On Monday night, several strong storms moved through our area. There were also severe storms in other places, like Mexico City, and around Manila– high winds, heavy rains, hail, and flash flooding. Our town did not see much damage, but some nearby towns had many trees down and power outages, followed by near record-high heat.
Often when storms come, we question– “Where is God?” Doesn’t He see our suffering? Why does He allow it? We look for evidence of God’s goodness in spite of the storms in our life. We may even look for evidence of God’s goodness in the aftermath of a storm– “Well, it could’ve been worse..” But in the past couple days, I have seen evidence of people finding God IN the storm. At least a couple of friends were watching the storm approach and/or pass by, and they were able to capture a picture showing lightning striking through a rainbow!! Others have pictures of a glorious red sunset. Both pictures remind us of God’s faithfulness and His promises. God never promised that we would never see storms, but His rainbow reminds us that He will have mercy. A red sunset also speaks to sailors and farmers of better weather to come with a new dawn. God is not absent, waiting to speak after the storm is past. He is right there in the middle of the storm for those who are looking.
Another thing I noticed is that several people have become evidence of God’s care in, through, and in the aftermath of the storms. Several people have volunteered to help clean up downed trees, or offered to provide food and water, or even (air-conditioned) shelter for those without power. Many such people have suffered some damage themselves. But their hearts are open to help their neighbors in their time of need.
I don’t recommend that we put ourselves in grave peril to see signs in the raging storms, nor am I trying to shame those who cannot volunteer to help in times of crisis. When storms come, it is wise to take shelter and TRUST that God sees us, knows our greatest needs, and will not leave us without hope. But it is also a great time to look for ways we can both SEE God and SERVE others.
Praying can help us in both ways. We should seek to praise God at all times–even in times of storms and trials. Instead of focusing only on the problems we face, we can be reminded of all the times God has been faithful in the past and remember all the promises He has kept! Instead of focusing on our own losses or pains, we can focus on praying for the needs of others and praying for wisdom in how to be helpful and encouraging. Because God is with us. Always!
The same mighty power that brings the storm is available to withstand it. God IS present IN the storm, just as He is present before and after. Sometimes, we ignore Him during times of ease and comfort. Sometimes we miss His voice in the raging wind and pounding hail. Sometimes, like Jesus’ disciples, we forget that God controls the winds and waves, and we let fear get the better of us for awhile. We wonder if God is “asleep on the job.” (See Mark 4:35-40) But a single word is enough to calm whatever storm is raging around us.
What a powerful God! What an encouraging reminder.
I’m not talking about the current Queen of England–though it’s my understanding that she must, and does, pray as well as the rest of us. Sometimes we forget that even royalty have very human needs, and their power and authority, while greater than ours, is limited. God is still the ultimate authority. Instead, I’m thinking about the old testament Queen Esther/Hadassah.
Queen Esther’s position was one of great power– and of great peril. Her husband, Ahasueras, the King of Persia, had chosen her from among a host of women to replace the disgraced Queen Vashti. But Ahasueras was not a man of character and integrity. Vashti’s disgrace came after the King had been banqueting and drinking for a solid week, and this after six months of entertaining other heads of state! Ahasueras left the running of his kingdom in the hands of his ministers–even Vashti’s dismissal and Esther’s elevation were at the suggestion of the King’s counselors (though the King made the particular choice of Esther over all the other contenders). Ahasueras was unpredictable, capricious, vindictive, hot-headed, and easily led. He also had “unlimited” power– his word was, literally, law.
Even though Esther had risen to a place of prominence and (limited) power, she still faced danger, in the guise of her husband’s Prime Minister, Haman. Haman’s power was second only to the king, and he intended to use that power to rid himself of his enemy, Mordecai, a Jewish exile, who just happened to be the foster-father and cousin of Queen Esther! Not content with simply having Mordecai executed, Haman suggested to the gullible King Ahasueras that all the Jewish exiles throughout the kingdom should be slaughtered and plundered within a single day.
Queen Esther’s only option was to get the king to reverse his own edict– even if she managed to escape the genocidal plot, her silence would spell the doom of the entire scattered nation of her own people. Queen Esther could not trust in her own limited authority, nor in the beauty that had brought her to the throne. Only God could capture the heart and mind of such a king. Queen Esther began to pray.
And she didn’t just fall on her knees in silent despair She asked others to fast and pray for three days before she would approach the king. And she paved the way with another banquet, during which she flattered both the king and his arrogant prime minister before pleading for her life and the lives of her countrymen.
Esther’s beauty and grace alone were no match for Haman’s treachery. But God knew the end of this story from the beginning. Esther was in grave danger, but she was also in God’s loving and all-powerful hands. Esther is remembered for her bravery and poise in the face of Haman’s diabolical plotting, but also for her dependence on God’s power over her own.
What dangers will we face today? If Queen Esther needed to pray– and ask for prayer– in her situation, how much more should we be willing to do so in ours?!
Across from our shop, there is a mural that tells the story of the first “Orphan Train.” In October of 1854, 45 children– some orphaned, others abandoned–arrived in southwest Michigan from New York City. Conditions for such children in the large cities were dangerous. Floods of immigrants included children who had lost their parents on the voyage to America, or who had been separated from their families upon arrival. There were very few orphanages, and almost no resources dedicated to child welfare. Hunger, disease, crime, and exposure to the elements meant that many children never lived to maturity. Most of them lived on the streets; ignored, preyed upon, or simply forgotten. A group called the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, had tried helping children– especially boys–but their limited resources were overwhelmed within the first year.
It was the idea of a man named Charles Loring Brace that large numbers of these children could escape the dangerous environs of the city and find safety and hope in the expanding “West.” With the help of the new railroads, groups of children could travel west, where kind-hearted families could adopt them. Food, shelter, education, fresh air, opportunity, and a loving family- this was the promise of the orphan train. For some children, it was the start of a wonderful new life. For some, it was trading a hard life in the city for a hard life on the frontier.
I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for the first train-load of orphans to travel here. Few people had ever traveled by train in those days. Some of the children had never traveled more than a few blocks from where they had been born– had never seen a farm or a forest. Part of their journey was on a steamboat. The journey would not have been comfortable, but it would have been exciting and even terrifying at times. They had no guarantee of finding homes or families who would be willing to take care of them– only the hope that someone might.
What does this have to do with prayer? Well, the obvious connection would be that everyone involved with this venture must have prayed diligently. All 45 children were placed with local families in that first journey. And the success of this first placement encouraged future endeavors. The “orphan trains” ran for 75 years, and carried nearly a quarter of a million children to new homes throughout the growing United States. And while not every child found a “happy ending” with their new family, most of them survived to create a new life as adults–an opportunity many other orphans had been denied.
But it struck me today, as I was looking at the mural and thinking about the fate of these children, that we are or were all in a similar situation. I am so thankful to be able to pray to my Loving Father– but there was a time when I was lost and without hope. There was a time when Sin had made me an orphan. I was alone and frightened and helpless to save myself. Like the orphans in first part of the mural, I was sick and sad, my best intentions were no more than tattered rags. Even as they line up to board the train, their faces show fear and pain.
It can be frightening to call out to God– frightening to leave the life we know, even when it is dangerous and unhealthy. God’s way takes us to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places–we can’t see the road ahead, and we don’t know what our “new” life will be like.
As I gaze once again at the mural, the last section shows an idealized version of the “new life” experienced by the riders of the “Orphan Train.” It shows a groups of children in a circle, holding hands and playing in the sunshine among grass and trees, while a bird flutters nearby. It is a heavenly place– the children’s clothes are clean, and they look healthy and happy. And while this is an ideal, rather than the reality for some of the children, it is a reminder of the contrast with the life they left behind.
Thanks be to God for His Grace that rescues us from the ravages of Sin. He offers us an escape to a new life– complete with a new family and a glorious hope of Heaven. He offers full adoption– guaranteed by the blood of His own Son– for those who will choose to leave their old life of Sin behind and travel as an orphan on His own “Orphan Train.”
4 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
There is an old joke about a man whose house was in the path of a great flood. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him from the rising waters. As the water crept closer to his front door, a man in a canoe came paddling by. He said he had room in the canoe, if the man wanted to evacuate. “No, no,” the man replied. I have faith that God will rescue me.
But the water kept rising. The man was now trapped upstairs, as the water had flooded his ground floor and continued pouring into his house. A Coast Guard rescue boat came by. It was crowded with people, but the rescue workers assured the man that there was still room for one more. “No, no,” the man replied. I’ve been praying, and I know God will rescue me.
Just before sundown, the man was forced to climb onto his roof, as the waters kept rising. A Marine rescue helicopter hovered, and a Marine was lowered with a rope to rescue the man. By this time, the man was hungry, exhausted and shivering, but he refused to accept the Marine’s help, once again claiming that God would rescue him.
As night fell, and the waters were creeping up to his perch on the roof, the man cried out to God,” Where are you, Lord? I prayed for your help, and I trusted you to rescue me. Yet here I am, clinging to the roof. I’m wet, scared, cold, hungry, and tired. Didn’t you hear me? Don’t you care?”
From the darkness above, a voice answered: “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?”
This is a silly story, but it made me think– how often do I miss God’s answer to my prayers because of my own narrow focus or selfish expectations? When God sends a canoe, do I dismiss it because I want a different outcome? The story doesn’t say why this man refused to see God’s hand in the reasonable rescue attempts that came his way– perhaps he thought God would simply redirect the floodwaters away from his house, or provide a supernatural rescue. And we never find out what happens next– maybe the man gets his miracle, after all.
God’s ways are not our ways, but God often uses practical, even humble means to answer our prayers. And He rarely ever tells us what His answers will look like.
Even the Apostle Paul had to be rescued– several times. In Acts 27 and 28, we find an amazing story in which God revealed to Paul that he would be shipwrecked and rescued. Several attempts were made to save the ship, but Paul’s focus was on saving the lives of all on board. And God answered his prayer. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+27-28&version=NIV Strangely, God chose not to reveal that Paul would face a new danger as soon as he was safely on land. Paul trusted God to make sure he arrived safely in Rome– no matter WHAT crisis arose, no matter what surprising disaster loomed. When he was bitten by a poisonous viper, Paul didn’t panic. The same God who had led him safely to shore kept him from harm yet again. This same God would bring him to Rome, where he would be executed for his faith. While in jail, Paul wrote many letters, sometimes asking for basic necessities– including a warm cloak and some parchment. Paul never lived to see his letters become part of the New Testament. He never lived to see generations of martyrs and missionaries reading and sharing his words around the world. But he left a testimony of faith that God would be with him, wherever he went and whatever circumstances he faced.
Whether God sends me a canoe today, or a helicopter tomorrow, I know I can trust Him to do what is best– in His way and in His time.
I don’t know why… God didn’t stop the bullet that took the life of a seven-year-old girl in Chicago last weekend; God allowed for miraculous births in the same weekend in multiple hospitals around the world.
I don’t know why… Hundreds of people flocked to my hometown to defy social distancing measures and put others at risk of COVID-19 so they could drink and splash around in the shallows of a small lake. I don’t know why they left garbage and excrement in the lake and in people’s yards and in the high school parking lot. Thousands of men and women risked their lives to maintain order and serve the public–donning their uniforms and braving the heat and the chaos to serve people who despise them, spit on them, defame them, and vilify them.
I don’t know why… God made snakes. And mosquitoes. And moles. And giraffes.
I don’t know why… On some days God feels so distant and silent; and other times He seems to be surrounding me and permeating me and holding me tight. I don’t know how His word can sometimes feel stale and sometimes cut right through me. I can’t fathom how God can be everywhere—every-when! That He knew me before all the history books and ancient empires and cities and shipwrecks and wars and all the stories I take for granted were even imagined…that He knows me now– every thought; every cell; every hair, every breath…that He knows me a million years from now. I don’t know why He chose to make me, and preserve my life, and bless me with days and hours, with friends and family, and teachers and tasks, challenges and changes.
I don’t know why. I don’t know how.
But praise God, I know WHO. I know who made me. I know who holds me. I know who has the power to make good come from even the worst circumstances. I know who wins the ultimate victory over death and sin and disease and destruction.
And He walks with me and He talks with me—And He tells me I am His own!
Today is the first of May. This is also known as May Day or Mayday. In many countries, there are traditional celebrations, including dancing around a May Pole, or leaving a small bouquet of fresh spring flowers on someone’s doorstep. It is meant to be a happy occasion, signaling the arrival of spring flowers after a month of showers and growth– the promise of more growth and greenery after a long winter and cool, wet, spring.
This year, many people have been looking forward to May 1 as a potential “end” to the lockdown/shelter-in-place orders. They are eager for a chance to return to “life as normal,” including spending time in parks and gardens, and celebrating with friends. They long to chat, mingle, and dance with their friends and loved ones in the sunnier, greener weather. Others are just tired of being “cooped up,” and want to get out into the busy marketplaces and public squares. But many leaders (mayors, governors, ministers, presidents, etc.,) are extending the orders to continue social distancing during this pandemic season.
There is another meaning for the phrase “Mayday!” It is an urgent call for help. It comes from the French phrase m’aidez– help me–and is used mostly in radio transmissions from ships in danger. Many people around the world today are, figuratively or metaphorically, calling out “M’aidez!” They are calling on their political leaders, financial institutions, hospitals, emergency workers, and others for help– healing, testing, equipment, food, answers to impossible questions, guidance, and comfort. For many, it feels like drowning in a sea of uncertainty and danger.
Even in times of uncertainty and danger, we have a Faithful and Loving God. When we cry out, “Mayday! Help!”, He is ready and able to answer our call:
4 I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.
5 I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
6 I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.
Many times in his life, David had called on the Lord, and found him faithful– to protect him, rescue him, bless him, and forgive him. David danced and celebrated God’s provision for Israel, and he also cried out in anguish and bitterness of soul. And in every situation, God heard David’s “Mayday! M’aidez!”
King David’s descendant, King Hezekiah, also cried out to the Lord. He led the entire nation of Israel in celebrating a magnificent Passover feast and a Festival of Unleavened Bread. He also built up and fortified walls that had been allowed to crumble. He strengthened a weakened nation. In spite of his measures, however, the nation was threatened with invasion and destruction by a powerful Assyrian army. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Chronicles+32&version=ESV But Hezekiah, along with the prophet Isaiah, sent up a “M’aidez!” to God, and He answered in a mighty way: 20 Then Hezekiah the king and Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, prayed because of this and cried to heaven. 21 And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword. 22 So the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all his enemies, and he provided for them on every side. 23 And many brought gifts to the Lord to Jerusalem and precious things to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.
The Apostle Peter called out as he was sinking into the waves. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+14%3A22-32&version=NIV His faith, which made him to want to walk out to Jesus on the water, faltered. Peter knew the danger of open water, he faced such dangers in his fishing boat nearly every day. Without a miracle, he would sink below the wind-churned waves and be unable to make it back to the boat or swim all the way to shore. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” “M’aidez!” And Jesus was there to hold his hand and bring him to safety. Later in life, Peter went forth boldly preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, and spreading the Good News that Jesus Saves! Peter knew from first-hand experience that Jesus not only brought physical salvation from storms, but He offered spiritual salvation, renewal, and hope. In fact, it is in one of Peter’s epistles that we find this verse of hope: “..casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
This May Day, we may call out to God in desperation, or in celebration, or both. But let’s take every opportunity to call on His Holy Name.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.