Writing the Next Chapter

Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!

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It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?

Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.

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I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!

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God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.

My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!

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Turn, Turn, Turn

Back in the 1960s, Pete Seeger “wrote” a new folk song, later recorded by a group called The Byrds.  All but the title and the last six words of the song were taken directly (though the word order was changed) from the book of Ecclesiastes.  Essentially, Pete Seeger wrote seven words and some music; the rest was written by King Solomon almost three thousand years ago!  Learn more about the song here…

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When God created the world, he instituted times and seasons– day and night; winter and summer; weeks and months.  We are bound by time while we live here.  Sunlight and darkness help determine when we are active or sleeping (less so since the advent of electric lighting); summer and winter (or rainy/dry seasons) determine when we plant or harvest, what we wear, how we travel, and what activities we plan.

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But Solomon reminds us that there are also “seasons” that don’t depend on the weather or the amount of light filling the horizon.  There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time for laughter and a time for weeping; a time for war and a time for peace.  Our world is not static– it is filled with changes, and times for turning away from one thing and facing another.

Our prayers will change with these seasons– prayers of wonder and prayers of wondering why; prayers of great boldness and reluctant, halting prayers; prayers that come from joy, and those that come with wracking grief.  There will be seasons of chaotic busyness, and seasons of loneliness and long hours; seasons when we help lift the burdens of others before our own, and seasons where others help us lift burdens we cannot bear alone.  There will be seasons of fierce, pounding spiritual warfare, and seasons of relative peace and rest.

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Solomon lays out the concept, but I like Pete Seeger’s addition of the phrase, “turn, turn, turn.”  It reminds me that the seasons of my life will change, but I need to change as well.  I need to turn, first of all, to see where God is working in my life and the lives of others– that’s where I need to be and where I need to be focused.  God will never leave me nor forsake me, but He loves me too much to “leave” me in a rut– He needs me to move on and finish the race He has set out for me.  Change can be difficult, but without it, there is no growth!

Second, I need to turn from habits and activities that are “out of season”–young parents will have a completely different way of mapping out their time, including time for prayer and Bible study, than empty-nesters.  People in mourning will have a different approach to prayer and worship than those who are in a season of celebration.  There is a season to break down–to end bad relationships and turn from bad habits–and a time to build up healthy relationships and habits.  There is a time to speak– to share prayer requests and spend time in corporate prayer; to ask questions and persist in our requests.  But there is also a time to stay silent– to meditate and listen more than we talk; to be still and know, instead of pace and ponder.  I don’t wear a heavy coat in the middle of summer or run barefoot in the snow– I need to turn in alignment with the season I am passing through.

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Finally, I need to turn away from temptation and sin.  God gives me the power, through His Spirit, to turn and walk away from the quicksand of complaisance, the tidal waves of desire, the live wire of unchecked rage, or the bottomless pit of envy, but I must turn away from them.

This life is full of seasons and change– some good, some dangerous.  But God is outside of time and seasons.  He provides endless variety, but He never changes His essential nature.  No matter where we turn, He can be found!

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Walk This Way

There is an old comedy/vaudeville gag, where a character enters a stately home, or an office, or arrives at an  important event.  They are greeted by a “straight man” character, who tells them to “walk this way”.  The “straight man” then turns and begins walking in a manner that uses exaggerated mannerisms.  The comedic character doesn’t just follow in the general direction of the other character– s/he imitates the exaggerated mannerisms as well.

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In the last of three prayers from the song, “Day by Day” (see last Friday and Saturday), I want to explore how to “follow Thee more nearly.”

I have this quibble with the song lyrics– I know that “nearly” rhymes with “clearly” and “dearly”, but it is not grammatically correct, as it implies that I almost, not quite, but nearly want to follow Jesus, instead of saying that I want to follow Him more closely, or become a better reflection of His character.  That said, I sometimes think that I fall into the comedic trap of thinking that “walk this way” merely means following Christ with exaggerated mannerisms– I follow “more nearly” when I should be following more closely.

Years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I read a book called “God On a Harley” (Review and summary here)  It is a fable, and an interesting read.  I don’t recommend it for theological content (the Christ it presents is more of a New-Age life coach, not a Messiah), but I’m glad I read it for two reasons:  It challenged my conventional view of Jesus, and it challenged the way I thought about discipleship.  At the time I was reading the book, I was also considering making some big changes in my life– changing careers, moving away from my home town, and trusting God to be “sufficient” in my singleness and lack of guaranteed income.

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When we talk or think about Jesus’ time on Earth, we generally focus on His birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection.  We don’t usually think of His everyday life…where He ate or slept or how He lived.  If He were to walk among us today, He wouldn’t appear like the paintings we see– flowing long blond hair (which has always been inaccurate), white robe and sandals.  He might wear a T-shirt and jeans, ride the bus or subway train, and hang out at Starbucks or the corner convenience store.  Jesus didn’t live in a “holy huddle.”  And, though He famously walked on water, He mostly walked the streets.  He lived and walked and ate and spent His days among ordinary people–in fact, it was His willingness to eat with and talk to the marginalized, the forgotten, the ostracized people of Him time, that got Him in trouble with the religious leaders and those in power.

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I don’t think Jesus in our time would be a tattooed, beer swilling, biker– but I’m convinced that He would be found sharing a story or a pizza  with one; and with the kinds of people many of His “followers” would shun.  The Jesus I want to follow “more nearly” is Holy, but He is not “Holier-than-thou.”  I can’t follow Jesus more nearly if I’m following an image that only exists in a picture or my self-righteous imagination.   In my youth, I had a picture of what “following Christ” looked like– but it was more about following expectations and selfish desires– successful career, marriage, giving to the “right” charities, becoming a pillar of the community.  There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but if God calls me to serve in humble (even humiliating) ways, doing thankless tasks, and spending time, not helping the needy at my convenience, but truly serving– pouring out my time and my heart until only His strength keeps me going–I have learned the joy and honor that transcends anything I once imagined.

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I’m not a biker, but I love the image of Jesus on a motorcycle, asking me to come along for a ride.  If I want to follow Him “more nearly,” I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor.  If Jesus came and asked me to ride off with Him on a Harley, several things would happen that relate to discipleship:

  • First, I have to commit.  You can’t “sort of” ride along — you either get on the bike or you stay behind. You might know all about the motor, you might know how to ride, you might know the traffic laws, you might even watch a video of someone riding, but you won’t experience the horsepower under you, the wind in your face, the road slipping away behind you.  The same is true of the Christian life.  You can know about God; own a Bible– even memorize it; you can sing God’s praises, all without experiencing a relationship with Him.  But you’ll never know the full power of His grace and acceptance until you commit.
  • Part of that commitment is to be willing to go when and where He’s going…you can’t go on the ride and stay at home.  You can’t go two hours after He does.  And that brings me to–
  • Trust!  You won’t get on the bike if you don’t trust His ability to drive and His wisdom in knowing how and where to go.  Once you’re on the bike, hanging on from behind, you can’t see all of the road ahead.  You can’t steer or hit the brakes.  In my own experience, I ended up leaving teaching after seven years with no “safety net.”  I had no job waiting in the wings, no money saved up, and no “plan” other than to take whatever honest work I could find and follow God’s leading.  I learned by experience that I can trust God’s ways to be better than mine; better than my expectations!
  • Riding together takes teamwork.  Just because God is doing the driving and steering doesn’t mean that I just sit back and watch the scenery (though I can do a lot of that, too).  If I’m not paying attention at curves, intersections, stops, turns, etc., I can throw everything off-balance.
  • Riding together, with my arms wrapped around Him is the closest I can “follow” Jesus.  It’s not about what I know, or what I can “do” for God– it’s choosing to be in a deepening relationship with Him.  As I live with Him, listen to Him, and trust Him, the knowing and doing will come naturally.

I want to follow with abandon– not just to walk several steps behind, or wander in His general direction, or watch what He’s doing from a distance.  I want to hang on and share the adventure.  That’s the way I want to “walk” with Him.  That’s my prayer, “Day by Day.”

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!

 

Making Waves

Yesterday, students across the nation walked out of class to protest the school shooting that took place a month ago in Florida.  Many have hailed this as the beginning of a new movement; others have decried it as a stunt.  I’m not here to debate the merits of this particular action or even what it may or may not represent.  What I do want to look at is how and why groups are using various methods to “make waves” in our world.

What does it mean to “make waves?”  According to the online urbandictionary.com, it means:  to cause a disturbance, or to create a situation where chaos or controversy will surface

The underlying assumption is that there is a deceptively calm surface that requires a disturbance– that chaos or controversy are already present, and bringing them to the surface is necessary to prevent more tragic results.

If you live near a large lake or the ocean, you may have watched waves in action.  Waves can be powerful, and even tragic, in their own right.  Storm surge waves and tidal waves have been known to decimate coastal areas; even normal wave action can erode shorelines and pull unwary swimmers under the surface.  But waves also serve good purposes– they polish the stones and wash up treasures onto the beaches.  They prevent stagnation.  They help move small creatures that dwell in the sand and shallow waters.

One thing about waves that sometimes passes unnoticed– waves may change in size or power, but they are constant– rolling in and out unvaried in their rhythm from day to day and year to year.  In this sense, no one “makes” waves, except the creator, who started that rhythm and set the boundaries for the lakes and seas.  Instead, we attempt to create bigger, more powerful waves, or make waves where none were before– puddles, or swimming pools, perhaps.  At some point in our lives, we WILL make waves– but what kind, and to what purpose?

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My point is not that we shouldn’t try to be agents of needed change in our world– but we should examine the positive and negative consequences of our wave-making.  Are we pushing something to the surface that needs to be seen or discovered?  Are we pulling something under the surface to drown it out?  Are we eroding a foundation, or carving out a new coastline?  Also, are we being consistent in our wave-making?  Are we hoping for a single tidal wave of chaos, or a constant churning action that brings lasting change.

Of course, since this blog is about prayer, I would suggest that prayers are also like waves– each one breaking in its turn, but constantly rolling, churning, and moving forward, bringing things, both large and small, to the shore.  Prayers have a constant rhythm and a subtle roar that masks their full impact.  Prayers, like rolling waters,  intermingle, push each other forward, dance, and rise, and fall with the winds and storms of life, and roll back to rise up again.
Not all prayers are like waves– not all waves are like prayer.  but  shouldn’t we want to make waves in tune with God’s purposes?  Waves answer to God– he can both calm them, and stir them into wild fury; walk on them, or hold them back.

I pray that our prayers and our actions would be consistent with God’s rhythm; that we would embrace changes and actions that bring him honor.

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