Just When it Couldn’t Get Any Worse…

It is very discouraging to listen to the news lately…pandemics, riots, economic collapse, lock-downs and social distancing mandates…some days it seems like it can’t get any worse. And yet, if someone were to report that things will soon get better, would we believe it? Even if a prophet of God came to reassure us, would we greet her/his news with joy, or would we react with cynical disbelief?

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Such was the case hundreds of years ago in Samaria. The capital city of Israel was under siege by the Syrian King, Ben-Hadad. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+6%3A24-7%3A20&version=ESV The entire city was trapped; surrounded by thousands of soldier, they were terrified, diseased, and starving. It was far worse than most of us have ever experienced. The siege had gotten so bad that the people had resorted to cannibalism–things could not get any worse. The king, desperate and helpless, sent for Elisha. And the prophet had unbelievably good news– in less than twenty-four hours, the fate of Samaria would be completely reversed. There would be food, freedom, and joy throughout the city– plenty for everyone!

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Hope! Joy! Salvation! But how could this be? The king’s messenger scoffed–“Impossible! Even if God opened up the heavens, this could not happen.” So Elisha has bad news for the messenger– he will see this prophecy fulfilled, but will not be able to enjoy it.

And it all happens just as Elisha predicted…in the middle of the night, the Syrian army panics and flees. Prompted by the Lord, they believe they hear a mighty host coming to ambush them in their tents. In their flight, they leave everything behind– food, weapons, clothing, medicine–vast resources, and enough to supply the entire city!

Alerted to this miracle by four lepers who brave the enemy camp only to find it deserted, the king and his messenger are still skeptical. But when the report is confirmed, the citizens rush out to plunder the Syrian goods, trampling over and killing the messenger in their haste.

When times are tough, it is easy to hold on to a limp and lifeless form of faith– we keep praying and reciting platitudes; we tell ourselves to be patient and bear up under pressure. And we should not lose heart or compromise the truth for a temporary sense of ease. But our faith has to be prepared to see God do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us..” (Ephesians 3:20 NKJV) Because just when things couldn’t get any worse, they may just be about to get better than we can imagine!

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Lord, may I seek your face with confidence and joy– not because of the circumstances I face, but because of my faith in Your great might and power, and in Your grace and wisdom to turn even the worst night into a glorious and victorious dawn!

These Three Remain–Faith

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13 (NIV) via http://www.biblegateway.com
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I love reading God’s word. I spent much of my youth memorizing scripture, and much of my adulthood trying to recall what I learned then! One chapter I memorized was 1 Corinthians 13– commonly known as the “Love” chapter.

But near the end of the chapter, Paul talks about what remains, and what doesn’t–he says that prophecies and knowledge will pass away, and things that are incomplete will disappear. He lists three things that will remain. We often spend a lot of time on Love (and I will get there eventually), but I want to talk about all three, why they must remain, and why they are connected in prayer. I will begin today with Faith.

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Faith, as we learn in Hebrews 11:1, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is foundational. Faith gives us roots. Faith is an anchor. Faith keeps us grounded and strong. But Faith, as the above metaphors suggest, is deep and unseen. I can’t “show” you an anchor when it is in use. If I pull up a tree to see its roots, or tear down a building to show off its foundations, I will destroy the very thing I am trying to illustrate.

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And Faith demonstrates itself best under testing. I have to admit, this year has been a difficult test of my Faith, and that of many others. Do I REALLY believe that God exists? That He cares? That He listens to prayer? That He answers? It is easy enough to say all that, but when everything around looks murky and uncertain, do my actions match my words? Do I live as though God is in control? Is His word still an anchor for me when it doesn’t seem to “work?” Do my prayers reflect confidence and praise in the midst of riots and plagues? Are my prayers filled with Faith that God is who He says He is, and that He will do what He has promised? Or are my prayers timid and empty– wispy wishes, instead of honest heart-cries?

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Where is my faith? Is it in myself? My words? The words of other people?My actions and deeds? In powerful groups? Governments? Money? Chance? Even Religion? Does my Faith rest in following the laws of the Bible? Does it rest in knowing the “right” picky points of theology? Or does it rest in the One who is unchanging, eternal, and all-powerful?

The world is screaming. The world is filled with fire, smoke, and flashing lights. Is God silent? Is He being drowned out or hidden by the chaos we’re walking through? Or am I listening to wrong voices, and focusing on smoke and fog?

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I can’t show you the roots of my Faith in this moment. I can’t see them, and sometimes, I feel shaken. But, as Job declared, “I know my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25a)! I will continue to declare that God DOES exist. He DOES care. He DOES listen. And He WILL answer. And I will continue to Hope and Love in light of this Faith. I will continue to seek patience, and kindness, humility, truth, justice, and perseverance as I reach out to others.

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I Surrender All?

I have been revisiting old hymns lately as I write about my pursuit of prayer. This is partly because I believe that prayer is a form of worship, and is closely tied to other forms of worship– meditation, singing, etc.. Sometimes, it can be helpful to pray songs or to sing prayers– look at the entire book of Psalms!

Our church has recently been involved in revival services– two weeks of time set aside to evaluate our daily walk with Christ. We need periods of revival and refreshment, conviction and confession, repentance and reflection. Without them, we will wander; without them we will wither and grow cold, and lose sight of our first love.

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One of the first nights, we explored the idea of surrender. We say that we trust God; that Jesus is Lord, that we are followers of Christ…but do we really demonstrate those truths by the way we live? Have we really surrendered our will, our lives, our futures to God? We claim that He is sovereign over big things– all of creation, world affairs, and such–but is He Lord over the little things? Do I trust Him with my reputation when someone misrepresents me to others? Do I trust Him with my diet when I am tempted to overeat? Do I trust Him with my time when someone asks me to help them on my day off?

One of the keys to this hymn (and to prayer) is in the first verse– “..in His presence daily live.” There are times when I feel the need to surrender; times when I feel wholly surrendered and devoted. But there will be other days when the feeling just isn’t there. My surrender needs to happen daily– in the “good” times and in the “difficult” times. Sometimes, I just need to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and empower me to recognize and surrender those areas that I have tried to “take back” from Him.

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And then, I need to be intentional about letting go–one piece at a time, if necessary–each day saying, “Yes” to God instead of “Yes” to those things that pull me away. It’s not always easy to say, “I surrender all.” It’s even harder to actually follow through. We want to hang on to things that are comfortable, familiar, even “good.” We want to hang on to things that seem to promise safety, success, or fulfillment– even when God offers more.

I’m not writing this because I have mastered the discipline of surrender– I need to learn to let go, to trust God more, to risk what I cannot keep to gain what I cannot lose (paraphrasing from Jim Elliot–https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jim_elliot_189244.
That is my prayer today, for myself, and for others.

Troubled Waters

I love reading the 23rd Psalm (among many others). I love the picture of the Lord as my shepherd– the green pastures, the still waters, the anointing oil, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It is comforting. But there is also the part about walking in the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil, and sitting in the presence of my enemies–I tend to gloss over those parts.

The truth is, much of our life is spent somewhere in between. We journey through hills and valleys, in sunshine and shadow, and there are times of green pastures and still waters, but sometimes we are in a dry season or wading through troubled waters. We face stress, chaos, unexpected obstacles, and swirling doubts.

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Jesus was no stranger to troubled waters. In His life on earth, He faced stormy seas– at least once in the bottom of a wave-tossed boat, and again when He walked on water to reach His disciples late at night. (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 4:35-41, etc.) In each case, Jesus could have stilled the waters sooner, or forbidden the winds and waves to cause any trouble. This is often what we pray for– for God to keep us away from the shadow of death, from the stormy seas, from the trials and hardships we wish to avoid.

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Often, God answers those prayers by keeping us from trouble and hardship. Sometimes, He sends friends, counselors, and sweet reminders from His word to build a bridge over rapids or whirlpools or provide light and song on our journey. Other times, He answers our prayers by staying with us through even the darkest and loneliest of valleys, through the raging storms, the unanswered questions, and the waves of doubt. Sometimes we can look back and see how and why God chose to take us by the narrow winding path or through the churning waves. But even when He is silent, He is still there– reaching out to lift us when we fall, or carry us when we can’t go on.

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Lord, help me to follow you, even when the way seems dark or the storms rage. Help me to look up from the troubled waters and see you–ready to swim alongside, or lift me up and bring me to safety. Help me to help build bridges and throw life-lines when needed. And help me to remember that you have promised seasons of still waters and green pastures, as well. Whatever comes this day, may I listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and Savior. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

But I Don’t Understand…

I’m getting a double whammy this week–two Bible study groups; one studying Daniel and the other Job.  Some of you will groan just reading the first sentence.  Along with the book of Revelations, these are two of the most difficult and misunderstood books in the Bible.  And for good reason.  The book of Daniel doesn’t just contain the favorite stories of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it also contains prophetic visions that seem to foreshadow two distinct sets of events– one set that happened in the time between Daniel’s life and the birth of Christ, and another set of events yet to come.

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The book of Job is puzzling– there are no good clues as to when it took place, or exactly where, or even if it is real or a parable.  There is a curious interchange between God and Satan that is unlike any other passage in scripture.  Finally, it is filled with difficult dialogues from Job and his friends, as they try to make sense of his suffering as God stays silent.  When God finally speaks, He doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions or his friends’ misleading statements.

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What happens when I don’t understand what God is doing (or seemingly NOT doing) in my life or the lives of others?  What happens when the world doesn’t make sense, and the Bible doesn’t seem to shed any light?  What happens when I pray, but God seems silent?

I think the answer has a lot to do with where I am in my relationship with Christ:

  • I can panic, lose faith, or become angry and insolent.  If I don’t know God or don’t trust him; if I doubt his goodness or wisdom or power, I may run from his word and his presence.
  • I can lean on my own understanding.  I can substitute my own limited wisdom for God’s, and try to “explain away” all the things I don’t quite understand.  I may ignore the Bible passages I don’t understand, in favor of doubling down on the ones I think I know.  I can insist on my own interpretations of difficult or disturbing passages, even if someone points out inconsistencies in my logic, or context clues that disagree with my view.

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  • I can lean on someone else’s understanding, listening to their views without question or without reading and praying through it myself.  If someone else has an answer, shouldn’t that be enough?  Even if I still don’t fully understand, at least I have an answer…
  • I can ignore the question–after all, do I really need to know about God?  Isn’t it enough that He exists and He is good?  If I say it loud enough and often enough, won’t that make the questions go away?

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It seems that there is a better way– God never promises us easy answers or complete answers to all the questions in this life.  We can be angry or grateful for that truth, but most of all we must accept it.  God will answer many of our questions–maybe not in the time and manner we expect.  And some of them we won’t understand this side of heaven.  But the Bible is clear in calling us to pursue answers, and be honest when we don’t understand.  God may not give us a simple answer, but He promises to give us wisdom– wisdom to seek, and wisdom to wait; wisdom to trust, and wisdom to keep knocking.
Ask, Seek, Knock, Wrestle, Search, Pray, Plead, Study, and Learn.

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Promises, Promises…

God keeps His promises.  Not just small promises, not just some of them, or some of the time.  God Keeps His Promises!  Every single one.  Every single time.

In this world of failed promises, assumed promises, “campaign” promises, and broken promises, it is almost impossible to believe.  Surely there must be some promise that God has not fulfilled– some promise that he has taken back or “modified” somehow…

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Isn’t there?  There are people who claim to have examples– proof that God cannot be trusted.  They list tragedies that God allowed to happen, or dreams that did not come to fruition.  They list times they could not feel God’s presence, or understand His ways; times He seemed silent or harsh.  Didn’t God promise His unfailing presence?  Didn’t He promise peace and love and joy?

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Good questions–just what DID God promise?  To whom did He promise it?  When?  Were there some promises that were conditional, and, if so, what are the conditions?

  • God’s presence–Jesus said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 ESV)  There are numerous other passages where God says to Israel, or to one of Israel’s leaders, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  The writer of Hebrews echoes this in chapter 13 of his letter as he seeks to encourage early Christians.  This is a solid promise, and one that we can trust.  But we won’t always “feel” God’s presence.  That’s one of the reasons for the promise– to give us an anchor for our faith when our feelings are confused.  God will be with us even (and often especially) when we feel alone, frightened, overwhelmed by our circumstances.  What makes the thought of Hell so frightening is that it falls outside of this promise– at the “end of the age”, there will be a time and place where God’s presence cannot be felt– God will not be there, nor will the essence of God be available.  No love, no peace, no light, no life, no joy, no hope.  Even those who utterly reject God in this life still have access to hopes and dreams, love and goodness, because God is still present in His creation.
  • God’s promises to Israel–God made hundreds of specific promises to the nation of Israel.  Some were made for specific circumstances and times.  Some were made to be eternal and never broken, canceled, revoked, or transferred.  Many promises (including those given through prophecies) were given to specific nations, including Israel/Judah/Judea as it existed at that time.  Others were given to a restored Israel– one that has not yet been completely restored.  Other promises were made to those who are the spiritual heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– regardless of their genetic heritage.  It is very easy to co-opt a promise that isn’t really ours to claim in the context of when or how it was given.

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  • “Circumstantial” or “Personal” promises– God fulfilled certain promises to individuals throughout the Bible.  These are recorded to remind us of God’s faithfulness and His power to bring about miracles.  They are not meant to act as personal promises to us because We want the blessings that God gave to someone else in other circumstances.

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  • “Difficult” promises– Not all God’s promises are ones we want to remember!  God has promised that we will suffer.  He promises that people will hate us, abandon us,  or persecute us on account of our faith.   Death and judgement are stark realities– God has promised that we will face both– and that we can face both without fear!  Jesus himself foretold of natural disasters, war, poverty, disease, injustice, hunger and other difficult circumstances that will continue until His return.

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  • “Victorious” promises– God has promised future restoration and renewal– eternal life, a new Heaven, and a new earth.  But He hasn’t promised easy victory.  He promises Justification, not “just a vacation” by Faith.  When we face struggles, it is not God breaking His promises.  And it is not always because we aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith.  Sometimes, God sends us into the thick of the battle for reasons we don’t understand.  He doesn’t give us the victory we think we deserve or the victory we dream of.  But we can trust that the victory already belongs to Him.

Prayer is more than just a wish or a vague hope– it is trusting my life, my future, my fears, and my heart to the one who can be counted on to listen and to respond.  Always!

Can You Hear Me Now?

We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend.  No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs.  We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal.  And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!

It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster.  I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication.  Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope.  (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)

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Isolation is an earthly concept.  God is eternally Triune.  He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18)  God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.

That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential.  It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

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But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us.  Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face.  Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer.   Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?

I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer.  I don’t know.  I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:

  • what comes easily has less value to us.  Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied.  Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge.  The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt.  Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being.  And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought.  We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.

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  • sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy.  When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
  • sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer.  However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong.  Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed.  Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
  • sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe!  It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith.  Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up.  God DOES hear, he DOES care.  Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!

And what can we do during those times?  Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:

  • Learn to “pray outside the box”–
    • Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
    • Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
    • Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
    • Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up.  Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?

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  • Count your blessings
    • Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
    • Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
    • Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack?  How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
  • Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
    • Search for answers in His word
    • Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
    • Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated

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The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.

 

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