I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.
The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.
In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.
And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.
But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.
So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”
Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.
May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!
I wanted to take a break from writing about Biblical characters and their prayers to revisit an important aspect of our prayer journey. Prayer can be formal, informal, structured, rote, spiritualized, meditative…it can be done silently, in tongues, standing, kneeling, or prostrated. It can be public or private. But it should continue throughout our days and years– it should be a natural and vital part of every day, permeating every event and activity.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we stop everything we’re doing and spend our lives in constant bowed-head, closed-eye prayer or reciting psalms and hymns instead of working, driving, eating, sleeping, and interacting with other people. But it does mean having a “prayer attitude”– an awareness that God is everywhere with us and closer than our next breath, ready to communicate with us– a readiness to share our every thought, and listen for God’s gentle whispered response.
I was reminded of this in a strange way just today, when my cell phone started ringing while I was working at church. Cell phones are everywhere these days, and that can be a great thing, or a curse. For many of us, the cell phone is within arm’s length 24 hours a day. Anyone with our number can contact us at any time. Likewise, we can whip out the phone to call, text, take photos, or check email any time during the day or night.
Today, when my cell phone rang, I ignored the call. I was busy with something I considered far more important. In fact, I was disappointed in myself for leaving the ringer “on,” instead of putting the phone on “vibrate” or “mute” mode. But I had to make a choice– leave what I was doing to answer the phone, ignore the call altogether, let the caller leave a message for me to deal with later, or answer the phone and try to do two tasks at once. I don’t like being interrupted by my cell phone, but I carry it with me, because I don’t want to be without the ability to call for help or to get an important message.
We don’t think of carrying our cell phones as an impossible burden. Each day we make choices to use this tool (for better or worse) to keep in touch with family, friends, clients, business contacts, and much more. Sometimes, we resent the way it intrudes on our life and other times, we let it get in the way of our life! In fact, we could (and some of us remember when we had to) get along without cell phones (and internet, and other technologies), but most of us choose to carry our phones wherever we plan to go. Why then, do we not choose to “carry” an attitude of prayer the same way?
God wants to be closer than our cell phone– there with us as we go through our days– ready for us to call on him, or “vibrating” to get our attention when He has a word for us. We don’t always have to be staring at our phone to have it handy. Just having it with us can make us feel more secure and confident as we face an uncertain situation. Similarly, having an attitude of “prayerfulness” will make us more aware of His presence as we face uncertain circumstances.
But we have to make sure that we don’t “mute” the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives, or let our prayer life get “drained” by busyness or lack of connection to power sources, like the Bible and Christian fellowship. Nor should we take the power of prayer for granted, grabbing it and stuffing it in our pocket or purse out of habit, without understanding that it is an amazing treasure and a lifeline.
Prayer is so much better than any cell phone, of course. God is never too “busy” to answer our call. There is no need for “cell towers” to get good reception. There are no monthly fees, connection fees, telemarketing schemes, “robo” calls or “phishing” scams. Prayer can’t get a cracked case or get “out of range”, or become obsolete after several years! And God wants us to carry on with our other tasks as we carry Him with us! We can lift up another person even as we are speaking with them or getting a text message from them. We can raise a prayer of thanksgiving even as we get the test results we were hoping for (or ask for strength when the results are what we feared). We can ask for forgiveness even as we become aware of our sin. We can ask for extra grace even as we are dealing with that difficult customer, or patient, or student.. God is always on the other end, waiting to listen and be part of the ongoing conversation of our lives!
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
We don’t normally spend much time studying Samuel’s father, Elkanah. Yet the story of Hannah and Samuel begins with this man. Not only that, but it begins with a lesson in his genealogy and heritage. We learn that Elkanah was from Ramathaim (a town in the hill country of the tribal lands of Ephraim). As a Zuphite, however, Elkanah (and thus his son, Samuel) were also descended from the Kohathites, and were of the Levitical priestly line.
Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. We don’t know why Elkanah had two wives, but we know that the other wife, Peninnah, had children; likely several (see verse 4). Hannah, however, was barren– and this was “because the Lord had closed her womb.” There is nothing to indicate that this a result of any sin on the part of Hannah or Elkanah–there is no reason given for God’s decision to keep Hannah from becoming a mother. There is also no reason to believe that Elkanah was angry or disappointed or embarrassed by Hannah’s condition. In the society of that time, a man could divorce his wife for minor offenses; in this society, barrenness would be seen as a major defect, a stigma, and grounds for divorce. Hannah faced the possibility of rejection, abandonment, and condemnation from her husband. Yet Elkanah loved Hannah, and honored her with a double portion for their yearly offering.
Even with a loving and supportive husband, however, Hannah is inconsolable. And it is here that I think many of do a disservice to Elkanah. The Bible tells us that Peninnah taunted Hannah and drove her to tears. When she would not eat, Elkanah asked some basic questions. Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? and the one that always makes me cringe– Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?
These questions always bothered me. It seems to me that Elkanah is either clueless or in denial about the bitter rivalry going on under his very roof. And his questions seem to underline his ignorance.
A closer look at the context, however shows that Elkanah may be more a victim of our modern cultural understanding than a victim of his own deficiencies as a husband. It says on the day that Elkanah was to sacrifice– an indication that he was inside the tabernacle and on duty –that Peninnah was taunting Hannah. If Elkanah was ignorant of the torment Hannah faced, it may very well be that it was being kept from him by Hannah herself. As a woman, I’m also guilty of expecting that my husband will “pick up” on non-verbal clues, or otherwise intuitively “understand” why I am depressed, or tired, or angry. Husbands, as loving and attentive as they may be, are not mind readers, and I have been guilty of making mine play a frustrating guessing game as he seeks to offer help. Men are also more likely to start by asking questions to “get to the root” of the problem, when we are seeking comfort and understanding, before we seek a solution. Elkanah and Hannah are no different in this respect than most of us today. Hannah is not a superwoman–she cries at the party and won’t eat. Elkanah is not a superman–he can’t “fix” Hannah’s sadness, nor can he feel the total depth of her despair. Finally, Elkanah asks a question that gives us a window into his own secret anguish. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I want to rest here for a minute. I think we tend to get caught up in the words, and miss the heart of this plea. What is he really expressing? I don’t think Elkanah is trying to exaggerate his worth, nor is he trying to minimize Hannah’s desperation. But there is a heartfelt cry to be “enough.” So many times, when we face infertility, miscarriage, or the loss of a child, we focus on the mother’s feelings of loss and emptiness. In this story, we look at Hannah as being an outsider in her own family– the wife who “can’t”–the one who is in distress. Elkanah’s question may even seem insensitive and arrogant. Listen to it again, though, and you can hear the broken heart of a man who loves his wife, even as she is pulling away and allowing her grief to consume her. “Don’t I mean more to you?” “Am I not enough to keep you from despair?” Yes, Elkanah has children with Peninnah, but he longs for happiness and fulfillment in his relationship with Hannah. The Bible never says how many children Peninnah had, but it seems clear that in Elkanah’s eyes, Hannah was worth far more than “ten sons.”
I am broken as I think of times when I have been so consumed in my own grief and “neediness” that I have pushed away those who love me most, shutting them out, and making them question their own worth.
How many times have I done the same to the Lover of My Soul?
How many times do I focus on the one thing I don’t have, or the two annoying people in my life, and ignore the blessings God has poured out? When was the last time I made an extra effort to communicate to my husband how much he DOES mean to me, instead of leaving him to wonder? How many tears have I poured out with my face turned away from my Loving Father?
Hannah’s husband asks some leading questions– they lead Hannah to collapse before the only one who can bring healing and joy. Hannah’s prayer comes from a point of being broken– far more than needing a child, Hannah needs the love and understanding her husband longs to give her, and the joy and blessing her Heavenly Father has been waiting to offer.
We know the end of this story– God opens Hannah’s womb, giving her and her husband a son who will go on to play a key role in Israel’s history and God’s story of redemption. He continues to bless Hannah and Elkanah with other children, and, hopefully, a renewed relationship of joy and commitment.
May our prayer journey today lead us toward the Love of our Good Father– whether from a place of brokenness, need, confusion, joy, frustration, or victory.
My husband and I are licensed amateur radio operators. This weekend, we participated in an exercise/contest known as “Field Day.” Every year for Field Day, tens of thousands of radio operators across North America spend twenty-four hours trying to make as many radio “contacts” as they can, in conditions that mimic being “in the field” or off-grid. Many groups, clubs, and even individuals will set up in camp sites, open fields, county fairgrounds, barns, sheds, and other locations. Some will use their radios on generators, batteries, solar power, or the lowest power settings available. Some will have campfires and cookouts; others will order in pizza, but all of them will be seeking to make radio contact with people from all over the continent.
To make an official “contact,” certain key elements have to be exchanged. Every licensed amateur operator has a “call sign”– a unique identification code. There is also a “report”, telling how many radio stations are being used by the group, and what kind of conditions and power supplies are being utilized. Finally, there is a section code, telling where the station is located. Most codes are similar to the two-letter state codes used for mailing letters, GA for Georgia, CT for Connecticut, BC for British Columbia. All three elements must be sent, received, and understood by both operators to qualify for a “contact”. In other words, if I am listening, and I hear an operator in Texas give his call sign, his report code and his section code, it doesn’t count unless I know he has heard my information, and he knows I have his. Only if both parties have exchanged and verified all information can the contact be “logged” and counted.
Communicating via radio is an amazing experience, even in this age of cell phones, and Skpye, and social media utilizing satellites. Knowing that your voice is being carried by the thin air and transmitted to someone across miles using simple machines that use less power than a desk fan or a microwave oven is mind-blowing. But on Field Day, it is even more miraculous to listen as thousands of voices are carried simultaneously. The radio hums and crackles with the static of ten thousand tongues all trying to get their message out–“Here I am!” “Can you hear me?” “Did you get my message?” “Where are you?” “Who are you?” Letters and numbers and codes all mingle and form a messy barrage of sound. Voices, beeps, pops, whistles, and more assault your ears, before you can tune into just one understandable voice. There is a thrill in hearing that lone voice calling out their message..they could be anyone from any number of places. You get ready to respond, and then you hear it—static of a hundred other stations trying to get through. All those radio waves carrying the hopes and messages of a hundred or a thousand others just like you, wanting to make contact; wanting to be heard and understood.
Sometimes, miraculously, you get through on your first try– you send your call sign, and the other operator repeats it back, telling you it’s ok to send the rest of your message and receive his/hers. The two of you exchange the three elements, sign off, and you can tune to another frequency and try to make another contact. Most of the time, though, you spend several minutes calling out your ID, hoping to be acknowledged, only to listen as others get to make their contact, waiting your turn. Even more frustrating, as you wait, sometimes the atmospheric conditions change and the voices all fade out into a low buzz of static– the contact opportunity is lost. Conditions may change in another minute– or an hour– or not at all. I may hear from someone in Alaska, or Vermont, but I won’t be able to count them as a contact this year.
Field Day is exciting; sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating. There is a thrill to making a contact and finding out that you’re talking to someone from Alberta, Canada, or South Florida, or Rhode Island, or the San Joaquin Valley in California. It’s exciting to make a contact, and realize it’s someone you know from a neighboring county! We have a logbook program on our computer that “shades in” the various sections as you key in a contact, so our map becomes colorful as the contest period continues, and we tense up to see if we can fill in most of the sections– can we “get” Hawaii? Nova Scotia? Wyoming? South New Jersey? Will the weather and atmospheric conditions cooperate? Sometimes a series of thunderstorms or solar flares can break through or distort the radio waves and make it impossible to stay tuned in long enough to send and receive even a short message. Sometimes, you can make clear contacts with certain regions and not with others, even ones close by– one year, we got zero contacts with a neighboring state, while getting several other regions hundreds of miles away!
While Field Day is exciting, and it serves as a great way to test and practice with radio equipment in case of a nationwide or region-wide emergency, it is still just an event–a single 24-hour period of making contacts with complete strangers (in most cases) for a couple of minutes.
Prayer is a thousand times more amazing than Field Day for a number of reasons. Think about it:
God is ALWAYS listening–twenty-four hours, seven days a week, every moment, every year of our lives.
God is ALWAYS tuned in to our cries– there is no distortion, no static. He hears millions of cries simultaneously and with perfect clarity.
We don’t need a “call sign” or identity code. God knows each voice intimately..He doesn’t have to ask us to speak louder or more distinctly. He doesn’t hear an “accent” or lisp, or rasp in our voice. He doesn’t have to ask us to repeat our request three or four times because He didn’t understand us the first time.
We don’t need a section code– God knows where we are better than any GPS system every invented. We can’t hide from Him, and He isn’t surprised to find out where we are, or where we came from. He already knows where we are and where we’re going!
Our messages can be as personal and as lengthy as we want. God doesn’t need to “hurry up” to get to the next person’s request, and He wants to hear all our thoughts and needs.
Prayer is not an event or a contest– it’s not a practice run–it is an actual conversation with our Loving Father!
You don’t need a license, or a radio, an antenna, or a microphone to contact God!
We can pray for others anywhere, anytime, for any reason, and God already knows the details– where they are, what their needs are, and what is best in the long run. Just as He already knows us intimately, He knows the needs of everyone we’ve ever met– and everyone we haven’t met yet! Some groups will have made upwards of 500 contacts over the course of Field Day– God can make millions in the same moment, and not miss a single one!
God doesn’t want to make contact with us to fill a quota for a contest; He doesn’t want to hear from us because it’s thrilling to hear from someone new. He wants to have a relationship with us– filled with love and trust and hope and joy. He doesn’t just want a Field Day with us– He wants Eternity!