When God Asks a Question…

We often fear questions. We are afraid to ask questions; we are afraid of being questioned; we are afraid of asking the wrong questions or not asking the right ones. And we are often afraid of the answers, too.

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God is not afraid of our questions. In fact, He wants us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7, Jeremiah 33:3, and others). God knows the answers to our questions– He even knows our motives in asking them! God may not give us the answers we expect, or answer in the manner or time we expect. But God encourages us to ask anyway, and to trust in His ability and His desire to give us what we need in the moment we most need it.

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God also asks questions–not because He doesn’t already know the answers, but because we can learn from the questions He asks, and the answers we give. Some of God’s questions seem self-evident; others are probing. Some are rhetorical; others are anguished. Let’s take a look at just a few, and see what we might be able to learn from them:

  • In Genesis 3, God asks some very obvious questions of Adam and Eve after they hide from him. “Where are you?” Adam and Eve had not successfully hidden from God. He knew exactly where they were and even why they were hiding. But instead of storming into the Garden of Eden with condemnation and instant judgment, God asked a simple question, giving them both the opportunity to confess, and a clear reminder of their broken relationship. There had never been a need (on either side) to ask “Where are you?” After Adam responds with the excuse of being naked and ashamed, God asks his second question, “Who told you that you were naked?” God knew the answer to this, as well, but He added a third question that forced Adam to get to the heart of the matter and tell Him the truth– “Have you eaten from the tree…?” God could have asked condemning questions– “How could you disobey me like this?” “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” But God isn’t asking questions to overwhelm Adam and Eve with their guilt and shame. He’s asking for truthful acknowledgment of their disobedience, so their broken relationship can begin to be repaired. God assigns punishment, but He does not bring additional questions and condemnation
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  • In the very next chapter, God asks Cain a probing question, “Why are you angry? (And why has your countenance fallen?)” God knows the answer. He knows how Cain feels and what Cain is thinking. God knows it so well, that He challenges Cain to master his anger and turn his face upward (i.e. seek God’s counsel over his own emotions). We don’t like probing questions, because they reveal our selfish motives and dark impulses. But God actually WANTS us to be aware of our own tendencies–and our need for His wisdom and grace! God is not afraid of our darkest thought– He doesn’t want to expose them for our shame, but enlighten us for our own good!
  • In Genesis chapter 18, the Lord asks a rhetorical question, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…” (concerning the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah). God had already determined that they should be destroyed; He had no need to share this information with Abraham. But in asking the rhetorical question, God gave us a glimpse into His character (as well as a window into Abraham’s character!) God does everything with purpose. He is not willing to hide information we need, nor to waste time or energy on useless information. Imagine if we knew everything–everything!- that would happen to us for the next year? If we knew about that near miss at the intersection on May 22, or the toothache on June 2, or the “surprise” birthday party in October? But when God does choose to open a window, He gives us a chance to respond. Abraham did not choose to argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were not wicked cities, or that God had no business destroying them. His heart was driven to discover if God would destroy the innocent with the wicked. He got his answer (several times over!) And even when God did not find ten innocent people in the cities, He still offered rescue for Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family.
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  • It isn’t only God the father who asks questions. Jesus the son asked two agonizing questions in the New Testament. While He was dying on the cross, He asked the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus knew, intellectually and spiritually, why God had forsaken him; but His question echoed the one found all the way back in the Garden of Eden– “Where ARE you?” The ultimate anguish of being separated from God’s presence was felt by God himself! The agony of loneliness that comes from sin and shame and guilt– God knows it intimately from both sides!
  • Jesus also asked and anguished question of Saul of Tarsus– “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Just as God asked Cain to look carefully at his motives and emotions, so Jesus challenges Saul to reexamine his activities and ambitions. Jesus knew, of course, why Saul was hunting down those who were preaching the Good News. He knew Saul’s ambition and his zeal for the Law. He knew that it had blinded him to the truth. And in Saul’s physical blindness, Jesus could “open his eyes” to a greater ambition and zeal–to preach this same Good News to the Gentiles– the same Gospel that is opening eyes around the world to this day to see the Awesome, Eternal, Victorious, and All-Encompassing Love of God.

Today, may we ask, seek, search out, study, cry out, knock on doors, and pursue this truth–God wants to meet with us! He wants to talk to us, to listen to us, to share closeness, to increase our Joy and be joined to us in our Grief, to lift up our countenance, end our isolation, and be the ultimate answer to our questions.

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I Will Arise and Go To Jesus

Prayer is a pursuit. It is a lifestyle. It is a practice. But it is, sadly, a last resort for some people. And for others, it is a habit, but one among several others.

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What happens when we substitute other habits for prayer? When we turn to other sources first for our comfort or answers?

I know something of this from a brief but bitter experience– as a medium.

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It started out as a bit of fun. I never planned to dabble in the occult. In fact, I was repulsed by Ouija boards and Tarot cards and Palmistry. But the mother of a friend of mine taught some of us a “party trick.” Using an ordinary deck of playing cards, she showed us how we could “tell fortunes.” And it wasn’t full of “spiritual” or “mystic” symbolism at all. It was like making up a story. Certain cards would “represent” certain things– face cards represented men or women; a certain number card might represent communications, another finances, and another travel. The other person did all the “work”– they cut the cards, picked one pile, cut again, chose another pile (until it was small enough to tell a story without too many elements); they even laid the cards out in a random pattern, face up. All I did was the initial shuffle, and the “fortune telling/storytelling” at the end.

I had almost forgotten about this “trick.” I hadn’t seen it done in years. But when I was in college, and we were bored one night, I told my friends, and they wanted to try it. I never took it seriously; I never depended on cards to shape my own future, and I never thought of it as being any kind of substitute for prayer or trust in God. But it was “fun” to see what stories I could make from the cards. “You will soon receive a phone call from an old friend. They will invite you to take a short trip/run some errands with them. It will be costly.” All the details very vague– no names or dates, no specific locations or consequences–and I didn’t advise anyone what to do. My friends got in on the act, suggesting possible “stories” from the cards and their arrangements. Most were silly and had a positive tone.

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But then, something changed. A friend of a friend stopped by as we were “telling fortunes.” I explained that it wasn’t “real,” and she seemed to understand. But she went and got some more “friends.” And one of her “friends” took it very seriously. He wanted to know what he “should do” about an upcoming event…could I tell him whether he should go or not? Could I help him find out if his girlfriend was “the right one?” I explained that I couldn’t tell him anything like that, and nor could the playing cards– all I did was make up stories for fun. He pushed for awhile, and I refused to do another “reading” for him. He was disappointed and confused. Why wouldn’t I tell him what he needed to know? Why didn’t I help him?” I was a little angry at his insistence and I made an excuse to ask everyone to leave for the night– I had to study for a test; it was getting late–I just wanted it to end.

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But after he left, I began to shudder. This young man wanted ME to tell him what to do about situations about which I knew nothing. He was willing to place his hope and his future in the turn of a few ordinary playing cards and MY made-up story. I had never met him, but he assumed that I had knowledge about his future and the wisdom to guide him through it. And all I had offered him was a parlor trick. I hadn’t talked to him about his worries or offered to pray for him, or even asked if I could pray. I have no idea what his spiritual condition was, but he was eager to find easy answers from a stranger. And what if I had “made up” more stories for him? What if he acted on them? What harm might have come from a “harmless” parlor trick?

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I have never done the “fortune telling trick” since that night. But I often think about all the many “games” I see that offer to “tell” me about my past, or my inner self, or my future. How often have I been tempted to “play?” How often have I, even in “fun,” allowed a stranger or an algorithm to “reveal” secrets or predict outcomes? And how often have I failed to bring my thoughts, questions, worries, or attitudes to the One who knows everything? How often have I neglected to put my whole trust in Him?

I know people may say it is “harmless” to consult a Horoscope, or play games involving the future, but it is not wise. There are dozens of Biblical warnings against such activities. We are to seek God first and foremost, and trust His will for our lives.

I hope that today, we are eager to arise from whatever tasks or worries we may face, and find in Jesus all the “charms” that we can never find in anyone or anything else!

Suing God

I have a friend who wants to sue God. She’s not entirely serious, but she has a lot of anger toward God. She feels that God “owes” her an explanation for her life circumstances, as well as a general justification for war, famine, and other evils that she reads about in the paper or sees on the news. She believes He (or She or S/he or It– my friend isn’t sure that God exists, but cavils at the idea of calling God “Father” or “He”–she finds it sexist) is being unfair in a thousand different ways.

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My friend doesn’t read the Bible, and is only vaguely familiar with the story of Job. Job wanted to take God to court. His life had crumbled around him, and he wanted God to explain why, especially as he didn’t “deserve” the circumstances he faced. Amazingly, in the Biblical account, we learn that Job was “right.” He didn’t deserve to lose his family, wealth, and health. He had done nothing “wrong.” That doesn’t mean that he was sinless. But he confessed any sins, made atonement– he even sacrificed to make atonement for any sins his children might have committed. Job was a “righteous dude!” My friend– not so much. Like most of us, she would probably be ready to admit that she’s made some mistakes here and there, though she doesn’t feel that they are particularly heinous. She’s more than willing to “let bygones by bygones” for herself and others– shouldn’t God do the same, without making us confess and humble ourselves? Who does God think He is, anyway?!

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But this is the point. God is GOD–He is not a man, or even a superman, that He is compelled to explain Himself to us; to seek our approval or accommodate our whims, wishes, or plans. In the story of Job, God never gives Job the explanation he’s looking for (again, amazingly, WE the readers are given a “behind the scenes” look and told exactly why Job is being tested and allowed to suffer). Nor does God justify Job’s circumstances or spell out his list his “rights.” Instead, He presents Job with a few keen questions to remind Job (and us!) of who God is, and who Job is not!

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Like my friend, I am often disturbed, puzzled, and saddened by some of life’s circumstances, and by the evils I see around me. But when I begin to question why, the Bible reminds me to ask a few keen questions: Did I create the world? Do I have the power or authority to re-create or re-order the world around me? Can I change my own circumstances, or those of others? Can I change nature, weather, geography, biology? Can I make times and seasons obey my instructions? Can I see a thousand years into the future, or remember a thousand years in the past? Am I immortal? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Holy?

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But more than that, I have to ask: If God never gives me answers or explanations for what has happened or is happening, or will happen– what will change? If God answers all my questions– what can I say or do about it? Can I teach God how to oversee the Universe? Can I explain to God what He already knows better than I do? Job’s ultimate response was worship. I have a choice to rage against my creator, or I can trust Him with my past, present, and future. I can worship God right now, in my “not-knowing,” or I can rebel against the one who gives me life and breath– the one who created everything around me, before me, behind me, under and over me– the one who is sovereign over the entire universe.

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My friend wants to sue God– or at least demand answers from Him. I hope she will consider pur-suing Him, instead. He is big enough to meet our anger and our questions, and He is big enough to handle all the things we don’t know or understand.

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?

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)

Search Terms, Algorithms, and Prayer Requests

I used to work in a public library. I was the Youth Services Librarian, which meant that most of my time was spent working on building up the collection of children’s books, planning and presenting programming and story times, and going into schools to do book talks and promote library offerings. But I also spent time at the reference desks– both in the Children’s Area and the Adult Services area– and some of my time was spent finding answers to a wide range of questions:

  • Does the library have books or articles about Okapis (for a 4th grade report)?
  • Do you carry tax forms for my out-of-state business?
  • What are the school colors for _______ college (a small community college in Nebraska)?
  • Do you have a picture of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut?
  • What is the title of a children’s book that featured muskrats making chicken soup?
  • My great-aunt left me a set of dishes and I want to know if they’re worth anything.
  • Do you have a recipe for pemmican?
  • What color is yak’s milk?
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Some questions were easy to answer. Some required a little research within the library’s resources. Some were next to impossible and required hours of searching databases, or calling on expert help. Searching a database can be tricky. You need to find solid key words and search terms. For instance, our computer catalog did not recognize the the search term “cooking” or “cookbook.” You had to use the term “cookery” to get the best results. You could also use “cook***” to force the algorithm to look at all words that contained the letters c-o-o-k and any other letters that followed, such as cooks, cookies, cookery, etc. (Many library databases have since been updated, so searches will automatically redirect or refine common terms like this.)

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Databases and search engines are amazing things, but they have limitations. They will only search for what you type in, and they will only search in the way they are programmed to do so. Computers (currently) “think” laterally–they do not make leaps of imagination, nor do they second-guess what you might have meant to ask but didn’t. If I want to know about pemmican, but I misspell it, the search engine may not find what I’m looking for.

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That’s where algorithms come in. If I misspell pemmican by leaving out the second “m”, the algorithm will look for words close to what I typed, based on thousands of other inquiries. It may ask if I meant to search for pelican, instead. Or it may ask if I want pemmican. But if my spelling is really bad, or if the word I type in is actually another word, the search engine may miss my real inquiry altogether, and send me on a fruitless search. If I’m searching for a children’s book with muskrats and chicken soup, and the search engine doesn’t find both terms in a description, the algorithm will usually stick with the first term, and give me a list of children’s books with muskrats. Hopefully one of them also includes chicken soup… If I type the key words in reverse, I will get a list of children’s books with chicken soup…hopefully one of them includes muskrat characters! And algorithms can be skewed by advertisers or other interest groups that pay to have their information appear more often or first whenever certain search terms are entered.

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How does any of this relate to prayer requests?

When people request prayer, they are usually focused on what they perceive as their greatest need. They are searching for an answer; a solution to a specific problem or situation. “Pray for complete healing.” “Pray that my son/daughter will…” “Pray that I get this job.” And it is tempting to pray very specifically. This is not wrong. But sometimes, it limits how we see prayer and how we look at God’s answers. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, we pray so broadly, that we may not see God’s answer for what it is. Sometimes, we pray, hoping to change some sort of algorithm and get to the “top of the list” or get the “right” answer. This is not what prayer is about…we know this, but sometimes, our wants blind us to what we are actually asking (or asking others to ask for).

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So what are some of the key words we can use in our prayer requests and prayers? Jesus gives us a fantastic blueprint in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):

“Our Father”–remembering to whom we are praying is vital. We are not praying to a distant, absent-minded, shadowy figure; He is our Father. He knows what is necessary, and what is best.

“Who art in Heaven”–God is Omnipotent. There is nothing we can ask or imagine that is too big, too difficult, or too much to ask. That doesn’t mean that God will give us whatever we want, whenever we want it, but it does mean that God is not limited by the same things that limit us!

“Hallowed by Thy Name.”–God is not our “genie in a bottle.” He doesn’t work for us, or at our command. God is sovereign; He commands the Universe. And even though He makes Himself known and wants a relationship with us, He is not like anyone else–He ALONE is GOD. When His answers seem “wrong,” or don’t make sense, it isn’t because He didn’t hear us, or because He doesn’t love us, but His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–There are a lot of “good” things that are NOT part of God’s best will for us. There are a lot of difficult and painful things that God can use for our good. He wants to hear the cry of our heart–“I want to be healed.” But He also wants to hear our willingness to accept that healing may not be immediate or easy.

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“Give us this day our daily bread”– It is not “wrong” to pray for things in the future, or to pray for “big” or complex things, but our dependence on Him is shown best when we acknowledge our everyday basic needs are met by Him.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”–Don’t be fooled. God will not ignore our hidden resentments, hatred, disdain, rebellion, and unforgiveness. Our requests can be sidelined by holding on to grudges and harboring secret doubts about God’s essential fairness, as well as hanging on to sinful habits.

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God doesn’t need algorithms or special prayer “search terms”. We can come to Him with our requests, and He knows precisely what we want and what we need. But we will learn more about ourselves and about who God truly is when we refine our hearts and our prayer life.

Commissioned Prayer

Have you ever been part of something– some project or task– SO monumental and far-reaching that you wonder whether your efforts made any difference? Did you end up with “grunt” work– a seemingly insignificant part of the larger project that left you with lots of questions and very few (or no) answers? Something so tiny that most people would never even know if you did it?

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A couple of years ago, I took a temporary job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. I was part of a vast team of workers who conducted “follow-up” visits, mostly to addresses that had not responded by April 1. I was excited, and a bit apprehensive; after all, the Census is a pretty big deal. These names and numbers will be part of our nation’s collective history. As someone who loves doing genealogy, the Census is invaluable for discovering information about my family history– names, ages, locations, occupations, origins and ethnicities, and so much more can be learned from Census records.

However, I soon discovered that most of my job consisted of traveling to out-of-the-way locations, and knocking on the doors of empty houses, or trying to find addresses that no longer existed. “Non-response follow-up” usually involves checking on rentals, second homes, vacation homes, and homes that have been vacated, condemned, or even demolished in the years since the previous census. It is a lonely and often frustrating exercise in trying to find what “isn’t,” rather than counting what “is.” Each day, I was given a new list of locations (including some I had already visited without success). But I was commissioned by the U.S. Government to trace each address on that list to the best of my ability, and, wherever possible, to get information about anyone who might have been in residence at that location on April 1.

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Sometimes, I was able to get an interview, and document names and ages, or correct information that had been collected earlier. But much of what I did will never be included in the final Census report for 2020. My name will not appear and I will receive no recognition for my efforts(unless as a footnote with the thousands of others who did the same thing). I did get paid for my work, for the time I spent traveling and knocking on doors. And some interviews were not just fruitless, but bordered on abusive. Homeowners were annoyed, or even outraged when I showed up. They had sent in their Census form– for their primary address! Worse yet, there were some times when I showed up after ANOTHER enumerator had come– I had been sent to follow-up on the follow-up! But I was under strict orders about where to go, when to go, what to say (or not say), how to report on each interview (or non-interview). I was under a commission. I took an oath, and I followed orders, just like being commissioned in the military. Looking back, I feel good about the experience. I served my country, and I learned a great deal about the local geography, AND about human nature. For every cranky homeowner, there were others who were friendly and helpful. At the time, though, I often felt drained and dazed at the end of a shift.

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As Christians, we are also commissioned. We are to go into all the world and preach the gospel, making disciples of every nation, teaching and baptizing, and being witnesses for Christ. (Matthew 28:16-20/Mark 16:15-18, etc.) Our commission is not to force everyone around us to become Christians, or to demand that they respect us or our message (that is the work of the Holy Spirit– our job is to go and to be witnesses, disciple-makers, teachers, encouragers, and helpers). And part of our commission is to pray–fervently and consistently– to pray for our nation and its government officials (1 Timothy 2: 1-2); to pray for believers around the world, especially for those under persecution (Hebrews 13:3), to pray for those who persecute, ridicule, or despise us (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44), to pray for, and interact with grace toward, those who have rejected Christ (Colossians 4:5-6), to pray for the healing and restoration of others (James 5:13-20).

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At times, we may not feel like praying for certain people or situations. We may not understand why God allows for corruption in our government or for neighbors to mock our faith or treat us unfairly. We may not understand why some of our prayers seem to be more about what “isn’t” that about what is. We may not understand why God sends us, where God sends us, or when God sends us to go, to act, and to pray. But God IS listening. He knows our every thought, and He sees every need– not just our needs, but the broader needs of our community and our world. May we be faithful with the commission we have been given. It’s a much bigger deal than any Census!

I Wonder…

Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of wonder. But it is also a time to wonder–to ponder and reflect on the meaning of Jesus Christ. Why did He come? Why did He choose to be born where and when and how He did? The Bible gives us some of the “big” answers– He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45); He came to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37); He came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17); He came to give salvation and everlasting life (John 3:16)–and more. But there are still many things to ponder.

I wonder why Jesus came as a helpless infant. He could have taken on flesh and appeared as a full-grown man, and a king at that. He chose to come in weakness and in need– the Lord of all Creation needing to be fed and clothed and carried from place to place.

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I wonder about His early life. Jesus had to learn how to crawl, to walk, to talk, to run, to write. Imagine, the eternal Word of God having to learn to speak! The One who would one day walk on water had to learn to take His first steps on land. He was once toothless! Did He lisp when He was first learning to talk? Did He fall down as He learned to walk? Did He run too fast, and skin His knees? Were there foods He didn’t like, or others He preferred? Did the other kids tease Him and hurt His feelings? Did He suffer from headaches or toothaches or upset stomach (or even diarrhea)? Did He get splinters working with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop? Did He have a favorite teacher? When did Joseph die, and how did this change Jesus’s family situation?

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Jesus was fully human, and He lived as a baby, and a child, and as a man. His ministry spanned only a short three years– less than a tenth of His earthly life. What did He see in those years? What did He learn? What did He “wonder?”

I wonder.

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What if part of the process of Jesus’s earthly life was to remind us that God is with us from our earliest, neediest, and most vulnerable moments to our last breath? What if it was to remind us that even Jesus had “bad hair days” and skinned knees? That He came to experience ALL that is part of being human, including the long wait to grow to maturity and to fulfill His mission, and the hundred little obstacles of everyday life? Or maybe it was to remind us that there is awesome wonder in the ordinary–that even God found it worth marveling over those little moments with family or friends, or watching a glorious sunset, or catching a firefly.

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It’s so easy for us to lose the wonder of the Christmas season. But it’s also easy to lose the wonder of those ordinary moments–a shared smile or tear, the excitement of someone else’s birthday, the taste of fresh-baked bread, the way the sun sparkles on the lake. Jesus came to redeem us. And in the process, He came to redeem our sense of Wonder, too.

Afraid to Call?

Some fears are understandable. Some fears are even logical. Some are not. I wouldn’t say that I am “afraid” of most things. I don’t spend hours of my life being afraid of unlikely events, like being struck by lightning or choking to death on a cracker. I have a healthy fear of electricity and fire. I don’t tempt fate by walking along the edge of cliffs or hanging out of thirty-story windows (both of which are rare where I come from, anyway) . But I have two phobias– irrational fears–that plague me. The first is my fear of snakes. My fear of snakes has not ruined my life, but it has caused me to limit activities– mostly nature walks– where I might be exposed to seeing a snake. I avoid the reptile house at the zoo; I avoid visiting places where snakes are more common. I don’t like to see pictures of them; I don’t watch “snake” movies.

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The second fear is more irrational and causes more problems in my daily life. I am afraid of phones. This doesn’t mean that I cannot make a phone call, or ever answer the phone. But if anyone asks about the best way to contact me, I always suggest e-mail, texts, or other forms of communication. I don’t like hearing the phone ring. I don’t like making calls. I don’t like answering calls. And it has little to do with who is on the other end. It has much more to do with the medium. I can’t see the other person’s face; I can’t predict whether or not the other person is busy or distracted; whether they want a quick answer or a lengthy talk; whether the conversation will end well or leave one (or both) of us at a loss. People call at their convenience–not at the convenience of the person at the other end. Are they in the middle of cooking dinner? Taking a shower? Having an important conversation with a spouse or child?

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But if I determine never to make or receive a phone call, I will miss other important conversations– family members who live far away; business that cannot be conducted in person; appointments that need to be set up; news about births, deaths, hospitalizations, even prayers and prayer requests.

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I say all this because I knew there are some people who have a phobia about prayer. They are afraid to pray– not just in public, but even privately. They fear that they will say the wrong thing, or that they will “bother” God with their petitions. Some fear that God will not hear their prayer or that they will not get an answer. Some are afraid that they will “get what they pray for”– that God will hear their prayer and answer it, but that the answer will involve change, hardship, or pain that they were hoping to avoid. Some fear that their prayers will not be “good enough;” that God will misunderstand their motives or be offended by their words or their lack of knowledge. Some people are afraid of God– that He will reject them and their prayers because of something they have done or the way they have lived in the past.

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Prayer is not meant to be intimidating or difficult. It is healthy to have awe for God. Even “fear” of God– He holds the power of life and death; He cannot be fooled or mocked or bargained with; He knows everything about us, including our thoughts and our past–God is not to be trifled with, even in prayer. But God invites us to pray. He calls us to come to Him; He seeks our fellowship, no matter what we’ve done or what words we string together. There is no magical “prayer formula”– no phrases or special “religious” words or a certain ritual or routine– that we must use to be heard. God– who formed the universe and keeps it running– is never too busy or too distracted to listen to us. Even groans and whimpers are important to Him.

Don’t be “afraid to pray.” And don’t let a fear keep you from praying. Pray through the fear– draw near to God– and He has promised to draw near to you.

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Many years ago, I prayed to God, that He would increase my patience. I had well-meaning people– even pastors and other Christians– who told me not to do it. They were afraid that God’s answer to such a prayer would bring difficulty– that God would answer my prayer by making me go through hard times to learn patience. And He did just that. I wanted to be married and have a family–and I spent nearly 30 years waiting and learning patience! But I would not go back and undo those years. God answered my prayer and He gave me a wonderful husband and family– in His time. Sometimes in those decades of wondering and hurting, I had pain. But I — also had many blessings in singleness–opportunities I had never planned on, changes in perspective, unforeseen experiences and relationships that, I think, prepared me to be a better person and a better wife than I would have been at age 18 or 20.

My prayer for patience was something I felt strongly about– and patience is a Godly thing; it is an aspect of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I wasn’t praying for money or fame or a life without struggles. In fact– I wasn’t praying that God would “make me” patient. People who believe that my years of waiting for a husband were the direct result of my prayer for increased patience assume that God changed the circumstances of my life to force me to learn a lesson. But what if God changed my desires to match my circumstances? What if, knowing that I would marry after age 45, God put that prayer in my young and impatient heart? If I hadn’t asked for patience, would I have taken matters into my own hands and tried to “make” a family in my way and my time? Would I have experienced more pain– and brought pain to others– if I hadn’t learned patience?

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God knows what we need. He knows that there WILL be trouble and hardship in our lives. And He knows that we can survive, and even thrive, in times of trouble, because He will be there with us. Nothing about prayer should make us afraid. Nothing about God’s answers should cause us not to seek His face. He loves us extravagantly; He knows us intimately; He controls and safeguards our future with perfect power.

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And we don’t need to use a phone to call on Him!

I Don’t Know…

I spent a good portion of my adult life working in positions where my value rested in my ability to impart knowledge and answer questions. As a teacher, my job was to guide students into a base of knowledge about the English language (and especially spoken communication) so that they would be prepared to adequately speak, read, write, explain, defend, and use it. I was expected to know enough about grammar, spelling, connotations of words, nonverbal communication, sound logic (and fallacies to avoid), presentation, tone of voice, etc., to enable students to improve their communication and use language more effectively in their careers, academic endeavors, business dealings, and even in personal relationships. If they had questions about word choices, written or spoken directions, propaganda techniques, advertising tricks, euphemisms, or a hundred other topics, I was expected to have an answer– and one that would shape their ability to succeed.
When I made the transition to working in a public library, my job was to have answers– which books were at the appropriate reading level for various elementary students; where could someone find information about manatees; who wrote the Captain Underpants books (Dav Pilkey); did our library loan out encyclopedia volumes or sets of early reader books; could our library borrow a rare book from another library; what was the capital of Uganda (Kampala); did we have books that might help a child coping with the loss of a pet, or a parent struggling with toilet-training their toddler; where could someone find … the list was endless and extraordinarily varied. My job was to have an answer– or know where to find it.

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At no time was it expected that I would simply answer “I don’t know.” Even if I didn’t know in the moment, I was expected to search until I found an answer that was sufficient and satisfactory. However, in each case, I found situations where my “answer,” while satisfactory to me, and even to everyone else I had dealt with, was not enough to satisfy the person in front of me. Sometimes, I had misunderstood the question and given an answer to what I heard or assumed I had heard. I needed to listen some more, or ask for clarification before I could answer the question correctly. Sometimes, the other person was looking for an answer that didn’t exist– either they wanted confirmation of a falsehood they believed to be true, or they wanted a single, absolute answer to a question that was complex and open-ended. In rare cases, there were questions for which I could find no satisfactory answer– it doesn’t mean that there was none, but I had not found it, nor had I found someone else who could find it in the time allowed. I might find an answer that was not satisfactory, or I might find seven possible answers, but not one that stood out from the others, or I would find nothing but dead ends.


The Apostle Peter tells each follower of Christ:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3:15 & 16 (NIV via biblegateway.com)–emphasis added
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This does not mean that we must completely satisfy everyone who asks– the curious neighbor who knows nothing of the Bible and has dozens of confusing questions, or the nay-saying agnostic with a single “gotcha” question. Nor must we fight and fuss and pound the Bible until we “win” every theological and metaphysical argument–because we won’t! There are many things about the Bible, about Spiritual matters, etc., for which we will not have absolute or definitive answers–and neither will they! (That’s why they ask, sometimes.) And those things that satisfy our longings, our questions, our doubts– sometimes don’t meet the needs of the one who is asking, not because the answers are deficient, but because we are all different in our needs, and understanding, and experiences.

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Some people will listen to us merely to scoff and try to make us lose heart or make us look foolish. Others are afraid that our answer will make them feel lost or guilty. Some people have been hurt by others who have used the Bible as a cudgel or a whip– bringing shame, judgment, and contention wherever they go. We must not expect that our answers, our arguments, even our favorite scripture verses– that WE are enough to satisfy the questions, the doubts, and the spiritual needs of everyone we meet.

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What we should always have is an answer for the hope that is in us– why have we chosen to believe? Why do we choose to trust when we do not know all the answers? And our answers should be given with gentleness and respect– not arrogance and snide judgment. I don’t have hope because I know answers to tough questions. In order to have that kind of hope, I would need to know all the answers to all the questions– even those I haven’t asked or imagined! I don’t know about the future– I can’t explain why God allows evil (there are compelling arguments for some reasons, but no absolute answer that stops the question)–I don’t know how God’s Spirit moves, or why He drew me to Himself. I cannot “prove” God to someone who is determined to deny Him– not because God doesn’t exist, but because He will not force anyone to accept Him in this life, and especially not because I said a few words based on my limited understanding. My job is not to explain God–only God is big enough and wise enough to do that– but to reflect His character in a changed nature, and to explain what God has done in my life to effect that change. My hope is in the ONE I choose to trust– the ONE who does have the answers! God has not promised to answer all our “what ifs” or our “whys”– but He has promised to answer all our needs, and to BE the answer in every situation, no matter how daunting.

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