No Particular Place to Go..

Back in 1964, singer Chuck Berry released a song called “No Particular Place to Go.” It was a catchy tune about a couple driving along on a date and having trouble with a new feature in the car– the safety belt– which ends up ruining their plans for a romantic stroll.

This may seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with prayer or Christian living, but stick with me…

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The writer of Proverbs includes a unique chapter https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+9&version=NIV in which Wisdom and Folly–both women–call out to passersby inviting them to visit. Both say the same thing: “Let all who are simple come to my house.” But Wisdom has built her house, prepared the food and wine, and even sent out servants to help. Folly lounges outside her door, offering “stolen” water and “food eaten in secret–though she has done nothing to prepare for visitors, and so has nothing real to offer.

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Both women call out, both women extend an invitation–the people are not looking for them; they are just passing by. And most of them have “no particular place to go.” And isn’t that the way with us sometimes? We don’t intend to fall into foolish habits, or get caught up in addictions. Nor do we look for wisdom in our fellowship over a meal, or in spending time at someone’s house. We can be very intentional in our actions, but fall victim to our interactions.

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Spending time with people of wisdom– people who will pray with us and for us–is so important. Preparing our hearts for fellowship with others, and for time spent with God is not something we should leave for chance. Just as we take time to “map out” our goals for work or health or finances, we should take care to map out our relationships.

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That doesn’t mean we avoid reaching out to others, and inviting them to enjoy fellowship, or that we must turn down all invitations from others. But we must be careful not to be drawn into folly. Jesus ate with sinners– but He didn’t carouse with them. He spent most of His time with those who wanted to share His love for the Father, and those who wanted to learn wisdom.

Folly never has a “particular place to go.” She wanders aimlessly. She doesn’t see the danger ahead, and she doesn’t look for a better road. Folly drives off recklessly without fastening her safety belt. Folly scrolls through lies and ads and half-truths on the internet. She gets pulled into relationships that are unhealthy and activities that are unproductive. And she wakes up dazed and confused and unfulfilled.

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Wisdom walks in the way of insight– well-marked paths that lead to a clear destination. Wisdom seeks traveling companions who share the same destination. Wisdom pursues the truth, in person and on-line. Wisdom drives defensively and wears a safety belt (and knows how to operate it!) Wisdom seeks shelter that is safe, where she can be well-fed and find rest. She wakes up refreshed and ready to continue the journey.

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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
 For through wisdom your days will be many,
    and years will be added to your life.
 If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you;
    if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.

Proverbs 9:10-12 (NIV)

Where Two or Three Are Gathered…

Something curious has been happening to “The Church” in the age of COVID. In many areas, public gatherings have been limited or even prohibited, leaving local churches scrambling to re-invent their worship services and other programs. For a few weeks last summer, my local church was “closed” to the public, but sermons and worship songs were filmed and sent out as podcasts. Families could stay at home and still “come to church.” Since our congregation is made up of many large families and many elderly couples who are at high risk for getting or spreading COVID, this seemed like a safe alternative. However, for those who are single or just a couple living alone, we were encouraged to find another couple or family and “do church together.” (My husband and I watched the podcasts, but we didn’t gather with any other couples.) I knew of several small churches that continued to have “regular” live services– with congregations of fewer than 50, and plenty of space, they could meet the state guidelines. Others had “Zoom” services, or live streaming services for their sermons and a small praise team. David and I visited a couple of small churches, and, as our church opened up for limited seating, we happily attended in person. The larger the congregation, the more difficult it has been to have “live” church. Many are still struggling to find a “safe” alternative for congregational worship.

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Most of the churches in my area are currently open and trying to “get back to normal.” But something is still different. My husband and I went to Easter Service this year, and it felt really good to worship with familiar faces, even if they were still behind masks. There weren’t as many hugs or handshakes, and not as much “fellowship” before or after the service. The Joy of Easter was mingled with caution; the joy of seeing others was mixed with the fear that some familiar faces were still “missing.” We waved at familiar faces, and we sang familiar songs. But for me, at least, it seemed that we were still isolated from others. We “showed up” for church; we didn’t really “gather together.” I don’t know that anyone else felt what I did– and I don’t think this was any “lack” in our local congregation. But I think it will take some time and effort to reclaim “togetherness” in the sense that we used to take for granted at church.

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As I reflect on all this, I feel a sense of sadness and loss. And yet, I also sense a wonderful opportunity to rebuild and redefine our church community; one that remains close, not based on familiarity or shared worship style or similarity of situation or culture, but IN CHRIST! “Where two or three are gathered”…(see Matthew 18:20) We often use this verse as a promise of God’s presence whenever we have a service or a fellowship meeting. But the verse reads, “For where two or three are GATHERED IN MY NAME, there am I among them.”(ESV– emphasis added). This seems obvious, but I think we have a great opportunity to reflect and re-think what it means to “gather” in Christ’s name.

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We have amazing opportunities to “gather” via social media, live streaming, digital sharing, etc., with brothers and sisters around the world. We have the opportunity to develop friendships and relationships around the world, and worship with thousands of others simultaneously. And that’s wonderful. But Jesus’s promise is not made to mega-gatherings of believers “showing up” for a worship “experience.” Jesus promised to be where “two or three” are gathered in His name. And that doesn’t just mean that we need to get involved in a small group Bible study or “plug in” to a small fellowship group– though both are great opportunities.

But what happens when Jesus shows up at the grocery store when you run into your neighbor and share a prayer request, or at the restaurant, when your family says grace, inspiring others to do the same? What happens when “IN MY NAME” becomes a bigger part of our everyday life? What happens when that friend on social media becomes a prayer partner, instead of someone who just “likes” our jokes and photos? What happens when we make an effort to gather with a few neighbors for Bible study– even if we all go to different churches for worship?

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Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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I confess that COVID has shown me how much I’ve been living life and pursuing prayer in a bubble. I need to “gather” and interact one-on-one and in small groups with other believers. How much of Christ’s presence have I halved by hoarding it to myself or searching for Him in the church pews–how much more I can pursue relationships that include and invite Jesus to be “among” us, rather than just “with me.”

Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.

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And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.

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God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.

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During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.

One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.

God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!

  • Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.

The Seven-Layer Prayer

Growing up, I loved going to pot-luck meals at our little country church.  Neighbors, family, and friends would bring large dishes of home-cooked deliciousness for all to feast on as we chatted, laughed, and encouraged one another.  There were certain dishes we all could count on–homemade yeast rolls, courtesy of Lulu M.  Jello with fruit was my mom’s standard.  Another lady almost always brought meat loaf.  Baked beans, candied carrots, fried chicken, chocolate cake, scalloped potatoes– my mouth still waters just from the memories!  The wonderful woman who has since become my mother-in-law brought her famous cookies, and often, a seven-layer salad.

Bethelchurch

I love Mom’s seven layer salad, and I have learned to make my own variation.  It’s easy, it’s delicious, it’s healthful, and it travels well.  I’ve seen other recipes that use different vegetables, don’t use eggs or meat or mayo–I’m sure they’re ok, but I’m happy to stick with the basic outline that follows below.

I was thinking about the seven-layer salad the other day– it’s a wonderful dish for this time of year– chilled and utilizing fresh produce, and I realized that you can use a similar “recipe” for prayer.  So here’s my modified “Seven-Layer Prayer” recipe:

 

  • First, start with a layer of “Let Us”
    • Prayer doesn’t happen without an act of the will.  We must be deliberate about setting aside time and thought for prayer every day.  We should “leaf” the busyness and chaos of the day and “romaine” in fellowship with the Father!

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  • Next, add a layer of “Care”-rots (shredded).
    • 1 Peter 5:7 New King James Version (NKJV)
      casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
    • Give your worries and cares over to the One who cares most about you and all those you love.
  • Now you can add the “Peas” that passes all understanding
    • Trust that God hears and answers prayer.
    • Trust that God is in control.
    • Trust that God is Good, Wise, and Loving.
    • Rest in the knowledge that “God’s Got This!”

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  • Here’s where I like to add some “Meet” (usually bacon!, sometimes ham or chicken)
    • While it’s vital that we spend time in personal, private prayer, God also wants us to meet regularly with others for fellowship, mutual encouragement, accountability, PRAYER, and guidance.
  • Now it gets a little dicey–diced onion (sometimes I substitute green onions or sliced or diced mushrooms)
    • Time to peel back the layers, and cut through to the root of anything that is getting in the way of a closer walk with God–confess it and give it over to Him.
    • Sometimes, this process may cause tears, or involve a little dirt– clean it up before you proceed!
  • Time for some dressing– mayonnaise or salad dressing.  Annoint your salad, and your prayer, with oil.  Remember, God has annointed you to spread His love and grace to others.  Don’t forget to add this to your prayer life.  Just as the dressing will coat all the elements of the salad, so God’s Spirit will surround and influence your words and actions done for Him!
  • “Cheese!”  It’s a “gouda” idea to round out prayer with a time of joyful thanksgiving.  Pile it on– God’s given us a LOT for which to be “grate”-ful!

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  • Finally, the garnish– Hard-boiled eggs.  These remind me of the new life we have in Christ, the Triune nature of God (we used to have lessons in Sunday School about the egg having three parts but being a single egg.  We don’t use the shell in the salad, of course, but you can’t make a boiled egg without all three parts…), and also, the yolk reminds me of Heaven’s streets of gold.  In prayer, we should remember God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises, and the hope we have in Him.

That’s the basic recipe for a seven layer salad– enough of each ingredient for a healthy “layer”.  I’ve added extra layers a couple of times–diced tomatoes or peppers are good if you are planning to eat the salad quickly, but they will cause sogginess  if you let the salad sit.  (Also, if you use peas, use fresh if you can– drain canned peas, or get rid of any ice crystals if using frozen peas. )

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A good seven-layer prayer should also be presented fresh, and savored.  It’s delicious, it’s good for you, it feeds others, and it travels well!  Try some!

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