Prayer as Ruthless Honesty

It’s a lovely time of year to live in Minnesota. The weather is finally warm enough to be outside, the leaves are coming back on the trees, the school year is winding down and all the activity of summer is dawning.  The fields that stretch behind my house are free of snow and the corn is not yet growing high, so I can go walking there – a nice change from jogging miles on my treadmill every morning.

Yesterday as I walked, I listened to Rob Bell’s podcast, the “Robcast.” I’ve listened to this podcast off and on since he started it because I’ve always enjoyed his books and other projects but lately, I’ve been mainlining these podcasts, one after another.

I love how he is making these podcasts exactly what he wants them to be – sometimes they are a sermon – which is very natural for him since he is a pastor, but sometimes he interviews people, on other occasions, they are just his thoughts which sound more like a motivational speech than anything.  He creates for the sake of creating what he feels led to create and does his best to detach himself from whether or not the outcome will be a “success” – and encourages others to do the same. His words, his way of sharing them, his outlook – and all of it is serving as good medicine for my spirit.

And yesterday, he was talking a bit about prayer. He said, “Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” He referenced a text from Jeremiah when Jeremiah was pouring out his frustration, anger, and praise all in the same prayer…but the prayer didn’t end with praise, it ended with asking God why he had even been born. (Jeremiah 20:7-18)

It reminded me of my dad’s notebooks I have been going through as I’ve been trying to get rid of things. Whether he saw them that way or not, they were prayers. From the sad poems, to the angry, ranting letters to local politicians, to the unpublished memoirs, even the unsent letters he wrote to faceless, nameless women he found in Enquirer personal ads. All of those words he wrote were him pouring out what was going on inside of him. The notebooks were the place he felt he could be honest. They were his prayers.

All of us need a place we can be honest and real about what troubles and excites us, what brings us hope, what we long for. We need to be able to pour out and acknowledge all that collects inside us – to remember that it, and we, matter.

It seems in modern Christianity we think we need to sanitize our prayers. In fact, long ago in confirmation class I used to teach the kids a tidy little acronym to help them remember what a ‘perfect’ prayer looks like: ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. All those parts are good and important, but prayer can’t be reduced to an acronym. When it is treated that way, we start to think there is a wrong and a right way to pray, that God can only handle some of our words and some of our thoughts presented in only certain ways.

But God can handle our messiness. God can handle our prayers that are all over the place – angry and thankful and pissed off and hopeful all at the same time. We are never ‘too much’ for God. Our emotions, our lives, our mistakes, our longings, our desires, our despair – none of it is too much for God.

“Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” – Rob Bell




Sunrise, Sunset

Reflections on Shuffle Play

Sunrise, Sunset – Fiddler on the Roof Soundtrack

And they are off. I got my babies up early and onto the bus and another school year has begun. I woke up with the song, “Sunrise, Sunset” going through my mind. It is a bit sad and melancholic – like my mood today. Even though I am thankful for each passing year, I notice how quickly the sunrises and sunsets pass.

I went for a run and then made my way over to church. There is no one else at the church this morning for a little while. I love the quiet – a perfect way to begin a week which is going to be very busy. This feels like the lull before the storm.

So many to keep in prayer today – my head practically spins with all the prayers: those recovering from Hurricane Harvey, those worrying about Hurricane Irma, all those in the line of the fires out west, a young mom from my church who is in the hospital with crippling headaches and no diagnosis yet, all the nervous students and overwhelmed teachers, all the parents feeling all the different feelings on this gorgeous fall morning, all the churches preparing for Rally Sunday, prayers upon prayers upon prayers.

My days are better when I begin them with prayer – and my prayers are often exactly like this: I write and see what comes out. Sometimes I don’t even know what is on my heart and what I want to tell God about (or what God is trying to tell me) until I am writing it down. It happens that way, or when I am out walking and suddenly I notice that I have been talking out loud to myself or to God or to some imaginary ‘other’ for the past few minutes.

Some people think prayer is akin to good thoughts – nice, but relatively powerless. Others see prayer as a good luck charm – if we just pray enough or in the right way, God will grant all our wishes.

But I see prayer as a conversation – it’s me telling God what is on my heart and if I am quiet enough and really listening, God revealing something of God’s own heart to me. It happens. I can’t explain it, but it is one of the truest things I know. When I pray, something breaks open in my heart and makes enough room for the Spirit to move, to give me some wisdom, some inspiration, some peace I was needing.

So, yes, I pray for others – but mostly I pray because this selfish heart needs it and the medicine only it can give.

Why do you pray? Do you pray?


Sunrise, Sunset
from Fiddler on the Roof
Is this the little girl i carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise sunset, sunrise, sunset,
Swiftly flow the days,
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as they gaze…
Sunrise sunset, sunrise, sunset!
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears…
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears…

An Everyday Prayer

Dear God,
I yelled at the dog
I had a cookie for breakfast
I was impatient with the children
I sighed over another cold, snowy day
I worried, and worried, and worried some more.
Countless times I lose my way as your follower each day.
Countless ways I wander in the darkness
So much for being a light in the world for you.
So much for showing others the way to you when so often I am distracted,
But still, you are here. For me, for all of us.
But still, I hear your breath in the evening breeze.
But still, your wonder is painted in the sunrise.
But still, you are everywhere – in the warm handshake on the way into church,
In the sweet smiles of children listening to stories about you.
In their squirminess, too.
You are here – in this holy place – so old, and yet being made new each year.
You are here – loving us at our best, holding us at our worst.
So thank you, God. Thank you for this day – snow and cold and all.
Thank you for blessing us with relationships, people to love. Help us to be better at that.
Thank you for all there is to do and be each day – but help us to not take it all so seriously that we miss the joy of the journey.
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, God. In Jesus’ name we pray.

The Day After Christmas

A blizzard sweeps across the fields

I won’t go to the church today.

My 200-foot commute is unnecessary

As no one will be coming by my office.

If I am needed, they will call me.

Today, I stay at home and pray –

exercise, watch a movie, read, and write.

It’s a mandatory day of peace and quiet –

And I rejoice in this snow paralysis.

It’s the day after Christmas

And a nap is whispering my name.

Soon enough the wind will die down

The drifting will cease

And I’ll make my way back toward the stained glass structure of my life…

But not today

this day after Christmas.


It was thirty years ago or so when I experienced something I could call a transfiguration story. It was thirty years or so ago when I could relate deeply and truly for the first time to what Peter is going through and saying in the gospel for today.  Peter’s experience was on a mountaintop face to face with God and recorded for all time in the Holy Scriptures.  My experience was by the side of a lake, face to face with Bible camp counselors and imprinted only on my heart. But it was no less a time when God became very real to me and I, just like Peter, wanted to stay in that moment and that feeling forever.

I tell this story so often because it is so fundamentally a part of the story of me. I was fourteen years old and at my church, like here, a requirement before confirmation was to attend a week of Bible camp.  I did not want to go, I had no desire to go, and I went kicking and screaming in my own quiet and passive-aggressive way.  I was painfully nervous and shy at that age, I had no idea what to expect.  A week full of strangers? What would be fun about that? A week full of church? What did I need with that?

But out of respect for my pastor and the requirements of my church and the demands of my parents, I went. And it is no exaggeration to say that I saw God that week.  Through the words and actions of counselors who daily took time with us and shared the word of God with us. Through the songs that sang of simple wonder and joy and peace. Through that place and time set apart for growing in spiritual community. Through a sudden and growing sense that God had a purpose for me, for all of us, and the conviction that even in my own middle-school worries and wonderings, God cared about me and always would. That week changed everything for me – I heard the gospel I had heard my whole life in a new way, in a way I could understand and feel to my bones. I could see the glory of God shining through everything.

So, whenever I read the story of the transfiguration and how Peter and James and John are up on the mountain to pray with Jesus and Jesus is transfigured before them and his face is glowing and his clothes are dazzling white such as nothing on earth could bleach them and then Moses and Elijah appear with him and they are talking – Peter says to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwelling places: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” My first reaction is to think that Peter wants this moment to last, to stay there forever, and that makes sense to me – because isn’t that human nature to want to stay in those moments that touch us and move us deeply? Whether it is a deeply spiritual time, or the summer you first fell in love, or when your kids are little and so adorable, or when all feels good and well and right with the world.

But, wait a minute, the dwelling places aren’t for Peter and James and John along with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – he proposes to build dwelling places for just Jesus and Moses and Elijah up on the mountain top.  What? He wants to keep them there? While the regular people go back to regular life?  He wants to keep them Set apart?

It seems to me we might understand this as well.  Or do we never reserve parts of our Christian life for only Sunday morning? Do we pray daily or keep it largely at church? Do we read the Bible at home or is it mostly something we do when we read the scripture lessons at church?

I can’t tell you how many times over my years as a pastor that I’ve run into people around town and they’ll say something to the effect of, “Oh, pastor – I didn’t recognize you without your pastor robe on.” I think to myself, do they think I just hang out here in my robe all the time? That I don’t leave and go do other stuff? But I remember I used to think the same thing when I would see my hometown pastor out and about – “Oh look, Pastor Vetter is out of the church! He’s in the bank! He’s walking to the post office! He leaves the church?”  Well, of course he did. But in my mind it made sense that Pastor Vetter went with the church – we all like to compartmentalize things. Chips and Dip go with Superbowl Sunday, roses and candy go with Valentines day, Pastors, prayer, Bibles go with churches.  I think that is why Beer and Hymns gets people’s attention – because it is a pairing of things that we don’t think of together.  It makes some very uneasy – but for others, it just makes it interesting.

To Peter, Jesus hanging out forever on a mountain top – shining and talking with Moses and Elijah in their designated dwelling places high and far away – that made sense.  Keep the holy stuff and holy moments together.

But of course, Jesus won’t be compartmentalized. Never for a moment would he stay set apart. He comes down off the mountain and into the messiness of life down below because a shepherd needs to be with his sheep.  Surely life would have been easier for him if he had stayed up on the mountain, but he would only have fulfilled a fraction of his purpose. What good is it to be shiny and glowing on a mountain all the time? Shiny and glowing Jesus high on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to the man who came to Jesus in the village down below needing desperately for him to heal his son. Shiny and glowing Jesus set apart high and far away on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to any who needed to hear his teachings or experience his grace.

While Peter is still talking a light-radiant cloud envelopes them and they became very aware of God’s presence – and a voice emanated around them saying, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

Obviously, if you are going to listen to someone, you need to be around them.  You can’t keep them perched far away on a mountain and be actively listening to him. Peter and the others knew that no matter how extraordinary that moment had been, and no matter what reasoning Peter might have had for wanting to build those dwelling places, the moment drifted away with the cloud and Moses and Elijah as well.  All they were left with was the command from the voice of God’s own self, “Listen.”

It seems to me that word is much at the heart of the church season we will soon be entering.  Lent begins in just a few days when we gather here on Ash Wednesday to hear the Word, to confess our sins, to receive the ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and to share in Holy Communion. On Ash Wednesday and each week during Lent we gather for church on Sunday and also have the opportunity for worship on Wednesdays to set this time apart, to give ourselves space to listen for God’s voice and to reflect on the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love. These become the specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal.

Repentance is turning from sin. It is turning 180 degrees away from sin to walk toward God. We participate in repentance when we join together in the confession on Sunday mornings and Lenten services – particularly Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

Fasting comes to us from Judaism and was recommended by Jesus. It is a practice that is designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening one’s attractions to pleasures of the senses. Thus fasting is always coupled with prayer and spiritual preparation.

Fasting does not necessarily mean giving up all food for a day. More frequently it is the giving up or limiting of a particular food or food group (sweets, desserts, chocolate, butter, fat, eggs, etc.) Abstinence from some activity (such as television, internet, movies, entertainment, etc.) on certain days, at certain hours or throughout the season is another way to observe the Lenten fast. This is designed to give more time for prayer and spiritual work.

Prayer is when we are drawn closer to God in contemplation and communication. Prayer is our half of a conversation with God. That means that prayer is not only speaking, but listening as well.

Finally, works of Love – this can be anything we do for someone else – generally someone outside our family.  Examples of works of love are as varied as your imagination: shoveling the sidewalk for someone else, visiting homebound people, bringing a meal for someone who is going through a difficult time, writing a letter of encouragement. When doing your work of love, meditate upon Christ’s words, “As you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.”

After making your choices and beginning your discipline, it is not necessary to share your choices or your acts of love with anyone else. In fact, anonymity is regarded as better (Matt.6:1-7, 16-18).

Don’t be too hard on yourself, too rigorous, or too legalistic. The idea is to have a discipline that moves you spiritually closer to God, not one that focuses you solely on your discipline.

There’s nothing about the discipline of Lent that is a shiny and glowing mountaintop experience of God. The grand alleluias get put away and we tend to the work of Lent for us here in the valley below – practicing at being God’s people. Working at it. Letting the turning of the season and the giving of ourselves over to it transform us. Giving something more each week of our time, and our attention, and our selves.  Trusting that as we journey through this season quietly and listening, and staying awake with Jesus, we might arrive at Easter morning with renewed spirits.

Lenten Discipline

During the church season of Lent, it isn’t uncommon to hear church-y folks talk about a “Lenten discipline”.  Well, at least I know some pastors talk about it and in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the congregation will often pledge to commit to the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and works of love as a sort of spiritual training period.

I love Lent and that during this 40 day period we are to take on special practices to help bring our thoughts back to God more frequently. I’ve preached about this in different ways over the years and it often reflects what I’ve been reading or thinking about. One year I encouraged my folks to add something to their routine instead of fasting – for example, add some devotion time or add more Bible study time to their week. Too many years I have engaged in fasting from different foods but it always seemed to turn into just another diet plan, disguised as being spiritually motivated, but ending  as most regular diets do – feeling mad at myself when I eventually got too hungry to continue. To tell you the truth, for the most part, over my years, I have not done very well at mastering any sort of Lenten discipline except to show up and preach and lead worship an extra time each week at the Wednesday night services – which I guess is something, but it’s also a part of my job, and I’ve always wished for more.

I have grand visions of a day, when my kids are grown, when I’ll take the forty days of Lent to engage in a retreat of pure silence or spend the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning on a long hike on El Camino de Santiago.

For now, however, I’ll stick to small things. I won’t write about what I have chosen to do this year because I just preached about how in Matthew 6, we are told that it is better to be quiet about our giving and our fasting and our works of love. It’s best to keep our Lenten discipline between us and God, let this season quietly and subtly transform us.

Whether or not we participate in a Lenten discipline, God loves us. However, we need reminders sometimes of how much we have and that we can’t be a slave to the many comforts that most of us have. This is the great value in fasting from a particular food or from any enjoyable activity: each time we reach for that sweet or that remote and remind ourselves that isn’t a part of our lives for the next forty days, the spoiled brat inside says, “why not?” Then, each time we get to answer, “because I was made for more than my belly and my own comforts. I was made to be a child of God. Now, what does that mean?”  What a great thing to be thinking about over and over again. Fixing our minds on these kinds of thoughts help us arrive at Easter morning a little more aware of who we have been, who we are, and how we want to be.

If you haven’t yet decided on a Lenten discipline, it isn’t too late. Here are some ideas:

  1. Prayer: set aside some special time each day for prayer. You could send a note each day to a different person and let them know you are praying for them. Don’t forget to pray for your pastor and the Sunday School teachers and church office staff!
  2. Repentence: Each Sunday in the Lutheran church services we say the confession together. Don’t forget to include confession to God in your own personal prayers. Remember that repentance means to turn away from our sins. Spend time contemplating how you can turn away from temptations and pray for God’s strength to live in Christ’s light.
  3. Works of love: Anything we do for others in Christ’s name is a work of love. Is there someone in your community who could use a little extra help? Does someone need a note of encouragement? Could you bring in lunch for the office or buy coffee for the person behind you in line? Committing to doing one work of love each day in Lent could change your life in beautiful ways.
  4. Fasting: fasting is quite simply, to deny ourselves something for a time and then each time we think of that thing, to turn our thoughts to God.  Many people in the Bible, including Jesus, fasted. This self-denial helps us to grow spiritually.  I like how Jen Hatmaker put it, “A fast is not necessarily something we offer God, but it assists us in offering ourselves.”



Looking for Answers to Big Questions? Explore the “Prayer of Examen”

Should I go down this path or that one? Should I take the new job or keep my old one? What does God want me to do? What does God want me to change? How do I know where God is leading me? These are common questions that deal with the topic of discernment. Developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Prayer of Examen helps us become more aware of where God is in our lives. When we practice the Examen we begin to be attentive to times of consolation (what gives us life, joy, peace, love) and to times of desolation (what brings us anxiety, worry, fear, anger). When we notice desolation in our lives we begin to have a sense of what God is leading us away from. When we notice consolation, the fruits of the Spirit, we are actually noticing God. And once we begin to notice God our job is to follow wherever God is leading.

Practice the Examen:

  1. Choose a period of time to examine in prayer. This can be a day, week, or a specific event.
  2. Allow your mind to wander through that period of time. Some questions you might ask yourself about that period include:
    – What am I most/least grateful for during that time?
    – When did I feel a sense of love, peace, joy, life (the gifts of the Spirit)?
    – When did I feel exhausted, dead, drained, angry, mean?
    – What specific events, thoughts, or experiences draw my attention?
    – What aspects of that time repel me?
    – What moments from that time speak to me of my deepest desires?
    – What things feel out of place, uninteresting?
  3. Ask yourself, When did I notice God during this time? What felt like a time of God’s absence?
  4. As some answers to these questions arise, notice what this tells you about the future. How is it that God is calling you into being? Toward what actions, activities, or attributes is God drawing you?
  5. Repeat this prayer at regular intervals in order to see how God is working in your life.

Taken from Creating a Life with God by Daniel Wolpert

Artwork by Trey Everett

Check out more at