Childlike or Childish?

Last week was the week of our local County Fair. We missed having a Fair last year, so people were pretty excited to go. The exhibits, the rides, the animals, the events and attractions, the food, the games…there was a little something for everyone. I love watching the faces of the children– their wonder and excitement is contagious as they see the various farm animals, or ride the Merry-Go-Round, or discover the joys of Cotton Candy and Elephant Ears.

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I grew up with the County Fair– not just as a visitor, but as a participant. And I am encouraged to see a new generation showing animals, exhibiting craft projects, learning new skills, and having fun. Some of them will return as 4-H parents; some to work as judges or to volunteer at a booth for local churches, clubs or businesses ; some to visit from out of town with their own children and grandchildren. There is something about a County Fair that is simple and pure–something that can inspire childlike wonder, even in adults.

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Childlikeness is something we are called to by Christ. He loved children, and He told His disciples that if they wanted to be part of God’s Kingdom, they would have to become like little children (See Matthew 18:2-4). We are to pray to Our Father, having childlike faith in His good will and His promise to hear us. Childlike faith is not “blind” faith. Children are often frightened by the big animals or loud noises at the Fair. And they tend, (especially small children) to want to hold hands or stay close to those they know. But they also want to see and experience “everything”– because they trust that their parents and the Fair organizers will not put them in jeopardy. A childlike attitude and trust in God brings us the kind of joy and peace we see in children as they discover, rejoice, explore, and enjoy life– especially during Fair week.

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This is not to be confused with childishness. While Jesus encouraged His disciples to have childlike faith, He reminded them that the “children of Israel” had often behaved with childish disobedience and complaining. God is a loving Father. He wants children who follow Him out of love, and who trust Him completely. But He will also lovingly discipline those who have developed a childish rebellious streak. I didn’t see much childishness at this year’s fair, but when I did, it was not exhibited by children, but by those who consider themselves adults. Tantrums, selfish demands, complaining about the weather or the crowds or the noise… While the children at the fair were gracious “winners” and “losers” at the shows, patient and content (for the most part) as they waited for rides or food, some of the adults were grouchy, whine-y, and difficult to please. I’m sure I missed a couple of epic meltdowns by toddlers, and some tears from a few exhibitors, but most of the children were just thrilled to be able to go to the Fair again.

It is easy to recognize and call out childish behavior in others. Obnoxious, foolish, self-centered, unreasonable– those are just some of the adjectives such behavior warrants. A childlike attitude is also easy to recognize– eager, grateful, joyful, hopeful, teachable, honest and open, loving and caring. Oddly, I know several adults who sneer at childlike behavior, even as they exhibit childish behaviors. They brag about their very “adult” approach– cynical, “realistic,” confident, “tough,” clever, independent, and self-sufficient. But they are stressed, angry, bored, distrustful, lonely, and sad. Our loving Father wants so much better for us! Being with childish people is tiring and depressing; being around childlike people is refreshing, joyful, and encouraging!

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I’ve been thinking this week about my own attitude. The County Fair is finished for this year, but each day comes with wonders and struggles, competitions, waiting in lines, and dealing with crowds. Do I face them with an attitude that is childlike or childish? Do I trust God to be with me when I go through new experiences, even if they are a bit daunting? Or do I complain and demand my own way, expecting to “win” every game or competition, dragging myself and others through stress and tears? Father, help me to see Your world through childlike eyes of wonder and gratitude. Help me to see others with the love and joy You alone can inspire.

Orphan Train

Across from our shop, there is a mural that tells the story of the first “Orphan Train.” In October of 1854, 45 children– some orphaned, others abandoned–arrived in southwest Michigan from New York City. Conditions for such children in the large cities were dangerous. Floods of immigrants included children who had lost their parents on the voyage to America, or who had been separated from their families upon arrival. There were very few orphanages, and almost no resources dedicated to child welfare. Hunger, disease, crime, and exposure to the elements meant that many children never lived to maturity. Most of them lived on the streets; ignored, preyed upon, or simply forgotten. A group called the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, had tried helping children– especially boys–but their limited resources were overwhelmed within the first year.

Orphan Train mural, Dowagiac, Michigan (Ruth Andrews)

It was the idea of a man named Charles Loring Brace that large numbers of these children could escape the dangerous environs of the city and find safety and hope in the expanding “West.” With the help of the new railroads, groups of children could travel west, where kind-hearted families could adopt them. Food, shelter, education, fresh air, opportunity, and a loving family- this was the promise of the orphan train. For some children, it was the start of a wonderful new life. For some, it was trading a hard life in the city for a hard life on the frontier.

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I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for the first train-load of orphans to travel here. Few people had ever traveled by train in those days. Some of the children had never traveled more than a few blocks from where they had been born– had never seen a farm or a forest. Part of their journey was on a steamboat. The journey would not have been comfortable, but it would have been exciting and even terrifying at times. They had no guarantee of finding homes or families who would be willing to take care of them– only the hope that someone might.

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What does this have to do with prayer? Well, the obvious connection would be that everyone involved with this venture must have prayed diligently. All 45 children were placed with local families in that first journey. And the success of this first placement encouraged future endeavors. The “orphan trains” ran for 75 years, and carried nearly a quarter of a million children to new homes throughout the growing United States. And while not every child found a “happy ending” with their new family, most of them survived to create a new life as adults–an opportunity many other orphans had been denied.

Orphan Train Mural, Dowagiac, Michigan (Ruth Andrews)

But it struck me today, as I was looking at the mural and thinking about the fate of these children, that we are or were all in a similar situation. I am so thankful to be able to pray to my Loving Father– but there was a time when I was lost and without hope. There was a time when Sin had made me an orphan. I was alone and frightened and helpless to save myself. Like the orphans in first part of the mural, I was sick and sad, my best intentions were no more than tattered rags. Even as they line up to board the train, their faces show fear and pain.

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It can be frightening to call out to God– frightening to leave the life we know, even when it is dangerous and unhealthy. God’s way takes us to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places–we can’t see the road ahead, and we don’t know what our “new” life will be like.

As I gaze once again at the mural, the last section shows an idealized version of the “new life” experienced by the riders of the “Orphan Train.” It shows a groups of children in a circle, holding hands and playing in the sunshine among grass and trees, while a bird flutters nearby. It is a heavenly place– the children’s clothes are clean, and they look healthy and happy. And while this is an ideal, rather than the reality for some of the children, it is a reminder of the contrast with the life they left behind.

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Thanks be to God for His Grace that rescues us from the ravages of Sin. He offers us an escape to a new life– complete with a new family and a glorious hope of Heaven. He offers full adoption– guaranteed by the blood of His own Son– for those who will choose to leave their old life of Sin behind and travel as an orphan on His own “Orphan Train.”

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

Galatians 4:1-6 ESV (via biblegateway.com)

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/adoption-the-heart-of-the-gospel

When Nothing Else Could Help…

Earlier this week, my mother celebrated her 88th birthday. Mom has survived more than most people can imagine. She was born in 1933, during the worst years of the Great Depression. She survived hunger and poverty, near-homelessness, and insecurity in her earliest years, despite my grandparents’ best efforts to provide for their family. She survived the upheaval of World War 2, when her father left to serve in the Navy and her mother worked long hours in a factory. She and her sister had to take on most of the housework.

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As a teenager, mom fell madly in love with a young man who convinced her to drop out of high school and become his wife. Her romantic dream quickly turned into a nightmare of abuse, heartbreak, fear, and starvation. Though he loved her, her husband could not control his own inner torments. He drank heavily and was very controlling. He insulted her, isolated her from family and friends, forbad her from going to church, and he sometimes punched her. By the age of 19, she was anemic, weighed less than 100 pounds, and had just miscarried twins– partly because she had been denied access to pre-natal care; partly because she had been beaten and malnourished. But she survived, and went on to have a healthy pregnancy, mostly because her husband was drafted and sent to Korea.

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Mom survived divorce, something to which she had always been opposed, for the sake of her son. She survived the threats against herself and her young boy. She survived all the court dates and new responsibilities. She survived working 10-hours days, six days a week, at a butcher shop, cutting, grinding, and packing up meat, so she could provide for her young son.

Mom remarried at age 30. Shortly before her marriage, she had found a better job; one with better pay and shorter hours. Shortly after her marriage, on her way home from work, she was involved in a horrible accident. She had a head injury, broken ribs, and a broken collarbone. She began suffering from headaches. She suffered another miscarriage. But she survived, and went on to have me and my sister, both healthy deliveries. She had stopped working to be home with us, but she was involved in multiply volunteer opportunities through church and in the community. But her headaches were debilitating, and with them came depression.

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Mom survived many dark days of pain and doubt. Though she was socially active, it took a great deal of energy and will to force herself to get out and keep going. Her doctor gave her medication for depression, and, thankfully, he carefully monitored what she took and whether it was effective. The headaches did not diminish, and mom treated them with massive doses of Anacin and other pain relievers.

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In her 50s, mom developed more health problems. She developed arthritis. She had a hysterectomy, and had to have her gall bladder removed. In her 60s, mom had cataract surgery. Then she had to watch as her husband’s health deteriorated, and she lost him just after their 35th anniversary. She survived, and had to adjust to widowhood. In her 70s, she had more surgeries– she lost part of her thyroid, and nearly died. She had surgery to “undo” some of the damage from her earlier hysterectomy. She was diagnosed with bone density issues, which caused a curvature in her spine. In her 80s, she developed a heart condition. She had to undergo heart surgery and have a pacemaker. She could have died, but she didn’t. She developed a series of infections from one of her earlier surgeries, and had to use a cane to walk because of the bone density and spine curvature. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration, meaning that she is slowly going blind.

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Last fall, during the height of the COVID crisis, Mom fell and broke her hip. She was in a hospital where there were COVID cases, and she was transported to a rehab facility that had 4 COVID cases. By the time she left to come home, she was one of only 4 who had NOT developed COVID at that facility! She continues to go to outpatient rehab twice a week, and now has to use a walker, instead of just a cane, to provide balance and stability when she walks. She no longer drives, and has trouble reading, due to the macular degeneration. But she survives.

I say all of this, not because my mom is tougher, or luckier than other folks; not because she is more worthy of life than those who have not survived such struggles, and not because her life is more tragic than anyone else’s. I say this because my mother is a woman of prayer.

Last week, for Mother’s Day, we took my mom to her local church. She no longer drives, and she rarely gets out because of her health issues. But she wanted to be in church that Sunday. The very first hymn they sang that day was “Love Lifted Me.” And I cried. That was the song she had used, fifty years ago, to rock me to sleep as a child. Sometimes, she would sing it out. Sometimes she would just hum the tune as she rocked me. She was often crying as she sang– exhausted, depressed, worried, or haunted–but those words imprinted themselves in my young mind:
Love lifted me.
Love lifted me.
When nothing else could help–
Love lifted me.

My mother wasn’t just singing those words, she was praying.

Mom has lived out those words. Crying out to “the Master of the Sea,” Mom has been lifted up time and again. She has been a prayer warrior, knowing that her prayers rise to the One who loves her best of all; the One who holds her destiny and her redemption in His hands. No matter her circumstances, she can sing, knowing that love will continue to lift her, and carry her through.

Praying in Heartbreak

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And it was a good day. It started out cold and wet, but I got to spend time with my mother, my mother-in-law, several other family members, and some dear friends from childhood. It was a happy day, and it ended with sunshine breaking through the late afternoon clouds, birds singing, and a full heart of memories and gratitude.

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But Mother’s Day wasn’t always like that for me. For many years, it was one of the worst days of my year. No matter the weather or the company, there was always a shadow of barrenness and emptiness. Yes, I was grateful for my mother; for my grandmothers and aunts and other relatives; for my friends and their adorable children. But I felt shut out– I was not a mother. I would never be a mother. I was always on the outside looking in.

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My circumstances are slightly different now, but I am still not a “natural” mother. No one calls me “mama” or even “grandma.” But Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be a day of sorrow and emptiness, and after years of prayer and letting go of expectations, God is showing me how to enjoy and embrace the circumstances in which He has placed me.

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I am not alone in this struggle– far from it. For the past few weeks, I have heard from heartbroken people who dread Mother’s Day. Those who have lost their mothers face the reminder of their grief and loss. It is particularly hard on those who were unable to spend precious days with a dying mother due to COVID restrictions, or lost their mother to COVID. Some mothers are reminded of the wrenching loss of a child– still birth, drug overdoses, suicide, auto accidents, childhood cancer– gut-churning emptiness where once there was a promise of joyful life, grandchildren, shared memories, and so much more. Other mothers (and their children) face the pain of separation and severed relationships. Many, like me, face the reminder that they are NOT a mother– not a “real” mother–even if their circumstances or careers are filled with children “not their own.” And some people face multiple circumstances that cause grief, bitterness, alienation, anger, and despair.

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These feelings of sadness and loss are natural, but they do not have to weigh us down or control how we face each day. God wants to share these burdens; He wants to carry the weight of our brokenness and free us to experience joy and peace– even in the midst of our pain! And on those days when our circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, God is never more than a prayer away. He doesn’t make our grief disappear; He doesn’t erase our memories. But He can redeem them with a changed perspective and new hope.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.– each can bring bitterness and heartbreak, as well as joy. We do well to pay attention to those around us who dread such holidays, and offer the comfort, hope, and encouragement of a listening ear, a loving heart, and, most of all, a loving God who longs for us to pray in and through our heartbreak.

Praying For My Children From Another Mother

(Dedicated to all those who are step-mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, or in other ways entrusted with children not of their womb.)

I did not give birth to them, Father. They are not the children of my womb; they are still the children of my heart.

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And I know you love them more than I do. That they are YOUR children first, last, and foremost.

God, Thank You for giving me the privilege of letting me be part of their lives; for allowing me to share their hopes and dreams, their failures and their struggles; their smiles and their tears. Thank you for their unique interests and personalities. Thank you for their laughter, and their questions. Thank you for their hugs, and their pouts, and more questions…

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Father, help me to see them with your eyes– not through the lens of my own hopes or expectations; or my inadequacies and fears–help me to see who they are, and who you created them to be. Help me to help them to see how special they are in your eyes.

Help me to honor these children by not dishonoring the mother who gave them birth. May I never cause her children to despise her–or themselves– because of what I say about her. But help me to protect these precious children from anyone–anyone– who would hurt, abuse, exploit, or endanger them. May our home be a safe place to learn love and forgiveness and healing in a world of broken families.

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Help me to honor my husband as the leader in our home. Help me to model how to be a true “help-mate” and partner– not a nag; nor a dishrag–a strong, compassionate, supportive, and respectful team player.

Help me to foster good relationships among all the children of this household– to love them each differently, and yet the same. To be fair to each individual, giving them guidance and “space” according to their needs. To do and say all in my power to help each child feel secure in our love and secure in their “place” as part of this family.

Help me to forgive and ask forgiveness freely– through outbursts, baggage, fears, and tantrums– theirs and mine!

Most of all, help me to introduce each one to Your all-encompassing love, Your wisdom, and Your eternal care. May they see you in the things I say and do; in the way we love and forgive as a family; in the way we seek the best together.

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In the name of Jesus, whose earthly father was entrusted with a similar gift,

Amen

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep..

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

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I learned this prayer as a child. It seemed very grim, and pessimistic. As a child, I spent very little time (as little as possible) thinking of my own mortality, or the state of my soul after a day of playing with dolls or running around outside. I was blessed with a safe and easy childhood. Of course, I had days of sickness, a bout of chicken pox, the loss of a pet, news of neighbors who had died in war, fallen to cancer, or been killed in accidents–moments that caused me to reflect a bit more. But I didn’t want to think about serious things. I wanted peace and happiness.

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As a younger adult, I came to the conclusion that prayers like this were old-fashioned, and designed to scare vulnerable children into a false faith based on fear and gloom. Shouldn’t children learn about the Love of Jesus and the Mercy of the Father, instead of worrying about death and eternal doom of their soul? Prayers like this would be “bad” for young children; traumatic and disturbing. Better to teach them prayers that were sweet and light, and full of only the goodness of God.

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Lately, however, I remember things a bit differently. Yes, there is gloom and doom in this old children’s prayer, but there is also comfort, Love, and Mercy. As a child, I could “lay me down” to sleep in peace, knowing that God would, indeed, keep my soul from harm. I didn’t expect to die, but when I woke up dreaming of monsters, or suddenly became aware of mortality, I didn’t have to stay fearful. God is bigger than any monster; bigger then Death. I could not trust anyone better, mightier, or more capable than the Lord to keep my soul, or to “take” it safely to its final destination. I learned about the Goodness of God, but I also learned about stark realities– the persecuted Church, war, famine, injustice–things that God wants me to confront, and endure, and lift to Him in prayer. And for every “gloomy” reality, there are stories of victory and joy, faith and resilience, love and grace– because God is standing by, ready to rescue and reassure and redeem.

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I am old enough now that mortality plays a bigger role in my thoughts. I have lost a parent, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. I’ve experienced both great joy and great sorrow. But I need not be afraid of disease, dilemmas, or even death. I need not worry about the state of my soul. I may have griefs, aches and pains, and worries about tomorrow. But I can “lay me down” in peace and patience, knowing I have a Good, Good Father whose love has surrounded me for over half a century. I can “Hush” all my fears, and sleep like a baby, knowing my God is always standing right by my side.

When God Doesn’t Answer…

Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.

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Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”

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But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.

It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.

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There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.

I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.

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By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?

Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.

I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.

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I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.

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Hannah and Eli

The story in the Bible about Hannah is about prayer; it is also about depression, anguish, misunderstanding, marriage, rivalry, infertility, trust, and obedience.

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the priest, Eli, and his wicked sons. It is that same Eli who becomes a surrogate parent for Hannah’s precious, promised son, Samuel.

Think about that. In all my years reading through this story, it never occurred to me that Hannah had already known about Eli’s sons and their wickedness. Hannah knew that Eli was not the best role model for her small son. She knew that she was sending her child into an environment that included corruption, injustice, and perversion. This child she had promised to “give back” to God would grow up in a family more dysfunctional and dangerous than if he had stayed with Hannah, Elkanah, and even Peninnah and his half-siblings.

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The Bible does not give us all the details of either family, (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A11-26&version=ESV ) but there is evidence that Elkanah was a good provider, an honest and worthy man, and a good father. Eli, on the other hand, was told of his sons’ wickedness, and, other than giving one mild rebuke, he turns a blind eye to their practices and grows fat and lazy in his service. There is no mention of a mother or motherly influence at all in Samuel’s new “foster” family. Why would Hannah surrender her maternal rights (and why would Elkanah agree to forfeit his paternal rights) to send Samuel into this hornet’s nest?

Perhaps the answer can be found just before the account of Eli’s wicked sons. At the end of Hannah’s Song (which we will examine in more detail later), we have a profound statement of faith:

1 Samuel 2:9-10 English Standard Version (ESV)
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
    for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces;
    against them he will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Hannah was not giving Samuel to Eli to raise; she was giving Samuel to God to raise and guide and protect.

I am writing this today, not to encourage parents to absolve themselves of responsibility for training and caring for their own family, but to encourage those parents who may not be in a position to guide and protect their children. Some of us have children, grandchildren, siblings, or other young and vulnerable family members living away from our care or influence. Some are living in dysfunctional and even dangerous environments. God KNOWS. He SEES. He HEARS. We do not know, nor do we understand, why God allows innocent people to suffer. We do not know what fears or concerns Hannah and Elkanah may have had about Samuel’s upbringing. We do not know what Samuel endured under Eli’s care, or what he saw or heard in the presence of Eli’s sons. As a child, he may have been spared some of the worst of their behavior.

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We do know two things, however. Hannah and Elkanah may or may not have had reason to trust Eli. He did allow them to visit each year, and he seems to have been fond of young Samuel; certainly the Bible stories I used to read in Sunday School made Eli seem like a kindly uncle. But the reality was that Samuel’s life was not in Eli’s hands–it was in God’s! Hannah and Elkanah trusted God to guide their son, even as they relished every moment they were able to spend with him. They certainly prayed for his safety and growth in wisdom as he served in the Tabernacle of the Almighty.

Secondly, we know that God can bring good out of even bad circumstances. Eli was weak and indulgent with his sons; he was warned and did nothing. He sat down on the job and faced judgment without repentance. When Samuel was grown, this pattern could have been repeated. Samuel’s own sons began taking bribes and perverting justice. Samuel was still serving faithfully, even as an old man, but his sons were not following his good example. However, when the people came to Samuel with reports of his sons’ activities and asked him to step aside and appoint a king, Samuel sought the Lord. God reassured him, and Samuel was faithful to appoint and advise Israel’s first king, Saul. God was faithful to guide Samuel’s footsteps, and to bring justice against the wicked sons of Eli.

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Eli’s flawed examples of fatherhood and leadership still served as models for Samuel. Even as a child, he showed wisdom, respect, and love for his “foster father” and mentor. Hannah and Elkanah never wavered in their trust that God could and would guide their son and provide for him. Their faith wasn’t based on the knowledge that Samuel would one day become the chief priest and anoint both Saul and his successor, David. They only knew that God could be trusted.

That is not a promise that every child in a bad environment will be “safe” and rise above their circumstances to become famous or powerful. But it is reason to keep hope and faith when we feel powerless. None of Hannah and Elkanah’s (or Peninnah’s) other children are mentioned in the Biblical narrative. They may have been honest, upright citizens, successful in business or esteemed in their hometown of Ramah. Samuel’s story is not a parable–there is no “moral” about “giving a child back” to God and being able to expect success and fame and blessing. There is, however, a lesson here about recognizing that every child is a gift– not a reward, not a burden–our children belong to God. We should do our best to guide them, nurture them, protect them, and above all, to love them. But their destiny– including tragic circumstances and glorious opportunities–is not ours to control.

Next time, we explore another important relationship– that of Hannah and her Son.

Why Being “Nice” Matters

I spent the day with my granddaughter today.  We went to the bakery, the bank, the grocery, and the library.  Some days we visit the post office or a local cafe.  We live downtown, so we walk everywhere, and say hello to people we meet along the way.  At each stop, we thank the people behind the counter or desk.  My granddaughter is learning manners– how to be polite in public.  Her parents do a wonderful job of this, and it’s very easy for me to bask in the proud glow of people remarking on how cute and polite and engaging she is.  (I may be a little biased, but they DO say such things…)

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Years ago, when I worked at a library, there were always families who came in and practiced good manners– “Please” and “Thank You,” “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “May I?”  Often, the children were prompted, especially when they were young.  Sometimes, they didn’t understand why they were being told to say such things.  A couple of times, I had other parents roll their eyes and comment negatively on such practices.  “They don’t even understand what they’re saying.”  “I’ll bet they don’t say any of those things at home– what hypocrites.  They’re just trying to make people think they’re better than everybody else.”  “You shouldn’t force kids to say such things.  They’ll just resent you for it later.”

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There are actually parenting articles about forcing children to say “I’m sorry.”  They are well-intentioned, and some are helpful about explaining what the issues are (here’s a link to one of the articles) .  Other articles advise parents not to prompt children to say, “Thank You.” (Here’s another link.)  I don’t disagree with these authors.  In fact, I think they make a valid point about teaching our kids “shallow” manners and neglecting the deeper values of gratitude and empathy.  But I think children need both.

Manners (especially as they reflect deeper values) are important.  We live in a society where manners are becoming relics–laughable reminders of a quaint culture we have long outgrown.  There are pockets of the country (and the larger world) where politeness is almost an obsession.  It is not polite or helpful to be facetiously “nice” or sarcastically “nice”.  But what happens when we no longer dare to show gratitude or empathy without inviting ridicule and contempt?  What happens when saying “Please” and “Thank you” make you a target for mockery? When and how did this happen to our culture?

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With all due respect to the recent spate of articles, I think something gets lost in the hyperbolic headlines and fascination with “feelings”–manners should originate, not with feelings, but with the acknowledgement of some basic truths:

  • I am not the center of the universe!
  • Other people– all other people–have value, worth, and dignity.
  • I need other people, and they need me–I am not an island.
  • There is a God who is kind, forgiving, loving, and wise.

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I am polite to others, not because I feel “nice”, but because I recognize that God created all people; He loves us all equally, and I have a duty to treat others with dignity, respect, and kindness– even if I don’t “feel” it; even if they don’t respond in kind.  Do I always remember and acknowledge this, even as an adult?  Sadly, no.  But I practice politeness as a discipline and a reminder that this should be so.  I teach it for the same reason.  And the amazing thing is that it makes a huge difference.  Maybe not in the moment, with all my emotions running wild…but in the quiet aftermath of knowing that I said “Thank you” instead of the hurtful and sarcastic comment.  I said “I’m sorry” instead of holding on to my pride and bitterness.  And I may never know the difference it made to the harried waitress, or lonely shopper, or tired mechanic to hear two or three kind words– “Thank You” (You are noticed– you matter).  “I’m so sorry” (you have dignity–you are worthy of kindness) “Please” (you have value–your time, skill, or service is special)

I’m not a “nice” person– I am often hateful and stubborn and impatient.  But God has been abundantly gracious and merciful to me when I don’t deserve it.  Being polite is such a small thing in light of God’s eternal and boundless love toward us.

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“Now I Lay Me Down…”

We used to teach children to say bedtime prayers by rote:

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I don’t actually remember praying this prayer at bedtime– partly because it seemed morbid and the stuff of nightmares more than peaceful rest.  Thankfully, my parents taught me more about praying than just this little prayer.  We learned the Lord’s Prayer, and to lift up our friends and family to God’s care.  We prayed for family stationed far from home, family members who were ill or suffering in some way, and for neighbors and classmates we cared about.  We prayed for missionaries and the people and places that called them far away.  We prayed for our nation and leaders. And we prayed confession, and thanksgiving, and worship, and intercession.

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But I was reminded of this old prayer when I watched a video our aunt sent us the other day.  It was a short documentary about a nature photographer who spent over 18 months building up trust with a wild cheetah in order to get “close up” shots of her in the wild– hunting, eating, resting, bathing.  All was going well, until she disappeared on him.  Several months later, a park ranger located her– and her five newborn cubs.  The photographer knew he was taking a huge risk, but he drove his jeep (known to the mother cheetah), and went to the area where she was now caring for her young.  He got out of the jeep and sat down in the grass nearby.  Mother cheetah was nervous, but did not attack.  Hoping this was a good sign, the photographer did the unthinkable– he lay down in the grass, helpless, to show that he was not a threat.  As he moved from the sitting position, the mother cheetah stood up and watched.  As he lay sprawling on the ground, she too lay down, letting her cubs know that they were free to explore.  They came over to the photographer– they bit at his toes, climbed all over him, and let him pet them and poke at them with his finger.  He never sat up, lifted his head, or played rough with them.  He never grabbed them by the nape or spoke.  When they got tired of “the new thing” and returned to their mother, the photographer was able to sit up, move close to the family, and take some incredible photos of the whole group.

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Why did this remind me of a child’s prayer?  The photographer kept saying in the voice-over that it was all about trust– he was patiently building a relationship with this single cheetah for over a year and a half, showing her that he could be trusted.  And he was rewarded by her reaction when he signaled that he wanted to be close to her cubs.  His act of lying down and essentially putting his life in the balance caused her to respond with a similar act showing her trust was complete.  And her act of trust signaled to her cubs that this “new thing” was safe to approach– he could be trusted.  A mother cheetah in the wild can run faster than a sports car and kill without a second thought to protect her young.

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But she lay still and rested in her trust of this man.

How often do we “lay down” in our trust of God– stop brooding, worrying, fidgeting, and fighting to make sense of things, to build a safety net, to get ahead, to keep up with the neighbors, to feed our dreams and aspirations?  The Psalmist in Psalm 23 says, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures…”

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Trust isn’t just about lying down and resting– we are commanded to “Go” to “run the race” and to “stand firm in the faith”.  But what would it look like if people could see followers of Christ at rest in the certainty of God’s provision and power?   What if we opened our eyes to see God patiently building a relationship with us, waiting for the day that we would trust Him enough to enter our daily life?  How much more might our children learn to trust God if they saw parents who followed God’s cue to lie down in peace and hope, instead of scurrying around trying to do God’s work in their own (used up) energy?   What if, instead of praying with a morbid expectation of dying, we lay down to sleep, knowing that our soul is eternally safe, and that our future is secure and blessed because of the One who hears our prayer?

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“Now I lay me down to sleep;
I know the Lord my soul will keep.
If I should live another day,
He then will light my every way!”

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