Praying From the Ash Heap

Last week about this time, I was miserable. Feverish, achy, somewhat nauseous, and doubting my own sanity. I had chosen, along with my husband, to get the COVID vaccine– even though we already had the disease earlier this year! We should have a built-up immunity, and medically, there is no compelling reason to get the vaccine and take the risk of suffering all the symptoms I suffered last week.

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Fever and pain have a way of making people cranky, impatient, and rebellious. Especially when they come as a result of trying to do “the right thing.” I was reminded of the Biblical character of Job, who suffered intense pain and suffering through no fault of his own. While my suffering was nothing compared to his– or to many of those who have suffered worse from COVID than I did– it brought some of the same thoughts and complaints. “What did I do to deserve this?” “Why me?” “Don’t you care about my suffering?” “How much longer must I be in pain?” “Wouldn’t it be better if I could just escape this fever and achiness?”

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Most of us are not “good patients.” No one likes to suffer, even for a short while. And it can be easy to let our pain determine our prayer life. Our focus narrows to our own circumstances, and how we wish them to change. We tend to go to God with indignation–how could He let us suffer like this?! And yet, even in his indignation and self-centered moaning, Job never lost sight of God’s essential goodness and justice.

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Job’s friends started out with a sincere desire to offer help and comfort. They heard of his sufferings, left their homes and traveled to visit and comfort their friend. When they arrived, they wept, tore their clothes, and sat, silent and supportive, for seven whole days! (Job 2:11-13) This is in contrast to Job’s embittered wife, who told him to “curse God, and die!” There is no other mention of her throughout all of Job’s suffering–which may have been one of the unheralded mercies of God!

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Job’s conversation with his friends may not sound much like prayer, but we see into Job’s heart and mind through these conversations. As his friends remind Job that God is Just, and that He punishes those who are wicked and rebellious, Job defends himself. But he also defends God–God IS Just; but He is also merciful and loving. What is happening to Job is not consistent with all that Job has experienced of God. In fact, it seems capricious and unfair. Job’s confusion and his questioning are not only coming from his pain and suffering, but from his surprise at God’s silence and seeming absence. Job’s friends see Job’s circumstances as confirmation of his sin. But though Job is confused by sudden change of circumstances, he is convinced that God will continue to be Just– that He will hear Job’s complaint, even if He has decided against Job for reasons Job may never understand. In fact, Job is still convinced of God’s goodness, declaring that “I know my redeemer lives…I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me..” (Job 19:25-27), and that “the fear of the Lord–that is wisdom”(Job 28:28)

When we face the “ash heap” of despair, pain, grief, and doubt, whether we are isolated or surrounded by well-meaning friends, we have a choice in our response. We can praise God from the ashes, we can bring Him our doubts and questions. Or we can “curse God and die”– choosing to see only our circumstances and losing sight of who God is (and always has been).

The same God who brought David and I through our bout with COVID brought us through last week’s reaction to the vaccine. He is the same God who has comforted families who lost loved ones to this disease, and who has kept still others healthy throughout this crisis. I don’t know why or how we got sick back in February; I don’t know why I had such a bad reaction last week. I don’t know what the future holds, or what other pains and struggles we may face in the weeks and months ahead. The same God who finally appeared to Job–even though He never answered Job’s questions!–is the same God who holds the universe in His hand. He is the same God who never lost sight of Job. He is the same God who parted the Red Sea, healed lepers and kings, raised the dead, and promises everlasting life with Him.

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So I may not know what troubles I will face tomorrow, and I may not have the answers to all my questions. But, like Job, I know that my redeemer lives! I know that whatever happens, God will remain Faithful, Good, Just, and Holy. And one day, “I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me”!

“He Didn’t Come For Me…”

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how much I love the book/movie, “The Princess Bride.”

At one point in this fractured fairy tale, the title character, Buttercup– THE princess bride, is waiting to be rescued by her true love, Westley. She has supreme confidence that he will rescue her from having to marry the evil Prince Humperdink. But Humperdink is equally confident that Westley will NOT come– because he knows that the wicked Count Rugen has (supposedly) killed him! As the stuffy archbishop pronounces Buttercup and Humperdink ,”man and wife,” Buttercup is stunned. She keeps repeating, “He didn’t come for me.” She cannot imagine a future in which Westley does not show up and save the day. Her hopes are shattered, and she walks in a fog to the bridal suite, where she prepares to kill herself in despair.

I don’t want to give away everything, but Buttercup’s plans take an unexpected and miraculous turn before the end of the story.

I was reminded of “The Princess Bride” yesterday morning as I sat with my husband, trying to figure out what was happening with his blood pressure. He and I have been battling COVID, and he spent a week in the hospital. He has been home for several days now, and has been improving steadily, until early Sunday morning, when his blood pressure started rising. There were no other symptoms, and we consulted a doctor, who talked us through a course of action, but there was little to nothing they could do for him at the emergency room, unless he had chest pain, paralysis, or a splitting headache, which would indicate possible heart attack or stroke. We increased his oxygen intake level, kept his legs elevated, and his blood pressure came down.

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Then, last night, it happened again. No warning; no other symptoms. We made sure he had plenty of oxygen, elevated his legs, continued doing what we had done in the morning. Slowly, the blood pressure reading came back down– still high, but not dangerously so. We’ve prayed for healing– dozens of other family and friends have prayed for healing. Everything seemed to be going fine– why this? Why now?

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It is so tempting to imagine our story will be smooth and predictable– even when we have a struggle or set-back– to believe that better days and easier times are just around the next corner. And when it doesn’t happen the way we hope or expect, we want to question God– “Why didn’t you come?” “Why did you delay?” “Why didn’t you send word that I would have to go through this?”

But God HAS sent word– there are dozens of examples in which God delays, or simply does not send a swift and easy rescue. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son– and then delayed 25 years! On top of that, God asked Abraham to take Isaac, the son of the Promise, to be a sacrifice! God showed up–just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son. God rescued Abraham and Isaac from their ordeal, but it was a nail-biter! (See Genesis 12-22)

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God rescued His people from their slavery in Egypt, and led them straight into a trap! Caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, the Israelites seemed to be sitting ducks. How could they have imagined that God would open the sea so they could cross on dry land? Having been rescued in such a miraculous way, the Israelites should have had absolute confidence in God– but instead, they complained about food, complained about the leadership, complained about the weather–even as they could see God’s presence in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night! God rescued them over and over again in the midst of their struggle (and their lack of faith!). (See the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

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Daniel was taken into exile as a teenager– over fifty years later, after God had protected him and put him in a place of great power and prestige, Daniel was set up by his enemies and condemned to be eaten by lions. God did not rescue him by removing the lions or overturning Daniel’s sentence. Daniel had no reason to know that God would rescue him at all. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s way was to shut the mouths of the lions– something ONLY God could do–proving to Darius, to Daniel’s enemies, and to all who heard about it that God was more powerful and more loving than even our wildest imagination. God rescued Daniel through his harrowing experience– and even brought judgment on Daniel’s enemies in the process.(See Daniel 6)

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And the list goes on– Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, kings like David and Hezekiah, the exiles of Israel, the Apostle Paul, Queen Esther, Simon Peter, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the martyr Stephen. Many of these people went through famine, disease, prison, death threats, and even death itself! Yet God preserved their stories for OUR benefit. God reassures us that He is the God of the living and the dead– death cannot stop true love (another of my favorite lines from The Princess Bride)! Nothing can separate us from God’s loving and wise and perfect care!

I don’t know what today will bring for David and me. I don’t know if we will have to return to the hospital, or if they can help restore his blood pressure to “normal.” I don’t know if I will have a sudden relapse or complications from COVID. I don’t know what future changes, adjustments, or griefs we will have to bear. But I do know this– God is with us!

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Sometimes, God rescues us FROM a situation; sometimes He rescues us IN a situation; and sometimes He rescues us THROUGH a situation. We don’t know how God plans to show up and work in our lives over the next weeks. But we know we can trust Him to do what only God can do, and faithfully see us through the rest of our lives.

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I pray that if you are facing unexpected difficulties today, that God will cause you to be strengthened and reassured. He loves you. He sees you. He knows where you are, and, better yet, He knows the road ahead!

Where Are You, God?

I’ve missed posting a couple of blog posts this past week. My husband and I have been ill. We both came down with COVID, and my husband ended up in Hospital for a week with COVID-related pneumonia. As I write this, he is scheduled to be released to come home, where he will continue to recuperate. I will be finished with my quarantine period, but I am still recovering, as well.

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It can be very tempting in times of sickness or unexpected struggles to ask, “Where are you God, in all this?” And, while some would say it is not appropriate to question God, I think this is a good question to explore. There is nothing wrong with the simple question, if you are seeking an honest answer. Here is part of the answer I’ve received over the past two weeks:

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  • Where: I know all the “correct” and spiritual answers– “God is everywhere, omnipresent.” “God is seated on His Throne.” “God is right beside you, and His Spirit is within you…” These are big answers, true and Biblical. But they can be very cold comfort when you see your husband struggling to breathe, or when you are exhausted and frightened. God is omnipresent, but He is spirit– invisible and undetectable through our physical senses. We can “know” He is present, but we can still question His “Presence.”
    But when we are seeking His presence in the question, there are so many wonderful and comforting answers. God IS Everywhere– so that even when my husband is miles away in a hospital room and I am alone in our apartment, God is in both places at the same time, providing rest, wisdom, and healing! God IS on His Throne– orchestrating timing and people to offer their skills, advice, services, prayers, encouragement, and more. David and I have been sick, and even in danger, but God did not abandon us. He provided for us to be able to get David to the hospital at the right time; He provided friends and family to help us– even strangers to pray for us and encourage us. God’s Spirit gave us strength and courage to ask the right questions, make decisions, and trust Him through this process. And God will continue to be working within, and around, and through us as we continue to heal.
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  • Are: We may claim that God is omnipresent and omnipotent– always present and all-powerful– but often when things don’t go according to our plan, we question. Not so much where God is at the present moment, but where WAS He? Why didn’t He stop this from happening? And where will God be tomorrow, when the medical bills start to arrive? Doesn’t He know or care about the aftermath? The fall-out? When will my husband be able to return to work, if ever? How did we get exposed to COVID? Why didn’t God prevent it? How much more will we suffer?
    But once again, God IS omnipresent– not just in space, but in time. God knew this would happen long before we had ever heard of COVID. God has already seen the future play out. He knows the end from the beginning, and every step in between. I tend to get lost in all that I cannot see– past and future, why and how–but God is so much bigger than all that. There is NOTHING that can take God by surprise or cause Him to fail in His plans for us. God spends a great deal of time throughout the Bible reminding us of His promises; many of which are promises of His Presence, His Provision, His Protection, and His Peace. He never promised that our lives would be easy, problem- or worry-free, or boringly comfortable. Such lives don’t shape us or develop our character; they teach us nothing about God or ourselves. God wants us to have an abundant life– a life full of “LIFE”! And that means facing challenges that show us how to trust our Loving Father, and cause us to see the depths and breadth of His Love and Power.
  • You: God is Spirit; He is invisible and indescribable. Yet He is a personal God, and wants a personal relationship with each of us. It is easy to lose sight when I am worried or suffering– I forget the heights and depths of what God has done to pursue that relationship with me– ME! I never have to ask “Where is the God of the Universe?” I can ask, “Where are YOU?!” And even though God is Spirit, He also has a “body”– US! God is in the welcome voice of loved ones, and the hugs (even virtual ones during these days of quarantine) of family and friends. God is in the offers of help and advice from friends and strangers alike. God works through US to bring us together, to encourage, and strengthen, and guide us every day– on good days and difficult days alike.
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  • GOD: Illness gives one plenty of time to think, reflect, and meditate on God. It is a stark reminder that I am NOT God (and never could be, thankfully), and that God knows and always does BEST, even when I can’t see or understand. I know many thousands of people have not survived their COVID journey– they didn’t recover; they lost their husband or wife or other loved ones. God doesn’t stop being God when we don’t get a “happily ever after” ending. Some day, David and I will each die. We will leave or be left behind by other loved ones. God is still GOOD; He is enduringly FAITHFUL; He grieves WITH us, just as He rejoices with us. He SUSTAINS us, and He REDEEMS us.
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Where are you, GOD? YOU are everywhere, always, and perfectly where and when and how YOU should be. And I will praise YOU!

When Christmas Wasn’t Merry

I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.

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But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.

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Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.

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There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)

And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)

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Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!

God Is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep..

It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.

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It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.

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The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.

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GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.

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EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.

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The Long and Winding Road

Joseph and Mary traveled dark and dangerous roads to reach Bethlehem before the birth of the Baby Jesus. The wise men made a long journey to see the newborn king. The entire nation of Israel spent more than 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, Jonah, the Apostle Paul…there are many tales in the Bible of long journeys to unknown destinations and unknown outcomes.

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Traveling can be exciting and adventurous, but it can also be filled with detours, setbacks, and hardships. Traveling means being away from our comfort zone, our “safe” place– even if our “safe” place isn’t really safe. Travel often means going into the unknown, especially if we travel alone or travel against our own will. Where does this road lead? Who will I meet along the way? Where will I stay at night? Will I get lost? Will I get delayed? What if I get sick or hurt or attacked? Will I find my way back home? Can I feel safe in a new home, among unknown people and circumstances?

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Jesus was born “away from home.” The first people to greet him were not grandparents or giddy relatives or neighbors, but shepherds– unnamed in scripture, unknown to his parents. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say much about Jesus being close to an extended family– his own small family always seemed to be on the move! Later, Joseph was told to take Mary and the child to Egypt; another long and unexpected journey, another long and winding road.

As an adult, Jesus was also “on the road” for much of his ministry. Long dusty roads leading to Galilee, or Jerusalem, Jericho, or Bethany.

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At times, it can seem like our “roads” in life are long, winding, dusty paths leading to strange new places– lonely, rambling trails or busy superhighways taking us where we don’t always want to go. But we don’t need to fear traveling– even if we have to walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” God is always with us. Just as He was with Mary and Joseph on the long road to Bethlehem, where there was no room for them in the inn. Just as He was with Jesus on the lonely path in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the big fish!

As we await the Advent of the Christ Child this year, it is likely that most of us have been on a long and winding road. Though many of us have been prevented from physical travel to foreign lands, we’ve traveled on an emotionally and even spiritually exhausting road in 2020. Chaos, corruption, COVID, elections, “executive orders”, economic collapse, lock-downs, lawlessness, and loneliness–we seem to have traveled a lot of miles, and most of them have been perilous and unfamiliar. But God has a plan, and a destination. The journey may not make sense right now; it is not the journey we would have planned; not the journey we would have chosen. But let us follow it to Bethlehem– to the Manger– to the Cross– and finally, HOME!

I Hate Waiting…

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” It’s a quirky movie, based on a novel by William Goldman. It’s part fairy-tale, part satire, part warm and funny love story. In it, one of the characters, Inigo Montoya, is impatiently trying to track down his father’s killer, the vicious Count Rugen. Ironically, to fund his quest for revenge, he takes a job working as a mercenary for Rugen’s mentor, Prince Humperdinck. Part of his job is to kidnap Humperdinck’s fiancee, Princess Buttercup, and kill the mysterious man who is trying to rescue her. When the mysterious masked man climbs the perilous Cliffs of Despair, Inigo waits at the top to challenge him to a duel.

But Inigo is impatient. He calls down to the struggling masked man. “I do not suppose you can hurry things up a bit,” he suggests. He even offers to help the man–“though I do not think you will accept my help, since I am only waiting to kill you..”

Inigo is not cut out to be a vicious mercenary– clearly– because he befriends the masked man before their deadly duel (which doesn’t result in anyone’s death). He even waits–yes, WAITS– for his opponent to get rested and prepared before the duel begins. Inigo may hate to wait, but he has developed the gift of waiting for others when it really counts. (A skill he demonstrates elsewhere in the tale.)

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What does any of this have to do with prayer? We are entering a season of Advent. It is a reminder that the whole world waited impatiently for the coming of the Messiah. Centuries of impatience; centuries of expectation, centuries of waiting for a coming Hope.

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We will spend a few weeks waiting– and it may be made more anxious because of COVID–waiting for presents, or to reunite with family. And we all hate waiting. We are uncomfortable with delayed expectations, and uncertainty in our immediate future. Even with the joyous anticipation that Christmas brings, the period of Advent can be nerve-wracking.

Inigo Montoya spent years anticipating and “waiting” to exact revenge for his father’s death. He hated waiting. But he used that time wisely. In the waiting, he prepared. He studied the art of sword-fighting. He searched far and wide for his quarry. His life revolved around this less-than-holy goal. And, though he “hated” waiting, he waited for decades, never giving up, and finally, achieving his goal. Along the way, he made many mistakes, but he also made friends, and avenged his father’s honor.

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This Advent, we “await” the coming of the Christ child. And, as followers of that same Christ, we await His victorious second coming. This is so much better than waiting for revenge. We wait for reconciliation, for restoration, and for renewed life! We have a great hope– the anticipation of Eternal Victory and Joy! How are we preparing? Do we spend our time complaining? Do we give up? Or do we seek diligently, not for a six-fingered man to kill, but for opportunities to spread the Joy and Hope we have found?!

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