The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

“Seasoning” Prayer

Today, my husband was finally able to get out and go to the grocery. He saw that they were unloading some herbs, already started and ready to plant. It got me thinking about various herbs and their symbolism. What we plant in our garden; what we use in our cooking; how we “season” our prayer life– it all makes a difference. So here are some tips for “seasoning” our prayers…Make sure to add:

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  • Rosemary– for remembrance. Remember and worship God for who He is. Remember His past goodness. Remember His faithfulness. Remember His Great Love. Remember that He sees and hears you; He knows you intimately, and loves you eternally.
  • Sage– for wisdom. Ask for it. God longs to give you stores of wisdom and guidance. He longs for you to seek His wisdom every day.
  • Fennel– for praiseworthiness. God is worthy of all our praise and worship. Prayer is just one way of expressing His worthiness and glory!
  • Mustard seed– for faith. Faith grows exponentially larger and stronger when it is tended. One seed of faith can produce a large plant, which in turn produced hundreds of new seeds. Don’t let the weight of doubt crush that little seed–it really is enough! Not because of the size of your faith, but because of the size of the One in whom it rests.
  • Horseradish/radishes– for bitterness and contrition. A Holy God can only be approached by those whose sins have been forgiven. God offers mercy and grace in abundance– for those who acknowledge their sin and wish to be restored in Grace. Confession and repentance should be a regular part of our prayer life… and this leads to..
  • Hyssop– for cleansing. King David prayed: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51: 7, 10) May we seek to have a pure heart and a steadfast spirit. And as we are cleansed, we will have…
  • Parsley– for gratitude and joy. Parsley brightens and garnishes; it brings a finishing touch and its bright green color suggests growth and abundance. Prayer should result in thankfulness and rejoicing as we enter into the very presence of the Giver of All Life.
  • Thyme–for, well, time. Take time every day to meet with God. Make both “quality time” and “quantity time” when you can, knowing that God wants to be part of your day, all day, every day.
  • Chives– for usefulness and peace. Chives add flavor and balance when used in cooking. Bring your daily tasks, your goals, even your everyday worries to God in prayer. Pray as you work, as you run, as you do useful things throughout the day. This will lead to peace and purpose.
  • Garlic– for strength and healing. Especially in times when people are experiencing sickness and confusion, prayer brings strength. As we pray for healing– physical, emotional, and spiritual– we cast our cares upon a Loving and Omnipotent God.
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For some more interesting symbolic meanings of herbs and flowers, you can visit the following sites:
https://theherbalacademy.com/the-secret-meaning-of-herbs/
https://www.richters.com/show.cgi?page=InfoSheets/d9003.html
and many others.

WWJD–Coronavirus edition

What Would Jesus Do? This question, shortened to the acronym WWJD, appeared as a fad on bracelets, t-shirts, billboards, etc., a few years ago. The idea was to ask oneself how Jesus Christ would act or react in various situations.

While I don’t disagree with the premise, I have never been a fan of this trend– mostly because it calls for people to speculate or imagine what Jesus would or might have done in their place. There is nothing wrong with wanting to act like Jesus– that’s what we’re supposed to do–to be disciples of Christ, and be His ambassadors. But our minds and hearts are not perfect; in fact they can be deceitful and arrogant, self-righteous and self-justifying. It is more common for us to justify how Jesus would act like us, than for us to adjust our thoughts and actions to those we know Jesus took during His time on earth. Would Jesus be angry about injustice– of course! Would He want us to have empathy for others– undoubtedly! But what would He actually DO? There are some pretty clear examples in the Bible– both examples of what Jesus DID, and what He DID NOT do:

  • Jesus drank wine; He visited and ate with known sinners; healed on the Sabbath (in direct violation of the church leaders of His day); interacted with the Romans (soldiers and leaders, etc.)who were oppressing the Jews– without protesting their rule or joining rebel groups; healed and performed miracles for some, but not for others; forgave sins for some, but not for others; paid His taxes without complaint; challenged religious leaders and spoke harshly against their practices; refused to get drawn into condemning and stoning a guilty adultress….
  • Jesus prayed. He want to temple regularly; read and studied God’s word; He rested, meditated, and spent time alone; He listened to strangers and treated those He met with compassion and respect; He honored His mother, but did not put her above His work; He loved his friends, even those who did not understand Him and the one who betrayed Him; He did not flatter those in power or disdain those in lowly positions; He cared deeply, wept unashamedly, and laughed heartily…
  • Jesus did not own a home. He didn’t have a “regular” job; He had no savings account or retirement fund; He had no donkey or horse for transportation; He wasn’t a member of a particular congregation or church council, like the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t have a university education; He didn’t run for public office; He never got “employee of the month;” He never married or had kids; We have no evidence that He ever gave to a particular charity, or joined any activist group. Jesus never hosted a barbecue, or led an evangelistic gathering, like His cousin, John the Baptist…
  • Jesus never addressed many of the issues we deal with today– civil rights, gay rights, abortion, health care, income inequality, democracy/socialism, smoking, drug use, pornography, violence in the media, global climate change, speed limits on highways, income tax structure, campaign finance reform, gender dysphoria, unisex bathrooms, vegans vs. meat eaters…

But the point of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to preach the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” and to fulfill His promise to go to the cross, die for our sins, and to rise again on the third day. He spent time teaching and discipling twelve very different individuals, who saw and did things very differently from each other, and differently from Jesus himself. Peter was fiery, John was a quiet observer, James was stern and concerned about actions, Matthew was concerned with history and prophecy. And all of them were loved by and commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel.

In these days of COVID-19, faced with fear and panic, many Christians (myself included) are struggling with the “right” response–we all want to show the love of God, and honor Him above all. In doing so, however, I find myself spending a lot of time justifying my own actions, and condemning the words and actions of others. And I find myself getting hurt and angry when someone I know and love reacts differently, uses different words or tones, or gets caught up in arguments about what “we must do.”

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We MUST seek God’s wisdom in these times. And we MUST listen to and obey His word. But beyond that, I believe that God wants us to be very different “parts of the body” (see 1 Corinthians 12) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+12&version=ESV And I believe that God wants us to work together, honoring the various gifts and personalities that we have been given. Some of us are going to be fiery in our defense of health care workers, and advocating for the best and fastest medical care and treatments available. Some of us are going to be spreading small words and acts of encouragement wherever we see the opportunity. Some of us are going to be standing up against threats of corruption and injustice lurking among the actions of those in power. Some of us are going to speak boldly about our Hope in Christ, evangelizing and calling people to repentance. Some are going to be “standing in the gap” in prayer and counseling. Some are going to be providing money, food, PPE (personal protective equipment), and other services. And we must honor the other members of the body– in whatever role they take on– and seek unity, rather than division.

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Instead of blasting each other on Facebook or angry e-mails, we need to bring our initial reactions– anger, disappointment, hurt, confusion– to God. HE is the one who will judge our actions and motives in the end. Unless we see Christians who are flagrantly violating God’s laws– looting, cheating, spreading malicious lies and causing division, cursing God and/or misrepresenting Him in heretical fashion–we should ask, not just what Jesus would/might do in my situation, but what DID Jesus do in my place.

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Because He died for me when I was still a sinner. He sacrificed His life. Not because I had done anything “right,” or “good enough.” He didn’t keep a list of all the things I got “wrong.” He did not bring condemnation– He brought forgiveness, mercy, and hope! And His mercies are new every morning. If I “get it wrong,” if I do something, or don’t do something–because I am still human and I don’t know everything about COVID-19 or the global economy or what tomorrow will bring–God will still love me. God will forgive me.

My prayer is that I will do the same for others– that I will extend Grace, and true encouragement (rather than flattery or mutual congratulation), and Love, because I know without a shadow of doubt or speculation, that this is What Jesus Would Do.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
*When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.

Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season.  Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal.  Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht

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The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War.  When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one.  (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.)
As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas.  As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here:   https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm

Photo of C. A. Longfellow

Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching.  “My life is a mess.  I have suffered greatly.  There is no Peace On Earth!”  Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.

How can this be?

Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space.  They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy  and healing in their midst.  “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good.  “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled.  God is Faithful.  God’s word endures.  God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

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Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child,  to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound.  Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens. 

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My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.

Unwholesome Talk

My husband and I visited the local Fair in the neighboring county last week.  We love to visit local fairs and festivals (see Pass It On).  We love the pageantry, tradition, history, celebration, food, and general enjoyment.  We also love to see the exhibits– crafts, home arts, commercial exhibits, artwork, produce, and animals.

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Our visit last week began as the fair was “waking up.”  It was after dawn, but still early in the day.  The animals were being fed and/or groomed– some were getting ready to be shown; others were happily munching away as ribbons earned earlier in the week fluttered above their pens.  There were turkeys and rabbits, draft and work horses, ducks, pigs, shaggy highland cattle, newly-shorn sheep, calves, pigeons, roosters, racing horses, jersey cows, goats, geese, and baby chicks.  And there were noises–crowing, lowing, neighing, and squawking, quacking, cooing, oinking and snuffling.  Lastly, the noises of people– classroom groups of children exclaiming over the various animals; their teachers and chaperones reminding them of the rules (“Don’t touch!”, “Stay together”, “Don’t run!”); older couples reminiscing; owners and volunteers and caretakers discussing the tasks of the day.

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As the day wore on, the noises changed.  On the midway, announcements blared.  Game booths and vendors hawked their wares and prizes.  Even the animals were noisier– more restless as the crowds grew larger and the heat of the day became oppressive.  The roosters were drowned out by the cackling of hens.  The quiet “good morning” on the lips of strangers passing by turned into harried questions; “Where did you get that corn dog?”  “How much did you pay for it?”  “Do you know where we can get some ice cream?”  “Don’t they have any restrooms around here?”  “Who’s giving out the canvas bags/yard sticks/free popcorn?”

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This wasn’t universal–the announcer for the harness races was amazing.  Between races, he gave information about the racing program– how to read it, what the various terms meant, and how to use the guides to understand more about the horses, their training, their pedigree, the drivers, their records, and much more.  What a wealth of knowledge, and what a great opportunity to listen and learn!  And near the dairy barn, a young teen dressed in a cow costume (who had to be roasting from the heat) danced around, mooing and ringing a bell calling people to visit the dairy booth, where other teens cheerfully gave away recipe books, magnets, pens, and information.

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What a contrast to some of the comments from fair-goers and workers.  Some were sullen, some were rude, and some irreverent.  Some of the language was not just unwholesome, it was discouraging, disparaging, and mean.  Again, this was not universal; nor was it unique to this venue.  Go almost anywhere in public, and eventually, you will hear crowing, cackling, snuffling, and quacking by bitter, impatient, and self-involved people.

close up of hand feeding on tree trunk
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Unwholesome talk– rude remarks, snide mumbles, bellowing guffaws, complaints, sarcasm–it starts out small, dripping out of our mouths before we even notice.  But each drip flows into a stream, and then a river, until our words pour out in anger and malice and one-up-man-ship.

Ephesians 4:29 New International Version (NIV)

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Psalm 19:14 New Living Translation (NLT)

14 May the words of my mouth
    and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing to you,
    Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

 

Praying for the Enemy

Everybody has enemies.  And when I use the term “enemies”, I’m really referring to two types of people.  There are the people who are your enemies– they hate you.  They are scheming to hurt or destroy you; people who defame or slander you; people who betray you; people who cheat and lie to and steal from and abuse you or those closest to you.  Then there are the people for whom you are an enemy– you don’t like them, you don’t trust them, you don’t respect them; you probably defame or gossip about them, and you hurt them, even if it is unintentional.  Some enemies fall into both categories, but not all.

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I would love to say that I have no enemies–of either type.  But, alas, they exist– both types.   God calls on us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to show them kindness, and to bless them!  In our own power, we can’t do this.  We can make the attempt to forgive the unforgivable, to love the unlovable, and reconcile the impossible, but we fall short in our attempts:  the betrayal is too deep; the hurt is too overwhelming; the damage is irreversible, and the impossible is just…well…impossible.

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Loving our enemies is one of the proofs of God’s existence, his goodness, his power, his own boundless love at work through our imperfect words and efforts.  Praying for our enemies, showing kindness and grace in the face of hatred and betrayal–these are miracles that defy explanation.  That is one good reason to keep praying for the enemies in our lives– God can work through us to effect reconciliation, healing, and peace.

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Another good reason is that prayer changes US.  Praying for our enemies is difficult.  It is humbling.  It breaks our pride and forces us to let go of the bitterness and recognize God’s rightful place as judge, avenger, and healer.  It reminds us that God’s love, being boundless and eternal, stretches to those people who don’t deserve it, whether that is the hurtful person you don’t want to forgive, or the hurtful YOU who needs to be forgiven.

But praying for our enemies isn’t just about bringing peace and harmony or transforming us into better versions of ourselves.  No amount of willpower, or good intention, or logic, or internal fortitude, or peaceful meditation, or persuasive rhetoric, or even powerful prayer are enough to eliminate our enemies or make us perfect in love.

 

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We pray for our enemies, but not all of our enemies.  There are two enemies we need to pray AGAINST– Sin and Satan.  They are the true enemies, trying to destroy both sinner and sinned-against.  They are not just our enemies, but enemies of God.  Both are defeated.  Their power is illusory, and their damage, while intensely painful, is temporary.  And when we refuse to pray for our human “enemies” we serve their destructive purposes.

 

Paltry Prayer

A couple of days ago, I wrote about “Little Prayers.”  I believe God hears our prayers about the so-called “little things.”  But I think there is a type of prayer that is not “little”, but “paltry.”  What’s the difference?  “Paltry” doesn’t just imply little or trivial, it connotes something meager and petty.  And I think we waste a lot of time on it.

Paltry prayer is generic and insubstantial.  It’s like the horrible small talk at a social event one doesn’t want to attend, but feels obligated to show up at, because it’s expected.  When we throw up a prayer, but we really don’t want to get “real” before God, we’re offering crumbs instead of a sacrifice; face-time, instead of intimate conversation.

There are times when we cry out in desperation; we have no words or fleshed-out thoughts, only groans.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the times when we want to reassure ourselves that we’re one of the good guys– that our plans and wishes have God’s stamp of approval–without actually risking God’s authoritative answer.  “God, help me to do your will today,” sounds like a great prayer, but do we really mean what we’re saying?   Or are we really asking God to approve of our own will  and plans as we go through the day?

I’m especially concerned that we are offering paltry prayers in regards to evangelism and revival.  We want it to come– we want God to send a fresh wave of revival to our communities, our country, and our world– but let it begin and end without making us too uncomfortable, too aware of our own need for confession, forgiveness, or change.  We want our neighbor to be saved– without the pain of witnessing and being laughed at or ostracized.  We want to be emboldened to witness, but we don’t want to be humbled into listening.  We want to be blessed; we don’t want to be tested.

 

I get very discouraged sometimes, when I realize that my own prayers have been paltry.  But there is good news– the same loving Father that wants deeper conversation with me is endlessly forgiving, encouraging, and loving.  And I am not alone in offering meager conversation or selfish complaints before His throne.

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Jonah (yes the “Big Fish” guy of the Bible) was a prophet– a very successful one, except for the episode with Nineveh.  Not only did Jonah run as far from Nineveh as a ship could take him; he basically committed suicide to avoid doing God’s bidding.  When his shipmates are in a panic, Jonah demands that they throw him in the sea.  This is not as a result of consulting with God, nor does the Bible suggest that it is at God’s command.  The sailors continue to panic at the thought of throwing Jonah overboard, and are astonished when the storm stops as Jonah sinks toward the ocean floor.  If not for the fish, Jonah would have drowned.  God sent the fish to save Jonah, but there is nothing to suggest that Jonah had any idea of being rescued. However, from the belly of the fish, Jonah lifts up a poetic prayer, in which he sings the praises of the God who spared his life.   He marvels at his rescue and restoration, and vows to go back to Nineveh and fulfill his destiny.  His prayer strikes all the “holy” notes one would wish to see, but I would contend that this is, at its heart, a paltry prayer– sincere in the moment, but not the prayer of a man fully transformed by his near-death experience.

Fast forward to the fourth chapter of the book of Jonah.  Nineveh has heard Jonah’s message about God’s wrath and impending judgment; the people have had a miraculous change of heart, and God has agreed to spare them from destruction (for a time– the Ninevites went back to their old habits and were eventually destroyed).  Imagine if the late Billy Graham had held a rally in Moscow or Tehran or Los Angeles and the ENTIRE CITY had repented?!  This is success beyond imagination.  But we don’t find Jonah grateful and poetic as he was at the end of chapter two– instead, he is hateful and bitter, and praying for death!  God causes a small vine to grow and provide some shade for Jonah as he sits and sulks, but then he sends a worm to chew up the vine so it withers.  Jonah is more heartbroken at the loss of the vine then he was over the possibility of the destruction of an entire city.  Jonah’s story doesn’t end in triumph, but in triviality.

Prayer is a great opportunity to pour out our hearts before God– but it also reveals the content and character of our hearts.  If our prayers are paltry and our hearts shallow, God will often humble us.  But he will also rescue us from our own sinfulness and sulking, and give us all that we need to finish victoriously.  The book of Jonah is a great cautionary tale– let’s learn from it, today.

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What can we do to make our prayers less “paltry” and more proactive?  Check out the suggestions on the attached pages of this blog, or look online for prayer groups and prayer sites that offer constructive ideas.

Pray For Me, Not About Me

Gossip and judgment are nasty habits– what happens when they creep into our prayer life?

I’ve sometimes struggled with the idea of praying for those who have hurt me or mistreated those I love.  We are commanded to do it, but often, I am tempted to pray about my enemies instead of praying for them.  As if God didn’t know what they had done; as if he needed me to alert him to their bad behavior, and remind him of how I was slighted, misunderstood, or powerless to bring justice to my friend or family member who was wronged.  I want to tell God how to treat them– how to punish them, or abase them, or bring them to feel remorse.  I want to hang on to the indignation and sense of victimhood–after all, God is going to make it right in the end, vindicating me and humiliating them, right?  Except that’s not how it works in God’s economy…My vindication does not come at their expense, but through the blood of the truly innocent Lamb of God.  Let that sink in.  God is not in the business of torturing others to make himself feel more righteous.  If I want to follow Christ, my actions, and my prayers, should be full of his Grace, not my bitterness.

I am not alone in this– and I’m sure I have been “prayed about” often enough.  Even saints and matriarchs of old have done it.  And King David was guilty of it as well–several of the Psalms include angry, even vicious rants against David’s enemies.  It’s understandable; it’s only natural for us to feel indignant, angry, and hurt in the face of injustice, unkindness, hatred, and abuse.  And it’s not inappropriate for us to cry out for justice, or pour out our hurt and frustration. But it is wrong to stand in judgment and unforgiveness when we come before the throne of Heaven.

gossip

I believe that these are the difficult prayers that teach us to know God better– as well as ourselves.  To pray for those who have hurt us means that we must move beyond what they have done– not to deny it, or to excuse or forget about it, but to give it over to God –and deal with who they are.  They are lost exactly as we are lost, but for the grace of God.  They are redeemable, not because they can undo or atone for what has happened, but because God says that whosoever trusts in Him can be saved.  They are precious in God’s sight.  When we stop focusing on who hurt us, and how, we can instead focus on who heals us, and how he wants to heal others.

These prayers also serve to remind us that our true “enemies” are not the people who say or do unkind or even wicked things.  Our true enemies are not the ones who can hurt our feelings, or even our minds or bodies.  Our true enemies are the ones who would steal our souls– who tempt us to hold on to rage and despair, to hopelessness and doubt, to bitterness and shame.

It is so easy to write these words, and to “know” the right thing to do.  But it is a painful, heartbreaking, humbling, stumbling uphill climb to DO the right thing.  I still catch myself so often praying about certain people, instead of praying for them.  God knows my heart–he knows if my prayer is sincere.  And, as I struggle, I am reminded that the change I would wish to see in someone else mirrors the change I should wish to see in me  The same Grace that God sends to heal and comfort me is the same Grace he offers to everyone who will take it–even when they choose not to accept it.

So I hope I am learning to pray for those who sneer at me; those who lash out in their own pain, anger, or thoughtlessness.  To pray for their health and safety, their well-being, and their wholeness. For their sake–for the sake of the One who loves them eternally.  And in the hope that healing and restoration will triumph over what lies in the past.

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