1I said to myself, “I will watch what I do and not sin in what I say. I will hold my tongue when the ungodly are around me.” 2But as I stood there in silence—not even speaking of good things—the turmoil within me grew worse. 3The more I thought about it, the hotter I got, igniting a fire of words:

Psalm 39:1-3

There is a way that seems guaranteed to avoid sinning with my words — don’t say anything! I have, at various times, pledged I would not speak a single word in a gathering to avoid saying the wrong thing. Perhaps you have too.

It doesn’t work. No sooner am I settled in the social setting, I hear a statement requiring a response. At least by my calculations. My resolve goes out the window and the words come flying out.

Perhaps there is a better way!

3Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips. 4Don’t let me drift toward evil or take part in acts of wickedness. Don’t let me share in the delicacies of those who do wrong.

Psalm 141:3-4

Both of these psalms are written by David, but his approach is polar opposite. His first tactic depended on himself. He would watch what he said and avoid using words harmfully. That didn’t work.

Along the way he must have learned that only God can tame the tongue. So he approaches it differently, depending upon God to guard his lips.

How about you? Are your words getting away from you? Do you resolve to control what you say with little to no success? Consider asking the Lord to guard your words — he’s an excellent gatekeeper!

I use words all day long. Even when I am alone, I use words to communicate with God and to fight not yet encountered situations in my mind. So, even when my vocal chords are not producing audible sound, words run through my head.

They communicate everything I need others to know and many things I do not wish for them to know. You see, the spoken word does not make the journey from my head to my vocal chords and out into the air unaccompanied. Our words are accessorized.

I might dress them up with a smile and a lilting tone or I might let them slip out unawares with a frown and a bored tone. And then there is my body language. My words can say one thing while by body speaks a whole different language. It’s amazing what all comes together to produce a single sentence.

I would love to say that I always wait, making sure my words are presentable, before sending them out into public. Unfortunately, I do not. At times, my impassioned thinking races ahead of my words and opens the gate before I can give them a once over. These words usually end up feeling rather sharp and barbed to the recipient.

Other times, my hunger, exhaustion, body temperature (too hot or too cold), hurries words out of my mouth before a close examination. These words also tend to be less appealing. Often impatient and stunted, they push others away rather than drawing them close.

The worst kinds of words are those spoken from a place of hurt. It is said that hurting people hurt people. And that is so true with words. These words cut, bruise and maim, leaving havoc in their wake.

What kind of words do you generally hand out? Well-thought, orderly words ready to greet the public? Or hastily dressed, rushed out the door words that should have done a quick pass by the hall mirror?

Words are powerful and it’s worth taking a few minutes examining them. today, I will leave you with this scripture from James.

2Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way…6And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire…. 8but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. 9Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. 10And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! 11Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? 12Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.

James 3:2-12

The most vivid example of Jesus withdrawing to pray is in the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. It is here that we see the most vulnerable expression of his humanity firmly tethered to his unwavering determination to accomplish the salvation of the world.

41He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42“Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” 43Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. 44He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.

Luke 22:41-44

Distress has been my companion at times. Not because I was facing death, but life can be overwhelming at times. This example from Jesus’ life gives me such comfort. When Jesus came to prayer, he asked that it could be different at the same time submitting to the plan. And an angel appeared from heaven to strengthen him!

I can’t honestly say I have seen an angel, but I have experienced comfort that was not human. It is in our most vulnerable moments that the Holy Spirit comes alongside us and strengthens us for the next thing.

If distress is knocking at your door, I encourage you to kneel down and pray. Pour out your heart to God and if you don’t have the words, that’s okay. The Holy Spirit will speak on your behalf.

26And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.

Romans 8:26

We are not alone on this journey, but it does take intention and effort to access the resources God has for us. Sometimes that is withdrawing to a quiet place to pray and reconnect with your purpose! May the Lord bless you and keep you as you seek his face!

Jesus sought solitude before he began his ministry. He spent an entire night in prayer before he chose his twelve disciples. He trained his disciples to rest along the way as he taught them to take the gospel to all nations.

Jesus, also, often withdrew just to pray. Not before a big decision, not to start something new, but just to be in communion with his Father.

 16But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.

Luke 5:16

I am sure many really good reasons for regular prayer exist. As I write this, I am struck by this particular passage. Reading what comes just before Jesus going away may shed light on his why…

15But despite Jesus’ instructions, the report of his power spread even faster, and vast crowds came to hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases. 

Luke 5:15

Keeping things in perspective motivated Jesus. The devil tempted him in the wilderness to subvert God’s plan for saving the world by doing it his way. It included bowing down to worship the devil, doing stunts to gain popularity and attention, using his creative power to produce food. Jesus said no to all of that, but he needed to keep God’s way front and center. He did that by withdrawing to pray.

I don’t know about you, but I can start something with the best of intentions and finish in a cloud of smoke by focusing on what people are saying (the report of his power spread) and how many people show up (vast crowds came to hear him preach). Even focusing too much on how many people read my blog can be a hinderance to me.

Do you feel yourself slipping away from God’s purposes for your life? Do the praises, accolades and appreciation of others distract you? Perhaps stepping away for a few minutes in the wilderness will help tighten your focus and bring things back into perspective!

Jesus is the perfect example of excellent self-care. He worked hard, ministered tirelessly, withdrew regularly. His first time in solitude was extended, forty days to be exact. He did that to prepare himself for public ministry. Emerging from the wilderness, he was empowered by the Holy Spirit to powerfully proclaim that the kingdom of God had come!

He needed a tribe, a community of people to train to continue sharing the gospel after he left. But before he chose twelve disciples to be his crew, he spent an entire night in prayer. Praying before making life changing decisions ensures success.

Jesus’ band of disciples appeared a bit motley from the outside. Uneducated fishermen, a loathed tax collector who cooperated with Rome, a zealot who defied Rome — they were rough. Jesus taught them the gospel by example and at one point in their training, he sent them out with a partner.

Then Jesus went from village to village, teaching the people. 7And he called his twelve disciples together and began sending them out two by two, giving them authority to cast out evil spirits. . . 12So the disciples went out, telling everyone they met to repent of their sins and turn to God. 13And they cast out many demons and healed many sick people, anointing them with olive oil.

Mark 6:7-13

Jesus knew the value of rest and solitude. When the disciples returned from ministry, they were delighted with the outcomes and wanted to talk. They might even have been ready to get back out there. Jesus knew what they needed most was rest, so he took them to a quiet place.

30The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. 31Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. 32So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone.

Mark 6:30-32

When I enjoy success in ministry or find that it really flopped, I need rest and solitude. Is that what I always do? It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the outcomes – good or bad – that I forget to step away with Jesus to recharge.

Have you experienced a glowing success or a crushing defeat? Maybe it’s time to get in the boat and go somewhere quiet for a bit. Take time to listen to the Holy Spirit. Be refreshed in the truth of God’s word. Take a nap. Eat a really good meal. It might just be what you need to be set up for success the next time.

Jesus often withdrew by himself to solitary places to pray. He is an example to follow as I make my way through the chaos of life, asking myself, “Am I willing to depart from ordinary life to seek direction in prayer?”

Yesterday I noted that before Jesus began his public ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness. Led there by the Holy Spirit, he successfully said no to the temptations of the enemy and entered ministry fully empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus also spent time in prayer before he made crucial decisions.

12One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. 13At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles. Here are their names:

Luke 6:12-13

Scripture doesn’t tell us how many disciples Jesus chose from, but it does tell us that choosing twelve required a night of prayer.

Honestly, I have never stayed up all night to pray about something. I wonder why. Do I not see the decisions I make of lasting importance? What kind of certainty might I enjoy if I had?

Are you facing an important decision? Maybe a new job offer, purchasing a home, moving to a different town, school district or state? Would spending time in prayer over the decision be helpful?

I know how easily I get distracted in prayer but when I am faithful to seek God, he is faithful to provide direction. Go ahead, step away from the chaos of every day life and ask the Holy Spirit what he has to say about the decision you need to make.

Solitude and silence are not easy things to choose. Five years ago, I drove to Kentucky to a monastery and spent five days in silent retreat. I read; I journaled; I attempted to learn to draw; I attended the daily hours of prayer; I walked; I slept. It was during a difficult time in our lives and the benefits of that time away are hard to put into words.

I have done similar retreats in much smaller doses – like a day rather than days or hours rather than a day. But I yearn for that time of focused communication with the Holy Spirit.

I often think of Jesus and how he chose solitude over people at important junctures in his life. The first departure from people was immediately following his baptism. He went away into the wilderness to establish the boundaries of his ministry. He knew the enemy had a plan that was not in line with God’s plan. He met him head on and came out victorious.

1Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry…14Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. 

Luke 4:1, 2, 14

When Jesus came out of the wilderness having soundly defeated the enemy, he began to preach the message that the kingdom of heaven is here and coming, already and not yet!

Perhaps you are facing a challenge, some kind of life change that would benefit from time away. What if you went into the wilderness, so maybe not 40 days, but armed with the Holy Spirit and his power to crush the enemie’s plans? Before you embarked on this wonderful new ministry, job, challenge — whatever is before you — what would it look like to be renewed in the Holy Spirit’s power?

11To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. . . . 18I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’20“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. . . . We must celebrate with a feast, 24for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ . . . 25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. . . . 28“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. . . .   ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. . . . 31“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

Luke 15:11-32

Today pause and ask the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. Who in this story most closely resembles you?

Are you the younger son, wandering far from the home of the Father? Desperate, starving, without resources? The invitation is there to return home. The Father watches for you. He has not given up hope; he is not disappointed in you. Turn away from the fruitless life you are living and return to the abundance of the Father’s house!

Are you the older brother, exhausted by slaving in the Father’s house, fulfilling all the duties, checking off the boxes? The invitation is to come into the house as a son, not a slave. Enjoy the provisions of the Father. Celebrate his love for you. Wallow in the peace and joy of his presence!

Are you the father, patiently (or not so patiently) watching for the return of a wayward soul? The invitation is to foster the unconditional love God has for all his creation. Continue to watch, fatten the calf, prepare the feast! (I find it interesting that the father had a calf fattened. How often do you think he went through the process before the son returned home? He didn’t give up and neither should you!)

The story of the prodigals is told in Luke 15. Jesus uses the story to expose the self-righteous behavior of the religious people contrasted with the lavish, reckless, unconditional love of the Father for those who have wandered away. The cliff notes version of the story can be found in Tuesday’s blog post.

The older brother found it impossible to rejoice when his younger brother returned home. Doing so seemed irresponsible to him after his brother’s wasteful extravagant use of their father’s wealth. He put himself in the place of judge, determining that his younger brother did not deserve to be celebrated. What would make it so difficult for him to see past the wandering, rejoicing that his brother was home again? It is helpful to carefully read the complaint he registered with his father.

28“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 

Luke 15:28-29

The older son wasn’t taking advantage of his sonship; he saw himself as slave in his father’s house. When I live according to a lie – I am a slave – I will not experience the depth of Father’s love for me. Jesus said, “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (John 15:15)

Paul reiterates the same concept in his letter to the church in Rome. He says, “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’ For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15)

The older son saw himself not as a friend or a son, but as a fearful slave. He didn’t enjoy the benefits afforded to him as a child of the father; rather, he lived a dutiful, responsible life getting the required work done. Perhaps he focused on not being like his younger brother, but he missed the point of relationship. Notice what the father has to say to him.

31“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 

Luke 15:31

There are certainly benefits of living next to the Father. Everything he has is mine. But all of that will be worthless if I don’t live in the truth of his love for me. I won’t access it. Obedient legalism will be the trademark of my life rather than outrageous joyful service. Wallowing in perceived neglect, I am unable to celebrate or rejoice in the good things that come to others.

The difficulty doesn’t really lie in whether or not others deserve God’s goodness, forgiveness and love. It stems from my own perception of my position with the Father.

Certainly developing the discipline of celebrating others will help, but that is only a symptom of a deeper issue. Pause and ask the Holy Spirit to show you the lie you are believing. Do you see yourself as obligated to serve the Father? Are you a slave or a dearly loved child? How have you neglected to access the blessings of God because you are dutifully serving rather than joyfully responding to the love of Father?

In the story of the Prodigal Son which I believe would be more aptly named the Prodigal Father, there are three characters. There is the father who owns a large estate and two sons. You can read the whole story in Luke 15 or check out yesterday’s post for the Cliff Notes version.

The outstanding characteristic of the father is his reckless, lavish, unconditional love for his son who squandered his inheritance, dishonoring his father and their cultural customs in the process. He kept his eye out for his son’s return every day so when his son was on the way home, he saw him from a long way off.

The older son, while not displaying the same lavish love for his brother, is far easier for me to relate to. He could not find it within himself to rejoice when his brother returned home. The wasteful use of his inheritance was all he could see and he determined that he could not applaud someone who was so careless. Refusing to come into the party, he pointed, judged and shamed his brother.

How often have I stood in the place of judge toward my fellow humans? Sometimes it is jealousy that prevents me from rejoicing with the successes of others. Other times, it is my judgement that the person hasn’t earned the right to be celebrated. I find that I keep a scales well oiled and operational and when needed, I put the perceived good on one side and perceived evil on the other. I then respond to whichever side wins out – my perception of the good and evil in another.

Except that isn’t what we are supposed to do and scripture would indicate that I cannot possibly know the heart condition or motives of another. While it may seem to my human eye that a person has not adequately repented or done the work of penance, it simply is not in my wheelhouse to make that determination.

Rather, it is my responsibility to forgive as I have been forgiven; to give as freely as I have received. Perhaps the reason I find it difficult to give is because I haven’t fully received. I haven’t experienced the lavish love of the Father in my own life?

12I am writing to you who are God’s children because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus.

I John 2:12

8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!

Matthew 10:8

Stop for just a minute and ponder the older brother? Is there any way that he reflects your own response to others? What prevents you from rejoicing when others prosper, succeed, are promoted? Would it be a fitting discipline to consciously speak words of affirmation, praise and rejoicing to someone today?