What Peace We Often Forfeit

This has not been a “peaceful” week– unexpected changes of plans, setbacks, last-minute opportunities–even the good things have not been restful or without some stress. I’m writing this mere hours before it’s supposed to be published. It’s getting close to midnight, and I’m exhausted. I’ve had writer’s block, and decided to look through an old hymn book for inspiration.

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Happening upon an old favorite, I was ready to turn the page– I’ve already used this hymn for inspiration before. But one line caught my eye in a new way:
“O, what peace we often forfeit,
O, what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!”
I’ve sung this hymn dozens, maybe even hundreds of times, and I always focus on the last phrases. I know so well the “needless pain” of not praying. I also know the restlessness and stress of “going it alone” and not seeking God first. But I was struck anew by the phrasing.

Most of us would say that we are seeking peace, not asking for stress or anxiety or worry. We would say that we finally find peace when we pray. But how many of us are aware that we already HAVE peace, and we are losing it or even giving it away when we don’t pray?

What a friend we HAVE in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer
Jesus has already promised us PEACE–“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 ESV) ; “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7 ESV)

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Prayer doesn’t just help us find peace, it keeps us from losing peace.

I found that to be true this week–even with the surprises and last-minute changes, I have felt a peace that I can’t explain through ordinary means. It isn’t anything I’ve done differently, or anything about my circumstances. It comes from taking everything to God in prayer. I didn’t have to “find” peace– I never lost it!

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What a wonderful privilege!
(And, by the way, the writer’s block I was experiencing evaporated as soon as I refocused on taking it “to the Lord in prayer!”) It is still before midnight, and I will sleep in peace.

24-Hour Help Line

My husband and I run a small business. And I am always surprised at the number of people who call us “after hours.” Sundays, early mornings, late at night…they seem to be under the impression that we will be available to answer their questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have a website, which includes frequently asked questions, and a list of our hours, but people still call when we are not available. Some of them even call to complain that we are not open as they stand outside our door–which also has a list of our hours! We just can’t be at our shop all the time, and we can’t anticipate when someone will call or want to stop by.

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God doesn’t have any “after” hours. He’s always available when we need help, have a question, or want to express our feelings and thoughts. There is no busy signal, no “peak” time, and no need to “hold” while waiting for Him to listen to our call.

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We know this, or we ought to, but we often take for granted this incredible gift of access to the Almighty. Suppose God went on vacation for two weeks every year, or took a siesta every afternoon, or had a staff of “receptionists” to screen prayers, so that only certain ones reached His ears? Imagine a God who could only be reached between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, or could only be reached at His “main office” in Peoria, or Lagos?

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God– The Only, Sovereign, Eternal God–is accessible in a way that no one else can ever be. He is our “ever present help in time of trouble” (Psalm 46). No matter when, no matter where, God is “on call.” And He is available to anyone and everyone at all times. Hundreds of thousands of prayers rising up at any given moment– ALL reach His ears and capture His attention.

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It is tempting, especially when we expect an instant answer, to interpret God’s seeming silence as inattention or even rejection. We begin to wonder if God has heard us, if He cares, or if He is indifferent to our pleas. One way to keep things in perspective is to journal our prayer life. Not just the requests, but the answers.

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I keep a prayer journal, and periodically, I go back over the requests from last week, last month, or even last year. I am astonished at how many I’ve forgotten in the march of time, and how many of them God has answered– often in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. He never forgets, but He often acts in His own ways and in His own perfect timing.

God is the ultimate 24-hour help line– ALWAYS there to listen; always available; always able; and always compassionate.

“God Brought You to Mind..”

How many times have you suddenly felt the desire to lift someone up in prayer? You have no idea why or what to pray about, just that you should lift them up– in concern, in gratitude, in remembrance…It might be that someone mentioned their name; or you’ve just seen someone who reminds you of someone you knew long ago; suddenly, they are in your mind–an old neighbor or friend, a classmate or co-worker, maybe even someone who hurt you or betrayed you. But you feel an urge to pray–urgently.

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Maybe you’ve been on the other end– you get a sense that someone has been praying for you– something that you were dreading turned out to be less scary that you thought, or you had a “near miss” on the highway.. you don’t know who or where, but you know that someone, somewhere just prayed for you.

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God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we ask others to pray for us; sometimes they let us know that they will be praying for us– but other times, we break into spontaneous prayer for someone “God brought to mind.” We may not know the situation; we may not know the particulars. Sometimes, we don’t even know the names or places– we just know we need to pray for a general group– missionaries, police officers, government leaders, teachers, fathers…

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Stories abound of people who have obeyed such urgings– praying for people they barely know, or haven’t thought of for years–only to find that in that very moment, those people were in crisis and in need of help. Such stories help us see the heart of God. God is powerful enough to step in and take control of any situation. He doesn’t “need” us to pray for others in such cases. But He wants to include US in His plan! And by “bringing to mind” those who need prayer, and “bringing us to” the minds of others in our time of need, He reminds us of the importance of interconnectedness and dependence on Him.

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Of course, we should be looking for opportunities to pray for those around us–faithfully, consistently, earnestly. But we also need to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who works to involve us in His ongoing work. Our hearts and minds may wander or waste time in empty thinking, but the urge to pray is one we should be quick to follow.

Processed Prayer

I love to cook. I love looking at new recipes, and finding new ways to use fresh ingredient, use up that last bit of leftovers, or stretch staple foods like beans, flour, or rice. And I love to pray. I love being able to lift up praises, requests, and even questions. I love knowing that I can confess even my most shameful thoughts or deeds to a God who already knows, loves me more than I can imagine, and stands eager to forgive me and strengthen me to make wiser choices.

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Cooking can be exciting, challenging, and creative. But it doesn’t have to be. I don’t have to cook at all in our culture. I can (at some expense) dine out every day, and let someone else do all the work. Or, I can buy pre-made meals, “processed” foods and “instant” mixes– “just add water,” “cooks in 6 minutes,” “ready to eat.” I can pray “processed” prayers, too. I can recite prayers of others, mumble graces by rote, and even read off a list of requests with little or no effort or emotion.

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But processed prayer isn’t healthy– no more than processed food. Oh, it won’t seem much different– at first. And it isn’t “bad”–every once in a while. But a steady diet of praying someone else’s words and thoughts doesn’t build a personal relationship. We miss out on the “process” of praying, and the end result is not as fresh and healthful.

When I cook from scratch, I have to follow a process:

  • I need to make sure I have the proper ingredients.
  • Some ingredients need to be seeded, skinned, peeled, chopped, or otherwise readied before they can be used.
  • Ingredients need to be added in the proper order.
  • Measurements are important. 1 teaspoon of salt is not the same as 1/2 cup of salt!
  • I need to use the proper methods– simmer, boil, chill, bake, etc.
  • Timing is crucial, too. Cookies may take 10 minutes to bake– a roast may take 3 hours.
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Praying “from scratch” also follows a process:

  • I have to have the right heart attitude.
  • Distractions need to be put aside.
  • I want to include all the “ingredients” of a deep prayer– Adoration and Praise; Acknowledging God’s Sovereignty and Power; Confession and Repentance; Thankfulness; Presenting my requests; Lifting up the needs of others; and Committing to Listen and Obey God.
  • Timing is important–I need to make time to visit with God in Prayer. It shouldn’t be an afterthought or another activity to squeeze in IF I have a chance!
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That doesn’t mean that we can’t (or shouldn’t) pray “in the moment” or recite The Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of St. Francis, or another written prayer. It doesn’t mean that we should make all our prayers from a “recipe” or a formula. But if our prayer “diet” is becoming dependent on “processed” prayers, we may need to go back to the kitchen!

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A Flash in the Pan

During the era of flintlock muskets, gunpowder was ignited by a spark from a flint striking a plate. The gunpowder was held steady in a small “pan”, and the resulting explosion was supposed to propel the lead shot “ball” or bullet to its intended target. But often, the gunpowder would not explode; it would simply burn out in a brief flash of light, failing to result in a shot, and wasting the powder. This was known as a “flash in the pan.” It came to symbolize an impressive display that accomplished little or nothing of use.

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Years later, prospectors in the California Gold Rush would see a “flash in the pan” as they looked for gold. They would take a shallow pan, dip it in a river, bring up water and silt, dirt, and rocks, and swirl it around. Sometimes, they would see the “flash” of a gold nugget or gold dust. More often, they would see a glint of something else– pyrite, or “fool’s gold” was more likely than a flash of real gold. And, as the water swirled, the tiny flash of gold could disappear amid the eddy of dirt and other dull rocks– remaining just a “flash in the pan.”

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Early photographers, struggling to bring enough light into their studios, experimented with explosive powders, hoping to get a “flash” of light bright enough to create a better negative exposure, so that their subjects would not have to sit so long in the same position in order to get a clear image. They would mix powders, spread some of them on a shallow “pan,” and ignite them to create a brief, but brilliant, flash of light.

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Our lives may sometimes seem like “a flash in the pan.” Our days are numbered, and our abilities limited. Even our brightest ideas and most explosive actions seem to be swallowed up in the larger scheme of things; our good deeds and noble intentions disappear in the swirling waters of time and the tides of injustice, disease, and evil around us.

But our lives, while brief, can be more than a “flash in the pan.” We are called to be the follow Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Jesus’s life on earth was brief, even by human life expectancy. But unlike a spark that burned itself out and ended in death and darkness, Jesus brought light and life that continues today. And He calls us to use our lives in ways that light the way for others.

Sometimes, our prayers can also seem like brief flashes, producing little of significance. But God hears each one, and it is in His power that our prayers become part of the larger “picture” of His plan.

TGIF

Ahhh…Friday. End of the work week, beginning of the weekend. Payday, too, for some. For many people, their goal is just to get through Friday at work, and spend time doing whatever they want until they have to return to work on Monday. Of course, some people have to work weekends, and others don’t have a job at all. Some have other responsibilities on the weekends– caring for aging parents, or shuttling kids to ball games; volunteer projects, working on home improvement tasks, or mowing the lawn. But Friday has become such a special day in our culture that we even have a phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday” (TGIF for short). And we have special Fridays–Good Friday (the day of Christ’s crucifixion), and “Black” Friday (the huge shopping day after Thanksgiving). And several movies about Fridays– Freaky Friday, His Girl Friday, Friday Night Lights, and a string of Friday the 13th horror flicks. And most of the associations with Friday are positive, even festive. For some people, Friday is the high point of their week!

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But what about the other days of the week? Do we thank God for Tuesdays, or Saturdays, or Sundays? Shouldn’t we be grateful every day? God gave us seven days each week, and He even sanctioned one of those days each week for rest and reflection. When Jesus spoke of the concept of a “sabbath,” He made clear that a weekly day of rest was God’s gift to US (Mark 2:27 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+2%3A27-28&version=ESV) But every day is a gift– filled with God’s presence and promises, even when it may seem like an endless series of chores, mishaps, and personal failures.

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God gives us each day, and whether it is payday, Monday, a “bad-hair” day, or a holiday, every day is an opportunity to live, love, and learn. And every day, we have the privilege and the opportunity to spend time in prayer with our Loving Heavenly Father.

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So, yes, Thank God that it’s Friday today. And use this day (and every day) to honor Him, obey Him, and walk in joy with Him. Tomorrow, Thank God it’s Saturday!

“It Is Finished!” Isn’t it?

Just before Jesus took His last breath on the cross, He called out, “It is finished!” Theology teaches us that His statement reflects the completion of His mission– to defeat the power of Sin and Death, and pay the redemption price for all who will call on His name. The ultimate victory has been declared; the ultimate battle won!

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The past two weeks, I have wanted to say, “It is Finished!”– as I struggle with a hundred different tasks that never seem to end. I missed my self-imposed deadline to publish a blog entry on Monday; I stared at a pile of extra dishes in my sink and a growing mountain of laundry as I added “extra” tasks to my weekly list. My work here is not finished; my mission is not complete.

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But Jesus’ words remind me– It IS finished! My “mission” is not to wash every dish, make every deadline, “fix” every small problem that arises, or answer every question. My mission is to follow Jesus. He didn’t heal every leper, end poverty, sweep away the armies of Rome, or even convince the Pharisees to repent. Because THAT wasn’t His ultimate mission.

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That does not give me an excuse not to do the dishes or try to make sure I post this by my next deadline. But it gives me Grace to keep going– not in my own strength or achievement, but in dependence on God’s power, timing, and mercy. His Grace is sufficient!

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This is true of our prayer life as well. God doesn’t “grade” us on each prayer, or each day’s efforts; rather, He waits, patiently and lovingly, to hear us call on Him and listen for His voice in return. The “judgment” has already been given–Jesus’ work on our behalf has been accepted and declared “complete.” His Kingdom has come; His will is being done, even if our prayers seem small or inadequate for the mission.

There are some tasks that we will never see “finished” during our lifetime or through our limited efforts. But we can work and pray heartily and confidently in the knowledge that we will see it “finished” in God’s perfect timing. And we can rejoice in the privilege of working toward that end– even our smallest efforts and weakest moments are woven into the story of Eternity!

Seasonal Prayers

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It is supposed to be springtime in my neck of the woods. We’ve had two days of snow this week, chilly winds, and frost/freeze warnings. Fruit farmers are worried about losing the fragile blossoms that we need for apples, peaches, and cherries later this year. Many of the spring flowers are also in jeopardy. People are joking that we need to “unplug” springtime and “reboot” it, because it seems not to be working! The seasons seem “out of time.”

Sometimes our lives seem the same. We expect a season of growth or warmth, only to feel the cold winds, or we experience drought when we expected rain. Our prayers will change as the seasons come and go– young parents pray for patience as their days are hectic; aging parents pray for visits from their busy children and grandchildren. We go through seasons of success, seasons of stress, seasons of forced immobility, seasons of grief, and seasons of distracted activity.

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Throughout the Psalms, David and the other psalm writers sang of woes and wonders, praises and problems– sometimes within a single Psalm! We have seasons of questioning, and seasons of confidence. Sometimes, we feel close to God; other times, we wonder why He seems so far away. Our “songs” and prayers will change over the course of our lives and according to our moods and circumstances– desperate, worshipful, even indignant. Yet God hears them all– He wants us to pour out our hearts in all seasons!

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Our seasons may change, but God is Eternally Loving and Sovereign. Our moods and changing circumstances cannot remove us from His watchful eye or His tender care. Our momentary anger and doubt are not beyond His willingness–even eagerness– to forgive and redeem! God is Lord of all the Seasons– seasons of snow and sunshine; seasons of joy and sorrow. Even when our seasons seem “out of time,” we can lift our voices to a God who never changes.

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Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

When God is “Too Early…”

We spend a lot of time wondering about God’s timing– usually when we are waiting for God to act as we expect! But there are times when God acts before we expect– sometimes before we even ask!

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Tucked in the pages of the book of Acts is a curious little story about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2012&version=ESV

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Peter’s situation was dire. Herod had already killed James, the brother of the Apostle John; he was planning to make a spectacle of Peter, likely by having him executed at the time of Passover. In verse 5, we see that earnest prayers were being made for Peter’s rescue. But just a few verses later, when Peter shows up at the prayer meeting, everyone is incredulous– “you are out of your mind,” they told poor Rhoda when she brought the good news. They left Peter standing outside knocking and trying to gain entry to the prayer meeting being held for his rescue!

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(Point of clarification— in verse 17, Peter says to “Tell James and the brothers” about his release…this is NOT the James who was martyred, but likely either James the son of Alpheus, or James, the brother of Christ, both of whom were leaders in the early church.)

God’s timing is not our timing– but God is ALWAYS “on time.” This can be difficult for us to accept. We may be waiting for a loved one to be cured, or for an abusive situation to be ended. When it ends in tragedy or death, we feel that God “didn’t show up on time.” But the same can happen when God seems to show up “too early.” We may wonder whether the rescue was really “of God” or just “coincidence.”

We must remember that God is not bound by time the way we are. We see time in one dimension–from the present going backward through the past. We cannot see the future; we cannot see “what might have been.” We cannot see at what moment God’s intervention will have the greatest impact.

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The rest of Acts 12 tells the “rest of the story,” one often overlooked. Peter reassured the believers, and then quietly escaped from Jerusalem. The next day, there was a massive search for Peter, which resulted in a sentence of death for the guards who “let him escape.” Herod’s campaign against the early Christ-followers was interrupted by political turmoil. But Herod, in his success and in his arrogance, failed to turn to God. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (v.23) The earnest prayers of the believers were answered in a way that far surpassed their expectations– not only was Peter rescued in a miraculous way, but God eliminated one of their fiercest enemies in a dramatic (and graphic) way! Not only that, but “the word of God increased and multiplied.” (v. 24)

Someone might say, “God could have removed Herod from authority long before He did.” Or, “God could have rescued Peter in a different way.” But who can argue that God was “early” or “late” in doing what He did? Who can argue that God “should” have acted differently?

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As difficult as it may be to accept in the moment, we can learn to trust God’s timing and His ways. And when we pray, we must remember that God will answer us as He chooses–and it will always be “on time.”

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