90 Percent

Bible teacher and author Chuck Swindoll is credited with saying, “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes.” When I was younger, I liked this quote, but I quibbled with the numbers. Surely, we are in control of our reactions and attitudes. And our circumstances don’t determine our lives completely. But 10%?! What about those whose circumstances are overwhelmingly tragic?

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I thought of my father’s experiences, and it seemed as though what happened to him in four short years should have had a greater impact on his life. During the four short years that my father was in high school (1945-1948), his family experienced at least three tragedies. Dad grew up on a farm. His dad was a dairy farmer, as was his grandfather. Dad grew up expecting that he would, along with his father and brothers, spend the rest of his life as a farmer. But then, everything changed. First, Dad’s oldest brother was drafted into the Army at the very end of World War 2. Though my uncle was not in combat, he was badly wounded in Germany, as his unit was sent in to find unexploded bombs and land mines, and ordered to clear out rubble. Dad had lost one cousin in the war, and several others had come home wounded or changed, but this was post-war, and unexpected. It meant more work for my grandfather and the two younger sons, even as they were still in school. It meant uncertainty, as they waited for word from thousands of miles away over several months.

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Uncle Jack recovered and returned to the farm. But then, on Christmas Eve, there was a house fire. While the family escaped without major injuries, the house was a total loss. Furniture, clothes, pictures, heirlooms, farm records and financial papers– all gone. Dad moved in with his aunt and uncle to continue his education. But two weeks before graduation, his father died suddenly from complications from emergency gall bladder surgery. My father’s world had been turned upside-down in just a few short years and at a critical juncture in his life.

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However, as I’ve matured and thought about it over the years, those events, among other tragedies and triumphs in Dad’s life, really DID only amount to a small percentage of his life. Even numerically/chronologically, those four years were less than ten percent of Dad’s time on earth. Dad couldn’t control the events of those years. He couldn’t have predicted them, and he couldn’t erase them or go back and undo them. But he chose how to respond and react to those events. He learned from them.

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Circumstances in our lives, whether tragic or terrific, present us with choices. Will we turn to God, or away from Him? Will we become better, or bitter? Will we seek to assign blame, or seek solutions? My dad and his brothers were not able to continue the dairy farm their father had built up. Without the records and registration papers for the various cows, without their father’s experience and acumen, without money to upgrade their facilities and equipment, they had to sell most of what their father had built up. Uncle Jack kept the farm land, but he took a second job. Dad was drafted and sent to Korea for his own post-war odyssey, and came home to work at the local feed mill, and later in a factory job. He passed away several years ago, partly as a result of complications from his own gall bladder surgeries.

My dad’s life was impacted and shaped in part by tragic circumstances. But Pastor Swindoll is right– at least 90 percent of my dad’s LIFE was shaped by his attitude and character. My father was a man of faith and integrity. He cherished his family and his role as a father– partly because of the loss of his own dad; but also because of the lasting legacy his father had passed on. He spoke often of his wonderful memories growing up on the farm. But he also made wonderful memories– picnics and vacations, family reunions, family devotions, watching baseball on television, sharing laughter and tears, and making sure we knew we were loved and protected. He ministered to people in the community, mowing lawns for widows, or visiting shut-ins. He taught us to love music, baseball, and animals. He taught us the value of prayer, reading the Bible, and living a life of faith.

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As I get older, and look back on the circumstances of my past, I am encouraged and challenged to think that they represent only a small fraction of my life. I can’t control many of my circumstances– health setbacks, financial struggles, accidents and tragedies. But I can control my attitude and my response. My dad could have been bitter, angry, ungrateful, resentful, and self-pitying– regardless of his circumstances! But he chose to put his faith, his heart, and his attitude in the hands of a loving God. And I choose to do the same– after all, He controls 100% of my future!

I Can Only Imagine…

I live in the Midwestern United States, in an area known for lots of lakes and streams, woods and forests, and fertile farmland. I don’t have to imagine the smell of pines, or the sound of frogs at night, or the sight of cornfields turning ripe in the summer heat. I don’t have to imagine frost on late autumn mornings, or ice and snow on tree branches in January. But I’m not as familiar with mountains, deserts or the ocean. I have visited such areas, but I have to remember the scent and sting of saltwater coming off the ocean, or the dry heat of the desert, or the thin air of the mountains.

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Thankfully, there are photographs, and videos that help refresh memories and capture some of the wonder of jungles and plateaus, waterfalls, tundra, and dunes. We live in an awesome world, and our Creator has filled it with beauty, grandeur, and majesty. Even more amazing, God has created solar systems, and galaxies beyond our ability to visit. We cannot experience such places “in person,” but we can see dazzling views through telescopes of stars and worlds millions of miles away.

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But there are places that are beyond our ability to view– even beyond our imagination.

Heaven is one of those places. We have limited descriptions of Heaven in the Bible– a place of joy and perfection; where God himself is the light and source of life. A place where there is no disease, no death, no sin, and no fear. Several people have tried to depict it, but there is really no way to picture it accurately. Some people imagine a place of boredom, filled with “saints” sitting around playing the harp through all eternity. Others imagine a place filled with all their loved ones– an eternal family reunion, with laughter and singing. But the Bible is clear– Heaven is where God lives and reigns–HE is the focal point of Glory and Dominion and Eternal Praise and Purpose.

Another place we cannot imagine accurately is Hell. Again, we have a few clues in the Bible, and many attempts to depict what Hell might be like– a place of eternal torment and regret, without the presence of God– without light, love, comfort, or hope. We don’t like to imagine going there. We don’t like to imagine anyone being there– not really. Even in anger, we should not want to waste all of eternity watching anyone else suffer the agonies of Hell, and we certainly don’t wish to have a “front row” seat!

The Bible doesn’t give us lengthy descriptions of either of these eternal destinations– and for a reason. We have a life to live here and now! While our eternal destination is of vital importance, it is not for us to spend precious time creating an imaginary set of expectations– pearly gates or fire and brimstone–in our minds. Rather, we are to concentrate on THIS life– THIS gift of God to use and enjoy for His glory.

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Sometimes, we get a small glimpse of eternity– a transcendent moment of such natural beauty that we are hyper-aware of God’s Sovereignty; or a horrific scene of destruction and Sin that makes us shudder and recoil. But the rest is better left to eternity as we pursue God in this life.

I Will Arise and Go To Jesus

Prayer is a pursuit. It is a lifestyle. It is a practice. But it is, sadly, a last resort for some people. And for others, it is a habit, but one among several others.

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What happens when we substitute other habits for prayer? When we turn to other sources first for our comfort or answers?

I know something of this from a brief but bitter experience– as a medium.

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It started out as a bit of fun. I never planned to dabble in the occult. In fact, I was repulsed by Ouija boards and Tarot cards and Palmistry. But the mother of a friend of mine taught some of us a “party trick.” Using an ordinary deck of playing cards, she showed us how we could “tell fortunes.” And it wasn’t full of “spiritual” or “mystic” symbolism at all. It was like making up a story. Certain cards would “represent” certain things– face cards represented men or women; a certain number card might represent communications, another finances, and another travel. The other person did all the “work”– they cut the cards, picked one pile, cut again, chose another pile (until it was small enough to tell a story without too many elements); they even laid the cards out in a random pattern, face up. All I did was the initial shuffle, and the “fortune telling/storytelling” at the end.

I had almost forgotten about this “trick.” I hadn’t seen it done in years. But when I was in college, and we were bored one night, I told my friends, and they wanted to try it. I never took it seriously; I never depended on cards to shape my own future, and I never thought of it as being any kind of substitute for prayer or trust in God. But it was “fun” to see what stories I could make from the cards. “You will soon receive a phone call from an old friend. They will invite you to take a short trip/run some errands with them. It will be costly.” All the details very vague– no names or dates, no specific locations or consequences–and I didn’t advise anyone what to do. My friends got in on the act, suggesting possible “stories” from the cards and their arrangements. Most were silly and had a positive tone.

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But then, something changed. A friend of a friend stopped by as we were “telling fortunes.” I explained that it wasn’t “real,” and she seemed to understand. But she went and got some more “friends.” And one of her “friends” took it very seriously. He wanted to know what he “should do” about an upcoming event…could I tell him whether he should go or not? Could I help him find out if his girlfriend was “the right one?” I explained that I couldn’t tell him anything like that, and nor could the playing cards– all I did was make up stories for fun. He pushed for awhile, and I refused to do another “reading” for him. He was disappointed and confused. Why wouldn’t I tell him what he needed to know? Why didn’t I help him?” I was a little angry at his insistence and I made an excuse to ask everyone to leave for the night– I had to study for a test; it was getting late–I just wanted it to end.

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But after he left, I began to shudder. This young man wanted ME to tell him what to do about situations about which I knew nothing. He was willing to place his hope and his future in the turn of a few ordinary playing cards and MY made-up story. I had never met him, but he assumed that I had knowledge about his future and the wisdom to guide him through it. And all I had offered him was a parlor trick. I hadn’t talked to him about his worries or offered to pray for him, or even asked if I could pray. I have no idea what his spiritual condition was, but he was eager to find easy answers from a stranger. And what if I had “made up” more stories for him? What if he acted on them? What harm might have come from a “harmless” parlor trick?

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I have never done the “fortune telling trick” since that night. But I often think about all the many “games” I see that offer to “tell” me about my past, or my inner self, or my future. How often have I been tempted to “play?” How often have I, even in “fun,” allowed a stranger or an algorithm to “reveal” secrets or predict outcomes? And how often have I failed to bring my thoughts, questions, worries, or attitudes to the One who knows everything? How often have I neglected to put my whole trust in Him?

I know people may say it is “harmless” to consult a Horoscope, or play games involving the future, but it is not wise. There are dozens of Biblical warnings against such activities. We are to seek God first and foremost, and trust His will for our lives.

The Now and the “Not Yet.”

As followers of Christ and believers in an Eternal God, we live in the “here and now,” but we also live in something called the “not yet.” Our life here is finite, but our life in the “not yet” is eternal.

Most of what we pray for belongs in the “here and now.” We pray about what we see and know. We may pray for an upcoming surgery, or a looming job loss, or give thanks for something that happened in the recent past, but most of our prayers do not venture into the eternal future.

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Yet, God speaks to us of things to come. No, He doesn’t always reveal details or give us a calendar of times and dates; but He does remind us that what we see is not the whole picture. And we need to remember this when we pray and when we look around us.

Much of the Old Testament, plus parts of the New Testament, are given over to prophecy– visions, promises, warnings about the future. Many of the prophecies have already been fulfilled– in detail. Some of the prophets prayed for revival in Israel and Judah; others prayed for the coming of the Messiah. Their prayers were answered– but not always in their lifetime, and not always in a way they understood. The Apostles, writing to Jesus’ followers looked forward to His return– but they never saw it in their lifetime.

Prayer is not just about us and our immediate needs. Today, spend some time praying with an eternal mindset–that God’s will would be done, in His time and His way. And then, trust that whatever is going on in the “here and now,” it is all part of God’s perfect plan. One that we will understand more fully in the “not yet.”

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What a Waste!

The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.

In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.

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So what are we to do?

First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.

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Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!

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Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.

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One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

Believest Thou This?

John 11 (KJV)

In the Gospel of John, there is the curious story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were good friends of Jesus. There are other stories throughout the gospels of Jesus interacting with this family. But this story appears only in John’s gospel, and it contains some details that raise several questions.

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The story begins with an urgent message. Lazarus is gravely ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly. Yet Jesus seems to dismiss the message, saying that it is not a sickness that will end in death, and he lingers two days before he decides to begin the journey toward Bethany. There is no sense of panic or urgency in Jesus’s response. And, though it says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he seems unmoved by their obvious distress.

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When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The two sisters both mention, with some bitterness, that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother need not have died. Jesus never gets defensive, but he challenges the sisters about their faith. In his exchange with Martha, he says that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus redirects her faith–“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (v. 25b-26). Her statement of faith, in spite or her grief and bitterness, prompts her to act. She goes to find her sister and bring her to the Savior, that she might be comforted.

Martha’s faith is small comfort in the circumstances. Her brother is still dead. His body lies rotting in a nearby cave. Her faith is fixed in the distant future, even as the author of Life and Eternity stands next to her. Her belief is wispy– more of a wish or a dream than the solid God-in Flesh standing before her.

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Yet Jesus chose to use this seeming defeat as a showcase for His power to give life and resurrection. Many people who saw this were transformed and put their trust in Him. Others saw Jesus’ growing ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. They reacted with fear and even anger, that Jesus would bring the miraculous into their well-ordered normality. The Pharisees, including the chief priest, Caiaphas, determined that Jesus must die in order to “save” them from the Romans. Instead of seeing Him as the agent of their eternal salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle to their limited “freedom” to operate under the Roman oppression.

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What is my faith like as I pray today? Do I believe that God “could’ve” or “should’ve” solved a problem in my past? Do I believe that God is not acting fast enough or decisively enough? Do I have a wispy faith that God will make all things right in Heaven, but is uninterested in the “here and now?” Do I believe that God’s answers might upset my life or cause me to “lose” control?

God, as you challenge my faith, help me to declare even my weak and imperfect belief; help me to act on it, and bring others to you for comfort. For in doing, so, I may be preparing the way for an incredible miracle– for revival and renewal; for the glory of Your great Name! And help me to see your answers through eyes of faith, and not fear of the unknown. Help me to trust you for the future I cannot see– a future that is in your capable and loving hands.

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He Already Knows..

Prayer is a wonderful thing; sometimes it’s also a curious thing. Why do we pray to a God who is omniscient? If He already knows our needs, why do we bother to ask? If He already knows everything we’ve done, why do we need to confess? If He already knows about my neighbor’s cancer, why do I start a prayer chain?

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Prayer is much more than sharing information with God. It is sharing my heart with God. What I pray, who I pray for, how and when and even where I pray– all come from my heart. God knows the information. He knows my heart, too. But He longs for me to take the time and effort to share it with Him (and to listen to His response!). God doesn’t want to be the one I turn to when I’ve tried all the other options. He is my Father, and He wants me to come to Him at every opportunity.

Moreover, when I pray, God is not surprised by anything I say, but sometimes I am! I find that one confession often leads to another– God already knew all that I had done and all about my attitude, but I lied to myself about my motive or about a small act or comment. Only in prayer does God have my full attention, and His Spirit uses that opportunity to help me see myself better, and clean the slate. Sometimes, I ask God for something I want, and God’s Spirit causes me to see what I really need, instead. Often, when I pray for someone I know, the Spirit will remind me of other ways I can pray for them, or bring another person to my thoughts. I may not know the other person’s need– but God already knows!

Finally, I find it a great comfort to pray to the one who holds everything together– the one who knows the end from the beginning, and everything in between. I don’t pray to a God who is kind, but ineffective. I don’t pray to a God who knows, but doesn’t care. God is the maker and sustainer of the universe; He is the lover of my soul, and the Almighty and Eternal One.

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Today may be full of surprises– some good, some disappointing, some even overwhelming. God already knows. He knows our anguish, our hopes, our faults, and our triumphs (even the tiny ones). Many things about my life are difficult to understand or anticipate. I don’t have to know all the answers. I don’t even have to know all the “right” questions. God already knows!

Writing the Next Chapter

Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!

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It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?

Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.

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I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!

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God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.

My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!

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20/20 Vision, Blind Faith, and Prayer

As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.

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The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.

But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.

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Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.

If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV via http://www.biblegateway.com)

This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here:
https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.

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The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.

Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.

When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.

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As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!

Surprise!

Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party?  Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”.  Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration.  (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)

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Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party?  Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father.  It required several months of planning.  We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends.  We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions.  All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing.  Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up.  We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.

 

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Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident.  The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration.  We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead.  With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan.  It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other.  Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away.  From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other.  The first several minutes were surreal and jarring.  But it was also cathartic.  As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt.  Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.

Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother.  Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event.  As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion.  All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time.  Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.

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What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties.  We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.

But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge.  “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party.  But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans?  When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome.  When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences.  What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing.  God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives.  Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.

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If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness.  And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing.  But we learned so many things that day.  We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way.  We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources.  We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt.  But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.

If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom.  If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life.  Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder.  We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.

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God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time.  He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds.  It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation.  Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.

As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way.  And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.

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