The Same Music

There is a story of a man who played his violin in the subway. He played a classical piece; and then another. He played for 45 minutes. Trains came and went. People rushed by. A few paused for a moment– some dropped a dollar or two in his open violin case.

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The same man played his violin later that evening in a grand concert hall. He was the featured soloist in a symphony orchestra. People dressed in gowns and suits paid a couple hundred dollars each for tickets to hear him play. They sat spellbound as his music filled the air. This was the same music, played by the same man, on the same violin as before. The only difference was how people listened.

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When we pray, we’re not praying to an audience of rapt listeners. We’re pouring out our heart to our Heavenly Father. And it is music to His ears! Whether we are praying through our tears in a lonely jail cell or a war-torn shelter, or praying in a grand cathedral, or on a yacht in the Mediterranean; whether we are praying in broken phrases punctuated by heartbreak, or singing praises– it is the same music to Our Father’s ears.

Others may judge our words or our lives to be worthless. Others may not bother to listen to us; they may even try to silence us or drown us out. But God is ready to listen even to our weakest whimper, or our loudest scream.

God sends us music in return– the smile of a neighbor; the sunlight breaking through clouds; that unexpected sense of His presence in the middle of the darkest night.

Are we listening? Or are we rushing to catch the next train?

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Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

I’ve been exploring the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and how I think they relate to prayer. Today, I want to look at the second one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4).

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I know a lot of people who are mourning. I know people who have lost loved ones to COVID, to suicide, to cancer, etc. I know those who are mourning the loss of a job or a house. I know those who are mourning the loss of health– either their own or that of a loved one. And I have been a mourner. I know those moments when the grief hits unexpectedly– a song comes on the radio, or a certain photo pops up in my Facebook memories; even the smell of freshly cut grass or the taste of popcorn can remind me of loved ones lost, and bring a tear to my eye.

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I also know the mourning that comes from regret– the painful consequences of ill-chosen words or reckless actions– even missed opportunities. Mourning is painful. It is uncomfortable. The world around us is made uncomfortable by our mourning. People spend billions of dollars and spend countless hours trying to avoid mourning; trying to deny, placate, drown, or forget their grief and sadness. We take pills, we binge watch entertaining programs, we run away, we distract, we seek to mask our feelings, suppress them, or eradicate them.

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Jesus calls on us to mourn. He wants us to bring all the ugliness of our grief and shame and give it to Him. He will not ask us to cover it up, or hide from it, or “get rid of it.” He will not tell us to “get over it” or “put it behind us.” Instead, He will comfort us. That doesn’t mean we will never again feel grief or shame or sadness in this life. But our mourning will be transformed into Joy. Joy is not the absence of, nor a denial of grief. It is the triumph of life over death; of hope over despair; of purpose over futility. We are not commanded to be “shiny, happy” problem-free people. Nor are we to let mourning and grief overwhelm us or turn us sour and despondent. Instead, we are to share our grief– and to share in the grief of others–just as we can then share in the comfort we have found!

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In the same way that the “poor in spirit” can embrace all the riches and glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, those who mourn can receive from God the kind of Peace that “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and the joy the “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) God does not want us to be forever depressed or wallow in our despair–but He also does not want us to pretend that we are invincible, or untouched by sorrow. Jesus wept. Jesus felt sadness and frustration during His earthly ministry. He was tired, He was misunderstood, He was betrayed. He suffered losses. And He grieved over broken relationships and the horrible consequences of Sin in the lives of those around Him.

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Those who do NOT mourn– who do not feel sorrow or regret or loss– will never know the healing power of God’s consuming comfort. They will never know the full measure of Grace. They will never cry out for it, never be surprised by the light in the darkness, never feel the joy of being held and cradled by compassion. And they miss out on the true Joy that comes from being comforted and being able to comfort others.

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So the question I have to ask myself today is– what have I mourned lately? When was the last time I collapsed under the weight of my own grief or shame, only to find myself upheld and wrapped in the arms of the Lover of my Soul? When was the last time I extended comfort to someone else by mourning with them?

Praying for Bahrain

I have never been to Bahrain. I know very little about Bahrain. All I know is that it is a small country in the Middle East, located on a series of islands in the Persian Gulf. But I prayed for Bahrain the other day. It’s on my prayer calendar/journal. Every day of the year, I have a nation, city, or geographic region (desert, ocean, continent) to pray for. It’s somewhat random, and personal–many of the “cities” are really local small towns or places close to my heart–and it doesn’t make my prayers virtuous or important. My prayers can’t “save” the world, or any corner of it, from natural disaster or political corruption, disease, or any other malady common to our fallen world. So why do it?

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First, because God loves and cares about the whole world. It’s easy for me to focus on my surrounding community; my state; my country. I know the people and language and culture here. But there is nothing exclusive about God’s love. Throughout the Bible, it is clear that our God is a global God. Sure, God “chose” Abraham and the nation of Israel to display His Holiness. But He also raised up other nations and leaders– Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba, Caesar Augustus–and sent prophetic warnings to Babylon, Edom, Assyria, Egypt, and many other nations who neither knew Him nor worshipped Him. I don’t know enough to know how many of the people of Bahrain are Christians, Muslims, Atheists, or any other religion. I don’t know how many of them are suffering from depression, domestic abuse, or disease. But I know that God knows– and cares. Even though I am praying “blind,” I am making an effort to “see” God’s heart for others.

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Second, as I pray for various nations, I become more interested in them. I learn more about them. I recognize them when they are mentioned in the news, or when I hear about people who live or visit there. Again, this doesn’t make me a better person, or my prayers better than anyone else’s–but it helps me be a more informed (and hopefully more compassionate) person than I was yesterday or last year.

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Praying for others reminds me of two important truths: I am very small in the scheme of things– one of more than 8 billion people on the planet! I cannot know them all; I cannot care for them all or influence them, or change their situations. But God can! I serve a God who not only knows all 8 billion individuals; He knows their thoughts, their pasts and their futures–He even knows the number of hairs on each head! The second truth that arises from that is that, small as I am, I am known by God. He cares about ME, just as He cares about each person that breathes. HE can change the small circumstances of my life, and the lives of those I know and love; AND He can raise up kingdoms and break down empires!

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Pursuing prayer is about following God. Part of that is learning discipline. God isn’t “grading” me on whether or not I pray for Bahrain, or Belarus, or Boston, or the tiny local town of Baroda. He isn’t going to turn His back on me if I don’t pray for any of these places. And He won’t love me more if I do. But I will get better insight into His character as I learn to pray faithfully, consistently, and compassionately for others– wherever they are.

Then, He Smiled at Me…

The story of “The Little Drummer Boy” is nowhere in the Bible. It is very unlikely that such an event ever took place. Yet it has become a classic Christmas song. I think it is easy for us to identify with the singer– a poor boy who wants to honor the Baby Jesus, but has no gift to offer. What he does have– a drum and the ability to play it– he offers gladly. He asks permission of Mary and she nods her consent. But the highlight of the song is when the Baby Jesus smiles His approval.

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At Christmas, we welcome a Christmas card-picture perfect stylized Baby Jesus, who smiles, never cries, charms all the animals of the stable, and merits the singing of angels choirs among the heavens. But we have a tendency to leave Him in the manger, where He can be a tiny miracle; a gift from God, bringing hope of peace on earth, and teaching us to give gifts and celebrate life.

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Somewhere along the way, our picture of Jesus tends to change. The adult Jesus is kind, wise, compassionate, and even passionate– but He is a man of sorrows. This is not “wrong” theology– the Bible describes Him as a man of sorrows; one who was despised and rejected by His own people, and condemned to die by those He came to save (see Isaiah 53). But we don’t tend to think of Jesus smiling, His eyes crinkled in a grin, dimples appearing as He delights in sharing time with us. Yet this is also Biblical (see Zephaniah 3:17).

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What an amazing image– Jesus, a radiant smile on His face as He listens to our prayers; a grin of delight as we speak words of encouragement to our family members and joyful greetings to those we meet throughout the day! Jesus smiling as we take out the garbage (without grumbling!); Jesus laughing along with us as we share treasured memories (or make new ones) with our kids; Jesus listening to our confession and responding with a warm smile of forgiveness and compassion; Jesus smiling as we sing along (maybe even a little off-tune) with one of our favorite songs on the radio, or tap our fingers on the steering wheel, or bob our head along with the rhythm, oblivious to onlookers!

We pray to the very Lord of the Universe– but He is not a stern and joyless God. Jesus wept while He was on earth (John 11:35)–but He also laughed, and ate, and hugged, and sang, and ran, and danced for joy! And He is no less joyful in Heaven as He watches over us. He delights in our smallest triumphs. He cheers us on in our battles every bit as enthusiastically as a fan cheering on his favorite sportsperson. And when we stumble, He is there with the kind of smile that welcomes us to get up and fall into His arms.

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There is only one thing we must do to experience His radiant and glorious smile– “Come!”

What Costs Me Nothing…

We’re coming up to Thanksgiving in the U.S. next week. Many families will sit down to sumptuous meals–turkey with dressing/stuffing (depending on what region you live in), pumpkin pies, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rolls or muffins, salads, mac and cheese, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and more. Some will settle in front of big screen televisions to watch American football, and parades crowded with giant balloons and marching bands. Some will have modest gatherings with family and friends.

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And the following day– Black Friday– they will rush to malls and giant box stores to take advantage of the spectacular sales. People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, all with the satisfaction that they might have spent a lot more if they had not braved the crowds and the 4 a.m. opening times (some will begin shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the “head start.” Others will stay comfortably and safely indoors and spend their money shopping on-line).

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All of this costs money, of course. But for many Americans, it is not a real pinch to celebrate Thanksgiving. And we will say “Thanks,” and count our many blessings. We will also give. Charities and organizations are already taking donations. We can give $10 at the store to help buy meals for the hungry. We can buy small gifts to be sent overseas or to be given to the children of those in prison, or those who are homeless. We can buy coats (or hats or mittens, etc.) for those who have none. These efforts cost some money, too.

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But how much of these efforts comes from true “thankfulness” and how much from other sources– pride or guilt or a sense of duty? For what am I truly grateful at Thanksgiving? Thankful that I have so much? Thankful that I have the power to help others? Thankful that I have the day off to go shopping?

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It is easy for some of us to be thankful and generous–in our own eyes. I can give with the click of a button, and money I barely know I have is taken from my bank account and deposited in the account of a charity I may know very little about. I never have to see the people who are helped, and I never have to see what they have suffered or how my gift makes a difference. In fact, I don’t really have to see whether my gift even arrives where I imagine or does what the charity has promised. Some organizations are more transparent than others, and more reputable or honest than others, but I can feel good just by giving. In some cases, I can “make a difference” without any cost at all– just “like” a certain site, or fill out a survey. I can “give” without even giving!

In recent years, however, I have been surprised by those who have tried to make me feel bad about giving. They are not angry because I have not given, or have given very little, or given to dishonest charities. No. One lady was outraged that I should give to an organization that sends toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to needy children in countries around the world. What caused her outrage? Three things–the toys were “too American”–the instructions were printed in English, or they were “frivolous” toys like jump ropes and “matchbox” sized cars and trucks. Also, some of the boxes and wrapping were printed with cartoon-like children, which she felt were “racist” in their depiction. Finally, the spokesperson for the organization had been portrayed by the media as narrow-minded and “hateful” toward the issue of gay marriage. Her solution: she was never going to give to such an organization. She was urging people to give to groups that were providing livestock, instead. Here, she felt, was a useful gift. Chickens, goats, cows–these were gifts that would truly make a difference. And such gifts can and do make a difference– in rural areas, where there is space and enough grass or other food to sustain such animals. Her gift will have little impact on a child living in Nairobi, or Tegucigalpa, or Kosovo. I am glad she has the means and the desire to give and to help. And the organizations who provide such gifts are worthy–I mean no disrespect to any of them. But giving should be a joyous outpouring of love and thankfulness, of compassion and humility. If that means helping a rural community get milk and meat, that’s wonderful. If it means sending a stuffed animal, some silly socks, and some soap and washcloths to Lebanon, that’s great, too. Even if I don’t like the wrapping paper…

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My point is that a lot of our “giving” has become more about virtue signaling than joyously sharing with others to meet their needs. It costs a lot more in money to send a goat to Peru. But it may cost a lot more in time and energy to spend a day serving meals at a homeless shelter, or volunteer to rebuild in a community hit by a tornado or hurricane. And even though there may be a monetary cost to some of our gifts, in some ways, our “giving” costs us nothing. Not just little or nothing in dollars and cents, but little in emotion or thought or effort. There is nothing personal, or heartfelt, or sacrificial about some of our giving.

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And if that is true of our giving to strangers, what does that say about what we “give” to our families, our neighbors, and to God?

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During the reign of King David, there are many instances of celebration and thanksgiving. But there are also stories of heartbreak, loss, and repentance. In one of these incidents, King David angered God by taking a census. His conscience caused him to ask God’s forgiveness and ask what could be done to take away the guilt. God sent the prophet Gad to give David three choices, but David left it in God’s hands. God sent a vicious plague that swept toward Jerusalem. When the angel of death reached the threshing floor of a man named Araunah the Jebusite, God told him to stop. David could actually see where God had stopped the plague, and immediately went to buy the threshing floor, so he could build an alter and sacrifice to the Lord in repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.

Read more about the story of David in 2 Samuel 24
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King David had plenty of money. He also had authority, and the respect of his people. Araunah offered to give David not only the field, but the oxen to make the sacrifice. As the king, David could have taken the land and oxen– he could even have demanded them of Araunah. But David paid for it all, saying that he would not give to God that which had cost him nothing.

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In this season of giving, it can be tempting to measure the value of our gift by the monetary cost, or by the value WE receive from giving. But true giving should involve a willing and joyful sacrifice of our pride and our time. Sometimes, this may mean NOT giving a toy or a goat–it may mean giving an apology, or a second chance, or being willing to give up a turkey dinner or a shopping trip, in order to visit a shut-in, or spend some much needed time on our knees.

Having said that, there are plenty of things we can give that cost us “nothing”–smiles, a warm welcome, a listening ear, reaching out for reconciliation, and most of all, a heart-felt “Thank You.” Sometimes, these gestures cost us nothing– sometimes, they are a sacrifice. But they are gifts that really make a difference.

Casting All Your Cares..

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

1 Peter 5:6-7 (ESV)

I grew up hearing the verses above, especially verse 7– it was a memory verse in Sunday School and Bible School. It was the subject of many a sermon. I have known these verses most of my life. But I started thinking about them differently in the last week or so. The verses haven’t changed. Even in different translations, the familiar words are almost the same..”cast your cares:” “give your worries;” “cast your anxieties…” “ON HIM.” Over the years, those words created an image of me handing over a bundle, or passing off a heavy coat into the waiting arms of Jesus. There is nothing wrong with this image, but I think there is more to this verse.

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Peter–the author of this Epistle, was a fisherman. And one of the things I’ve learned being married to a man who loves to fish is that the “cast” is very important. No fisherman simply drops a line or a net into the water at random. Instead, he or she takes aim and hurls the net or line away from themselves and the boat (or dock or fishing platform). A good cast is intentional, directional, and takes commitment. And then, the fisherman, having made the cast, waits. Sometimes, it may take several “casts” before the fisherman gets a good “catch.” But a bad cast– or an impatient caster who can’t wait, but reels in and casts without intention– rarely gets good results.

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I’m afraid I’ve learned more about fishing in the past few years than I have about trusting God in a lifetime. All too often, I try to bring my cares and worries to God in pieces and parts, in short bursts and limp tosses. I do not “cast” my cares on Him– I try to hand over those bits I know I can’t handle, and explain away the rest. Or I try to drop my net close to the boat. And if I don’t get an answer on the first “cast,” I give up, and reel all my cares back in, or wear myself out with fruitless prayers about the same worries, as if God didn’t hear or couldn’t understand them the first eight or nine times!

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Casting our cares is more than just “handing” them over to God. We can hurl them, fling them, throw them, and toss them into the sea of His compassion and wisdom. As often as necessary, as desperately as necessary, as committed to getting rid of them as a fisherman is committed to getting a big “catch.” And we can trust that, at the right time, and in the right way, God will send us the “catch”– maybe not what we expected or imagined, but what He knows is best.

Fishing trip (with our daughter and some of our “catch.”)

Peter was a fisherman. After he walked with Jesus, he became a “fisher of men.” He learned how to “cast” all his cares on the one who performed miraculous deeds– walking on water, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead–even helping Peter and his friends catch fish! I’ve learned a lot about fishing. It’s time I learn more about “casting” my cares on my bountiful Father!

Receiving Back the Dead

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25-26 (CSB)
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Jesus knew Lazarus was already dead when He set out for Bethany. He knew of the illness in time to save His friend. Yet He delayed. By the time He arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days, and was already buried. What comfort could He offer the grieving sisters? What could He say to explain His delay and seeming unconcern?

This year, we lost a lot of friends, neighbors and family members. Many others were suffering. We prayed for them all– we prayed for healing; we prayed for miracles. And God performed some miracles– people who were on life support and people with “incurable” cancer were released from the hospital and pronounced “healed.” But others died, even with all our prayers. And even more died suddenly before we could even seek God’s favor and healing.

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We mourn the loss of these loved ones. We miss their presence at gatherings; we miss their laughter, their wisdom, their “life” in our midst. But we do not mourn like those without hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13) Death cannot separate us from God, nor can it separate us from any of His family.

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This is more than just “keeping” someone alive in our memory. There is a sure hope that we will be reunited– that we will “receive back” those who have passed on (and others will receive us after our own deaths). What does this mean? I don’t expect those who have died this past year to be resurrected in their old physical bodies or walk out of the grave as Lazarus did. But I have the assurance that they are “alive” in spirit, and that we are all part of God’s eternal plan to be together with Him forever.

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That’s an amazing promise for the future, but it also impacts the present as I face my current grief. I don’t just remember loved ones “as they were.” I can look forward to knowing them “as they will be.” The many wonderful memories I have of our time here will be eclipsed by the wonderful moments to come! And it gets even better–those who died when I was young; those who died before I was even born–we will be “reunited” as well.

This brings up another question– what about those who are not “saved?” We grieve now for them, but won’t we be missing them for eternity? I can’t give a definitive answer to that question, but I can say that there is a comfort that transcends all that we know in this life. God can redeem our memories and our emotions, including grief. Jesus came to defeat Death and Sin. His work of redemption continues, but the Victory is already won. If you are struggling with grief in this season, I pray that God will help you “receive back” your dead– that your heart would be at peace as you remember and give thanks for the moments you shared. Let God’s promises and His comfort flood your heart. And remember that God’s compassion is to share your grief as well as your joy. Jesus wept when He came to Bethany– even though He knew that Lazarus would live again! He comforted Martha and Mary in their grief BEFORE He raised Lazarus. He can do the same for each of us.

If You Only Knew…

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)
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The Pharisees in the New Testament seem to spend a lot of time judging and criticizing everyone. They rail at Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, they grumble about His disciples not following the ritual hand-washing customs, and they are constantly critical of Jesus for “hanging out” with sinners and undesirables. We shake our heads and lament how narrow-minded they were. But I have to wonder what would happen in today’s world if Jesus were walking among us today. Would He “hang out” at our churches? Would He praise those who spend their time pointing out the hypocrisy of others? Would He be a “social justice” warrior?

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Many of Jesus’s miracles were done quietly and without pretense. No one criticized “what” Jesus was doing. No one said, “you shouldn’t be healing people,” or, “how dare you turn water into wine.” Instead, they criticized “how” Jesus did His miracles and what He said about Himself, others, and God. In the book of Luke, we have a story that doesn’t even involve a miracle. Jesus was invited to be the guest of a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t turn down the invitation. He didn’t start out criticizing the host or the food. But when a woman crashed the party– a woman known all around town for her sinful ways–and made a scene, Jesus didn’t recoil in horror, order her to leave, or stop her from making a fool of herself. The Pharisee, believing that he had “unmasked” Jesus as a charlatan, concluded that Jesus didn’t “know” what sort of woman she was. But Jesus, breaking His silence, ended up “unmasking” the Pharisee, instead.

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Jesus “knew” what sort of woman made such a spectacle of herself–one who needed compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew exactly “who” and “what” she was. But He also knew who created her, loved her, and wanted to redeem her to become someone better. Moreover, He knew what kind of man Simon (the Pharisee) was. He started out with a parable about cancelled debt and a question. Simon answered the question correctly, but he had missed the point. Simon “knew” the woman was a sinner; he didn’t recognize that he was a sinner, too! Simon thought he was smarter and holier than Jesus. He didn’t know himself, and he didn’t recognize Jesus as God in the Flesh.

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How often I make the same mistake! I think I “know” who God wants me to love and honor– those who say all the right words and wear the right clothes and belong to the right church. But if I want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I will have compassion on the people who most need it; I will be ready to forgive those who owe me the most; I will spare judgment where I do not “know” all that God knows about someone else.

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It is easy to lift up in prayer those I admire; those to whom I am already close. It is more difficult to pray for those who persecute me, or taunt me about my belief in Christ. It is difficult to withhold judgment about why they may dislike me or why they distrust Christians in general. It is tempting to pray for their “exposure” or punishment, rather than their well-being. It may be unpleasant to spend time with them or take them seriously. But it is essential that I do, with God’s help, what I would not do in my own pride and limited knowledge. Otherwise, like Simon, I am showing only how little I love the one who died for me– and the person I choose to hold in judgment and contempt.

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I have a lot of work to do in this area. Just today, I read a news snippet about a political office-holder; one with whom I heartily disagree. My first instinct was to pray that she be ousted from office in the next election, and publicly scorned. And perhaps that will happen. But my first priority should be to pray that she would be protected in her current role as public servant, and that God would give her wisdom and discernment in the months ahead. Not because she is a “better” person; but because Jesus died for her. If she were the woman in this story, would I be another Simon the Pharisee? I pray not.

We Like Us

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I’ve been very blessed with a large extended family–in-laws, cousins, step-cousins, half-cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, second cousins–well over 600! (and counting). I’ve spent a lot of time recently attending family events, and each one has been happy, encouraging, and invigorating. I know that is not always the case in families. Some families argue; some won’t even speak to each other. And there is not perfect harmony, even in the best of human families. We’ve had divorces and divides, too; but mostly, as my one cousin is fond of saying, “We like us.” We like belonging to a family, but even more, we like belonging to our family. As our family grows, it is becoming more diverse, and we like that, too. Many years ago, most of our family members were farmers from a small area in southwestern Michigan. Now, our family includes truck drivers, mechanics, teachers, architects, coaches, doctors, office managers, car salesmen, nurses, dispatchers, accountants, chefs, shopkeepers, ministers, photographers, cosmetologists, pet groomers, medical transcriptionists, cinematographers, artists, dancers, contractors, factory workers, and yes, some farmers, too. We have family members with varying skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, and differing physical and mental abilities. And we LIKE “us.”

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Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a family– it is made up of many members, but we are all brothers and sisters “in Christ.” And, like a family, we are supposed to like “us.” More than that, we are supposed to LOVE one another! We are to be there for each other, in good times and bad; in mourning and in rejoicing. “For better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..” It shouldn’t matter if our brothers and sisters live close by or halfway around the world; whether they belong to our local congregation of “that other church across town.” And it SHOULD matter when we see some of our family members being persecuted or facing hardship while others live in comfortable apathy.

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But Jesus went even further. We are to love those who are not “US.” We are to show love and mercy to those who don’t “belong.” We are to reach out to those who dislike, despise, and even persecute us. The way we treat each other as “family” and the way we treat those “outside” will either attract or repel others, and it will show whether or not we have learned to love as Jesus did.

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God “Likes” us. He wants to share life with us –any of us who will respond to His call. And God LOVES us. He treats us with the same compassion and love, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, or how we’ve responded (or failed to respond) to His outreach.

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Clearly, there are those who do not like us; who do not wish us well. And God does not call us to be victims, dupes, and doormats for abusive relatives or strangers. We are to Love– but wisely, and with the strength of God. Liking someone does not obligate us to betray our conscience, or enable abusive and immoral behavior in others. Loving someone may mean setting boundaries where they are needed. But it also may involve tearing down false walls of fear and “inconvenience” that we’ve been using to excuse action.

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Who can we reach out to this week, extending the kind of welcome and acceptance we give our family? How can we begin seeing more of “us” in the people we meet, and less of “them?” And, if there are family members (either our birth families, or our church families) with whom we have a broken relationship, are there ways we can make a move to try to mend fences? How can we set wise boundaries, while tearing down false ones? One sure way is to begin praying– pray for those we meet, whether or not we consider them “family.” Pray for those who have hurt us– and those we have hurt. Pray for those who seem different and hard to understand or accept. Pray for God to bless them, encourage them, meet their needs– Pray that God will give us wisdom, opportunities, and strength to reach out.

Face to Face

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The other day, someone complained that she couldn’t “hear” me because we were both wearing face masks, due to COVID restrictions at the doctor’s office. I remarked that the masks didn’t cover her ears, but I know what she meant. Not only did the mask cover my mouth, which limited my volume, but, more importantly, it covered the lower half of my face, so that she couldn’t see my lips or read my facial expressions. Nor could I see hers. It is terribly frustrating to be sitting half-face-to-half-face!

Effective communication is up to 90% non-verbal! That means facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, etc.. When we cannot see fully “face-to-face” we lose a lot of our ability to understand and interpret what someone else is saying– even if we can hear the words.

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The same is true in communication by phone or social media. Someone can read my words or listen to me talk, and still be confused about my meaning. Am I being serious or sarcastic? Am I fully engaged, or just “throwing out” words? How can I know if someone has understood what I’ve said or written?

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We crave the intimacy of “real” communication– talking and being “heard;” listening and being engaged with another person’s thoughts and feelings. Knowing that someone else understands and sympathizes. Someday, our human limitations will be removed. The Apostle Paul writes about it this way:

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.

1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)
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The Apostle John also comments:

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

1 John 3:2 (NKJV)
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What an amazing promise! The next time you are having a “face-to-face” conversation with a friend, imagine what it will be like to be able to talk and share that kind of intimacy with God! And then, when you pray, remember that God ALREADY sees and hears you with perfect clarity and understanding!

There is a flip side to this, however. Imagine that your thoughts and “hidden” comments are also uncovered and known by all. One of the dangers of living in a digital, global age is that we feel free to post our immediate thoughts and feelings without regard to how they may be received and interpreted. We post things and say things that we might never say “face-to-face.” We spew out indignation, sarcasm, arrogance, snide criticism, and offense, assuming that others will admire our cleverness or our virtue, rather than seeing our selfish conceit and our rush to judgment. We spill out all the supposed “wrongs” done to us, but we excuse our own wrongs and failings– even brag about them.

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Someday, we will see how very hurtful, selfish, and short-sighted we have been– and so will everyone else. This will shock or embarrass many of us, but God will not be surprised or upset– He has already known the worst about us. And He still listens to us and speaks words of compassion that we often ignore or dismiss. Someday we will not only hear the words, but see the compassion, love, and mercy in His eyes as they meet ours.

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That’s the image I want to take into prayer today– and every day. Even though I can’t see it today, it is already eternal reality!

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