O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem


1. O little town of Bethlehem, 
how still we see thee lie; 
above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
the silent stars go by. 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
the everlasting light; 
the hopes and fears of all the years 
are met in thee tonight. 

2. For Christ is born of Mary, 
and gathered all above, 
while mortals sleep, the angels keep 
their watch of wondering love. 
O morning stars together, 
proclaim the holy birth, 
and praises sing to God the king, 
and peace to all on earth! 

3. How silently, how silently, 
the wondrous gift is given; 
so God imparts to human hearts 
the blessings of his heaven. 
No ear may hear his coming, 
but in this world of sin, 
where meek souls will receive him, still 
the dear Christ enters in. 

4. O holy Child of Bethlehem, 
descend to us, we pray; 
cast out our sin, and enter in, 
be born in us today. 
We hear the Christmas angels 
the great glad tidings tell; 
o come to us, abide with us, 
our Lord Emmanuel! 

Words by Phillips Brooks




Micah 5:2 English Standard Version (ESV)
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.

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God’s ways are not our ways.
I grew up in a tiny village in Michigan, and when we used to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I always imagined a similarly tiny town, draped in silence in the dead of night, sleeping right through the most glorious and stunning event in history.  It wasn’t difficult to imagine the same thing happening in my sleepy village– Christ could have come to any of a dozen sway-backed sheds or garages around town without fanfare as hundreds of strangers crammed into local houses and public buildings, eager to be done with a bizarre census that led them back to where their ancestors once lived.  There is nothing special about my hometown to anyone but those of us who grew up there.

Bethlehem was just such a small town.  Prophecy that a king would arise from such a backwater village was mostly ignored.  Four hundred years had passed since the last mention of Bethlehem by God or any of His prophets.  No one expected a miracle there, just as no one would expect a miracle in our little town today.

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We expect big things to happen in big cities– bustling, surging, modern, energy-filled cities.  This is where grand events are held– political rallies, sold-out concerts, championship sporting events, groundbreaking new developments in business and medicine, coronations and ceremonies.  But God often works in the quiet spaces and unexpected places of our world and in our lives.  He comes softly and silently into the dark corners and forgotten nooks filling them with His glory.

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And He gives us the privilege of sharing in this miracle– wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our circumstances.  Christ did not spend most of His life on earth in the halls of power or the centers of commerce.  He didn’t “tour” the university circuit giving lectures, or fill great auditoriums while His image was splashed across a Jumbo-tron.  He walked humbly from small village to small town, spreading truth and love and drawing people to Himself, that they might believe and find true life.  He modeled how we can extend His grace– starting with those in our own small towns or neighborhoods–with simple acts and earnest prayers like the ones in this song:
“Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”
“Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Praying in the Present

I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but I need a reminder every so often about living in the present (including keeping my prayer life centered in the present).  It is very tempting sometimes to wallow in the past or dream of the future.  There’s nothing wrong with learning from past mistakes or making future goals, but we are not to waste our time or our energies pursuing what isn’t, while ignoring what is happening around us.

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If we look closely at the Lord’s Prayer, we see how centered it is in the present.  There are a couple of forward-looking phrases (Thy kingdom come…lead us not into temptation…For ever and ever..) but most of the prayer is for the present and foreseeable future.

I need to be reminded, through Christ’s example and through scripture, that God wants me to trust Him for my daily needs and follow one step at a time.  If I find myself spending more time asking God for things far out in my future, or continually bringing up things from my past, it may mean (though not always) that I am not fully trusting in the sufficiency of His Grace for today.

God has already seen my past– and loves me unconditionally.  His Grace will not be rescinded each time I face a reminder of my past; He will not change His mind if someone else carries a grudge against me.

God has also seen my future.  He knows my needs, my concerns, my desires.  He wants me to bring my whole heart to Him in prayer–a heart that is ready to trust His provision and plan, even when I don’t know the details.

Think what would happen if every parent-child conversation involved the following themes:

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  1. “Mom, do you remember the time I tipped over your plants when I was five, and you yelled at me.  I just want to tell you I’m so sorry I did that.  I know you said you’ve forgiven me, but I need to ask you again.”  “Dad, I know you were disappointed when I got into a fight with my brother back when I was eight, but I hope you can see how I’ve learned a lot since then.  Please don’t hold that against me today.”
  2. “Hey, Dad, I really want to drive when I turn 16.  Can I ask you for a purple sports car when I turn 16?  I want to be a good driver, and I just know that you want me to be a good driver.  I think a purple sports car would make me a great driver in another seven years.”  “Mom, will you promise to babysit my kids after I have kids?  I just know my kids will want to have a close relationship with you, so will you just promise to be close to my kids when I grow up and have them?”

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There’s nothing essentially wrong with the actual requests– but when we focus on the past or the future at the expense of the present, we miss learning what God has for us TODAY.  We also risk seeing God only for what He gives and what He has done, and not for Who He Is!

Let’s enjoy time with God today (and every day) as it unfolds.

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Restoration

A widow contacted a local church to come pick up an old rusty car that belonged to her late husband.  He had one request– that the car be kept in the old garage at the church parsonage and that anyone who wanted to could stop by and work on it.  He had purchased it years before with the intention of restoring it to drive around in during his retirement.  But time and ill-health had robbed him of his dream.  His hope was that someone might enjoy working on it, and if no one came to work on the car, perhaps the church could sell it to scrappers and at least get some money for it.  An ad was placed in the bulletin, and another in the local paper.  Hours were set up, when people could stop by to work on the car.

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Soon, there was a great stir– several members of the congregation came forward to protest.  Some were concerned about the safety and liability involved in having the car in the garage where anyone could get to it.  Surely, it would be in the church’s best interest to have the car locked away, so only members of the congregation could get to it.  Others were arguing about how to restore the car properly– what was the original color of the chassis and the interior?  Could they find the exact parts for that make and model?  Who would work on the engine?  The interior?  The frame?  Surely the old man didn’t mean for just anyone to come in and work wherever s/he felt like working…how would the job get done?  Detailed schedules were posted and discussed; re-posted and opposed.

Weeks, and even months went by.  The church was divided; some threatened to leave.  And none of the church members had even visited the old car in the garage– it sat forgotten.  Except…

A young man in town had seen the notice in the newspaper.  He wrote down the original work schedule and followed it, quietly coming every Tuesday and Friday night after work, and patiently working to restore the car.  He cleaned and oiled parts, “tinkered” with others, sanded off rust, fixed hose lines and checked all the panels.  He patched upholstery and polished up the old tires.  He painted the chassis and found matching window wipers to replace the old ones.  He worked on the motor and the exhaust, and even the old AM radio.  He made sure the mirrors and windows were not cracked or chipped.  He even hunted around to find the right hood ornament to replace the one that was lost.  Only the pastor knew of his work, and even he had never joined the man or asked about his progress– he merely opened the garage door every time the young man arrived, and closed it when the young man left.

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After eight months, the division in the church had reached a fevered pitch.  One group demanded that the car be removed to a secure location and that the labor should be divided based on an elaborate chart that focused on how long someone had attended the church, their skill base, what time they were available to work, and whether they were currently an elder or deacon (or had ever served as an elder or deacon).

When the group arrived at the garage, they were shocked to discover that the car was completely restored, polished and glorious in its restoration.  Shocked and angry, they attacked the pastor– How could he have allowed this to happen “behind their backs?”  When the pastor admitted that he was as surprised as they were, their attention turned to the young man.  They hunted him down and demanded an explanation.  How dare he come and work on the church’s car without their knowledge or approval!  Who did he think he was?!

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The young man’s answer left them stunned.  He said, “I read an invitation that said anyone who wished could come and help restore an old car to help out a local church.  I came every week, and no one else ever showed up to help.  No one from your church did any work on this car.  No one ever came to check on it or see if any work had been done.  No one from your church gave me a word of encouragement, no one had a helpful suggestion or even constructive criticism.  No one offered me a word of gratitude.  No one helped hold a lamp or flashlight so I could see the hidden damage as I made repairs.  No one helped when I had to hoist the motor or clean off the grease and grime, or polish the chrome.  The invitation was clear– whosoever will, may come.  I came.  I followed the directions I was given– I came on Tuesdays and Fridays, and I cleaned up each time before I left.  I put a lot of work into this car, and now I’m done.  I hope your church can decide on a good use for it; she’s a beauty, and I think she’ll run really well– I didn’t take her for a spin, but I hope someone will be able to enjoy her for many years to come.”

The crowd from the church still had one question– Why had the young man come in the first place, and why did he keep working on the car all those months?  Did he want the car for himself?

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“No,” the man said; “when I first read the ad in the paper and I saw the word ‘restoration’, I was deeply moved.  Not too many years ago, I was living a very wild and dangerous life.  I felt alone and abandoned and I was filled with anger.  I was restless and destructive.  But one man in town took me under his wing.  He gave me a part-time job, and made me promise to stay in school.  But much more than that, he and his wife invited me over for dinner several times.  They made time out of their busy schedule to come and watch me play basketball after I finally made the team in my senior year.  When I joined the army, they sent letters and care packages.  The old man used to tell me that I reminded him of an old car he bought and kept in his garage.  He said it was an amazing machine that just needed restoration– he said I was an amazing person who just needed some restoration.  He told me that Jesus came to bring restoration to anyone who wanted to come to Him.”

“I finished my time in the army; I came back and started my own business.  I got busy and moved on with life.  I never came back to thank that man for his kindness, and he never asked for anything from me.  I guess I expected to thank him some day, but I found out that he had died.  I went to see his widow.  She was so gracious, asking about my family and wishing me the best, and then she mentioned her husband’s last request.  And when I saw the ad in the paper, I knew this was a way for me to thank the old man, but also to experience what restoration really means.  When I came to God, I was rusty, filthy, and broken.  God has sanded off the rust in my life, mended broken relationships, and given me new life.  It’s an honor to be able to bring restoration, no matter the circumstances.  God has done so much to restore my life, it’s the least I can do to help restore an old car.  I hope that somehow, this car can inspire renewal in someone else’s life the way its owner helped bring restoration to my life.”

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I wish I could say that the young man’s story changed the hearts of the angry deacons and elders.  A few of them were touched; some even convicted of their pride and selfishness.  But most were simply put out.

What have I done with the precious gift of restoration in my life?  God, lead me to someone today who needs to hear, and SEE, the miracle of restoration and Grace.

The Mercy Rule

I witnessed a blow-out high school football game last week.  The final score was 57 to 0!  Once the point differential was over 50, they invoked the “mercy rule.”  The game clock would not stop for downs; there would be no more “time out” calls– as this happened late in the game anyway, it just meant that the end came quickly and “mercifully” for the losing team.  It also meant that players were less likely to take dangerous risks in the forlorn hope of scoring big points.

High school football has a “mercy rule”  so that struggling teams don’t become victims of absolute despair.  This team deserved to lose, and they did.  They lost big; but they could’ve lost by a wider margin.  And they didn’t lose for lack of effort– they pushed hard and gave it a mighty try.  But they were not up to the challenge of a better team.

 

In life, when we come up against Sin, we can give our best effort, and still lose big.  Oh, there are certain sins that seem easily “tamed” or “defeated,” but there are others that end up crushing us– maybe it’s an addiction to porn, or a tendency to spread rumors; maybe we harbor bitterness or doubt, or we can’t control angry outbursts.

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In the end, we are all losers in the game against Sin– whether the loss seems like a close shave or a blowout, the result is the same.  But the consequences are much more dire.  The penalty for Sin is Death.  Not just a single lost game, but an eternal loss of life and hope and light and love!  We are no match for Sin, and Sin shows no mercy.  Even with a mercy rule, our situation seems hopeless.  But it is not.

Death may seem like a a harsh and undeserved judgment.  We “can’t” win.  Or, more correctly, we will always lose.  Even a “mercy rule,” while it may mean that we don’t get the death we deserve, wouldn’t keep us from being “losers.”  This is how many people see God’s offer of salvation– as some sort of mercy rule that keeps us from the fate we can’t avoid.  But even if God only offered mercy, it would be infinitely better than we can imagine.  Because God’s mercy is not just a “rule”, it is a priceless gift of restoration.  We can be free from the “loss” and penalty we deserve, no matter what the “point differential.”  Even a close “loss” to sin is wiped out by God’s mercy.

God’s offer of salvation doesn’t just stop at mercy, however.  It includes something that will never happen in a football game or anywhere else in life.  God extends His Grace– all that we don’t deserve, and never could deserve–above and beyond the already infinite and superior mercy we needed to escape the judgment of Death.  We don’t just escape the horrors of death and hell.  We are gifted with all we need to win the game– to be co-victors over Death and Sin.  God, in His mercy keeps us from losing.  In His Grace, He coaches us, plays alongside us, cheers for us, and gives us the power to become all that we need to be to play our best.  AND, He has already secured the victory.  Far from being in a position where we “can’t” win– God offers us the opportunity to be in a position where we can’t LOSE!

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It is my ongoing prayer that if you are reading this, you have already responded to God’s invitation, through Jesus Christ, to be victorious; that God’s spirit would guide me to write what will be helpful in encouraging you and strengthening your faith (as well as my own).  I pray that you will grow in faith and make the pursuit of prayer part of your daily walk in Faith.  If that is not the case, and you have not accepted both God’s mercy and His grace, I pray that you will take that opportunity today.

Don’t wait for a “mercy rule”– accept the mercy of the Ruler!

Repent, relent, or resent?

I’m revisiting Jonah today.  The book of Jonah is a fascinating study–it’s just four short chapters, but they are packed with messages that inspire, convict, and encourage. More about Jonah here…

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At the beginning of the book, Jonah is sent by God to preach disaster to a city steeped in evil and violence.  Nineveh was an ancient metropolis of the Assyrian empire, located near modern-day Mosul, Iraq.  The people of Nineveh had been responsible for attacks against Israel, and it is believed that Jonah may have lost family members in these attacks.  Now God is sending him into the “belly of the beast” to preach judgment and doom.  Instead of following God’s command, Jonah tries to run away and gets swallowed by a big fish.

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This is the part of the story with which most people are familiar– Jonah and the “Whale”.  But this covers only the first quarter of the story!  Inside the fish, Jonah prays.  It is a beautiful prayer of praise and acknowledgement of God’s might and power to save.  This is not the sniveling coward of chapter one, but the great prophet he could have, should have been.  God gives him another chance and this time, Jonah is faithful to preach the message God sends– forty more days and He will wipe out Nineveh.

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But something unexpected happens.  The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s dire warning– a lone voice calling in the streets with a gloomy message– and they repent.  From the least to the greatest, they cry out for mercy, they fast and mourn and do a complete about-face.  Just as God saved Jonah from the fish, He relents and saves Nineveh from destruction.  Jonah’s enemies get to live to see a new day!

The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah resented.  The last chapter tells of Jonah’s temper tantrum in the light of God’s mercy.  God even sends him an object lesson in the form of a gourd vine.  The book of Jonah ends abruptly with God’s last statement.  We never read Jonah’s response; we never find out if he learned his lesson a second time or not.

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Even with its abrupt end, the book of Jonah teaches about three important responses:

  • The people of Nineveh repented.  When faced with judgment, they humbled themselves and called for mercy.  They received it.  In spite of their former violence, idolatry, and wickedness, God sent them a warning, and He extended the grace and mercy they did not deserve.
    • Two words of warning here:
      • 1) Their response was immediate, sincere, and dramatic.  That makes for an exciting story, but repentance sometimes comes over time and quietly.  God knows if our repentance is real.  It is not our place to judge someone else’s conversion or apology.
      • 2)  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance was short-lived.  God eventually destroyed the city and the Assyrian empire.  Just because we have a moment of sincere regret or keenly feel a need for mercy doesn’t mean that God has an obligation to extend mercy or to withhold judgment indefinitely.  Grace is a gift, not a negotiation!

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  • God relented.  God listens, ready to extend His grace.  He does not punish us as we deserve.  He does not mete out immediate judgment without hope of redemption.  God sent Jonah with a message of potential doom to Israel’s sworn enemy in the knowledge that they (EVEN THEY) would repent.  God sent dozens of prophets to the nation of Israel warning of doom and exile, and they mocked and even killed the messengers!  God is patient, loving, and kind.  But He is also just– evil will not be forgotten or left unpunished.  God will relent, but He won’t retreat, back down, or surrender.

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  • Jonah resented.  We don’t know if he stayed resentful, or rediscovered gratitude for God’s grace to Nineveh or to himself, but we are left with a picture that Jesus echoes in the story of the prodigal son.  Jonah is like the older brother who worries more about his brother’s misdeeds than his brother’s soul.  How many of us who have experienced grace sulk and pout when we see others enjoying their first delightful taste of it?  Do we stamp our feet at God when he sends us to bring the Gospel to people we have written off as uninterested in or unworthy of it?  Do we resent being corrected and humbled by a loving God?  Do we worry and fret over our creature comforts as Jonah worried over his gourd vine, while others live without hope, food, or shelter?

Three words, so similar in spelling and sound, but so very different in impact!

Lord, I pray that my repentance would always be immediate and sincere; that I would see others, and their need for your grace, through your eyes of compassion; and that I would not resent your goodness and patience toward others.  Thank you for your patience and mercy toward me, and may I give the same to those who need to see Your face.  Give me the wisdom to trust you and obey, even when my flesh would run away.  May I see the gourd vines and big fish in my life as your gifts.

Where Am I?

Smack-dab in the center of Sin and Pride;
You could find me in Peril, Intrigue and Rebellion–
Guilt surrounded me, pain and despair held me fast.
But I was not in Repentance, Mercy, or Grace.

I had die to “I”– let it go and let the Son redeem the Sin
Trade Pride for Prayer, and Hype for Hope.

But I am no longer lost or dead– and no longer a slave to sin or pride.
I can now be found in Faith, and Charity;
I thrive in Fellowship, I have a Friend in Jesus,
A Spirit to guide me, and a vision for Eternity.
It is not “I” who lives, but “I AM” who lives in me.
Salvation, forgiveness, life, and victory are all mine;
Alive in Him, I am found in Christ– sanctified,
And never alone.

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Romans 8:1-5 King James Version (KJV)

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.

 

1 Corinthians 15:57 New International Version (NIV)

57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

  • A brief note about Scripture references and quotes:  I try to give scripture references and quotes in various translations, though I give most in the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV) or the King James or New King James versions (KJV or NKJV).  I don’t intend to cause confusion by doing this.  There are several excellent translations/versions available, and for a good comparison, there are several wonderful Bible study websites (two of my favorites are Bible Gateway and Bible Hub  ).  I simply find that there are some nuances that make for easier reading or use in the blog.  Often, one translation will have notes and cross references that are wonderful for further study, but confusing to include as part of the blog quote.  I encourage anyone to read the verses in whatever translation they have available, feel most comfortable using, or feel is most trustworthy.  I also welcome comments or corrections.

The Just and the Unjust

“God isn’t Fair!”  I hear this often from angry and bitter people who have suffered losses or disappointments in life.  Some of their losses are heavy and come with great pain– loss of a child, loss of a home, loss of health…these are legitimate losses, and there are no conclusive, comprehensive or comforting answers.  In fact, in many ways, God is NOT “fair”– as we usually define “fair.”  God sends life, health, happiness, sunshine and rain to both the “just” and the “unjust”; to both rich and poor, tall and short, ugly and good looking, gracious and annoying, kind and cruel…  Tragedy strikes at random, some are touched by it, others seem to be plagued by it, and still others skate through life unscathed.

God may not seem “fair”, but let’s look at it from another angle.  God sends rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust.  He sends gifts, and we use, abuse, accept, or reject them.  Circumstances and outcomes are not always pleasant, but does this mean they are “bad?”  And when they are easy, and comfortable, does this always make them “good?” Good people have to endure tragedy– this is usually what we focus on when we talk about God being “unfair.”  And we generally put ourselves in the “good” category.  Why should we have hardship and pain, while “bad” people seem to get a “pass?”    Shouldn’t bad things only happen to bad people, while good people enjoy only good things?  Sounds “fair”, doesn’t it?

But what happens when the world operates on that principle?  If “bad” people are the only ones who get sick, then they deserve to be sick– not healed.  If “bad” people are the only ones to experience poverty, then we don’t need to help the poor or the needy.  Good people should be rich and healthy.  But what if we are sometimes good, and sometimes selfish?  Do we deserve to keep all that’s good if we misuse it, or lose all that’s good if we go astray and then repent?  Is that fair?!  Where is the motivation to cure diseases, share resources, or enforce laws?  Who decides whether your “good” idea is “good” for everyone around you?  Who can ascend to heaven and tell God what is “fair?”

God created us in His image, and that means that we have a spirit that longs for justice and fairness.  It’s how we recognize evil and injustice.  But sin clouds our eyes, and poisons our world–pollution doesn’t just hurt the people who pollute; arson doesn’t just burn the arsonist; drunk drivers don’t just hurt themselves; and so on.  We don’t look at the evil or thoughtless or “unfair” things we have done or said that went unpunished or unnoticed.  And we discount all the unmerited blessings that have come our way– God is often “unfair” in our favor!  We don’t complain about that.

God is not the author of “unfairness”, though He allows it.  And, while I can’t explain away pain and suffering when they occur, I know two things:

God is Gracious– If God’s justice were not tempered by mercy, every mistake, every sin, would be unforgivable and eternally ours to bear.  Every random thoughtless action, and all its consequences, would weigh us down forever.

God is Just–Jesus’s death was about redemption and restoration– He didn’t just die to “save” you from hell– He died to restore you to the person and position for which you were created– whole, pure, unstained and uncorrupted.  This wasn’t “Plan B”– this was His eternal plan, and it includes perfect justice and perfect restoration.

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Knowing these things does not take away the pain of the present.  It does not make suffering easy; it does not erase the loss.  But it can allow us to take the next step, and the next, on our journey.  Rain or shine.

 

 

Reflections…

Matthew 7:7-12 New International Version (NIV)

Ask, Seek, Knock

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

God created us in His image–when we look at someone else, we see an image of Almighty God, albeit one distorted by sin and the effects of a fallen world.  Jesus came to be a perfect reflection of the Father, and to restore our ability to more accurately reflect Him in the world around us.  As one who was able to perfectly fulfill the Law, Jesus summed up the Law and Prophets in a simple phrase we call “The Golden Rule”– Do to others what you would have them do to you.  We all want people to respect us, to help us, to believe us, to listen to us, to encourage us, to share with us, and to live in peace with us.  We also want people to respect our boundaries and privacy, and to forgive us when we mess up.

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Unfortunately, we are more often a reflection of the evil around us than the God who made us–we treat others with disdain; we cheat and lie (or tell half-truths); we point fingers at our “wicked” neighbors, while giving ourselves a “pass” for our own “shortcomings”.  We put others down, make fun of their mistakes, spread rumors, and call them names.  We take advantage of them, make demands of them, use and abuse them.  We hold grudges, we “unfriend” them, and we exaggerate their faults to others.  In fact, we spend time complaining about how badly others treat us, while passing that same treatment on to someone new.  And we don’t even see the hypocricy–in ourselves!

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There is another simple phrase–“Hurt people hurt people.”  In other words, people who are carrying hurt and bitterness pass it on to others.  They see insults in the most innocent phrases; they hang on to grudges and suspicion; they criticize and condemn others; they spread anger and hatred and negativity.  They see evil intent in everyone else’s words and actions, and justify the evil intent of their own by pointing their fingers.  Many people do it while proclaiming their own “righteousness.”  “I just tell it like it is—I call ’em as I see ’em.”  “I just think you need to know…”  “If you treated me better I wouldn’t have to be so mean/angry/ etc.”  “You’re what’s wrong with this world..”  “I deserve better than this..”

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It’s little wonder, then, that so many people have a distorted view of God– they believe he’s harsh, unforgiving, critical and demanding, just waiting for them to mess up so he can punish them.  They believe this, in part, because sin twists our ability to see the truth.  But they also believe it because they see these characteristics in the very people who proudly (even arrogantly) carry the name of Christ.

“Do to others what you would have them do to you…”  “Ask, and it will be given to you….Knock and the door will be opened to you.”  God is not harsh; neither is he a doormat.  He wants us to live in harmony and peace– not demanding or stealing, but asking and giving generously.  He wants us to speak the truth in love, not justifying ourselves at the expense of someone else, or jumping to conclusions or snap judgments.  He wants us to knock on doors– not break them down or walk away in isolation; not locking everyone out or dragging them inside our space against their will.  Jesus modeled how we are to live.  He had no home, but welcomed those who wanted to follow him, and accepted invitations from Pharisees and sinners alike.  He spoke harshly only to those who were harsh and arrogant, but he did not provoke arguments, and he spoke words of healing to those who were hurt, even those who mocked him.  He had only what he carried with him, yet he withheld nothing that he could give when it was in his power to do so– sharing his food, sharing the wisdom of parables, sharing his healing touch and compassionate heart.  He mentioned Hell more than any other Bible figure, but never with relish;  His desire is that all might repent and escape their just punishment.  Hurt people who encountered Jesus were transformed by his presence.  They still are being transformed!  But transformed people should be the ones to stop spreading hurt, shouldn’t they?  If hurt people hurt people, shouldn’t transformed lives transform lives?

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As I prepare to pray, today, I need to go back and reflect on how I reflect God’s character–Am I distorting His image?  Am I hurting people, or pointing the way to the One who can provide healing and transformation?

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Lord, help me to see you clearly, and reflect you more accurately to a dark and hurting world.  Help others to see in me your compassion, your love, and your desire to heal and restore.  Help me to reflect on all the good gifts you have given– joy, peace, hope, redemption, patience, kindness, self-control, love, perseverance, gentleness, goodness, trust, wisdom, truth, newness of purpose and life; help me to reflect those same good gifts as I go through this day that you have made.

Praying for the Enemy

Everybody has enemies.  And when I use the term “enemies”, I’m really referring to two types of people.  There are the people who are your enemies– they hate you.  They are scheming to hurt or destroy you; people who defame or slander you; people who betray you; people who cheat and lie to and steal from and abuse you or those closest to you.  Then there are the people for whom you are an enemy– you don’t like them, you don’t trust them, you don’t respect them; you probably defame or gossip about them, and you hurt them, even if it is unintentional.  Some enemies fall into both categories, but not all.

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I would love to say that I have no enemies–of either type.  But, alas, they exist– both types.   God calls on us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to show them kindness, and to bless them!  In our own power, we can’t do this.  We can make the attempt to forgive the unforgivable, to love the unlovable, and reconcile the impossible, but we fall short in our attempts:  the betrayal is too deep; the hurt is too overwhelming; the damage is irreversible, and the impossible is just…well…impossible.

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Loving our enemies is one of the proofs of God’s existence, his goodness, his power, his own boundless love at work through our imperfect words and efforts.  Praying for our enemies, showing kindness and grace in the face of hatred and betrayal–these are miracles that defy explanation.  That is one good reason to keep praying for the enemies in our lives– God can work through us to effect reconciliation, healing, and peace.

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Another good reason is that prayer changes US.  Praying for our enemies is difficult.  It is humbling.  It breaks our pride and forces us to let go of the bitterness and recognize God’s rightful place as judge, avenger, and healer.  It reminds us that God’s love, being boundless and eternal, stretches to those people who don’t deserve it, whether that is the hurtful person you don’t want to forgive, or the hurtful YOU who needs to be forgiven.

But praying for our enemies isn’t just about bringing peace and harmony or transforming us into better versions of ourselves.  No amount of willpower, or good intention, or logic, or internal fortitude, or peaceful meditation, or persuasive rhetoric, or even powerful prayer are enough to eliminate our enemies or make us perfect in love.

 

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We pray for our enemies, but not all of our enemies.  There are two enemies we need to pray AGAINST– Sin and Satan.  They are the true enemies, trying to destroy both sinner and sinned-against.  They are not just our enemies, but enemies of God.  Both are defeated.  Their power is illusory, and their damage, while intensely painful, is temporary.  And when we refuse to pray for our human “enemies” we serve their destructive purposes.

 

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