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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Featured post

It Is Well With My Soul

I’ve been reading through the book of Job this past week. Job’s story challenges us– especially if we trust in our circumstances to confirm God’s love for us. Job was a seeming pawn in a situation beyond his control or understanding. He lost nearly everything– his cattle, flocks, all his children, and even his health. The only thing he did not lose was his nagging wife, and his faithful, but very unhelpful friends.

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At first, Job’s friends seem very supportive. They stay with him, saying nothing, just offering their presence for a week! But then, they start spouting the kind of useless aphorisms and accusations that make Job’s bad situation infinitely worse. They “remind” him that good people don’t suffer–only the wicked experience pain and loss. This knowledge, they assure him, comes from their own experience, and the wisdom of the past. When Job protests that he is innocent, that his suffering is NOT because of his own wickedness, they become increasingly angry and irrational– making up accusations and heaping blame on Job for daring to “question” God.

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But Job’s friends, even though they speak with confidence and sound very much like many people we hear today, are wrong. Job’s experience is real–suffering comes to the innocent, while the wicked often “get away with” their sin, living lives of ease and comfort at the expense of others. We see it in the world around us– innocent people are the targets of mass shootings, or war, or famine, or disease. Meanwhile, criminals get “off” on a technicality; decorated war “heroes” destroy entire cities; powerful tyrants bend laws and oppress the helpless.

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Where is God in all this? WHO is God in all this? There are many different responses, but I want to look at three that are all present in the book of Job:

  • Mrs. Job: “Curse God and Die.” Some people look at evil and suffering, and they decide that God must be a fraud. Either He cannot or He will not destroy evil, or He would have done so before now. They declare with great defiance that either God does not even exist, or He must be malicious, capricious, petty, and weak.
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  • Job’s friends: “Everyone knows that God rewards good and punishes evil.” Doesn’t the Bible say this? Isn’t this what we learned in Sunday School? Surprisingly, most of us would say, “Yes, that is exactly what I learned as a child, and it is exactly what the Bible says!” But look closer. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) It goes on to say that “The Just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17)–not their good works. God DOES reward goodness, and he DOES punish evil– but He also redeems the wicked and causes the good to go through times of trial and suffering. God is more than a two-dimensional dispenser of rewards and punishments. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and there are times that He chooses not to explain His ways “in the moment” of our suffering, or in the moments when wickedness seems to be “winning.”
    Unfortunately, when bad times come; when we experience pain, or watch someone else going through inexplicable suffering, if our view of God is incomplete or two-dimensional, we are left repeating the little we KNOW (or think we know) about God, and defending, not God’s character, but OUR knowledge. This is especially true if we have not been tested ourselves.
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  • Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (Job 13:15) “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27 Even when Job struggled with his pain and suffering–even as he defended his character to his accusing friends, Job KNEW that God was GOD. He knew all that his friends were saying ABOUT God, but he also knew God–even when he didn’t understand His actions. And after all the arguments had been made and all the “easy” answers had been spilled out, GOD did not slay Job; he did not leave him in his agony. Neither did He provide Job with detailed answers or explanations. But He redeemed the situation– Job ended up with more blessings than before. More importantly, Job ended up with a greater understanding of who God is.
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When all is not well with our health, or our finances, or our safety, or our relationships, it can still be “well with (our) Soul.” God does not change, but He does ask us to trust Him, even when His ways are not our ways. God will reward good and punish evil– but it may not be in our lifetime or as we imagine. God may stay silent during times of great stress and pain, but He will not leave us! In every situation, we can trust Him.

Will we?

Be Reconciled

23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:23-24 (ESV)
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Why do we find it so difficult to be reconciled? We crave God’s forgiveness, but we withhold our own toward our neighbors, or family members. We let anger and bitterness keep us apart. We let pride keep us from doing what we know is right in God’s eyes.

I speak from conviction. I have been estranged from a cousin of mine. Years have passed since we’ve spoken. We argued about something, and simply stopped talking. I tell myself that I have nothing for which to apologize–that’s just the way things ended. And my life is far less stressful since we’ve stopped talking. I do not “hate” my cousin, or feel bitter toward her. In fact, I tell myself that I only wish her the best– I just don’t want to be involved in her life, or have her involved in mine.

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I know this is not what God wants. I know I should get in touch, and reassure her that “we’re okay”. Yet I am afraid to reach out and re-establish contact. Not because she poses any sort of physical threat, but she threatens my pride and my comfort. I find her difficult to talk to; difficult to understand. We have different ideas about boundaries and expectations–I find her “needy,” and she finds me “aloof.” I don’t think time will have made our relationship “easier.”

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But God finds her precious in His sight– and worthy of my effort to reconcile our relationship. That doesn’t mean that I must allow her to manipulate me or abuse my emotions, or that I must demand that she be someone she is not to make me more comfortable. But it does mean that I may be embarrassed or inconvenienced at times. I need to be willing to listen, even when it is difficult, and so speak, even when it seems like I’ve said the same thing before. And it means that I must learn to set healthy boundaries and insist on them– not to shut her out as I have been doing, but to keep our relationship balanced and safe for both of us.

God puts a great premium on our willingness to be reconciled to one another. So much so, that Jesus told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount, that if they were ready to bring an offering, and they remembered that someone had something against them, that they should leave their offering– unoffered– and go be reconciled first. Being at odds with others puts us at odds with their Creator and the One who loves them. Whenever possible, we should seek to reconcile. Broken relationships are sometimes a reflection of our relationship with Him. It hinders our prayer life, as well as our witness to the Power of God to redeem and reconcile the world around us.

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God is aware that we are sinful people. And there are some relationships that are absolutely toxic. Reconciliation and forgiveness are NEVER about allowing another person to continue to abuse or manipulate you. Especially if this involves physical or sexual abuse. Forgiveness is not the same as accepting someone else’s manipulation or abuse. God, and only God, can redeem us and make us a new creation. Some relationships cannot be fully “reconciled” in this life. But “letting go” is not the same as “locking out” or “running away.” We must let others know that God can do what we cannot–He can restore broken relationships. He can make all things new.

When You Get What You Pray For…

We’ve all heard stories of people who wish for something, only to get a very different result… One story goes like this: An older man, recently retired, grew bored with his new life, particularly as he now spent all day with his aging wife, who complained about her arthritis and all the extra housework. He wanted to be spontaneous and enjoy his new-found freedom, but she never wanted to go anywhere. One day, a genie offered him one wish– anything he wanted! So the man wished for a wife who was 30 years younger than him. The next day, he awoke to find the same aging wife asleep by his side. Discouraged, because he thought his wish had not been granted, he got up to use the bathroom. As he entered the bathroom and saw his reflection in the mirror, he was shocked to notice that he had aged 30 years overnight!

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Many people are convinced that God is like the genie in that story. We pray for something good, and God will send us something unpleasant, instead. We say that God is good, but often, it seems like He delights in sending us obstacles, struggles, and even grief. Why would He do such a thing? Of course, the man in the story was not asking for something noble or righteous, but we feel that God will somehow “twist our words” and give us something “less” than the good that we pray for. We want complete and rapid healing, not a lengthy struggle or a slow degeneration. We want “that” dream job, not being stuck with a dead-end job (or waiting for any job to come along). We want justice and an end to oppression–now– not waiting in silence for God to act.

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Habakkuk struggled with just such a situation. His nation was in decline. Justice was being perverted and denied, people were suffering in the midst of violence and wickedness, and God seemed to be ignoring it all. He had prayed for God to restore justice and rescue his people from wicked leaders. But God’s answer, when it finally came, was stunning. God was raising up another nation– one known for its incredible power and cruelty–to conquer the land of Judah and execute harsh justice. There would be no easy escape. Judah would be invaded and conquered. But God’s shocking answer also contained promises. First, “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (or “the just shall live by faith” Habakkuk 2:4) a promise echoed by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of Romans. In other words, even in times of incredible injustice and trouble, God will take care of those who are faithful. Even when He seems silent, God is watching over those who put their trust in Him. He has not forgotten the innocent or the oppressed. They can trust Him even in the worst of circumstances. Secondly, God promises that the arrogant and wicked will be punished– including the invaders who are coming to conquer Judah.

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God is sovereign and all-powerful. We are not. God is not a genie in a bottle–obligated to grant our every wish. Even when we pray sincerely for good things, God does not always answer in our time frame or in the way we imagine He will. But God is faithful and good. He does not pull a “bait and switch”– listening to our prayers and giving us something harmful or shabby in place of something better. God’s best for us may not look easy or pleasant from this side of things. But God can be trusted to see us through to the other side– where we can see the wisdom and glory of His plan. In the meantime, our choice is the same as Habakkuk’s– we can continue to complain, or we can wait and watch to see God’s solution unfolding.

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I needed to review Habakkuk’s story this week. It seems as though wicked forces have the upper hand in our world today. Whether it’s the lingering effects of COVID, or the wars raging in various parts of the world, high inflation and skyrocketing prices, or corruption in high places, things look pretty grim. It is tempting to complain, or to let anger and frustration cloud my thinking, or push me into inappropriate actions. There ARE things I should be doing–praying (!), helping others, and living a life of integrity and courage. But most of all, I need to trust God to be sovereign and good– through the easy times, and through the trying times.

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I will never wake up to find that I have aged 30 years overnight (though it may feel that way some mornings!). And I will never wake up to a world where God is not in control, or where justice and mercy are no more! I can pray with confidence that God will answer, and that His answer is better and wiser than what I can imagine. And that is a very encouraging thought for today. So my prayer is that I would have the courage to stand at the watchtower, anticipating and expecting God’s movement– even if…

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

Habakkuk 3:17-19a (NIV)

Two Ears

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak!”

Epictetus
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I write about prayer–how I pray, when I pray, how other people pray, what the Bible says about prayer– but prayer is a two-way street. God desires to hear from us. But He also desires that we should listen. In fact, there is really nothing that we can “tell” God that He doesn’t already know. But there is much that we can learn when our mouth is shut and our eyes and ears are attuned to what God is telling us!

God rarely speaks to us directly, as another human would. God spoke to Moses face-to-face (see Exodus 33), and Jesus spoke directly to hundreds of people during His earthly life and ministry. He also spoke directly to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, though not face-to-face (see Acts 9). But most of us never hear the actual voice of God. Yet He is constantly sending us messages– if we are listening.

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Often, He sends messages through His word. When we read the Bible, or hear it read aloud, a certain passage or phrase will suddenly stand out, offering comfort, conviction, or insight as we need it. Sometimes, it is the gentle prick of our conscience, or an urgent “sense” that we are to do something (or NOT do something). It may even sound like a voice in our head– our own or someone else’s–urging us to do something out of the ordinary or out of our comfort zone. Sometimes, He speaks to us through the wisdom and insight of someone else–a neighbor, a friend, a family member; sometimes even a stranger–and we get a sense that what we are hearing is “bigger” or more important than just words. And sometimes, God “speaks” through our other senses– in the beauty of a sunset, or the cool breeze at the end of a hot day; through the wordless songs of a bird or a rippling brook; the smell of warm bread–His way of reminding us that He is present, and He is Good.

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We need to listen for such moments and messages. But we also need to listen carefully. Not all “feelings” are from God; not all “wisdom” is inspired. God will NEVER send us messages that are in conflict with His character. He may call us to do things that seem impossible, uncomfortable, “strange,” or even potentially “dangerous,” but He will not tell us to do something that contradicts His own word. God may nudge you to leave a toxic relationship, or move to another city or country to spread the Gospel. He may urge you to speak to a stranger on a bus, or give something away to a friend without knowing why. He may ask you to befriend someone who is homeless, or mentor a child, or volunteer your time in ways or places you never imagined. But God will never suggest (or send someone else to suggest) that you cheat on your spouse, or abuse the trust of a child, or mislead your neighbor, or steal from a stranger– NEVER.

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It isn’t just that God gave us two ears (and two eyes!) so that we can look and listen twice as much as we speak– we NEED to listen twice as much and twice as closely.

How will I listen today? How will God speak? When will I close my mouth, so that I can open my ears? Will I watch as well as listen? Lord, help me to hear You. Help me to discern your voice above the noise and busyness around me today.

Look-alike Morals

It is Morel season in my home state of Michigan. Morels are mushrooms that only grow in mid-Spring. They are usually found in or near wooded areas, and they are delicious! Thousands of eager hunters search woods, roadsides, forests, orchards, and glades looking for the elusive spores each year. While morels can be “grown,” they are not easy to cultivate. Finding them is like a treasure hunt in all the freshness of spring’s new growth!

Morel mushroom

But there are several look-alike mushrooms– some of which are dangerous and even poisonous– growing now, too. It takes a good eye and some knowledge to tell the difference. False morels may have a similar shape, but they usually are slightly different in color and texture. Some false morels will appear brown, reddish, or even slightly purple, while true morels range from yellow, yellow-gray, or gray-black. False morels may be “puffier” or “spongier” than true morels. And while true morel “caps” attach to their stems, false ones may be detached or flared. It is important to know the difference and to be cautious when collecting the elusive morel.

false morel–gyromitra esculenta

The same is true of morals–there are plenty of people masquerading as men and women of integrity. They are polite, clean, charming; many are even respected members of the community. They may volunteer, give to charities, attend a local church, run for public office, hold a job requiring responsibility and trust. They look and act like honest, kind people. But they may be dangerous– even poisonous. They may even rise to positions in the church, destroying faith and trust among members of their flock, or spreading distrust and confusion among neighbors and even families.

So how do we “spot” the difference? Just as importantly, how do know which type we are!?

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There are a few principles in the Bible that we can use to identify “false prophets” and those with “look-alike morals.”

  • First, we need to study what a true “Christ-follower” should look like. It is vital that we take the time to study for ourselves what the Bible says. Asking “what would Jesus do?” does us no good if we don’t know what He actually did and said! Putting all our trust in a role model or a dynamic leader is like choosing a mushroom because it “looks tasty–it could be a morel…”
  • Second, we need to look for people who try to “color” or “shade” the truth to look “tastier.” All the way back in the Garden of Eden, Satan used this trick with Eve– twisting God’s words, adding supposedly “hidden” knowledge, and dismissing the severity of God’s warning:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:2-5 (NIV)
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  • Closely related to this, we need to look for people who use words to spread division or discontent–including constant critics and complainers. It is tempting to get caught up in arguments about certain traditions, worship styles, external standards, new practices, personal revelation, etc.. But we must avoid such poison, and avoid spreading it! One poisonous mushroom can poison the whole “batch!”
    • Beware of those who arrogantly claim to have “new knowledge” or “new interpretations”– God does NOT change; nor does His Word. New insights and deeper or personal understanding should stand up under testing. Someone who is not willing to be questioned or asked to explain themselves may have a bad reason for their unwillingness. Just because something is traditional, or “old” doesn’t mean it must change.
    • Also beware those who are dismissive toward others in the church, whether they are critical of the teaching, the music, certain ministry programs, or individuals who serve. We are commanded to build one another up, not pass judgment based on personal prefrerences.
  • Look (and listen) closely to make sure we are still “attached” to our stem– the Living Word of God. Many Christians will quote “moral” sayings that are found nowhere in the Bible:
    • “God helps those who help themselves.”
    • “The devil made me do it.”
    • “There are many paths to God.”
    • “All you need is love.”
    • “God just wants us to be happy.”
    • “God will never give you more than you can handle..”
  • Finally, we need to look at the person’s “fruit.” Someone can have an impressive outward show of morals, yet miss out on “bearing fruit.” Such people may display all the trappings of earthly success, yet they seen to have no peace, or their lives seem joyless or filled with discontent or intemperence. In my own life, am I demonstrating Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control? (see Galatians 5:22-23) Am I humble? Or am I impatient, unkind, judgmental, fickle, reckless, complaining, bitter, envious, angry, dissatisfied, greedy, worried, and prone to mock others– especially those in the church?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
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When we find true followers of Christ, we should be able to recognize the treasure of a life redeemed and transformed. While none of us is perfect while we remain in our present bodies, we should be producing a harvest of good fruit that sets us apart from “look-alikes” who are merely outwardly moral.

Qualified

Recently, we’ve been dealing with a lot of bureaucratic red tape. There are forms to fill out, forms to gather and certify, appointments to make and meet, and various qualifications. We must file paperwork for our business, for our income taxes, for our vehicles, our health insurance, our banking, –even a fishing license! We have to fill out paperwork to prove who we are, where we were born, where we live, how much money we make (or don’t make!), what we own, how much it is worth, how much we spend, whether or not we are ill (or have been ill, or might become ill!), whether we are legally married, etc.. Some processes are simple, only requiring a few questions and proof of ID, but most are not. Forms to be filled out on-line are often confusing, and there is no one to help explain the terminology. Forms that must be submitted often require supporting evidence that must be gathered from several different agencies and locations, signed, printed on certain paper, notarized, stapled (or NOT stapled), and sent by mail, faxed, delivered in person, or scanned and e-mailed. And if any one of the steps is not followed to the letter, we are not “qualified” to do business, receive payments, be properly licensed, receive medical treatment, etc. Regulations often run to hundreds of pages, and while there are experts who understand all (or most) of the fine details, most of us are overwhelmed by the “red tape” involved in living from day to day. We are not “qualified” to prove we are qualified to exist!

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I’m so glad I don’t have to make an appointment and prove that I am qualified to talk to God! The bottom line is that I KNOW I’m not qualified–not in my own power or wisdom or achievements. Instead of trying to prove something so impossible, God invites me to come– just as I am!– to meet with Him. He qualifies me through the shed blood of Christ. Jesus Christ fulfilled every qualification I could not– He lived a perfect life, never breaking God’s just laws, never falling short of God’s standards. And then, He paid the price of my failures by taking the death that should have been mine, and defeating it! All the “red tape” has been handled, all the forms filled out, the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed– my name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, with no need for me to re-apply or be approved all over again.

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There is only one thing I must do to be “qualified” for a right relationship with God– with all it’s privileges and benefits–I must accept God’s terms for the qualification process. I must accept that I cannot qualify myself; I cannot earn God’s acceptance through my own efforts, I cannot buy my way into His good graces, and I cannot inherit the qualifications from my parents, neighbors, ancestors, or countrymen. I must also accept that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are sufficient– even extravagant–to meet the requirements. Finally, I must trust that God’s ways are true and right and better than my own. I cannot accept Christ’s qualifications, and still do life “my way.”

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In this life, it can be very frustrating to get “qualified” to do the things we wish to do. But we can be qualified for eternity through Jesus Christ. We are pre-approved to visit any time, to speak to Him– even pour out our sorrows and frustrations and failures. And there is no need to wait for an appointment!

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Who Do I Think I Am?

(This post was originally published in March of 2021. I am re-posting it.)

I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.

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But I was struck by several things I had never considered:

  • Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
  • The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
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  • Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
  • Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
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What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?

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I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:

  • Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
  • Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
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  • God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
  • We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
  • I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!

Commencement Exercises

We’re entering graduation season. I’m already seeing notices of friends and family members who are, or who have family members, graduating from colleges and universities. Others are graduating from local high schools in the coming weeks. It’s an exciting time, when we celebrate achievements, encourage future success, and show support.

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We often call the graduation ceremony “commencement exercises.” Commencement means “beginning.” But so often, the celebrations seem to focus on the past. We look back on memories and accomplishments, we bid tearful farewells to friends who will go their separate ways, we console parents whose children will be “leaving the nest.”

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Graduation is supposed to be a time of looking forward. But it can be difficult to celebrate things that have not happened yet. We wish all the graduates well, but we cannot guarantee that the road ahead will be filled with success. In fact, we can almost guarantee that the road ahead will hold obstacles, failures, struggles, and suffering along the way! Sometimes, it may be easier to focus on what we already know and have experienced, than to dwell on the unknown. But—

We are also heading into a season that has traditionally been one of many weddings. My parents, one set of grandparents, my brother and sister and their spouses– all were married in the month of June. At weddings, we don’t focus on the past– we look forward and celebrate all the possibilities of the future. It truly IS a time of “commencement”– a beginning of a new family. We don’t console the parents on “losing” their child; instead we congratulate them on adding a new member to the family. We don’t focus on the past achievements (and certainly not the past relationships!) of the new couple– instead, we eagerly anticipate the new life they will forge together.

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In light of weddings, graduations, and commencements, it may seem odd that I would be thinking about funerals, but I see a connection. Funerals are not celebrations in the same sense as weddings and graduations. They are solemn times of mourning loss and the end of life. We honor the memory of our loved one– we cherish the memories and achievements and relationships that were in the past, but we don’t decorate with balloons and ribbons; we don’t sing and dance and make joyful noises; we don’t speak of the future…

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This is appropriate and natural. But at some point, as Christians, we should think beyond the end of this life and celebrate the “commencement” of eternal life. This short chapter of life has ended, but our loved one has merely “graduated” to a new and better life. Of course we grieve– we will miss the relationship we have shared in this life; our loved-one’s presence; shared jokes and memories of the past, or in the present; the familiar voice and listening ear; words of wisdom just when we need them– but our grieving is tempered with hope and joy. Not only will we meet again, but we will share a new life and a new relationship. The present may seem bleak, but the future looks very bright, indeed!

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Whatever type of “commencement” exercises await us this season, I hope we will take joy and find peace in the knowledge that God is planning exciting new beginnings at every stage of our lives and in the lives of others. Commencement awaits!

Building Walls

I’ve been reading in the book of Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem may strike a discordant note in today’s Western culture. Back in ancient times, most cities were enclosed with high walls. This kept invaders out, and gave protection and a sense of identity to those who lived within. Today, we have cities spilling into other cities in sprawling metroplexes. We have trains, buses, and airplanes constantly shuttling between cities. Walled cities are not practical. Even the borders between nations have become porous and flexible (except during times of war or distress!) It can be difficult for modern readers to share Nehemiah’s distress at the state of Jerusalem’s wall, or his passion to see the walls rebuilt. After all, Jerusalem was a conquered city, being ruled by foreigners–the invaders had already gotten in! The project seems to us like a waste of time, materials, and energy. Even in his own day, the project seemed problematic, and Nehemiah faced resistance on many fronts.

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Yet God put it upon Nehemiah’s heart to do this; He answered Nehemiah’s plea to soften the King’s heart, and provided Nehemiah with an abundance of materials and even protection for the journey. It seems as though it was important to God that these walls were rebuilt. Why? How does God feel about walls, anyway? Did He not give Joshua great victory by making the walls of Jericho collapse? Does He not command the Israelites to welcome and be kind to foreigners? Did the Apostle Paul not say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Galatians 3:28 ESV)? How do walls fit in with God’s plan for our lives?

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Part of our confusion may lie in our understanding of walls in ancient cities. We know they provided protection from invading armies, but they did much more–and they represent much more in the Bible. Walls not only provided protection to ancient cities– they provided structure and definition. Walls kept strangers out, but they also had a series of gates to let people come and go in an orderly fashion. There were gates used for commerce, gates that served ceremonial functions, gates that smoothed travel through the city, and even gates that were mostly used to transport garbage and dung outside of the city.

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Walls and gates also gave a sense of identity to people in and around the cities– some people lived close to (even in or on) the city walls. All those who lived within the city “belonged” to that city– and those who lived and farmed close by could claim the protection of the city walls in times of danger– whether from siege or natural disasters. They could also expect the city dwellers to be a ready market for their products or services. Travelers and traders could expect to be safe inside the walls of a friendly city– such protection could not be found on the open road, nor in many smaller towns. Cities tended to have more public services, better systems of laws and more stable economies. Walls could help control the flow of commerce, ideas, and loyalties.

Just before the book of Nehemiah is the book of Ezra. Ezra was a priest and historian who also traveled to the fallen city of Jerusalem. His mission was to help rebuild the Temple, and to make sure the priests were purified and re-establishing the Jewish religious practices after years of exile. At the end of the book of Ezra, it is discovered that many of the returning exiles have broken the Jewish laws by intermarrying with foreign women, and “adding” idol worship and pagan practices to their worship of the One True God. The city –and all of its structure and identity–had been destroyed; the Temple and the Walls were gone, and the area was open to all the peoples and practices of the surrounding cultures. Over time, even the priests had become defiled, no longer obeying, or even knowing, their own laws and customs! It is in this context that Nehemiah’s book begins to make more sense.

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God is concerned about the “walls” in our lives– boundaries in our behavior and worship. Some walls may need to crumble and fall like those of Jericho– walls that keep us locked away, smug and proud, defiant and unapproachable. Walls that create barriers without providing protection or shelter. Walls that stand in the way of God’s authority in our lives. Other walls may need to be strengthened and rebuilt– walls pocked with compromises that have eroded our commitments; unguarded gates where lies and confusion have stolen in and weakened our faith; areas where the pressures and stresses of life have chipped away at the building blocks of our Christian walk.

In the very first chapter of Nehemiah’s book, there is a prayer– it is not about rebuilding a wall for power or protection–it doesn’t even mention the wall– rather it is about repentance, restoration, and recommitment:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.  We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.  Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Nehemiah 1: 1b-11 NIV
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May we be willing to pray for the walls in our lives– those that need to come down, and those that need to be rebuilt!

My Father

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I have been tracing my ancestry (along with that of my husband and my in-laws) for many years. I am fortunate, in that I know who my parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents were, when and where they were born, and when and where they died. Most my ancestors lived in the same area for at least five generations, some for seven or eight generations.

My great grandfather and his cousin, c. 1885

I know many others who struggle with genealogy, or have lost interest in “finding their roots.” Some are adopted, or their parents were adopted. The records have been sealed, or worse, lost, and they cannot find out even the name of a parent or grandparent to trace. Others have a murky and mysterious family history– someone in their family was illegitimate or born out of wedlock and no biological father can be confirmed.

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Almost everyone who works on genealogy has, as one point, “hit a wall.” There are some people whose history is lost. They moved frequently, or they lived in a city or town where records were destroyed by fire or flood; some changed their name to avoid persecution or prosecution–some where enslaved and their names erased against their will; some lived at the edge of the wilderness, where few records were kept, and fewer still survived; some died young; some were illiterate, and left no written records. Many families have boxes or albums filled with unidentified (and unidentifiable) photos.

Some genealogists “hit gold.” They find in their family history a famous person from the past– a king or queen, military hero, chieftain, statesman, scientist, artist– some person of note. Often, however, these “finds” turn out to be red herrings. Early in my research, I thought I had stumbled on to a line of descent from one of the passengers on the Mayflower. How exciting! Except I had followed the wrong line. Two men of the same name in the same town had been born just two years apart. I had found the “right” name in a book about the Mayflower descendants, but it wasn’t actually the “right” one. A similar thing happened with the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. I even had a cousin who insisted that this signer was our direct ancestor. But it turned out to be incorrect. We WERE related to the signer, but not descended from him. It turns out he was a great-granduncle of our ancestor.

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Human genealogy can be a rewarding pursuit, or a frustrating one. But our spiritual genealogy can be crystal clear, and is full of exciting news! Our Father is the King of Kings! We don’t have to wonder who He is or whether we will be accepted and listed as a family member. His grace extends to everyone who believes on Him– and it comes with the fullness of being His Children for all eternity.

My dad

When I pray to My Father, that is not just a polite or wishful phrase. God IS my father– just like my human father, only eternal and omnipotent! I have inherited various traits from both my fathers–creativity, wonder, curiosity, a sense of purpose and responsibility, love for others and for the world around me, love of music and nature, and a love of puns(!)–and I am an heir to all the riches of my Heavenly Father’s mercy and grace. I am a descendant of all the heroes of the Faith– not physically through human birth, but by spiritual re-birth– a daughter of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All that God promised to them, He shares with me. Not because I deserve them, or could ever earn them; because He has made it so.

Whatever your genealogy today–whether you know it, or take pride in it, or despair of it–you can live in the awe of being a beloved and privileged child of the King! And He wants to chat with you today!

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