I Just Want Them to Be Happy…

..but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3b-5 ESV via biblegateway.com
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I once had to drop out of a thread on social media. (Actually, I’ve had to drop out of a number of threads, but that is neither here nor there…) The thread was about parenting, and priorities. The main thrust was that, as a parent, one’s top priority was to make one’s children “happy.” If your child wanted a particular toy for her/his birthday, you would certainly do whatever you could to get “that” toy. If your child wanted the latest fashion in shoes, you would certainly try to buy them. If your child wanted to be successful, you would do whatever you could to see that he/she got into the “best” schools and had the “best” opportunities in life. And if they wanted to do something of which you disapproved, you would still encourage them to follow their dream– if it would make them happy. Of course, this didn’t include letting your child abuse drugs or become a criminal. But in general, it meant sacrificing and taking a back seat to your child’s emotional well-being.

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On the surface, this seems like good parenting. Of course, I don’t “want” my child to be miserable, or unsuccessful, or “left out.” And I don’t want to impose my dreams and wishes onto my child, or live my life through him/her. I would not wish hardship and suffering to come to anyone, especially those I love. Except…I want them to develop endurance, and character, and hope, and compassion, and wisdom, and humility, and faith. And all these things come from suffering, losing, and learning from difficult experiences.

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I dropped out of the thread for a couple of reasons: I have learned that whenever the subject of parenting comes up, my experience (or lack thereof) makes my opinion “invalid” to those who disagree. “You’ve never had children. You don’t know what it’s like.” But I know what it was like to BE a child, and to have parents. I’ve observed the results of parenting by others, both good and bad. I know that even good parenting can’t guarantee “happy” teenagers! And even “bad” parenting can produce children who break the cycle and become adults of integrity and joy. The other reason I held back was that, in my experience, those who post such threads only want their own opinions confirmed. The people posting on this thread were not “bad” parents–in fact, they probably would agree with me if we had the time to sit down and talk through the issue. But one of the downfalls of social media is that we want short, pithy advice, instead of long and serious discussions. We don’t want nuances; we want comfortable “likes.”

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I don’t want my family members– my step-children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and cousins, etc.–to be defeated by suffering. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I don’t pray for them to be hurt or frustrated, because “it’s for their own good.” But I do pray that they will learn strength and courage, faith and trust, hope and joy as they overcome struggles, conquer fears, fight life’s battles, and walk in obedience to the One who has won the final victory. I don’t “just” want them to be happy. I want them to find the lasting joy that comes from developing a Godly character. That may bring me to tears when I see them fighting illness and hardship, persecution, depression, and other setbacks. But it also keeps me on my knees and reaching out as they understand that I’m there whether they’re sad, or angry, or hurting– and so is the God who loves them forever!

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Out of the Same Mouth

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 

James 3:5-10 NIV via biblegateway.com (emphasis added)
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‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

Epictetus (Greek philosopher)
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Have you ever made a tape of you speaking, and played it back to listen to yourself? Or have you had someone remind you of what you said earlier in the day or week? Have you been astonished to hear what came out of your mouth (or how someone else interpreted your words)? James, the brother of Jesus, had much to say about the dangerous power of an untamed tongue. “Fire”, “poison”, “corrupt”, “restless”, “evil”, and “deadly” are harsh words, but we should heed James’ warning.

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Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing…
Out of the same mouth come worship and complaining…
Out of the same mouth come encouragement and gossip…
Out of the same mouth come blessings and bitterness…
Out of the same mouth come hymns of heaven and threats of hell…

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And it’s not just our mouths, anymore. I see (and have seen it in my own feeds) posts on social media that make me wonder if the person posting is aware of what they posted just minutes or hours before–rants and boasts, complaints and smug condemnation sprinkled with Bible verses about Peace and Love, and pictures of puppies. We copy and paste, write and speak “in the moment” out of the emotions and thoughts that we allow to govern us. And while we may forget our momentary outbursts and random sarcastic comments, others do not. God does not ignore them, either. He can and will forgive them, but He isn’t “fooled” by our gracious cover-ups and flowery quote boxes.

When I pray today, I need to “listen” to what I’ve been saying lately. Do I need to deal with hidden anger or resentment? Do I need to confess (both to God and to someone else) about gossip? Do I need to reconsider the way I speak about my relationships and my achievements (and failures!)?

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The same mouth that praises God should be speaking life, peace, healing, and hope to those around me. The same mouth that promises to follow Christ, should promise to reach out to those for whom He died. The same mouth that gives thanks for Salvation should be eager to share the Good News.

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The tongue is powerful–whether as a weapon or a tool; whether controlled or out of control. God wants to teach us to use it as a tool for good. Not just when we pray, or worship, but every time we use it!

Where Two or Three Are Gathered…

Something curious has been happening to “The Church” in the age of COVID. In many areas, public gatherings have been limited or even prohibited, leaving local churches scrambling to re-invent their worship services and other programs. For a few weeks last summer, my local church was “closed” to the public, but sermons and worship songs were filmed and sent out as podcasts. Families could stay at home and still “come to church.” Since our congregation is made up of many large families and many elderly couples who are at high risk for getting or spreading COVID, this seemed like a safe alternative. However, for those who are single or just a couple living alone, we were encouraged to find another couple or family and “do church together.” (My husband and I watched the podcasts, but we didn’t gather with any other couples.) I knew of several small churches that continued to have “regular” live services– with congregations of fewer than 50, and plenty of space, they could meet the state guidelines. Others had “Zoom” services, or live streaming services for their sermons and a small praise team. David and I visited a couple of small churches, and, as our church opened up for limited seating, we happily attended in person. The larger the congregation, the more difficult it has been to have “live” church. Many are still struggling to find a “safe” alternative for congregational worship.

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Most of the churches in my area are currently open and trying to “get back to normal.” But something is still different. My husband and I went to Easter Service this year, and it felt really good to worship with familiar faces, even if they were still behind masks. There weren’t as many hugs or handshakes, and not as much “fellowship” before or after the service. The Joy of Easter was mingled with caution; the joy of seeing others was mixed with the fear that some familiar faces were still “missing.” We waved at familiar faces, and we sang familiar songs. But for me, at least, it seemed that we were still isolated from others. We “showed up” for church; we didn’t really “gather together.” I don’t know that anyone else felt what I did– and I don’t think this was any “lack” in our local congregation. But I think it will take some time and effort to reclaim “togetherness” in the sense that we used to take for granted at church.

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As I reflect on all this, I feel a sense of sadness and loss. And yet, I also sense a wonderful opportunity to rebuild and redefine our church community; one that remains close, not based on familiarity or shared worship style or similarity of situation or culture, but IN CHRIST! “Where two or three are gathered”…(see Matthew 18:20) We often use this verse as a promise of God’s presence whenever we have a service or a fellowship meeting. But the verse reads, “For where two or three are GATHERED IN MY NAME, there am I among them.”(ESV– emphasis added). This seems obvious, but I think we have a great opportunity to reflect and re-think what it means to “gather” in Christ’s name.

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We have amazing opportunities to “gather” via social media, live streaming, digital sharing, etc., with brothers and sisters around the world. We have the opportunity to develop friendships and relationships around the world, and worship with thousands of others simultaneously. And that’s wonderful. But Jesus’s promise is not made to mega-gatherings of believers “showing up” for a worship “experience.” Jesus promised to be where “two or three” are gathered in His name. And that doesn’t just mean that we need to get involved in a small group Bible study or “plug in” to a small fellowship group– though both are great opportunities.

But what happens when Jesus shows up at the grocery store when you run into your neighbor and share a prayer request, or at the restaurant, when your family says grace, inspiring others to do the same? What happens when “IN MY NAME” becomes a bigger part of our everyday life? What happens when that friend on social media becomes a prayer partner, instead of someone who just “likes” our jokes and photos? What happens when we make an effort to gather with a few neighbors for Bible study– even if we all go to different churches for worship?

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Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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I confess that COVID has shown me how much I’ve been living life and pursuing prayer in a bubble. I need to “gather” and interact one-on-one and in small groups with other believers. How much of Christ’s presence have I halved by hoarding it to myself or searching for Him in the church pews–how much more I can pursue relationships that include and invite Jesus to be “among” us, rather than just “with me.”

Praying for Happiness

A while ago, I was following a thread on Facebook. It was about good parenting, and the idea being discussed was about what a good parent would do to ensure their child’s happiness. Several of the people on the thread agreed that happiness was the highest priority, and that they would do anything to ensure that their child was happy.

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I disagreed, but I felt it was better not to argue as part of the thread. I never raised any children of my own, and threads on social media tend to pull out our gut reactions, rather than our studied ones. At first glance, it seems natural and good to want the people we love to be happy. I certainly don’t want my family and loved ones to be miserable! But is happiness the very best I can wish for– pray for? So often in life, true and lasting happiness is a process that involves going through struggles and periods of frustration and even failure. I don’t enjoy seeing loved ones struggling, but I want them to learn the life lessons that will help them become all they were designed to be.

I think of the life of Samson (Judges 13-16). Samson was set apart from birth to be a Nazarite. During his childhood, his parents followed the rules set aside for such a designation. The Biblical account makes much of the rule about never cutting his hair, but there were other rules his parents likely followed as he was growing up, such as keeping him away from grapes, wine, wine vinegar, or any other fermented drink, and keeping him away from defilement by dead bodies. It’s never easy to be “different” when you’re growing up. I’m sure Samson had many questions, and moments of unhappiness as a child. But somewhere along the way, his parents seem to have made Samson’s happiness more important than his character development.

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Samson grew to be petulant and spoiled. He seemed to think he was entitled to whatever whim took his fancy. Now the Bible is clear that some of Samson’s desires were part of God’s plan to confront the Philistines, but Samson’s parents put up only a token resistance when he told them he wanted to marry a Philistine woman. At the wedding feast, Samson posed a riddle which exposed his lack of respect for his Nazarite vows. Not only had Samson killed a lion; he had come back later and eaten honey taken from the lion’s carcass– a defilement that broke his vow. Later, of course, he would use the unclean jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines in a single incident. Samson could have made an offering and renewed his vow, but we have no record that he ever did.

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The most famous story of Samson is his infamous liaison with a prostitute named Delilah. Though she does little to hide her intention to learn the secret of his strength and betray him to his enemies, Samson toys with her, lies to her, and finally reveals his sacred secret. Once his hair is cut, Samson loses his great strength and is captured by the Philistines and tortured. Only when he is blind, imprisoned, and shamed does Samson seek the Lord and ask for God’s blessing.

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Samson pursued a life of pleasure, and gave full vent to his lust, anger, and other strong emotions. I’m sure there were many moments of happiness in his life, but there were also moments of pain, tragedy, betrayal, and shame.

I think the story of Samson is full of lessons for us today. One of those lessons is that even when we are not faithful, God can still use us for His good purposes. God used Samson to judge the nation of Israel, and to bring punishment on the Philistines for their cruelty toward them. God could have disqualified Samson for having broken his vows time and time again, but God used even Samson’s weakness to highlight His strength.

But another lesson, I think is that God showcased exactly what can happen when we place happiness, pleasure, and ease ahead of everything else. Samson caused his own unhappiness and torture. There is no record of Samson bringing happiness to anyone else– only shame, tears, violence, and retribution. God caused Samson to be a model of all that the book of Judges is about– at the end of the book, there is a significant verse, “In those days, Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.”

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I don’t want my family and friends to be “happy” at the expense of their character, or at the expense of others. I pray that they develop Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control (Galatians 5:22-23). In the end, this will bring them a level of happiness that surpasses anything the world can offer.

Esprit de Corps

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It is important to spend time alone with God, but it is also necessary that we spend time with others. This may not always be possible in a physical sense. This past year of pandemic and lockdowns has kept many of us apart. Even church services, Bible study groups, and “fellowship” events have been limited or suspended. But we have other ways of being “together.” Phones, internet, and letters are just a few of the ways we can stay in touch. And prayer is another. This is nothing new, but I’ve been reminded recently that prayer is more than just a personal pursuit. It is also a corporate pursuit. We do not live alone, and we do not pray in a vacuum.

It can be tempting to feel isolated and even apathetic when we are forced by circumstances to spend more time alone. We often succumb to the lure of “escapism”– binge-watching, gaming, or other forms of mindless entertainment to pass the lonely hours. It is not “wrong” to relax or be entertained for a time, but we can lose sight of our purpose and “sleep-walk” through our days, losing opportunities to connect with others and be a blessing (and be blessed in return)!

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The term, “esprit de corps” is used by tight-knit groups– military units, dance and theatre groups, etc.–to describe their unity, devotion, and camaraderie. It should be natural for us to apply this same phrase to Christ-followers. After all, we are the “corps”– the body– of Christ! To pray for and with one another should be a given, and a “core” feature of the Church. To stay in touch, to build up and encourage one another, to forgive, accept, and protect one another, to defend the honor of the Church and ALL its members– this should go without saying. But I’m saying it here, because I see so many examples of division, in-fighting, finger-pointing, shaming, and other nonsense. And I’m saying it because I see so many examples of people like me, who withdraw, stay silent, and allow ourselves to become weary and jaded, instead of reaching out and pulling together. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

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I pray everyday for people from around the world– but am I willing to pray for those down the street who hurt my feelings last week? Am I willing to risk reaching out to call or write to someone who may be discouraged, or having doubts and struggles? Do I pray with gusto; eager to lift others up and bring blessing to them, even in difficult times? Do I cheer on fellow believers, even if we disagree about politics or music? Do I champion the Church, even when some believers or even congregations bring momentary shame to the name of Christ?

“Esprit de corps” is not a phrase of apathy, or discouragement. It is not just an idealistic motto. It is not a phrase of grudging duty to a group or idea. It is bold, and forward-looking. It is united and strong. Just as the Body of Christ must be in the days ahead.
For more info on corporate/group prayer, see https://www.compellingtruth.org/corporate-prayer.html

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BTW– There are several terrific prayer groups online–Groups that pray for your requests; groups that share requests locally; groups that pray globally for healing or intercession; groups that will connect you to local churches or Bible studies.
*As with any online activity, please be careful. Not every group that calls itself “Christian” or talks about prayer is legitimate. Avoid sites that seek to get personal identifying information, or ask you to send a fee to join their group. Many local churches will be happy to add you to their “prayer chain” to pray for (and/or encourage or visit) people in your own community. Other church groups may have “Zoom” or “Skype” prayer meetings, or other corporate prayer opportunities.

The Right Side of History

My nation– and even my community–is divided right now. People argue, accuse, blame, and reject their neighbors because of political beliefs. And they defend the “rightness” and righteousness of their own beliefs–even when they must compromise on other beliefs and teachings of the Bible. Some people use the phrase “I’m on the right side of history..” or “History will prove us right.” And they cross their arms, jut out their chin, and stand smugly convinced that they have won the argument.

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But history books are written by human beings– and usually those human beings who are in power. “History” is constantly in flux– some things that were deemed “virtuous” or “necessary” in the past are looked on with horror today. Times change; societies change; customs and morals change.

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When we justify our politics, or our actions to others in this way, we are really saying, “whatever I am doing, saying, or supporting today will be judged “righteous” by future generations. And that may be so. Those who advocated for the abolition of slavery in America over a century ago should surely qualify as people who were on the “right side of history.” Yet, in the past year of rioting across my country, many of the statues that were toppled, and spray-painted, and chiseled, and marred were of abolitionists. Their moral prowess notwithstanding, they were seen as “old, white men” in old-fashioned clothing, whose lives and legacies were long forgotten, or confused with other “old, white men” who had supported slavery during the same time period. We delight in “debunking” cherished histories, toppling our heroes, and rewriting traditions. And we often compare our “struggles” to those of previous generations, even if the comparisons are skewed or largely non-existent. And in our fight to push forward a particular narrative or policy; in order to “take back” a certain position or tradition, we often lose our moral compass, believing the lie that “the end justifies the means” or that “might makes right.”

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In order to be on the “right side of history” today, people tend to make certain compromises– regardless of what “side” they choose. Political parties tend to support diverse causes and groups. Whatever good policies they promote, chances are they also promote policies and beliefs that are in direct conflict with scripture. Words like “compassionate,” “wholesome.” “traditional,” “patriotic”, “liberal,”and “progressive” may sound noble, but they often mask actions and policies that are corrupt, wicked, and destructive.

As Christians, we must be careful not to make “comfortable compromises” and to avoid righteous-sounding justifications. Just as importantly, we must be careful when confronted with labels and accusations, not to over-react or respond with bitterness or arrogance. If someone accuses me of being “hateful” or “gullible” because of my political beliefs, it is tempting to puff up and respond in kind. No one likes being judged. In fact, we are told in scripture NOT to judge, lest we be judged in kind. (Matthew 7:1-6) Jesus was often misunderstood, hated, falsely accused. He went to the cross after being found innocent by Pilate– who compromised by offering the Jewish people a choice of the innocent Jesus or the condemned Barabbas, instead of commanding that Jesus be released. In spite of his compromise, Pilate is not considered to be on the “right side of history” for his political masterpiece.

In fact– we are ALL on the WRONG side of of history! No matter how righteous our beliefs, ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our allegiances, our morality, our political affiliations– none of them will save us from the just judgment of God, or the wavering judgments of future generations. We need, more than ever, to hold fast to the truth, and to seek God’s wisdom. When the final “history” is written, I want to be on God’s side!

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Prayers for the Nameless…

I keep a prayer journal. In it, I like to write the names of people I know and pray for– family, friends, neighbors, etc. For every day of the year, I have a list of people who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries (if I know about them). And I also have a space where I list specific requests related to health or suffering, needs, grieving, and more.

But many times, I also get generic or “unspoken” requests–no names or specific details. And for every day of the year, I also have a place or region– a city, state, province, nation, continent, ocean, desert–for which I pray. Sometimes, this can be awkward. I don’t always know for whom I am praying, or for what outcome…should I pray for peace?..prosperity?..courage?..the weather?..the government?..

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So what is the point? Why not stick to more “focused” prayer? Why not pray for those things with which I am most familiar? Most comfortable? Most able to make or see a difference?

Because God calls us to pray. And He calls us to pray both for those people and things we know well, and those we can only hope to trust to Him. I don’t have to know WHY I am praying for Albania (beyond the fact that it is on tomorrow’s page of my prayer journal). I don’t have to know who lives there, or what the needs are. I don’t have to know, because God knows, and I am trusting HIM to know the who and the why, the how and the when.

The other day, I was reading in Genesis– the story of Noah, and the Ark. The Bible introduces Noah by giving us a genealogy: a list of the descendants of Adam through to Noah. And there is a curious side story about Nephilim, and giants, and wickedness. But there is something noticeably missing. The women’s names. Even in the story of Noah that follows, Noah and his sons are named. But not the wives…we know they are there in the Ark. We know they were saved from the flood. We know they were crucial to the survival and future of mankind, but there are no names. At other times throughout the Bible narrative, there are seemingly endless lists of names of people we are likely to forget–names like Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:2), Unni (1 Chronicles 15:18), Shelumiel (Numbers 10:18), Palal (Nehemiah 3:25), Tryphena (Romans 16:12), or Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16).

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Names are important to the Lord. He knows each and every person’s name before they are even born. He knows the number of hairs on each person’s head (even the ones that used to be there!). But it is not necessary for US to know every name, every need, or every situation in order to lift it before our omniscient and loving Father.

So I will continue to pray for the nameless and the unknown. I will lift up unspoken and unformed requests to the God I DO know.

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Another reason I continue to pray for the nameless is that it keeps my focus outward. One of the drawbacks of the modern and post-modern world is that the “smaller” our world becomes, the smaller our focus. I can connect, via internet, to people around the globe. I can look up statistics for any country or region; I can see news reports and video uploads in real time from nearly every corner of the world. But it can be frightfully easy to turn my focus on myself and those immediately around me, to the exclusion of those whose names don’t show up on my “friends” list, or those whose faces get lost among the thousands of videos, and Facebook Posts, and Instagram shots. It can be deceptively easy to depend on what I can “know” from a computer screen, and not to depend on what God knows to be true.

Let’s open our hearts and minds to pray for the nameless among us– near and far. They are not nameless to God, and they are precious in His sight. And somewhere, someone may be praying for “nameless” people in our nation, or city, or region– US!

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God Is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep..

It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.

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It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.

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The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.

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GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.

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EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.

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The Thief of Joy

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:7-10 NIV (via biblegateway.com)

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, once said, “Comparison is the thief of Joy.” Comparison, envy, judgment– they have a way of sapping our joy, our energy, and our purpose, leaving us angry, deflated, and anxious. He knew a lot about the subject. Coming to the office as the result of the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to hold the office of president, and it was not expected that he would be capable of fulfilling his duties. He was a blunt, restless, often hot-tempered man– not a smooth and polished statesman. There were plenty of people comparing him to McKinley and others– and finding him on the short end of the comparison! Yet Roosevelt was a man known for his optimism and joy. Even with his bluster, he was rarely seen without a smile and a positive outlook. And that optimism won people over so that he won his reelection bid in 1904, and became one of our most esteemed presidents.

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Comparison can creep into all sorts of areas of our lives– we compare finances, status, “likes” on social media, looks, job status, clothes, houses, cars, even shoes! And sometimes, it impacts our prayers. I know people who won’t pray in public because their prayers “aren’t good enough.” They fear that their prayers lack eloquence; that the people listening will be disappointed or bored or even amused or disdainful. And sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, they have reason for their fears! This should never be.

But it isn’t just public prayers that we compare.

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I write about prayer; I’m very open about praying, and I receive a lot of prayer requests. I’m honored and glad to be able to share in praying for others. But every once in awhile, I hear from people that they want certain people to pray for them (as opposed to other people). They seek out “prayer warriors”– people who are viewed as being “better” at prayer than others. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful thing– some people are gifted with more time or more opportunity to pray–why not celebrate their gift or promote their ability?

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But what about those who are not seen as “prayer warriors?” What about those whose prayers involve months and even years of crying out in groans and tears and unfulfilled hopes? What of those learning to pray?

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We can easily fall into the bad habit of comparing our prayers– our style of praying, the amount of time we spend on our knees, the stories of answered prayer and miraculous outcomes, the number of people who come to us asking for prayer… And this can rob us of the joy of spending time with God! God loves each of us for who we are. And He wants to spend time with US– not our neighbor, or the sweet lady at church who prays so beautifully.

I love communal prayer– even though I know there are people who are terrified of praying in groups. I love to hear the individual voices and styles of those who come together to cry out to God. Some are short and sweet; some are convoluted and conversational; some are anguished and passionate– but all reflect God’s heart to communicate and interact with us, and to have us draw near to Him. He never pulls away from us when we stutter or stumble, or forget someone’s name or mix up a request. He patiently listens to our rambling; He reads the deeper heart of our short outbursts– He even hears our unintelligible moans and mumblings (see Romans 8:26)! And His heart is filled with compassion, love, and inexpressible, boundless joy as He hears the sound of one of His precious sheep.

Jesus described Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” He told the religious leaders of His day that the true sheep would recognize His voice over all others. And He spoke of the “thief” who comes only to kill and steal and destroy. This “thief”– Satan– uses certain tricks to steal our joy and take our focus away from God’s love and wisdom. One of his favorites is to whisper comparisons in our ear. And if we listen to his voice, we will begin to look around instead of up; to ourselves and our words, instead of God and the Word of God. But Satan does not use the voice of our Good Shepherd. His words do not bring safety and peace–they bring doubt and discontent.

God will not urge us to comparison– He will always urge us to Communion!

Do Justice

Sometimes, we pray for God to “show us the way,” to help us know how best to please Him. We are faced with choices that seem right or good, but other choices seem equally good. In fact, sometimes, “God’s ways–” His laws and commands– seem awkward, outdated, harsh, even “wrong” in light of circumstances.

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But the prophet Micah points out the God has shown us how to please Him. He even spells out three things God requires of us: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) Later, Jesus confirmed that the two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) I want to explore this in greater detail, beginning with Micah’s first requirement– Do Justice.

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On its surface, this seems sensible and self-evident– Justice is good; injustice is bad, and a good God would always want us to be on the side of justice. But this is not a statement of thought or sentiment. God’s requirement is not that we prefer justice, or agree that justice is a good thing, or even denounce injustice. Instead, it is an action statement– DO justice (some versions use the phrase “act justly”). Those of us nodding our heads, or pointing our fingers, or arguing about past injustices miss the requirement entirely. We are to love mercy (more about this in another post), but to do justice– act justly–behave in accordance with justice.

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DO. JUSTICE. Tell the truth; honor commitments; pay debts; actively share with the needy around us; actively defend our neighbors against threats; actively confront and seek punishment for those who are doing harm; honor and respect those in authority over us; accept the limits and limitations of our circumstances; obey the law, even when others don’t. There is nothing easy or self-evident about doing justice in a fallen and unjust world.

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This is not a “social justice” or social media activity; not a matter of “being on the right side of history” about a specific political agenda, or a moral crusade. It is a personal matter– personal choices to take action toward individuals for the sake of justice. It may involve personal sacrifice of time or money. It may involve confronting family members or close friends who are lying, cheating, or breaking the law, rather than turning a blind eye or excusing their actions. It may mean saying “no” to an opportunity that involves sketchy practices.

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We like to think of JUSTICE–in big letters, stretching across decades–as an ideal to which we aspire. We don’t like to see it as a discipline that imposes on us a set of actions and reactions.

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Our current political situation in America is a great example of this. As a Christian– someone who wants to follow Christ’s example and please God in every area of my life– I’ve had to confess to being very unjust in my words and attitudes toward political candidates, media personalities, even neighbors and family members. I am constantly bombarded with photos, news stories, FB posts, memes, and more expressing criticism, sarcasm, innuendo, half-truths, exaggerations, and out-right lies. When I pass them on, comment on them, rejoice in (or proudly dismiss) their messages, am I acting justly? Am I doing justice to the people involved when I pass instant judgment or give instant approval? When I impute motives before I even know the full extent of actions taken? When I ignore uncomfortable truths, or insist on “my” truth? Can I do justice if I refuse to seek the truth, refuse to get involved or be inconvenienced?

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It is easy to point out hypocrisy in others, but if I want to please God– to do justice– I have to begin with me. I have to begin with the small acts I do every day. Am I doing justice to my spouse if I complain about her/his habits? Am I doing justice to my boss if I “call in sick” to go shopping or go to the beach? Am I doing justice when I keep the extra change because the cashier made a mistake at the store? Am I doing justice when I pretend that my stances on abortion or marriage or the minimum wage give me the right to silence, or harass, or destroy my neighbor?

I have to stop just talking about justice, or demanding justice for past wrongs, or making an idol of “Justice”– I need to pray for the wisdom and strength to act justly.

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Lord, help me to seek justice. But even more, give me the wisdom to discern what is just, and the power to do it whenever and wherever I have the opportunity. For the glory of Your Name. Amen.

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