pray a lot. Maybe you don’t.

Some of us take the call of scripture seriously and make a concerted effort to pray without ceasing. Morning meditations are an integral and necessary part of the day. If we have to miss them or shorten them, the rest of the day feels empty or void or off somehow. We pray before every meal. We take an inventory whenever something comes up during the day. We close our day with prayer and a tenth step inventory.

Others of us are not so diligent in our prayer life. Some of us have never prayed before. Some of us have only prayed when desperate times have called for desperate measures. That my be something as simple as bargaining with God to pass a test we didn’t adequately prepare for or as serious as begging God to keep a loved one in this life just a little while longer.

I’m gonna hedge my bets and say that all of us have prayed for something at some point in time, whether we believed in God at the time or not. If, however, that is not the case, there’s no better time to start than now. But that leaves us with a few questions. When do I pray? How do I pray? What do I pray for? What should I do when God doesn’t answer my prayers?

There’s not enough time in the world to completely answer all of those questions nor are there sufficient explanations, but I’m gonna hit you with my best shot.

When do I pray?
As I mentioned a moment ago, the Bible says that we should always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Please don’t be overwhelmed by the idea that you are supposed to pray all the time, and don’t feel burdened with that responsibility. You have to start somewhere. Start small.

Choose a time to pray every day that works for you. Pray in the morning when you first wake up or when you’re getting ready for bed. Pray at mealtime. Pray when something stirs you up or things go sideways. Just don’t beat yourself up about prayer. God isn’t going to chastise you for not praying. Prayer simply allows us to build a relationship with God. It’s hard (impossible) to grow in a relationship without some form of communication. And God wants to be in relationship with you.

How do I pray?
Prayer is a conversation. There are no special words. It doesn’t have to be flowery or perfect. There’s nothing you can’t say to God. Just talk, and realize that you may not hear someone speaking back. It can be out loud or in your head. Doesn’t matter. Figure out what works for you. If you haven’t been someone who regularly prays, remember that yelling at God now is still more of a relationship than you had with God when you weren’t talking to God at all.

What do I pray for?
For those of us in recovery, the eleventh step is fairly explicit that we should be praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

The Twelve and Twelve recommends that those of us who have never meditated before begin with a prayer by St. Francis.

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace – that where there is hatred, I may bring love – that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness – that where there is discord, I may bring harmony – that where there is error, I may bring truth – that where there is doubt, I may bring faith – that where there is despair, I may bring hope – that where there are shadows, I may bring light – that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted – to understand, than to be understood, to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life. Amen

This may seem like a lot. It might seem overwhelming. Meditation just means sitting with the words and letting them sit with you. If it helps, maybe just find a short passage of scripture or a few words and repeat them over and over again out loud or in your head. Rest with them.

Praying, on the other hand, can be boiled down to a simple phrase. Prayer should not be a laundry list of things that you want. God is neither Santa Clause nor a short order cook at Waffle House slinging hash browns scattered smothered, covered, and chunked. If you need some direction regarding anything in life, you can’t go wrong praying these simple words: “Thy will, not mine, be done.”

And one of my favorite prayers is a breathe prayer that I was taught in the early days of recovery. (A breathe prayer is just a prayer that can be said in the span of one breathe.) “God, help me to find in you what I’m looking for in (blank).”

What if God doesn’t answer my prayer?
Now we get to that pesky question. But first, let me ask you a question. Are you praying for the right things, or are you praying for God to bless what you’ve already decided in your heart or your head that you’re going to do anyway? That’s a big one. It’s easy to ask God to come alongside us in our endeavors. What’s difficult is asking God to show us how to join the endeavors and plans God has for our lives.

That being said, God isn’t going to answer all of our prayers. God can’t answer all of our prayers. There are things God will never do. One of the most difficult things to comprehend about prayer is that even when God does answer our prayers, they are never answered on our timetable. God does things in God’s time. When and if it makes sense to God for something to happen, it will.

God hears you. I promise.

All we can do is work to improve our conscious contact with God. The more time we spend entering into relationship with God, the better that relationship will be.

Our own best thinking got us here in the first place. It’s time for us to trust our Higher Power, Jesus Christ, to take the reigns in all aspects of our lives. I for one, am truly grateful to God for the prayers that have been answered in my life.

The rest of that JJ Heller song goes like this:

When my world is shaking, heaven stands
When my heart is breaking
I never leave your hands

Your hands that shaped the world
Are holding me
They hold me still

See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands. Isaiah 49:16a

– Alex Walker

The Pastor I Most Want To Be Like

Most of the admirable characteristics in my life are gifts from God that have been carefully cultivated by Christian mentors.  When it comes to mentors, I have an embarrassment of riches.  My father, who has always been and will always be the man I most want to be like, was a pastor.  So growing up I had no shortage of pastors take an interest me and bless me in countless ways.  When I discovered to my great surprise that I wanted to be a pastor, I began to intentionally seek out older wiser pastors who could guide me on a faithful path.  This search has led me into relationship with nationally and internationally known church leaders as well as profound pastors whose churches will probably never exceed 100 folks on a Sunday.

When I came to Lebanon Memorial UMC in Lebanon, VA in 2010, I soon met Jeff Williams who was the pastor of Lebanon Community Fellowship (LCF), a vibrant growing nondenominational church just down the road.  Jeff took me out to lunch, shared his story of struggles and victories in life and ministry, and assured me he was my #1 fan and praying for the ministry of my church.  He did all this before he even hardly knew me.  That was just Jeff.

One of the toughest phone calls of my professional life was to Jeff.  Over the years, Jeff and I had come to share a mutual admiration for one another and discovered that we each shared a passion for recovery ministry.   We felt our community desperately needed a recovery ministry, but we didn’t want to launch competing ministries in a small community.  After several conversations, it became apparent that LCF was not ready to launch a ministry in the near future and my church decided to go for it.   As the time for the launch of our recovery ministry appeared, we had everything we needed for a successful ministry except a good band.  So one day after taking a few deep breaths, I picked up the phone and called Jeff whose church happened to have one of the best worship bands I had ever heard.  I asked Jeff if I could just borrow one musician who could play guitar and sing.  We just needed something.  (Note: Asking a pastor to share one of their musicians is kind of like asking a football coach to share his quarterback.  It’s a big ask.)  I’ll never forget Jeff’s response: “Wil, not only will I give you a musician, I will give you my whole band, myself, and my whole church.  We will serve your church in order to serve our community.  Just don’t tell my band about this, because they don’t know they are going to do it yet.”

I don’t know what Jeff told his band, but it must have been good.   Rarely, I have ever been a part of something as fulfilling and inspiring as serving alongside Jeff and the LCF band in the Recovery at Lebanon ministry that came to be as a result of our partnership.  Jeff had as busy a schedule as anyone in town, but there he was every Thursday doing anything he could to help others find the freedom from addiction and the joy that comes with faith.

Often Jeff and I would sit around and talk for some time on those evenings about the challenges facing Christianity in our culture and the challenges facing our each of our churches. In these conversations, I learned that Jeff was one of those people who had wisely chosen to recklessly pursue God’s calling in his life.

Jeff respected the denominational traditions in which he was raised, but he would not let anything prevent him from fully living out the calling God had given him.  He shepherded LCF through lean years of struggle when the future was uncertain without being tempted by greener pastures elsewhere because he knew the pasture to which he was called.

Jeff had an encouraging spirit the likes of which I have rarely encountered.  He was always smiling, always encouraging, always believing that God was more than ready to work miracles.  I saw this spirit in his interactions with folks locked in a life and death struggle with addiction.  And I saw it in his interactions with me.  I don’t know what a busy pastor at a large growing church would think he would get out of a relationship with a much younger pastor at a smaller church of a different denomination.  Thankfully, I don’t think that Jeff looked at our relationship in that manner.  I think he just saw us as two guys desperately trying to follow God, love our families, and lead our churches.

It wasn’t unusual in our conversations for Jeff to ask me my opinion about tough decisions facing his church.  I also learned that Jeff’s encouraging spirit was accompanied by a keen intellect.  Jeff read widely and thought on the deepest level about what it really takes to accept faith and then to grow and be conformed into the likeness of Christ.  I was selfishly looking forward to mooching off of Jeff’s wisdom for years to come.

Instead, this morning I got an email telling me that Jeff had passed away last night.  It is hard for me to wrap my mind around just what a loss Jeff’s passing is to the Church; to LCF, to the Church in Russell County, to the Church in America and, honestly, to the Church throughout the world.  How do you ever replace the servant’s heart, encouraging spirit, and renewed mind that we experienced through Jeff?  Though Jeff is now a vital part of the Church Triumphant in heaven, I can’t help but wonder if the Church Militant on earth isn’t weaker now with his passing?

But today is Maundy Thursday.  The day we celebrate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion on Good Friday.  Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means command. Today we remember Jesus’ command on the day before He died to “love one another just as I have loved you (Luke 13:34).”

Just a little later that night Jesus also told his disciples, “You will do greater works than I.”  Now that must have been hard to believe.   That would have been much more difficult to believe than believing the church in our day and age can be even stronger now that Jeff is gone than when he was here.

The Christian movement gained strength after Jesus was gone because of the way his followers imitated His love.  I have no doubts we will be able to say the same for the Church in Russell County, in East TN, or in whatever part of the world we find ourselves today if we simply choose to imitate the way God loved us through Jeff’s encouraging spirit, intellectual vigor, tenacious faith, and reckless pursuit of Christ.

Jeff and I didn’t read the Bible quite the same.  Our theological beliefs had some subtle, but substantial differences.  And our churches came from different branches of Christianity.   But that really didn’t matter that much to Jeff because somewhere along the way he became infatuated with the calling of Christ to love one another as He loved us.  For this reason, I can honestly say that Jeff is the pastor I most want to be like.  And on this Maundy Thursday I rededicate myself to loving as Christ has loved me and as for the past several years Christ has loved me through Jeff.

Goodbye for now, friend.  Thank you.

– Wil Cantrell, 24 March 2016

The Pastor I Most Want To Be Like

Somebody to Lean On

I get scared.

I become overwhelmed.

I begin to find it harder and harder to breathe. The physical walls seemingly start to close in, while my mind begins to put up walls of its own – barriers designed not to keep things in but to keep them out. There’s no pleasure in facing struggles or issues head on, so why bother?

In years past I would’ve acted out. I would have gone straight to my drug of choice. There’s no doubt in my mind that without even thinking about what I was doing I would end up there. Self-soothing was the only thing that worked, probably because it was the only thing I tried.

But this time it was different. I didn’t even think about acting out. Not once did I consider getting my fix. I no longer need that hit. My mind didn’t automatically take me down the same road it’s been down so many times before. None of the series of tell-tale steps toward total inhibition were initiated.

My mind was screaming, thoughts racing through my head at a thousand miles per hour. Total overload. I can’t begin to process all of the thoughts, feelings, emotions. Or can I?

If the 12 Steps are my daily tools for recovery and I have a proper support system in place, then all I have to do is reach out. All I have to do is make some calls. All I have to do is the next right thing.

Sure, I freaked out initially. I put my guard up. I became a little defensive. It was obvious by the way the other person was responding to me, but I noticed it and worked to collect myself. And when I got off the phone with the person who initiated my minor breakdown, I didn’t hesitate. I took action. And those actions helped me stay sober.

A made a phone call. And another. And another. And another. And another. I texted someone who called me back. I texted someone else. I received a phone call.

After the event that rocked my world and threw me into a frenzy, I did what I had to do. I made all of those calls because each of those people is a member of my support system. They are people I trust. They are people I love who love me and know my stuff. And this time, every single one of them answered. I spent nearly an hour and a half on the phone with people. One was my sponsor. The rest were friends, some even coworkers.

These people did little more than answer the phone when I called. I talked. They listened. We took care of business, and they helped to ease my troubled soul. One of them, who I even forgot to mention in the list of calls and texts, sent prayers and scripture my way.

Even when I wasn’t completely sure what I needed, I reached out. I sought help. And God smiled down on me. These people are in my life because I have a relationship with them. We are there for one another. Thank God for that.

“Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.” Galatians 6:1-3

In the long run, a fiasco that was important to me in that moment may not be that significant, but in that moment, it was everything. When I needed peace, calmness, serenity, surrender and guidance, I was able to cry out. I cried out to God. “I sought the Lord, and God answered me and took away my fears (Psalm 34:4).” I cried out to others.

In my moment of need, I didn’t have to go searching for people to help me. They were already there. All I had to do was call.

– Alex Walker

The header image is Lean On Me by Barbara Delinsky.