Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

Insult to Injury

Have you had “one of those” days lately? Nothing seems to go according to plan, and as the day goes on, it just seems to go from bad to worse. Something (or someone) comes along and adds insult to injury.

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Next week, the Church will be remembering what seemed like the last week in the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. First comes “Palm” Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Shouts of “Hosanna!” and crowds of people cheering and waving palm branches–it was as though Jesus was a rock star or a prince of Israel. But just a few short days later, he was arrested, and convicted in a corrupt “trial” by the religious officials. The same crowds who cheered him on were screaming for his death, waving fists instead of palm branches. Pilate, to please the crowd, sentenced an innocent Messiah to one of the most brutal deaths imaginable– public, excruciating, humiliating, torturous crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t just suffer death. He was mocked, insulted, deserted by his friends, lied about and lied to by those he should have been able to trust, stripped naked and whipped, and branded as a criminal as his “fate.” In such a short time, to be so crushed and betrayed, brutalized and humiliated–none of my “bad days” can compare to what Jesus went through. His injuries were horrific; the insults and betrayals were worse. Yet He bore them all. He died in anguish; broken, bruised, beaten, and abandoned.

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And He could have chosen differently. He was perfectly innocent, perfectly authorized to defend Himself, capable of calling all the Hosts of Heaven to testify on His behalf, and perfectly powerful enough to come down off the cross at any time and send all of His accusers and tormenters to oblivion! That Friday wasn’t just “one of those” days. It was not something that took Him by surprise, nor was it something He “deserved.” He chose to go through that day…it was part of His perfect plan. That day. That death. That stunning humiliation and “defeat.”

But Holy Week doesn’t end in insult, injury, defeat, or despair–because God’s ways are perfect, Jesus turned everything to Glory! We will celebrate next Friday– “Good” Friday– because only God can triumph over death, and transform horror into hope, despair into deliverance, and shame into salvation.

Even on “one of those” days, we can find peace and practice praise as we pray to the one who took “one of those” days and turned it into the greatest miracle!

More Than the Watchmen Wait for the Morning…

The author of the 130th Psalm cries out to God for mercy. He pleads for God to hear his voice and be attentive to his cry. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+130&version=NIV

But then, he does three important things: He recounts what he knows of God’s character, he waits, and he hopes.

Sometimes, when I cry out to God, I expect God to reveal Himself to me with an immediate and positive answer. And, occasionally, God does answer prayer with a dramatic and instant result. But most of the time, God answers first with silence. Not because He is cruel or uninterested or too busy to acknowledge my cry. He gives me time to reflect– on His nature, and the nature of my need. And He gives me time to find peace and trust in the middle of the storm.

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I spent much of yesterday crying out– I am frustrated with the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. I am angry at the misinformation and conflicting reports; I don’t know what to believe about staying put or venturing out–is it allowed? Is it safe if I wear a mask? Can I go to the park or beach? When can I re-open my shop? Can I make the payments until it can be re-opened? When can I safely see my family and friends again? Will it be safe to hug them? And I am frustrated with the way I see people treating each other– yelling, screaming, eager to condemn everyone else’s behavior while justifying their own. And I find myself saying and doing the same thing from the relative safety of my computer screen– after all, I can’t yell at anyone to their face if I can’t leave the house, right? But I can let my 300 closest friends know how heartless and selfish they are if they don’t see things my way! They’re KILLING people! They’re betraying family members! They’re living in fear! They have no compassion! And I cannot make them do what I think is right!

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But when I stop the crying and carrying on, and justifying, and finger-pointing; when I stop to remember who God is, and who I am, I remember that God IS attentive. And not just to my frustration, but to everyone’s needs– the person who is living in terror; the person who is suffering pain, grief, agony, and loss; the person who is defiant and uncaring and angry. God is attentive, but He is also overflowing with mercy. If He kept records– if He only looked upon mankind to find evidence of our guilt or to pour out shame and punishment– who could stand? Who would have the authority to tell God how He should direct the universe? Who could say that they were more capable of dispensing life and death, health and sickness, mercy and justice? Would I? It is no little thing to cry out to the God of the universe. And yet, God listens attentively to our every cry. Especially when we cry out to Him for mercy, for wisdom, for peace, and for healing. His answer may not look like what we expect, but He never fails to listen in Love.

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And as I contemplate God’s power, wisdom, compassion, grace, and authority, I can wait. And that doesn’t mean that I sit in a lotus position and stop seeing the pain and chaos and death. Or that I count to ten and hold my breath. Or that I set a timer and think happy thoughts for 20 minutes. No. I wait like a watchman– like a sentry waiting for whatever may happen– alert and ready to do my duty. And I wait like a watchman for the dawn– for the light of day to see clearly; for the end of my watch, when there will be rest.

This season is difficult, but it will end. It will give way to a new dawn– with new challenges! But just as the Psalmist tells Israel, I know I can put my hope in the Lord, for “with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption (v. 7). If I cry out, knowing that God is willing to listen and able to save, but I don’t stand firm in hope, I can still be swept away by the winds of doubt and the current of angst.

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Cry out–then reflect, wait, and hope.

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