Believest Thou This?

John 11 (KJV)

In the Gospel of John, there is the curious story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were good friends of Jesus. There are other stories throughout the gospels of Jesus interacting with this family. But this story appears only in John’s gospel, and it contains some details that raise several questions.

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The story begins with an urgent message. Lazarus is gravely ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly. Yet Jesus seems to dismiss the message, saying that it is not a sickness that will end in death, and he lingers two days before he decides to begin the journey toward Bethany. There is no sense of panic or urgency in Jesus’s response. And, though it says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he seems unmoved by their obvious distress.

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When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The two sisters both mention, with some bitterness, that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother need not have died. Jesus never gets defensive, but he challenges the sisters about their faith. In his exchange with Martha, he says that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus redirects her faith–“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (v. 25b-26). Her statement of faith, in spite or her grief and bitterness, prompts her to act. She goes to find her sister and bring her to the Savior, that she might be comforted.

Martha’s faith is small comfort in the circumstances. Her brother is still dead. His body lies rotting in a nearby cave. Her faith is fixed in the distant future, even as the author of Life and Eternity stands next to her. Her belief is wispy– more of a wish or a dream than the solid God-in Flesh standing before her.

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Yet Jesus chose to use this seeming defeat as a showcase for His power to give life and resurrection. Many people who saw this were transformed and put their trust in Him. Others saw Jesus’ growing ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. They reacted with fear and even anger, that Jesus would bring the miraculous into their well-ordered normality. The Pharisees, including the chief priest, Caiaphas, determined that Jesus must die in order to “save” them from the Romans. Instead of seeing Him as the agent of their eternal salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle to their limited “freedom” to operate under the Roman oppression.

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What is my faith like as I pray today? Do I believe that God “could’ve” or “should’ve” solved a problem in my past? Do I believe that God is not acting fast enough or decisively enough? Do I have a wispy faith that God will make all things right in Heaven, but is uninterested in the “here and now?” Do I believe that God’s answers might upset my life or cause me to “lose” control?

God, as you challenge my faith, help me to declare even my weak and imperfect belief; help me to act on it, and bring others to you for comfort. For in doing, so, I may be preparing the way for an incredible miracle– for revival and renewal; for the glory of Your great Name! And help me to see your answers through eyes of faith, and not fear of the unknown. Help me to trust you for the future I cannot see– a future that is in your capable and loving hands.

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Inconceivable?

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” Based on a modern “fractured” fairy tale by William Goldman, it tells the story of a young couple whose “fairy tale” romance is complicated by his death, her kidnapping on the eve of her wedding to an evil prince, and rodents of unusual size…

One of the kidnappers is a Sicilian mercenary named Vizzini. Vizzini brags about his intellect, and claims to know more than anyone. He also claims that his plot to kidnap Princess Buttercup is perfect to the last detail. But when a mysterious stranger begins following them, and foils each of Vizzini’s efforts to shake him, Vizzini grows more and more rattled. His brilliant plan turns out to be less than perfect. In fact, the mysterious stranger (who turns out to be Princess Buttercup’s long-lost true love) succeeds in rescuing the princess and defeating Vizzini in a battle of wits.

As each of Vizzini’s efforts fails, he declares it is “inconceivable” that the stranger should win. Even in the face of clear evidence, Vizzini finds it unbelievable that his plan should have failed–and failed again! Finally, one of the other kidnappers turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using this word; I do not think it means what you think it means”.

I often hear people scoff at faith in God– “it doesn’t make sense.” “There’s no proof that God exists.” “How can you believe all those old myths–Noah and the Ark; Moses and the Red Sea; David and Goliath–they’re impossible in ‘real life’.” “It’s inconceivable!” “Stop saying all that stuff about God!” “Stop saying you’ll pray for me.” “Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking.”

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And it can be difficult to have faith, sometimes. We don’t ‘see’ what God is doing in our lives and circumstances.” We don’t understand the bigger picture. We don’t believe that God sees or hears us in the middle of our struggles. But God tells us time and time again that nothing is impossible for Him; that He knows all that happens, and that He works all things together for the good of those who follow Him (Romans 8:28). God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think..”(Ephesians 3:20)

Those stories in the Bible; those “unbelievable” stories we hear or read about miraculous healings and lives transformed…we can choose to ignore them, or scoff at them. We can, like Vizzini, claim that they are “inconceivable,” or try to explain them away while trusting our own knowledge and experiences to get us through life. We can ignore the wise counsel of others, ignore our conscience, and laugh in the face of danger. But in the end, we are human. We are fallible. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. And we are not immune to sin and its poisonous consequences. The only chance of escape is to be rescued by someone who is “immune” to sin– our Savior, Jesus the Lamb of God.

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It may seem “inconceivable” that God would part the Red Sea, or save Noah in the Ark; it may seem beyond belief that Jesus would be born as a human, live among people who denied Him, die on the cross and be resurrected on the third day, so that He could take away the power of sin and death for anyone who will trust Him. But it is precisely this Good News that has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the centuries since he came.

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It may seem “inconceivable” that God would listen to our “little” prayers and care about our every need– but He does! His Love may be beyond our ability to comprehend or explain– His power extends beyond our wildest imagination. But if we have faith– even as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)– we can experience God’s Love, Power, Grace, and Salvation in miraculous ways.

That Voice in Your Head

Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.

Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will?  While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.

Isaiah 55:8-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper

It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible.  God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable.  God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will.  It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.”  But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either.  God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.

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So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers?  Here are a few guiding principles:

  • God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
    • God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal.  He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
    • Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK.  If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
    • God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer.  Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone.  I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
  • God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer.  But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons.  That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM!  Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!

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  • God may use time to answer your prayer.  I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46.  Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you!  There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
    • Don’t give up!  God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway.  Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along.  In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband.  Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God.  That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
    • Do the next right thing.  Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere.  Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere.  God wants our trust and our obedience.  As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do.  This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn.  So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad).  I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian.  I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people.  I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home).  I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it.  I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along.  I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
  • Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us.  In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God.  I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one.  I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider.  I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things.  Yet I felt compelled to leave.  I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan.  There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling.  But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me.  I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
  • Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said.  But this is another caveat (see above).  We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit.  In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will.  In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life.  God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed.  God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap.  That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts.  He WILL direct our paths when we do that.

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  • Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing!  Won’t God DO IT!

 

When Sorrows Like Sea-Billows Roll..

My mother and I shared a wonderful morning shopping and enjoying the spring weather.  We both arrived home, only to be greeted with the news that one of our extended family members had died in an accident.  Just the day before, another member of our family had passed on at age 94.  Both of them left a legacy of faith, hope, joy, and kindness that leaves us grateful, but grieving their loss.

And it is a loss– even though both of them were Christians, even though we have the great hope of being reunited with them in Heaven, even though both of them led full lives–they were unique on this earth, and everything that made them special and irreplaceable to friends and family is now absent; a gaping, aching hole, lined with teasing flashes of memories, echoes of laughter, and unanswered questions.

Some days, the hits just keep coming– an unexpected expense, a misunderstanding at work, a fender-bender during the commute, a plumbing nightmare, a migraine, the phone call with bad news.  Each new pain rolls over us, throwing us off balance, and trying to drag us under.

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“Even so, it is well with my soul.”  The story of this favorite hymn has been told many times, but it bears repeating. ( It Is Will With My Soul. wikipedia.org )  The author of these words had lost everything– his only son had died; shortly afterward, he lost almost all his money and property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  A friend, knowing of his troubles invited him to bring his family to England for an evangelistic campaign.  Mr. Spafford (the above-mentioned author of the hymn) had to stay behind and sent his wife and four daughters ahead.  Their ship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another vessel and sank.  All four of the daughters were drowned, and only his wife survived to send him news of the tragedy.  As he made the heartbreaking voyage to rejoin his wife, he passed the place where his daughters had most likely gone down.  At that moment, Mr. Spafford felt a welling of peace and hope beyond human understanding, which led him to pen the words that have given comfort to so many in the years since:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Nothing can prepare us for the sorrows that sweep over us at unexpected moments.  Nothing can stop them, and though we know they will come, no one knows how high they will rise, or when they will crest and break around us.  No one except the one who set the boundaries of the sea, the one who has walked on its waters, and the one who can calm the storm.

God doesn’t remove the sorrows or tragedies from our life or prevent them from washing around and over us.  But for those who trust in him, there is a promise that we will not be consumed. We may be in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a raging sea, but at our faintest cry, Jesus will walk on choppy waves to be by our side and bring comfort.  He will teach us to be in awe of him as he commands the winds and waves to obey him.  He will teach us to trust him in the good times and the bad.  He will teach us to say, “It is well with my soul!”

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Why Ask Why?

I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot lately in regards to this blog.  Why am I spending my time writing about prayer?  Wouldn’t I be better served to spend my time productively– making something useful, keeping the apartment cleaner, going to the gym–even spending more time in prayer instead of dissecting it and babbling on to an invisible audience?

But the truth is that I began writing this blog in response to another question, a more basic question thrown at me (not personally, but thrown out to all who believe in the power of prayer)–  “WHY?”  They weren’t asking the question because they really wanted to know my reasons for praying; instead, they wanted to make me feel ashamed and embarrassed, to doubt God’s goodness and my faith.  In fact, they weren’t asking “WHY” so much as asking “HOW”.  How can you continue to believe in God and continue praying in light of random shootings, manifest injustices, rampant corruption, and senseless tragedies?  How can you say that God is good, when people continue to get away with evil?  If God exists, where is he, and how can you just sit back and trust in him?

The fact that I DO continue to trust God doesn’t mean I don’t have questions and concerns, and even righteous anger about the state of the world and the tragedies that fill it.  The questions come pouring out, sometimes keeping me awake at night, sometimes catching me at a raw moment and they are important questions.  To pretend that I never wrestle or struggle with the questions is to say that good and evil, justice and mercy, that God himself– none of it really matters enough to seek an answer.  God forbid!!

But there is a vast difference in asking “Why?” and asking “How? or How come?”

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Consider a small child who asks, “Why is the sky blue?”  (Don’t you just love the inquisitiveness of small children?)  “Well…” I can explain that the sky itself isn’t really blue…I can go on to talk about scientific principals– the property of light, refraction through water molecules and dust particles, and more..I can point out that the sky doesn’t always appear blue, etc.  At the end of my long and factual discourse (assuming the child hasn’t already interrupted), s/he is likely to simply shake their head and ask, “But, why?”  WHY?  Because I haven’t really answered the heart of the question.  I explained HOW, not WHY.

Now suppose I don’t feel like being pedantic, and I answer “Because.”  You can guess what comes next.  The child will ask, “Because WHY?”  Because “Because” isn’t a sufficiently satisfactory answer.  The child wants more; he/she yearns for more comprehension; more understanding.

As an adult, we find this kind of questioning frustrating and annoying.  I think it is because we have been conditioned to think that questions either have a “How come” explanation that sweeps away much of the wonder and mystery, or a “because” answer that leaves us unsatisfied.

As an adult, I may well ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”  This is an important question; one I should be asking.  Experts can and will give me all kinds of “how” answers– how the brain is wired, how emotions work, how society has failed various groups of people, how political structures create oppression, how religion teaches intolerance, how poor diet or lack of sunny days … there are a million explanation of “how” evil exists or why it persists.  And many of these explanations contradict each other, so they can’t even give a conclusive answer.  But just throwing up my hands, and saying, “just because” does nothing to answer my question OR provide understanding that could help alleviate the effects of evil in the world.  “Because” communicates my powerlessness to comprehend.

BUT

Something amazing happens when I stop merely asking people for answers to these questions and start asking God.  I don’t get a magical, comprehensive, incontrovertible answer to life’s thorny questions.  God doesn’t send me a “cheat sheet” with all the “right” answers.  I’m not suddenly an expert on good and evil or what should be done to eliminate crime and disease and poverty.  I still have to wade through the “how come” explanations and use my limited judgment to decide what course of action I can take to try to make a positive difference.  And I will make some mistakes along the way.  But when GOD says, “Because”, there is an authority, a majesty, and a wisdom that can never be present in my answer.  I say “because,” because I have no more to say; no better answer.  God says, “Because,” because HE IS the cause!  And he gives explanations in his word for many of my questions– even if I don’t like the answers!  He doesn’t explain “how come” the sky is blue– he causes it to be blue.  “Why is the sky blue?”  God says so.  “But why?”  Because He is God and I am not.  God explains “how come” there is evil in the world– it’s called SIN–but he doesn’t leave it there.  “Why?”  Because we have the free will to choose good or evil.  “Why?”  Because God wants willing obedience and loving companionship with us.  “Why?” Because God is love!  “So why does he allow evil to continue?”  Because he has a plan that involves redemption and restoration and renewal.  He is the cause of this plan, it’s author and finisher.  Moreover, he is the cause of my desire to ask “why?”, to seek for a more fulfilling answer, to yearn for a solution to the very evil that prompts my questions.

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I won’t stop asking “why.”  Not because I don’t have any answer, or because I don’t know the answer.  It’s just that the answer is so much bigger, so much better, so much MORE than I can handle in the shortness of this lifetime.  And it’s important that I not only keep asking the question, but that I keep defending the answer.

 

1 Peter 3:14-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

 

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