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!

Abide With Me

Often, when I pray for those who are in pain or grief, I will ask, “God, BE WITH…” This is a natural desire, but in one sense, it is also superfluous. God is always with us; always present, no matter our circumstances.

So when I ask God to “be with” someone, I am not really asking that He stop whatever else He is doing and go to that person. He is already there. I’m not asking Him to become aware of their heartache or suffering; He already knows. I’m not asking that He do something new or different from His will or His plan. What I am asking is that His presence would be revealed in and through the situation– that my friend or loved one (or stranger whose needs have been brought to my attention) would have a supernatural sense of God’s abiding, powerful, compassion and grace.

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Intellectually, I can know that God is omnipresent and omniscient. I “know” that God is always with me. The Bible is filled with God’s promises to “be with” His people. (See https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/beautiful-verses-to-remind-you-that-god-is-with-us.html) But I also know, emotionally and experientially, that I don’t always feel His presence. I have moments of doubt and despair– I think all of us do. That’s part of the curse of Sin–being separated from the awareness of God’s continual presence. Even Jesus, as He was dying, felt the awful anguish of being separated from the Father, crying out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

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God promises each believer that He (through His Holy Spirit) will dwell with us. He will “abide” with us. But just like living with a spouse and other members of a family, there are times when His presence seems to be in another room; and we feel alone. There may be many reasons for this– sometimes, it is because we have walked away, or turned our face away. But at other times, we long for that closeness, that awareness that God is right beside us, only to feel that He is far away. As strong as that feeling may be, we need to remember that it is NOT the reality. God still abides with us. He is still present, even if He is silent.

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So, when I know that feeling, or when I know someone else is going through that feeling, I pray, not that God will come to us, or come back from being away, but that our awareness of God’s presence and closeness will be deepened or reignited.

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Someday, I won’t have to pray that prayer. Someday, and for all eternity, we will be surrounded by God’s Glorious Presence. But in this fallen world, what a privilege and hope to be able to pray to a God that abides with us!

His Eye is on the Sparrow

We had an unexpected visitor to our store the other day…a sparrow somehow managed to get inside our store over the weekend, after we closed on Saturday. We assume it found its way in through a small vent, in an attempt to get out of the heavy rain, and couldn’t find its way back out. We don’t know how long it was trapped inside, but by the time my husband found him, its leg was caught, and it was unable to fly away. It was scared, dehydrated, and weak. My husband gently and carefully extracted its leg, and I got a small dish of water. The sparrow was listless, and its breathing was shallow. We feared the worst. Putting small drops of water on his fingertips and holding it up to the bird’s beak, David finally got it to drink some water. After several attempts, the bird started perking up, and finally flapped its wings and flew off!

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I was reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 10: 29-31–Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

Source: https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Sparrows

Sometimes, we pray for guidance, or protection, or safety when we know we will be facing certain trials or long journeys. And we should acknowledge known dangers and our continual dependence on God. But how many times does God guide and protect us without our awareness!? How many times do we, like this little sparrow, find ourselves in an unfamiliar or dangerous situation and wonder whether anyone even knows where we are? We struggle, only to find ourselves caught– helpless and without much hope. God’s eyes are always on us– wherever we are, whatever our circumstances. His love is unchanging and sure. And sometimes, He sends help in the most unlikely ways and times. Sometimes, He chooses to work through US to help the most unlikely candidates– even a sparrow!

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God gave us the opportunity to save this little sparrow– and He gives us opportunities throughout each day to help those around us– to encourage, give, protect, defend, support, and even “save” them as the arms, hands, feet, and voice of God in the world. Similarly, He sends others to cheer us, to warn us, to come alongside us, and to “save” us when it seems like all hope is lost.

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Lord, for today, I pray that you will open my eyes to the “sparrow” moments– whether I am the one offering help, or the one who needs to accept it. May I see my worth, not in my circumstances, but in my relationship to you. May I see others as precious and worthy of care, respect, and love. Thank you for sending a little sparrow to remind me how much you love us all.

Praying in Heartbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the Poor, and Mean, and Lowly..

During this season, many of us spend time decorating–we add lights, candles, sparkling ornaments, and fragrant trees–we make our houses and yards festive and bright. And it is appropriate to do so, as we are preparing to celebrate the Light of the World, and the joy of Immanuel– God With Us.

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But it is also good to remember that God did not enter a world cleaned up, decorated, adorned, and prepared for Him. Jesus was born in a stable. Angels sang; prophets dreamed; the faithful waited and watched; but the rest of the world was distracted by a census, crowded streets, rude and grumpy neighbors, taxes, cold nights and endless bad news.

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Some of us put up elaborate mangers with beautiful figurines–robed Wise Men, earnest Shepherds, and the Holy Family; a few animals, and an angel or two– all clean and shiny and serene. In reality, it was likely crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, and cold. The Shepherd and Wise Men were not there at the same time, and the angels were not present at the stable.

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It seems obvious to say, but it’s important to remind ourselves that Jesus himself never celebrated Christmas. He never sang carols about His own birth; He never counted down the days on an Advent Calendar; He never decorated a Christmas Tree, or enjoyed a plate of Christmas cookies. Instead, He spent His life among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. He entered the lives of beggars and lepers and outcasts–and He brought light into their world. The Lord of all creation, who created galaxies of glittering stars, who commanded armies of angelic hosts–walked on dusty roads and had no home to decorate. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and showed compassion to those who were possessed by demons.

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This Advent season, as we decorate and prepare our homes for a warm and merry Christmas, may we remember to live among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. This year, it may seem more difficult, but it is not impossible to share hope and joy with those who need it so desperately. May we prepare our hearts as well as our hearths to accept the Light of the World. And may we reflect it into the world around us– more than ever!

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Holy God, you came in humility and compassion. You lived to serve, and you died to save. Show me how to love and serve in this season of darkness and fear, just as You did so long ago, that those living in darkness may more than just holiday tinsel and glitter. Amen.

Who Forgives All Your Sins…

Praise the Lord, my soul;

    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, my soul,

    and forget not all his benefits—

who forgives all your sins

    and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit

    and crowns you with love and compassion,

who satisfies your desires with good things

    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+103&version=NIV

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Sin isn’t a popular topic of conversation. Most of us would rather talk of victorious living; of accomplishments, righteous thoughts, life choices that “worked out” to our benefit. If we must talk of wrongs, we prefer to speak of “shortcomings,” or circumstances “forcing” us to make bad choices. We point fingers at those who could have/should have helped us, or warned us, or given us better guidance. We may even acknowledge shame or guilt for choices we’ve made, and speak of atonement, or lessons learned.

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But God has provided for forgiveness–not a denial of our guilt; not a “free pass” for our actions–something beyond our capacity to give or “earn.” God alone is capable of perfect judgment. He never makes excuses; nor does he accept them. He knows every detail of every choice you’ve ever made–the motivations, the circumstances, the alternatives–and He has the power to pronounce eternal judgment AND eternal forgiveness.

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We have a tendency to give partial forgiveness, because we do not have God’s perfect knowledge or judgment. We get trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame, or blame and bitterness, because we want to see a perfect justice that is often missing in our fallen world. We tend to forget the benefits of God, instead focusing on the deficiencies of ourselves and our neighbors.

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God forgives ALL our sins–but we must seek that forgiveness and accept it! God heals all our diseases– some of them here and now; others in eternity. God redeems our lives from Hell–something we could never do on our own.
God crowns us (read that again!) with love and compassion. He pours His love all over us– lavishly, unreservedly, undeservedly–and raises us up to eternal life.

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Why do we fear to confess our sins to such a Loving God? It’s not as though He cannot see or know them. It’s not as though He is powerless or unwilling to forgive them. He wants to remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (v. 12) And only He can do this. When we deny or ignore our sins, they are not removed, only suppressed. When we wallow in our guilt and shame, our sin is constantly present in our mind. Only God’s perfect forgiveness can free us to make courageous and compassionate choices, confident in His love and power to heal and guide us in His ways.

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Sin is ugly. And its power is too great for us to overcome on our own. Its consequences are deadly, and far-reaching– too great for us to make atonement in a lifetime. But its power is broken in the light of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The sentence is commuted. We are reconciled to the God of Holy, Righteous Perfection. The consequences now belong to Christ yoked with us, working in and through us. We cannot perfectly atone for our actions; but we can give the burden of atonement to the One who can– and the One who can give us His power to bring healing.

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Praise the Lord, O my Soul!

Walk Humbly with Your God

I’ve been looking at the prophet Micah’s words on how to please God. “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NKJV)

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Today, I want to focus on the last of these three “requirements:” to walk humbly with your God. As with the first two, this last requirement may seem simple and straightforward, but it is much easier said than done.

Let’s break it down to its component parts:

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  • WALK– this is another action word. “Being” humble, even acting humble will look good and may even impress others. But God requires that we walk in humility–daily, consistently, and deliberately act in accordance with our status vis-a-vis both God and our fellow human beings.
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  • HUMBLY–not in pride, but also not in fale humility or in humiliation and self-loathing. The late, great apologist, Ravi Zacharias, used to quote another great Christian apologist, Edward Musgrave Blaiklock: “God alone knows how to humble us without humiliating us and how to exalt us without flattering us.” We cannot walk humbly in our own power or insight or will. We cannot allow others’ opinions to determine the worth that God alone has given us. And we cannot allow our opinions to judge another’s worth in God’s eyes.
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  • WITH–we will never walk where God cannot go, or will not find us. But we can choose to walk apart from God; to ignore justice and mercy, or redefine God’s commands, or reject God’s grace and wisdom in favor of our own “moral compass.”
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  • YOUR GOD– we can believe ourselves to be walking humbly and justly in our own eyes; we can follow counselors or gurus, or “religious” leaders; we can make a practice of doing “righteous” actions, and still be practicing idolatry. We cannot please God if we don’t even know Him; we cannot walk with Him if he is merely an idea we aspire to worship. God does not want adulation from afar; He created us for intimacy with Himself and with each other. It pleases Him to be our Father– not our adversary.

All That Ever I Did…

I’ve always been intrigued by the story in John’s Gospel about the “woman at the well.” (John 4https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%204&version=KJV). Jesus and his disciples are travelling through Samaria, and they decided to rest near Jacob’s well at the town of Sychar. The disciples travel into town for food, leaving Jesus alone at the well. A lone woman comes along, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.

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This would seem to be an ordinary encounter, but there are many clues that tell us a different story. The woman comments that Jews don’t ordinarily speak to or interact with Samaritans. But even more extraordinary, most Jewish men would not strike up a conversation with a lone Samaritan woman, unless he meant to insult her or proposition her. The very fact that she is coming to the well alone and near noon (the sixth hour) puts her at a distinct disadvantage– most of the women would come early in the day to draw water, where their numbers offered protection and support, and the heat of the day would not add to the burden of carrying the water back home.

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At first, this woman seems both suspicious and dismissive of Jesus. Why is he asking for a drink of water? Does he want more than just water? Does he mean her harm? He seems thirsty, not threatening– but is he safe? Then Jesus throws a curve ball– he claims to HAVE water that brings total satisfaction and life. Water far better than any of the water he has just asked for! The woman’s tone changes from suspicious to sarcastic. And then, Jesus drops the bombshell– “Go, call thy husband, and come hither.”

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Aha! Here it comes… The woman admits that she has no husband. She has no protector, no status. NOW this Jewish man, this stranger, will take advantage. Or he will make improper advances. Or he will despise her even more. But instead, Jesus reveals her darker secret– she has had five husbands, and she is with another man who is not her husband. Maybe he is someone else’s husband. Maybe he refuses to marry her. Maybe he treats her badly– this man who lets her come to the well at midday with no protection and no helper. Maybe the five husbands all died; maybe she has been divorced or abandoned time after time. Jesus knows all this– yet he doesn’t call her names or look at her with disgust. He even commends her for telling the truth!

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I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would want to meet a stranger who know that much about me. I don’t want to be reminded of my failures, my bad choices, or my past sorrows or shame. Yet this was the heart of the woman’s testimony as she went back into town. “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?”

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For years, the profound nature of this encounter was lost on me. What is so exciting about someone who knows your dirty laundry and tells it back to you? There are magicians and illusionists, fortune-tellers, and charlatans galore who attempt to do such “readings.” How is it that this woman’s life could be transformed by such an unlikely and disturbing encounter? Why would she be so eager to share this encounter with all the men (or people) of her town– people who probably despised her?

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Because an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with pure and holy compassion. Jesus KNEW the very worst about this woman. He could have shunned her or avoided her. He could have railed at her about her lifestyle or her past. He could have treated her shamefully. Others almost certainly had. But Jesus didn’t just see all the things she had done, or all the things that had happened in her life. He saw HER. He spoke TO her, not at her or through her, not down to her, but face-to-face, and eye-to-eye. Knowing all about her status, he came to HER for help–knowing that she had something of value to offer–not to “put her in her place,” or use her, or demand that she serve him. Jesus welcomes us into the safety of His compassion, so that no matter what we’ve done or what’s been done to us, He looks us in the eyes and wants to be part of our story– part of “all that ever” we WILL do! And THAT is life-changing!

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How many people will I encounter today who are outcast, beaten down, shunned, and mistreated? What kind of encounter will it be? Will I see “all that ever they did” and dismiss them as unworthy of my attention? Or will I see THEM–uniquely created by God for a purpose; loved beyond all that I can imagine? Can my friends and family, neighbors and strangers feel safe and loved knowing that I know everything about them? Is it “Safe” to meet me at the well? I pray that God’s love will spill out and overflow to others as I go through the day. May He do the same through you.

Simple Prayers

I know some people who refuse to pray aloud in groups. Some of them are just modest or shy, or they get tongue-tied and feel awkward. But some of them refuse because they feel their prayers are “inadequate.” They wish their prayers were eloquent or flowery, righteous-sounding or inspiring, but they don’t believe their prayers are “enough.”

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But God listens with perfect ears. He hears beyond our words. Simple, humble prayers– spoken or silent–are His favorite kind!

We often waste our time trying to impress God (or others) with our words. But God isn’t waiting to be impressed– He’s waiting to spend real time with His child!

When children are first learning to speak, we delight in their coo-ing and lisping. As they grow, we sometimes tune out their babbling, their stories, their griping, and their whining. But as the years go by, we miss hearing their voices, and we long to have them call and talk to us– even for a few minutes.

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God never tunes out our babbling, but when we don’t pray, He misses the sound of our voices and the sharing of our thoughts, just like any parent would.

Never discount the power and the value of simple prayers. God doesn’t!

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