Introduction

This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer.  I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.

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I Don’t Know Why…

I don’t know why…
God didn’t stop the bullet that took the life of a seven-year-old girl in Chicago last weekend;
God allowed for miraculous births in the same weekend in multiple hospitals around the world.

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I don’t know why…
Hundreds of people flocked to my hometown to defy social distancing measures and put others at risk of COVID-19 so they could drink and splash around in the shallows of a small lake. I don’t know why they left garbage and excrement in the lake and in people’s yards and in the high school parking lot.
Thousands of men and women risked their lives to maintain order and serve the public–donning their uniforms and braving the heat and the chaos to serve people who despise them, spit on them, defame them, and vilify them.

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I don’t know why…
God made snakes. And mosquitoes. And moles. And giraffes.

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I don’t know why…
On some days God feels so distant and silent; and other times He seems to be surrounding me and permeating me and holding me tight. I don’t know how His word can sometimes feel stale and sometimes cut right through me. I can’t fathom how God can be everywhere—every-when! That He knew me before all the history books and ancient empires and cities and shipwrecks and wars and all the stories I take for granted were even imagined…that He knows me now– every thought; every cell; every hair, every breath…that He knows me a million years from now. I don’t know why He chose to make me, and preserve my life, and bless me with days and hours, with friends and family, and teachers and tasks, challenges and changes.

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I don’t know why.
I don’t know how.

But praise God, I know WHO.
I know who made me. I know who holds me. I know who has the power to make good come from even the worst circumstances. I know who wins the ultimate victory over death and sin and disease and destruction.

And He walks with me and He talks with me—And He tells me I am His own!

Praying from Nineveh

It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.

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Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.

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The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.

But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.

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I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.

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What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.

The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.

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But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!

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May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*

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*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!

Fishers of Men

My husband and I had the opportunity recently to go fishing on Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is huge– the fifth largest lake in the world– and is home to many species of freshwater fish, including bass, catfish, trout, salmon, walleye and whitefish.

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Our daughter had chartered a boat for the day. The captain and first mate did most of the “work” involved– they piloted the boat, set up the fishing reels, put on the lures, and dropped them to the desired depths. Then, they trolled; they slowly ran the boat back and forth along a stretch of water where the fish were feeding, hoping for a bite. Once a fish was on the line, they would hand us the reel, and it was our job to “land” the fish. Mostly, this involved a lot of reeling and making sure to “hold the line” so the fish would not escape or drag the line. With lures at depths up to 200 feet and several yards away from the boat, this could take up to 10 minutes, fighting against the fish and the drag of the boat’s motion. But eventually, we could see the fish rise to the surface and soon enough, it was in the net and on the boat.

We had a fantastic day, and reached our “limit” of fish to take home– several lake trout and a few salmon.

Our day of fishing reminds me that Jesus’s first disciples were fishermen https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+4%3A18-22&version=NIV. Jesus told them to leave their nets and follow Him, and He would make them fishers of men. Jesus used a lot of parables and imagery in His teaching. And He never wasted an analogy. So what is it about fishing that can teach me about how Jesus wants me to share the good news and/or help disciple others?

  • Go where the fish are! This seems kind of obvious for our trip the other day, but how often do I go looking for those who need to hear good news? Am I willing to go out into deep waters, willing to take risks, willing to leave the comfort of the shore?
  • Listen to your captain! Our captain really knew the waters and the fish who lived there. He knew how the different kinds of fish would respond to being hooked. Some fish needed to be reeled in with a steady, even pull. Others would try to jerk and “run”– they needed to be given some slack, but kept on the line. People react differently to the Gospel. Some respond eagerly; some resist; some seem indifferent. God wants us to listen to Him– and also to each other. My goal should not be to force someone into a relationship with Jesus– to trick them or frighten them into a confession of a faith they don’t really have. I want people to come to KNOW Jesus and experience His grace and immeasurable love. I want them to be drawn to Him—even if that means answering their questions, listening to their doubts and fears, and waiting.
  • Be patient; but be prepared. Our first couple of fish were caught within just a few minutes of reaching our first “spot.” But then we waited. And waited. Our captain took us to another spot. And we waited…and waited. But then, there was a small frenzy– at one point there were three of us reeling in fish at the same time! And then, we waited… and waited. One last fish– our largest of the day! Sometimes, we think nothing is happening. No one is listening. No one notices our Christian walk– or they mock and steer clear of us because of it. Don’t give up, and don’t give in.
  • Pray! We prayed for safety, for good weather, and that we would enjoy our day, regardless of the results. And God gave us an abundance. God will not always give us the results we imagine or hope for. And sometimes, He will give us more than what we ask for–more work, more strength, more patience, more obstacles– but He will be there in the rain, or fog, or sun. Whether we have fished all day without success or we bring in our limit before 10 a.m., the most important thing is to have followed Him.
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Render Unto Caesar…

I don’t like paying bills. Utility bills, insurance premiums, credit cards, and taxes– property tax, income tax, even sales tax. Every month, the bills come, and the checks go. And if we don’t pay the bills on time, there is an extra fee and interest charges.

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I just finished paying off a student loan from over a decade ago. The original loan was compounded by interest, and it took longer to pay off than a car loan for a larger amount! Bills and fees and payment schedules are not unusual or unexpected in this world. And we pay (if and when we can) because we are honest and upright citizens. It is a duty, but not a pleasure.

Jesus even had to pay taxes. He was asked about it– even challenged over it. The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus into taking a stance and offending many of His followers or running afoul of the Roman government. They asked, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17)(https://biblia.com/bible/esv/matthew/22/15-22) Of course, if Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, He would anger those who were fighting to be free of Roman oppression. Paying taxes to Caesar, in effect, legitimized Roman occupation and subjugation of the Jews. Much of the tax money was used to extend Rome’s control over the Jews, and to pay the soldiers and officials who made life miserable for Jesus’ followers on a daily basis. And it was common knowledge that many tax collectors were corrupt and cheated the people to line their own pockets, as well. The Romans worshiped countless gods and goddesses, but had no respect for the God of Israel. It was humiliating, and burdensome, and unjust to pay taxes. And yet, if Jesus said it was NOT right to pay taxes, He would be inciting open rebellion against the Roman occupation. He and His followers were be arrested and killed.

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But Jesus did not fall into the Pharisees’ trap. He asked to see a common coin. He asked whose face and likeness were on the coin. “Caesar’s.” And then Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

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I was reminded as I opened bills and wrote checks earlier this week, that I do NOT receive a bill from God. I owe God everything– my life, my next breath, my health, my hope of eternal life. Yet He never sends me a bill, or an overdue statement. He charges no interest, or late fees, even when I let distractions keep me from giving Him the praise and honor that is due to Him. Even when I choose to go through my day without sharing my heart’s longings with Him.

I may not like paying bills, but I do it. I “render unto Caesar,” even as I complain about taxes and interest fees. But do I “render unto God what is God’s?” And when I do, is my attitude the same as it is when paying bills? God forbid!

God never cheats; He never asks for something He doesn’t deserve. And He has given me far more than I could ever ask or imagine, through the power that is at work IN ME! God doesn’t give loans– He gives gifts of eternal value.

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What can I render unto God today? Surely I can give Him praise, and share His grace and goodness with others…it isn’t impossible. It isn’t beyond my duty. It isn’t isn’t even “taxing!”

Continuous Prayer

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24 English Standard Version (ESV)

(Via http://www.biblegateway.com)
Final Instructions and Benediction

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle,[a] encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

Footnotes:
  1. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Or disorderly, or undisciplined
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The Apostle Paul, writing nearly two thousand years ago, left some final instructions to believers in Thessalonica. One of the instructions was to “pray without ceasing.” I have visited this phrase before, and I came back to it recently, because it still has much to teach us.

As with any verse or passage in the Bible, it helps to have context. To say “pray without ceasing,” without acknowledging the other instructions may leave a false impression. Paul is not saying that we should all stop living and working, eating or sleeping, and do nothing else but pray. But he means that we should pray consistently and frequently– prayer should be a natural part of our daily routine, and a natural reaction to events and circumstances as they occur. Prayer should not only be a personal practice, either. It should be part of “admonishing,” “encouraging,” and “helping” those around us. In fact, everything we do can be infused with prayer, and can actually be part of our ongoing prayer life. Also, prayer is part of being joyful always and giving thanks in all circumstances–“for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Not just joy or thanksgiving or prayer, but all of them together!

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What struck me about this passage today was the idea that if we are practicing consistent prayer (and rejoicing and being thankful in prayer), and teaching and encouraging others to do the same, there will be prayer “without ceasing.” As the world spins, people all over the globe who are faithful will lift up prayers that never cease. My prayers rise with those of millions of others who pray at the same moment. But someone else just finished praying before I started; someone else will begin praying as I say my “Amen.” People with very different circumstances, praying in different languages, from different parts of the world– but we have so much in common! And each prayer–each pray-er–is like a note in a symphony rising to the throne of Grace.

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Our prayers are so much more than we know. They have so much more value than we imagine. Not just because we say them; not just because of the thoughts and emotions that go into them. But because, when we lift them to the God of all Creation, He weaves them into what only He can.

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A Legacy of Faith

Psalm 112 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Righteous Will Never Be Moved

112  Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
    who greatly delights in his commandments!
His offspring will be mighty in the land;
    the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in his house,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
    he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
    who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
    he will be remembered forever.
He is not afraid of bad news;
    his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.
His heart is steady; he will not be afraid,
    until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.
He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever;
    his horn is exalted in honor.
10 The wicked man sees it and is angry;
    he gnashes his teeth and melts away;
    the desire of the wicked will perish!

My grandmother would have celebrated her 108th birthday today. I’m confident that she IS celebrating today– but she no longer has to count birthdays, or worry that this one might be her “last.” She passed into eternity more than 25 years ago. But she and my grandfather left a legacy of faith, hope, integrity, and prayer that lives on. It is a quiet legacy– my grandparents were not “important” people–they worked hard, lived a simple lifestyle, and never made a showy practice of their faith. But they lived it in such a way as to leave others with a glimpse of what steadfast faith looks like.

Grandma was born just a few short weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. She lived through two World Wars (one of which kept her separated from her husband, working in a factory, and raising two young girls). She lived through times of war, times of riots and uncertainty, and times of disease and pain. She knew what it was to struggle and lose. She was born before women could vote. She and my grandfather lived through the “Great Depression,” picking up whatever odd jobs they could, and sometimes not having enough for rent or food. But she also knew incredible joy and satisfaction. She knew what it was to be loved and to give love. She knew the joy of seeing a job to completion, and of using her talents and skills to help others. Most of all, she and grandad shared an incredible faith– one that had been tested many times– in God’s goodness, His provision, and His faithful protection. They lived in circumstances that would cause many to fear. But I never remember Gram being frightened–she wasn’t oblivious to bad news and difficult circumstances–but she faced them with confidence and resolve, the kind that gave hope and courage to everyone around.

My grandparents moved a lot. I mean, A LOT! They probably moved 50 times (at least) during their 62 years of marriage. Sometimes, they moved because Grandad had “itchy feet.” He liked change; he liked to have new projects to tackle; he liked to feel “free.” He loved moving into a “fixer-upper,” or renting a place with a run-down yard. But sometimes, they moved because they had to. They moved a lot– but they were never “moved” from each other, from their family, or their faith. They didn’t lose hope; they didn’t shift opinions based on their circumstances; they didn’t break promises or end friendships.

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Psalm 112 gives a wonderful description of a “righteous” person. Not a self-righteous person, and not a perfect person (as none of us are perfect). But it is a great picture of the kind of legacy my grandparents left behind. They were generous– not just with money, but with gifts, work, time, hospitality, and words of encouragement and hope. They were rock-solid in their integrity– they went above and beyond not to cheat or lie or complain or shirk duties. In all their struggles (and in their good times) they never lost sight of God’s Goodness and Sovereignty.

My prayer today is that I would pass along such a legacy; such a witness. God is faithful, He is good, loving, and kind. He is never far from those who call on His Name, and He is able to deliver us from all our struggles. I am so grateful that, in addition to all the other blessings I take for granted, God gave me amazing grandparents. I hope He brings such people into your life today, and equips you to be such a legacy-builder, as well!

Summer and Winter, Springtime and Harvest..

We’ve been enjoying (or not) several days of Summer for the last week or so. It was really HOT for the Great Lakes region, where the lakes and northern latitudes generally have a tempering effect, especially this early in the season. Finally, the rains came to break the spell, bring much-needed moisture, and lower the temperatures a bit.

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God has created a world of seasons– some areas of the world see two seasons– rainy and dry; others have four–winter, spring, summer, and fall; some have a dozen–deep winter, early thaw, false spring, winter’s last surprise, mud and flood, bug season, summer, autumn, scorching return to summer, “fall,” mud and flood (round 2), and endless snow. But God is faithful through all the seasons in every region. The sun rises and sets; the seasons come and go (mostly) in orderly fashion. We may joke or complain about summer in Michigan coming on a Tuesday this year, or grouse about the hot days or “endless snow,” but God doesn’t give us three years of winter followed by 20 years of drought. We don’t have six weeks of unrelieved darkness in the middle of summer, or a day when the sun “rises” in the west.

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We tend to take the days, months, and seasons for granted. God has set them in place for our benefit and His glory. Let’s enjoy them.

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Aromatic Prayer

We have a tiny herb garden. It’s just a couple of plants each of a few different herbs– basil, rosemary, parsley, chives, etc., in small planters on our back stoop. Just enough to have fresh herbs for cooking. They smell really good when I go out to water them, or clip some to add to chicken stew or spaghetti sauce or noodles and butter.

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They add flavor and color, too, but it is the smell that grabs the attention and brings immediate joy.

Our prayers are supposed to be like that, too. The Bible compares our prayers to incense with a pleasing aroma. God delights in the fragrance of our prayers.

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That seems reasonable for prayers of praise, but what about prayers of pain? How can such prayers bring joy to God?

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When I water my herbs, they give off a pleasing aroma. But when I chop and crush the herbs to use them, the scent is stronger, the flavor richer, as the plants give all they have to the dish. Left in their planters, they will grow tall, but they will not be useful. They will smell good, but they won’t fulfill their greater purpose.

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God wants our praise– certainly. And He is worthy of it–completely. But God also wants our chopped, crushed, bruised, torn, and painful prayers of need and brokenness. He wants us to trust Him to make even our groans and cries for help into fragrant offerings.

Our Father…

I have known some excellent fathers– including my own father and my husband. Fathers who do their best to provide for, pray for, protect, and prepare their families. Fathers who show patience, perseverance, wisdom, and selflessness.

But I know this isn’t the case for everyone. I have also known some wicked fathers– fathers who are physically, verbally, and mentally abusive toward their wives and children. Fathers who abandon their responsibilities, and leave behind a legacy of need, chaos, anger, and despair.

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Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as a Father. Not as a “man”– Jesus took on flesh and became a man– but the Triune God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit. God has all the characteristics of a perfect father. God also embodies all the characteristics of a good mother. But there is something about Fatherhood that God particularly wants us to learn and understand.

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When God chose Abram for His special covenant, Abram’s name meant “exalted father.” But Abram was childless. God chose someone whose name had no meaning (or an ironic meaning), and changed it– not a lot–he added an “ah”, so that Abraham’s name meant “father of many” or “father of multitudes.” I don’t think it was any accident that God chose a man named “Abram,” or that He changed his name only slightly. God chose Abraham, not because he was a father, but so that he could become a father– to many! It was as a father (to Isaac, but also to Ishmael and all his other sons and descendants) that Abraham was exalted and revered.

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But Abraham was not a perfect father– far from it! God gave us the story of Abraham, and drew attention to Abraham to help us learn the importance of GOD as our Father. Abraham was willing to give up his heir– the son of God’s promise– because Abraham was a “son” of God before he was a father to Isaac. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22&version=NIV

Even though I have known some excellent fathers, I know of only one who is perfect. And He isn’t someone else’s father, that I should be envious, or discouraged. He isn’t only “my” father, that I should be smug. He isn’t my father by birth, that I should make little of His sacrifices or His promises– they are not given out of duty or a sense of genetic obligation. He is OUR Father– He invites all of us to become His children. He lavishes love and grace, sheds tears and aches, sacrifices and pursues, rejoices and grieves– for and with every soul.

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When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He wasn’t giving them a rote prayer to memorize, but a pattern. https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/the-lords-prayer-be-encouraged-and-strengthened.html If you look through the Gospels at Jesus’ other prayers you will see it–He always begins by addressing His Father. For the group of disciples, He began with “Our Father.” Jesus, who could have claimed sole son-ship, made it clear that He (as Son with the Father and Spirit) desires this amazing relationship– more than power, more than honor, more than life! And God the Father is not a man or a mere mortal– He is Holy, Perfect, Eternally Loving and Eternally Sovereign!

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What a wonderful thought for Father’s Day this year– no matter what kind of earthly father(s) we have known!

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