Prayer

We Can’t Handle This Much Jesus

One of the creepier pieces of the puzzle beneath the headaches I don’t really have is a eyelid that doesn’t really close.

At least not all the way.

Well, at least that’s what my eye doctor says.

It’s handy at mealtime, where only a fool would pray with both eyes closed at my dinner table. When we say table grace, I keep that one creepy eye fixed on the spread. Because if I don’t watch the bowl to my right, I’m going to wind up on the short end of the mashed potato stick.

Meaning: I’m not so attentive during that prayer as I’d like to think.

In fact, I might be known to say Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, with more than a little indifference.

I don’t always expect Him to show.

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Taking Us In

She said something about communion in the comment box that made me go look again.

I’d noticed it, sure. But not really. Not like I did when I looked the second time.

When I went back, I saw this thing happening. You all were doing your own little scootching up around each other, whispering prayers, asking for them, cutting holes in the roof and lowering friends into the room for the Healer to get his hands on them.

And when another said what she did, in that certain beautiful way she did, this was the thing I saw:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

I see it in the sanctuary. I see it in your places. I see it on Facebook. I hear it on the phone.

We can’t be what we’re not. And we can’t do what we can’t.

But we take each other in.

We bring each other in.

I don’t know how to thank you enough for letting me be witness to a little bit of how we do that thing Jesus left us with here.

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Photo: more from among the remnants
of autumn, Sica Hollow, South Dakota

Leaning in the Direction of God

My kids are back home. We start the home stretch toward school again. The days spill over from life, and that’s a good thing, except when it’s a hard thing, and maybe that’s even a good thing too.

I’m staring down a long week ahead crammed into a short week’s time and likely some heartburn on the other end that I’d rather not think about at all.

All that to say, the stuff of the coming week should give ample opportunity to do what Paul Miller would call “leaning in the direction of God,” adopting that somewhat tilted posture of continuous praying because I don’t know what else to do.*

Like this:

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
(Philippians 4:6-7, The Message)

Thanks for hanging here with me, even when I seem not terribly present. You encourage me more than I probably ever let on.

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Photo by Horton Group
*A Praying Life, by Paul A. Miller

Enter In

Enter In

Enter InIt was late and I’d just pulled the blankets up to my chin. The cell phone buzzed from inside the socks next to the bed.

Sometimes, I slip the socks over cold feet during these cool summer nights in South Dakota. Last night I’d slipped the phone between them on the floor to muffle the buzz a little — enough to keep the daily 1:00 am email that alerts me to hail activity somewhere in the country from waking us, but not so much as to cover a call or text from my son who was spending the night with friends.

Just in case.

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But Does He Have the Ganas?

But Is He Willing?
Mark 1:40-45

But Is He Willing?

Around the table, fingers flipped through thin white pages and skimmed headings and margin notes for a clue as to the whereabouts of a story that may, or may not exist.

My class of good sports let doubt fall to my favor, not quite ready to confirm or deny whether I’d made the story up. I couldn’t even confirm or deny, truth be told.

We had to move on before we answered it. So the assignment for our next meeting? Browse the Gospels to see if, in fact, Jesus did have this conversation I had imagined.

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Sifted as Wheat

Sifted as Wheat
Luke 22Sifted as Wheat

Satan asked to sift them as wheat.

I eavesdropped on the cosmic conversation between the Lover and the enemy of my soul, and my knees didn’t feel like they were made to hold up a whole body any more. Good that they were already on the floor.

I read the text again and wondered, How often?

How commonplace is it for the evil one to strut into the Throne Room and demand to shovel the Father’s beloved into a sieve to be shaken up and banged around and knocked right through the screen?

How often does it happen, this discussion?

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The Same Kind of Week We’ve Had

The Same Kind of Week

The Same Kind of WeekFor my pastor

When it’s his turn to lead the worship service, my friend — the “minister of announcements” you could call him — might start things out by telling the  story of the game warden who went fishing with the pastor. The pastor pulled out a stick of dynamite . . .

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. (more…)


Teach Us to Pray

Teach Us to Pray

Teach Us to Pray

A guest post by Paul Willingham

Praying with a Limp

A few months ago I was enjoying a late breakfast with my dad at the local Perkins.  Our table was near the front entrance so I was in a position to observe as diners entered and departed.  Several middle-aged African-American women were leaving. As they passed, one of the women asked her companion if she had injured her leg. She seemed to favor it as she walked.

“No”, she replied. “I always limp after I’ve been to prayer meeting.”

The uninitiated, overhearing her comment, probably would not have caught that her prayer life included being on her knees.  But what a testimony for the initiated that this woman and her prayer partners spent part of their prayer time on their knees, not seated around a table.

I suspect that in this day of compartmentalized Church Life/Christianity and a desire for comfort (air conditioned buildings, heated baptistries and padded pews) that there is not as much prayer that takes place on the knees of the supplicants.  I’m neither denigrating the prayers of the sincere today (the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much), regardless of the position of their physical bodies. Nor am I suggesting that prayer is more effective when offered up while kneeling.

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Prayer is a “Thing”

Prayer is a Thing

Prayer is a Thing

It’s one of those times.

I stand at the shadow’s edge, knowing but not knowing. Perceiving but not drawing close.

Sometimes personal and professional collide with the shattering of glass like a boulder through a picture window. And while I stand safely behind the yellow caution tape of self-recusal, some of the whetted shards carry.

They slice open my hands, drive through my heart.

Though I can’t know why, I see that I am bleeding.

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God’s Heart Beats in the Silence

God's Heart Beats in the Silence

God's Heart Beats in the Silence‘Sat all You got?

I pushed back, thinking those two words were, well, lame. They were obvious, and though “strength” and “healing” seemed fitting, they also felt too small in that moment. I could have pulled them out of the air all by myself.

Surely He had something bigger, more imaginative He’d have me pray for a friend.

I know You have something more. Give it up. I want it.

Almost like a pitcher shaking off the catcher’s signs, sometimes my morning practice with God goes back and forth until I’m convinced He’s given me His best word.

That cold February morning in the shadows of my office, I shook off the words until I got the one I wanted, the one I was certain I did not make up on my own: wherewithal.

where·with·al
–noun
1.
that with which to do something; means or supplies for the purpose or need1

Even that day, I had to look it up to be sure I knew the meaning. But once I held it in my hands, I whispered back to Him, on a friend’s behalf, Now do it!

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Crumbs of Wasted Time

Crumbs of Wasted Time

Crumbs of Wasted Time

I sit at my kitchen table, where no one has eaten for days. My printer hoards one chair while game jerseys and tattered hoodies drape the others. My briefcase gapes open, stopped midway through vomiting up claim files and correspondence, a diagram caught in its throat.

I lift my eyes to the coffee machine, thinking I should brew again, and see crumbs huddled together on the counter, throwing furtive glances back my way and wondering in their raspy whispers if they’ll be safe for another day.

I don’t see to the dishes much. Or sweep the floors. Or pay the bills or balance the checkbook or fold the clothes.

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Living With the Questions

Living with the Questions

Living with the Questions

I’m not a good question-asker.

An answer-finder, yes. And an answer-giver.  I’ll easily spend days and hours to ferret out an answer from somewhere, or better yet, just have one at the ready to give and resolve the thing.

But to ask questions, this is a dangerous enterprise.

Asking questions means not knowing.

And admitting as much.

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The Point of a Chocolate Cake

The Point of a Chocolate Cake

Never mind how I got here.

We’ve long established that the road can be a little twisted and winding. What matters is that I ended up here, with the most delicious slice of chocolate cake between my tongue and palate.

Share a bite with me:

1 Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.

2 Take up shield and buckler;
arise and come to my aid.

3 Brandish spear and javelin
against those who pursue me.
Say to my soul,
“I am your salvation.” (Psalm 35:1-3, emphasis added)

I had no interest in reading David’s complaint in 35. Not that day, anyway. But I wouldn’t get as far as the complaint. I’d stop at just the third verse.

And stay there.

For days.

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We Can’t Handle This Much Jesus

One of the creepier pieces of the puzzle beneath the headaches I don’t really have is a eyelid that doesn’t really close.

At least not all the way.

Well, at least that’s what my eye doctor says.

It’s handy at mealtime, where only a fool would pray with both eyes closed at my dinner table. When we say table grace, I keep that one creepy eye fixed on the spread. Because if I don’t watch the bowl to my right, I’m going to wind up on the short end of the mashed potato stick.

Meaning: I’m not so attentive during that prayer as I’d like to think.

In fact, I might be known to say Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, with more than a little indifference.

I don’t always expect Him to show.

(more…)


Moving at the Speed of God

He’s going.

She texted just those two words. I didn’t need more.

I knew.

Those two words ushered me into a most mysterious place, holy, where one could almost feel the outer edge of the wind that must have roared through a hospital room 500 miles away when the curtain between heaven and earth tore open just briefly.

In the 15-odd minutes that passed between that message and the next, the one that said he’d gone home, I hung suspended in time, between the mighty roar and the holy hush. Without further thought, I prayed.

When the edge of eternity sits so close as to feel the breeze, what else would we do?

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Prayer as Argument

My gangly bird legs stretched out in front of me and I watched my tennies rock back and forth, scraping over sandy dirt like windshield wipers. I alternated between note-taking and doodling, then shifted again, trying my best not to roll right off the log into a dead sleep.

As my mind began to wander toward the lake and a free afternoon, the Charlie-Brown-teacher-drone voice broke into clear syllables and I froze.

Did she just say Willingham? What on earth is she talking about?

Remain calm. Look casual. No sudden moves.

“The Willinghams are a perfect example,” she told my group. “I like to think of them as the ‘Yelling Family.'”

The umm, what?

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Take Words with You

Just read. Don’t look up, don’t stop, just read.

I made it a full four verses before I reached over to pull the side drawer open, hoping I wouldn’t notice myself. I pulled out a pen and scratched a few words in the margin.

Don’t do it. Don’t follow the thought. Just read.

I set the pen down and read another four verses, only to glance over and see my hand fumbling in my backpack for the notebook. I shorthanded observations on the page, rushing to see how much I could scribble before I made myself stop.

Close the notebook. Put down the pen.

Seriously. Just read.

And then, I stepped into just one more verse before I felt color leave my face and heard a sound escape my throat that the thesaurus won’t help me name. A hand instinctively covered my middle, perhaps to hold in the sudden churning there, as the words, now swollen, pulsated on the page: you are not my people, and I am not your God.

I sat still a while, then returned to the reading.

You can absorb later. Just read.

Took me three sittings, so I can’t call it straight-through.  But it was a record for me, really. I cleared the finish line of Hosea’s fourteen chapters with only a few notes and etchings, and no side research.

All because of this half-sentence at the start of chapter fourteen: Take words with you.

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Hosea is excruciating stuff. It’s not like I didn’t know that. But it strikes me more, perhaps, in this compressed reading that God’s heart in these chapters swirls together into a big bubbling mess of love and anger and compassion and wrath and jealousy and tears and did I say love and anger?

His heart — it seems wounded and violated. It’s broken.

The book is full of pleas and wondering from the One that put the earth in orbit:

What can I do with you, Ephraim?

I long to redeem them.

The more I called, the further they went.

How can I give you up?

My heart is changed within me.

Does that not make you weep with God?

His love, His desire, His bride — she has sold herself, and not even to the highest bidder. Just to whatever joker might give her a dime.

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I needed all that in front of me when I went back to read those four words again: Take words with you.

What do you say, in words, to God when you return from your rebellion? What words do you take with you when you crawl back, soiled and stained, to a brokenhearted God?

I’m reading of,  and practicing, that prayer that comes without words, that comes in groans. How we pour out those things our hearts ache to say but cannot express within the confines of language?

Matt Woodley says this:

You try to pray, and you want to pray. You stammer, but the words get lodged in your throat. As a friend of mine said regarding the pain of a wayward child, ‘When I try to pray about it, it’s like trying to pick up a fallen electrical wire. It’s too hot; I can’t even touch it.’ All you can do is turn Godward and groan your anguish. But according to the Bible’s view of our prayer life, your God-directed groans are connecting you to God. God says, ‘Because of the  . . . groaning of the needy, I will now arise’ (Psalm 12:5). The Spirit who dwells within in you is interceding to God the Father for you. Groaning — the most primal, inarticulate and guttural form of communication — is imbued with trinitarian wonder. Groaning is God’s prayer within us.*

God’s Spirit will intercede where we cannot speak. Where words fail.

We know this. We’ve lived this.

And yet, in a moment when perhaps even God would groan, He says take words with you.

Come ready to speak to Me.

In these moments it seems far easier to throw myself at His feet and just groan. He knows my sin. He doesn’t need me to spell it out for Him.

But does He want me to?

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!

Take words with you
and return to the LORD.
Say to him:
“Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.

Assyria cannot save us;
we will not mount war-horses.
We will never again say ‘Our gods’
to what our own hands have made,
for in you the fatherless find compassion.” (Hosea 14:1-3, emphasis added)

In this take words with you does He suggest that we own our rebellion? We name our waywardness? That we look Him in the eye and, in painful specifics, put words on how we fall short?

It seems to me that might be what we call confession.

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* The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God (Matt Woodley)

Photo: Ink Textures by fugue

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The Art of Taking Dictation

Come with a wandering mind. Come messy.

This simple remark by Paul Miller transformed prayer for me.

He went on to say in A Praying Life that “if you don’t begin with where you are, then where you are will sneak in the back door. Your mind will wander to where you are weary.”

I found myself stumbling as I worked to keep step with an awkward, forced rhythm of prayer that didn’t permit my heart to connect with His outside of a preset formula: pray for this, then that. More time on this, a little less on that. Don’t forget this place and these folks and that other thing.

My wandering mind would often keep me from completing the agenda, leaving me uninterested in trying again later.

Miller encouraged me to begin with where you are, talking to God even about the distractions that plague my disordered thoughts.

I’ve never desired prayer more in my life.

Because I can begin with where I am.

Funny. Before she finished the first page of The Right to Write, Julia Cameron said the same thing.

The first trick . . . is to just start where you are. It’s a luxury to be in the mood to write. It’s a blessing but it’s not a necessity. Writing is like breathing, it’s possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what. (p. 1)

Starting with where I am — even if that’s messy — allows me to set aside the pressure of not doing it right. Not following the formulas and rules and expectations of folks who know this craft far better than I ever will. It allows me to just write.

And if I can do that, maybe I can catch on to this other thing, this idea that writing is about getting something down, not about thinking something up. Cameron observes that writing is the art of taking dictation, not giving it. (p. 10)

Seems to me we could say that the writing is capturing, not conjuring. Starting where I am allows me to get out of the way and just capture what’s there, not fight that awkward rhythm of trying to make something happen that is not real.

I fight the same fight, it seems, whether in prayer or with the pen. It’s messy because I am. It’s distracted and disordered. But perhaps I could start there, and as Cameron suggests, transcribe the flow rather than force it.

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We begin a new book discussion at High Calling Blogs today on Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. Join the discussion with Laura’s post today and links to others.

Photo: Where I am right now (The view from the deck where the sun is shining and the wind is not blowing. Well, it’s not blowing hard. It is still South Dakota.)

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Of Heroes, and Falling into Wells

A write-in hero
I scratch his name
in Hebrews 11 margin
alongside Abraham
Joseph
David
and the name
of the hero’s bride

I remember
the sparkle
and laughter
the power
and strength
the life that poured
from coal-burned lips
as we rambled
desde un pueblo
al próximo
to set captives free
in places called
Empedrado
Barranqueras
and Resistencia

His eyes
I imagine
still twinkle
with Father-love
but only behind
curtains shame
pulled down
and under heavy lids
of loss and gain
that feels like loss

Grace reaches that far?

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Wearing God Out

In the quiet of morning that still felt and looked like night, God and I sat together in my office.

Well, sat isn’t the right word. The creaking of my knees still rung in my ears as they bit back at me, unhappy with their place on there on the floor. And God? I don’ t know what position He took. It was too dark to see.

I remarked to Him that I felt tired. Days ran long and agendas overflowed. And I considered those things He said about rest, about easy yokes and light burdens and  unforced rhythms.

I liked how they sounded.

And I asked Him to let me feel a little of that mysterious, backwards rest He grants in the midst of everything but.

Probably my imagination. But I may have heard a snicker from the corner of the room.

I wondered then at the character of this Friend who likes to tease.

This One who said “Let Me give you rest that makes no sense” in one breath and “keep going, don’t stop, push on” in another.

This same One who said, “I dare you. Try to wear me out.”

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We Could Have Been Praying

It’s murky, looking into my future. My family’s future.

prayerTwo months from now I’ll complete this near year-long process of working myself out of work. I prefer not to use the U-word just yet, thanks. I hope and intend to have no need for it.

Even so, the uncertainty is all that is clear.

The rest remains, well, murky.

Funny.

I suppose your future is murky too. Nobody knows for sure what’ll happen tomorrow. Perhaps we just don’t always realize it.

Sometimes life’s moments conspire to make us more acutely aware. More focused on the murky waters below the raft than the clear blue sky above it.

Seems the waters will always be murky if we look deeply enough into them.

A little contemplative, it seems I am today.

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Getting the Monkey Off My Back

I awoke this morning in a stranglehold.

monkeyDon’t get me wrong. Lane was sleeping peacefully, at least until he got up at 5:00 to wake Isaac for football practice before school.

And no, the blanket wasn’t tangled around my neck.

But it’s lunchtime now, and the strong hands wrapped around my pencil neck haven’t yet let loose.

It’s time to get the monkey off my back, as there simply isn’t room for both of us in my desk chair. And besides, it’s difficult to breathe.

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Intercessory Circus

Now and then in the course of my work day I enlist the aid of an interpreter. I have a caller on the line who is not a native English speaker, and we need the assistance of an intermediary in order to communicate.

conference call

Despite my Spanish fluency, I do call for an interpreter when I’m working with a Spanish speaker and a formal statement is required. It protects me from later concerns that I misunderstood or misspoke due to the language and also protects me from being strangled by an English speaking transcriptionist who cannot understand a word of it.

The process goes like this:

I speak to the client in English.

The interpreter interprets what I said into Spanish.

The client responds in Spanish.

The interpreter interprets what he said into English.

Repeat.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The process can get a little wild, especially when the Spanish speaker also has some level of English proficiency. It got a little crazy that way yesterday.

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Slicing the Salami


Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18:27-28)


One of the things I have the opportunity to do often in my job is negotiate. Injured parties want to be compensated, and they come to the table with an idea of what they think they’re entitled to. I also have an idea of what I think they’re entitled to. We don’t usually start out in the same place. So we negotiate to try to find a place somewhere in between we can both live with. We both give enough to be able to reach an agreement. Or as a mediator recently told me, the goal is to get to an amount we both find mutually disagreeable. There are all kinds of tactics we use on both sides of the negotiation to try to reach that mutually disagreeable agreement.

It’s one of those tactics that I think Abraham put to use with God in Genesis 18. He certainly didn’t participate in any continuing education workshops or webcast training sessions to learn the technique. But he sure knew how to use it. The section heading in my Bible calls this account “Abraham Pleads for Sodom.” If I’d have been writing the captions, I think I’d have named it differently. I think Abraham was doing what today is known as “Slicing the Salami.” 

Slicing the Salami is a negotiating tactic that understands that you’re more likely to gain a concession from the other party if you don’t make a big demand or request all at once. You don’t eat a whole salami at once; you eat it in slices. In negotiation, you make smaller, incremental demands. The gradual moves make the final outcome more palatable for the party making the concessions. 

Read this whole account in your Bible. It’s not too long. Sodom is out of control. Its sin as a community has become so heinous that God has determined to destroy the whole of it. He tells Abraham of His plan, and Abraham does plead with God to relent. He calls on Him to be true to His character: “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge  of all the earth do right?” And then he makes his request, asks for his first concession. He doesn’t ask God to do nothing. He doesn’t ask Him not to act. He doesn’t ask Him to preserve everyone without condition. He asks Him to “spare the place” if fifty righteous people can be found. And God agrees.

So Abraham continues. What if only forty-five? That’s just five less than fifty. You wouldn’t destroy the place for just five, would You? (Did you see how the baseline moved? Now it’s just a matter of five, not fifty.) No, God says, for the sake of forty-five I will not destroy them.

Each time, Abraham is cautious, but bold: Don’t be angry, if I may be so bold. He’s bold, alright. Asking God to turn back His wrath. Asking Him to stay His hand. Asking Him to relent. He’s bold. 

But he’s also humble. He recognizes that he’s not God, he is man. He is nothing but dust and ashes. He’s humble.

That mix of boldness and humility is powerful. 

God, what about only forty? Slice. What about thirty? Slice. What about twenty? Slice. And so God agrees. He responds to Abraham’s bold humility. If 20 righteous men can be found, he says, I will spare the place.

Lord, don’t be angry, but let me ask one more thing. One more slice of the salami. 

What if there are only ten found? Slice.

For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.

For the sake of ten. We just went from destroying the whole place, no matter what, to relenting if there were fifty righteous men found, all the way to holding off if there were just ten righteous men. All a series of slices. Slices made in profound boldness. Slices made in profound humility.

God was willing to come to the negotiating table and meet Abraham there. He responded to Abraham’s faith. And his boldness. And his humility.

I’m not suggesting any professional development courses to hone our negotiating skills so we can be better prayers. I am suggesting we approach the table to meet with God in boldness and in humility. 

And in anticipation that God will come to the table too. He’s already there, waiting.