It is not popular to write about weakness. We all have moments when we feel weak, overwhelmed, defeated, and depressed. Sometimes, we are just physically exhausted, and emotionally drained by the piling up of little stresses and routine tasks. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by loss or grief, guilt, or worry about situations beyond our control.
We want such feelings and situations to go away, to be replaced by peace, comfort, and contentment. And while well-meaning people tell us that “this too shall pass,” or “God has a plan,” or “you will get through this– I’m here for you,” we are still weak, weary, and worn down by the struggles of the day.
Jesus gave some incredible and inexplicable advice to people who would follow him. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 28-29 from the Christian Standard Bible via biblegateway.com)
The first part of his advice offers great comfort– “come to me…and I will give you rest.” But then, without even a breath, Jesus tells us to take up his yoke! A yoke does not seem to offer rest– I want the burden to be GONE–I don’t want to put on a yoke like an ox or a plow horse. How could this be comforting or restful?
But this is the promise of God– not to make all our burdens disappear (though he often chooses to give us total relief from a particular burden)–instead, He asks us to put on his yoke. He will share the burden with us, and He will teach us how to make the load bearable, even lighter, by following Him.
And, though we have moments of exhaustion and setbacks, God’s purpose is not for us to give up or be defeated by our circumstances, but to be victorious over them, and turn to Him. In order to “take up (his) yoke” we must take the burden off our own shoulders and give it to Him. He will distribute the load, direct our path, and set the pace. And not only that, He will take our hand and speak words of wisdom and peace as we carry the load together. And THAT is truly comforting!
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.
There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.
Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.
These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.
God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.” Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow! Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel. Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure. But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth! And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.
Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths. They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death! As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!
Today, I prayed. I thanked God for Who He Is, and I lifted up those who are sick or needy. I thanked Him for my family and friends, for the freedom to worship without fear, for His faithfulness in providing food and shelter and comforts. I asked Him for wisdom to guide me through the new week; that I would say and do things to bring Him honor and glory.
It was a nice prayer. A safe prayer.
I didn’t cry out my unworthiness, nor did I boldly rejoice in His Holiness, laid over me by His son’s blood. I didn’t plead with Him on behalf of the lost and suffering. I didn’t rage at the continued injustice and evil I see around me. I didn’t spend precious hours listening as He whispered assurances to my soul. I didn’t worship in the splendor of His Lovingkindness.
I got up from prayer, feeling mildly better– I had done my duty. I had spoken with God…or spoken AT Him…I left feeling unchanged.
I sat down to write this blog on prayer. God forgive me for thinking I have more to say to an unseen readership than to You, my Creator!
Walls, fences, borders, barriers– there are many reasons to build them, and many ways to view them, but they have only two sides, and we can be only on one side or the other. I enjoy visiting castles and forts, monasteries, and mansions. Nearly all have impressive walls. From the outside, they look imposing, intimidating, and often unfriendly (especially those with armed guards and cannons!). But inside, the walls provide protection, insulation from any outside threats, and often peace.
Most walls provide protection– from nature, from floods or winds, from predators, and from enemies. But there are a few walls that are built, not to keep danger out, but to keep people trapped within. Such walls are used to isolate, punish, and imprison.
God is described in the Psalms (and elsewhere) as a fortress, a rock, a safe place, a hiding place, and a sure defense. But those attributes and qualities are for those who chose to come inside the fortress; to ask for protection and defense.
Sometimes, we approach God as an adversary, rather than a defender and protector. We find ourselves on the outside, facing dangers unprotected and alone. The very walls that can shield us and give us peace rise up as barriers, We feel locked out and vulnerable. The only difference between peace and peril is where we are in relation to the wall. We are no stronger, our enemy is no weaker on one side or the other– only the wall makes the difference. And the level of peace and confidence is related, not to our own ability, but to the stability and strength of the wall between us and disaster. The higher and stronger the wall, the safer we feel.
Other times, we approach God as a jail-keeper. We have lived inside the walls, and resent His protection. We have forgotten, or we deny, that there is danger outside the walls. Or we assume the walls are too close or too restrictive to offer us peace. But God hasn’t built a wall to keep us near Him or to control us– He IS the wall, the fortress, the bulwark. To approach Him is to be protected. To resent His protection is to resent His very presence.
Earthly walls will eventually crumble and return to dust. Even walls that have stood the test of centuries, like the Great Wall in China, or the Tower of London, or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem– they are not perfect, nor will they last forever. But our Bulwark, our Sure Defense, will never fail. Not only will He never fail to stand, nor fail to protect us, He will never fail to let us in when we seek His salvation.
I love puns– friends from all over the world send me the craziest puns, “punny” images, silly videos, and awful jokes. Except for those that are patently offensive and find their humor at someone else’s expense, I really enjoy them all.
Someone has said that puns are the lowest form of humor, but I disagree. In fact, I often find that puns, like humor in general, can cause us to explore a serious topic in ways we would otherwise avoid. The image above tickled my funny bone, but it also caused me to think. Where is my Joy? Do I bottle it up and hide it down in my cart, or does it bubble up, iridescent and smelling of sunshine (and possibly lemons) from deep down in my heart?
Prayer is a serious topic, but it shouldn’t be joyless. Even in our troubles, we can be confident that we are loved, cherished, and precious. In our grief and sorrow, we are not overwhelmed (though it often feels as if we are) when we have this kind of joy. It will wash away despair, anger, doubt, and weariness, as it rises up. We pray for so many other things– health, wisdom, forgiveness– we should also pray for Joy. Not the false and fleeting joy of a silly pun, or the veneer of joy that lies and says that “everything is great.” We need the kind of joy that sings through tears, laughs at storms, defies despair, and shakes the rafters! And we need the quiet, blessed assurance that God is in His Heaven and even if all is not well with the world, God still has everything well in hand. Such joy, lodged deep in our heart and soul can keep us from buckling under the weight of loss, the exhaustion of stress, and the threat of chaos. We need a new “Dawn” of “Joy” (yes, I had to include another pun). We need to pray for joy. We need to cherish it. And we need to pass it on.
I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts. I want answers. So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions. Why is this person suffering? When will their suffering end, and how? Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?
God stays silent.
I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust. That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing. It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that). God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion. Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming. Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming. Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold. There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.
The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons. But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:
1 Corinthians 13:8-13English Standard Version (ESV)
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
God loves us with a perfect love. Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning. So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing. Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.
God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.
Our church held a hymn-sing and ice cream social last Sunday. It was an informal evening service, but we heard testimony of the power of hymns to shape our worship, and to help us remember scripture’s promises. We also had the chance to just “call out” a favorite hymn to sing together. We probably sang 15 or 20 hymns that night, and each one had special meaning to many in the congregation. We treasure certain songs, certain verses, certain stories– they feed our soul, encourage our heart, steel our thoughts, and pour balm on our wounds.
One hymn we didn’t sing the other night, though it is a favorite of many, was “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Sweet Hour of Prayer– lyrics and much more here In getting ready to post for today, I thought about this hymn. We treasure the thought of prayer being sweet and bringing relief, but do we treasure prayer enough to spend an hour or more at it? If I add up the time spent in morning prayers of devotion, grace at mealtime, evening prayers, and “quick thoughts to heaven” throughout the day, it probably adds up to an hour…but I spend more time writing about prayer each day than I actually spend practicing it. And when was the last time I got so caught up in prayer that I lost track of time and spent over an hour at it in one sitting?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21 KJV) This is true of our material treasures, but also our spiritual treasures, our thought treasures, and our time. When I hear “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” one of my first thoughts is always, “That would be nice, but I don’t have an hour to spend praying– I’d never get anything done!” But would I have said that about watching my favorite TV show? Spending an hour on Facebook or shopping at my favorite store?
God is beyond time– he’s not counting the hours, minutes or moments we spend with Him. But he feels our absence and our distraction just the same. He isn’t trying to pull us away from important things to waste our time– he wants to pull us away from the things that weigh us down, worry us, haunt us, and eat up the precious time He has given us.
I have found that when I feel “too busy” to spend time with Jesus, it’s a good time to pause and make time for prayer. When I do (and it’s not as often as I should), three things happen:
I want more! That time refreshes me, calms my spirit, and removes the burden of worries, failures, and frustrations.
I accomplish more–maybe it’s a case of God re-ordering my other priorities; maybe he just gives me the power to work more efficiently; maybe it’s a miracle–but I find that the “time crunch” I worried about seems to melt away.
Jesus becomes “more” to me– I grow closer to Him, and closer to the person He created me to be.
Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration. But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year. Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers. There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.
I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.). I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor. So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.
But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”
Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year. My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”
My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten. God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died. Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.” Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children. God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers. He sees you too. He hears you. He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.
More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort. He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace. He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love. God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.
God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.
Mother’s Day is coming, and I wanted to say a few words about the mothers in my life and their legacy of prayer. My Mom is a prayer warrior. I blog about prayer, and I pursue a better prayer life, but my Mom is a seasoned soldier, and the daughter of another mighty woman of prayer. Most of what I know about prayer, I learned through the examples of my Mom and Gram, but I have also been blessed by the godly examples of my mother-in-law, sister and sisters-in-law, aunts, cousins, and many more.
From my Mother, I learned to pray from the depths of my heart. I have seen and heard her pray through pain, grief, and despair– not just her own, but more often that of someone else. I have caught her holding back sobs over relatives and neighbors who don’t know or aren’t following Christ. I’ve seen her pause in silent prayer over the plight of a person who is facing a lost job, or chemotherapy, or a migraine. She very seldom offers to pray aloud,”in the moment”, but she prays fervently, nonetheless.
From my Grandmother, I learned to be patient and consistent in prayer. Gram was quiet and unassuming, but she had an unshakable faith. She prayed for years over situations that looked hopeless; often for people who or situations which never changed. I asked her once how she kept from getting angry and frustrated. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “We can’t change somebody else, and we can’t make them do what’s right. That’s not our job. Our job is to love each other, pray for each another, and let God deal with the rest.” She died never seeing answers to some of what she prayed for, but that didn’t stop others from taking up the banner, and it never stopped her from earnestly and joyfully “taking it to the Lord in Prayer.” She never gave up, never lost hope, and never stopped showing compassion.
There have been many other prayer warriors in my life– women (and men) of great faith who sought the Lord, and whose lives and words have had an unimaginable impact. My family, members of my church family, classmates and friends from school or college, neighbors through the years…some of them have held my hand and prayed with me face-to-face; others have prayed on their knees in private; some have prayed for special needs and circumstances; others have prayed at the Holy Spirit’s prompting, never knowing why, but bowing in obedience.
Praying mothers are a treasure. If you have one, or had one, don’t underestimate the value of her example. And don’t just say, “Thank you”…Pay it forward. Pray for family, neighbors and friends. Pray early, pray often, pray without ceasing. We all need more praying mothers, fathers, cousins, neighbors, co-workers, etc. If you did not have a praying mother, you have a golden opportunity to become that good example to someone else. You also have the opportunity to adopt a prayer partner– a surrogate praying mother–to pray with you and for you.