Panic, Prayer, Praise, Peace!

Philippians 4:6 New International Version (NIV)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A6&version=NIV

I hope that today will be filled with peace, joy, and blessing for anyone reading this. But I know that today will bring bad news for some, pain for others, and hardship for many. Life is filled with struggle, disappointment, failures, and loss. Our first reaction is often to worry, which can lead to more worry, and a sense of urgency, even panic. In many cases, we have neither the resources nor the wisdom to overcome our struggles–even sustained effort or a “lucky break” may leave us without much hope. And the more we worry, the less we accomplish. But telling ourselves (or others) to simply “stop worrying” doesn’t banish worry; sometimes it increases it! Now we worry about worrying too much, or we find new things to worry about.

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But there is a time-honored and proven pattern that can help. Jesus spoke of it in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew 6, He gives us this advice:

“So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:31-34 (NIV)
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The Apostle Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Philippian believers. He told them to be anxious for nothing–that regardless of our situation or circumstances, we should not panic, but pray (seek God’s grace, righteousness, wisdom, and help). But more than that, we should present all of our prayers, petitions, and requests with thanksgiving and praise!

This is not the same as pretending that our struggles don’t exist, or that they are not important, or that we are glad about the pain, uncertainty, or hardship that they bring. Instead it is lifting our eyes to Heaven and finding that God is bigger than it all; that His grace, His strength, His wisdom is sufficient for the next step– for today’s worries–for today’s battles and burdens.

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This doesn’t happen naturally or automatically–we must seek, pray, pursue righteousness, ask for help, and continue to stand firm. There are some who point to the words of Jesus, or of Paul as a kind of “magic formula.” If we repeat a few promises from the Bible, or if we pray certain prayers, or convince ourselves and others that we have “enough” faith, God is obligated to change our circumstances and give us the resolution or relief we want. God is not primarily interested in our relief– He is interested in our redemption, our renewal, and our eternal reality. In following this pattern of turning our panic into prayer, and our prayer into praise, He promises that we will experience His peace. Our panic will be transformed–even if our situation stays the same; even if it gets worse before it gets better!

So how do we practice this pattern; how do we train for this transformation?

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Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Start by seeking God with abandon–pursue Him with your whole heart– thank Him for who He is, and for all He has done. It can be helpful to review some of the names of God–I AM, Almighty, Creator, Lord, King of Kings.. Or read a Psalm or find a song that reminds you of God’s character and power. Think of the times when God has been faithful in your own past.
  • Find something about your situation for which you can be thankful– genuinely thankful. Years ago, when I was young and single, I was laid off from my first full-time job after nine months. Was I worried? Yes! Where would I find another job? How would I pay my bills? But I resolved to start being thankful about all I had learned on the job– I had met new people, learned new skills, purchased a car…God knew my needs for the future, and even though I had to wait another eight months before I found a full-time job, I was able to find temporary work and interview for other jobs in the meantime. And I had friends and family who offered good advice and encouragement along the way. I know some situations are more painful and perplexing than the loss of a job. When I my father died, nothing made the pain less, but I could thank God for Dad’s life and the time we had with him. This is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be…It may not happen for days, or weeks–don’t give up!
  • Cry out to God– in praise, but also in petition, pain, confusion, confession, and raw emotion. God wants a real relationship with us, and that includes walking with us in the “valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t have to fear evil, or worry about the future, not because it holds no danger or dread, but because we never have to walk alone and defenseless!
  • Remember this is a pattern to follow, not a pill to swallow–none of this comes easy, and God’s peace is not an instant “fix.” Instead, it is a growing conviction that God is who He says He is– faithful, loving, victorious, eternal, and sovereign. Such peace defies our panic and erodes our worry, leaving us ready to face the battles before us, and move forward through the struggles.
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It is not will power or a change of circumstances that brings incomprehensible peace. It is not magic– it is Majesty!

The “if” at the Center of Life

The English word “life” has only four letters, but the central two form another word– “If.” Life is all about making choices–and facing the consequences of those choices. Often we focus on those circumstances over which we seem to have no choice–I didn’t “choose” to be born, to be born female, to be born into the family or community where I grew up. I didn’t choose to be short, I didn’t choose the color of my eyes or skin or hair (though my hair color has changed as I get older!)

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But those are circumstances– they are not my LIFE. My life is made up of thoughts, feelings, actions, attitudes, decisions, and interactions with others. The color of my eyes, my lack of stature, or my family name does not determine my attitude or my inner beliefs or the way I treat others. Who I am is determined by the choices I make– to be proud, to believe that I am superior (or inferior) to others; to choose hope and courage or to wallow in worry and despondency; to make the most of my time, or to waste it; to envy others or be grateful for all that I have; to obey or defy; to take care of my body or make unhealthy life choices; to be a good steward or be wasteful and destructive; to show love or to withhold kindness; to forgive or to hold a grudge; to seek God for his love and mercy, or to blame God for every challenge I face. Every choice (and its consequences) is woven into the fabric of my earthly life– every reaction to bad circumstances, every investment in future goals, every moment spent “just vegging”, every secret habit I continue to indulge..

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The word “if” can hold great promise or regret– we can get lost in speculating, “if only…” or we can try to bargain with ourselves or with God, “if…then.” God gives us life, and He gives us “if”– the freedom to choose how we will react to our circumstances; freedom to choose how we will live our lives; the freedom to seek Him; the freedom to serve Him (or not) with all the unique gifts and passions He planted in each of us.

Life is filled with “ifs”– good and bad. “If’s” are conditional and have consequences. God’s love is not an “If.” It is unconditional, eternal, and immeasurable. Accepting it, however is conditional–it is the greatest “if” in the center of our life!

Lord, help me make good choices– choices that reflect the love and mercy You have shown; choices that bring You honor and glory. Thank you for making the choice to send Your only Son, that whoever (including me) believes in Him should have everlasting life!

Let Nothing You Dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour

Was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy;

O tidings of comfort and joy!

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We celebrate Christmas–we play music, dance, laugh, hang up festive decorations, feast, and exchange gifts.  But for many years, Christmas was a holiday overshadowed by Advent.  Advent is all about preparing for the coming of Messiah, much as Lent is about preparing for the crucifixion and resurrection of Good Friday and Easter.  Advent can be a joyful time, but it can also be a time of fear, darkness, and atonement.  Added to that, Advent comes during the darkest months of the year for the northern hemisphere; the farther north, the darker it gets in December.

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The early Protestants, especially the Puritans, feared the admixture of Christian teachings with pagan rituals associated with the Winter Solstice, and in doing so, they smothered much of the joy and celebration that had come to be associated with Christmas.  However, certain songs and carols survived.  Among these was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  The title and many of the lyrics seem strange to our modern ears, but the title simply means, “may God keep you merry (or happy, blessed, joyful, even hearty or healthy), Gentlemen (and Gentle Ladies).”  It was a blessing sung by peasants (or the local watchman) to their local lords and ladies, but it was also an excellent and joyful summation of all that the season really means.  (See more explanation of the origins and meaning of the song here..   https://www.carols.org.uk/god_rest_ye_merry_gentlemen.htm     www.acecollins.com/books/storiesbehindchr.html  )

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Advent IS a good time for reflection and preparation, but it should also be full of joyful anticipation.  Christmas, and all that follows, is all that the angels heralded– good news of great tidings.  And the Gospel is news of comfort and joy!  Not the temporary comfort of a warm fire or the fleeting joy of a delicious feast in the company of merry men and women.  Christmas offers the comfort of knowing that Christ has fulfilled the ancient promises– He has come; he has lived among his own; he has defeated death and the grave; he has risen and ascended!  There is nothing left to fill the Christian with dismay or terror.  It is fear and pain that are temporary–life and peace are eternally promised for those who accept the good tidings!

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This life will still hold pain, grief, injustice, and darkness– but it is not inevitable and it will not prevail!  God is greater than our most pressing problem, deeper than our grief, wider than our capacity to stray, and more powerful than Satan’s thorniest snares.  Christmas Day reminds us of these truths, and allows us to live in true love and brotherhood with those around us, no matter our current circumstances.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

During this season of Advent, we often sing this ancient hymn.  It dates back nearly 900 years, and continues to be sung and/chanted in Latin.  https://hymnary.org/text/o_come_o_come_emmanuel_and_ransom

The hymn is a contrast of weary longing and hopeful prophecy.  The promised Messiah has not yet arrived, but his coming is sure, and cause for great rejoicing.

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The hymn is also a prayer– pleading for the coming of Messiah, even as it comforts with the reminder that he WILL come.  And it reminds us of the power of prayer– not just the power of approaching Almighty God, but the power of acknowledging our longings, our needs, and our dependence on God.  Even in our darkest hours, even in captivity and oppression, we can have hope in God’s timing and wisdom.  He DOES see our struggle; he DOES care, and he WILL send hope and rescue.

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But the song also points out a pitfall–in the first verse, the prayer is for Emmanuel to rescue Israel from Roman Occupation; to end its immediate plight of being politically and economically oppressed.  There were many people who saw Messiah, heard him speak, even felt his touch, who rejected him because he did not do what they were expecting.  There are many today who cannot believe in Jesus Christ because he doesn’t take away their current circumstances of pain and suffering.

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In their narrow focus, people miss the greater miracle of what Messiah is all about.  Jesus did not come to free us from temporary troubles and trials; to make us comfortably apathetic or arrogantly victorious over personal poverty or sickness.  He came to free us to be able to overcome our circumstances to offer hope where there seems to be no hope.  He came to show us that our circumstances don’t define us or cut us off from God’s love; that our past is not more powerful than His forgiveness and power to heal; that even suffering and oppression can be endured with joy, even as we work together to overcome them.

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This season, as we sing this hymn, I pray that we would see the continuation of this prayer.  Emmanuel HAS come– Jesus not only came and won the victory over sin and death on Calvary; he has commissioned US to be the bearers of the Good News.  There are dark places in the world praying for hope and rescue to COME.  Will we share the love of Christ in our own neighborhoods?  When we bear the name of Christ, we should be on mission to rescue those who are captives, not of Rome, but of Sin and the tyranny of Death.  So that we all can  know the reason to Rejoice! Rejoice!

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