Afraid to Call?

Some fears are understandable. Some fears are even logical. Some are not. I wouldn’t say that I am “afraid” of most things. I don’t spend hours of my life being afraid of unlikely events, like being struck by lightning or choking to death on a cracker. I have a healthy fear of electricity and fire. I don’t tempt fate by walking along the edge of cliffs or hanging out of thirty-story windows (both of which are rare where I come from, anyway) . But I have two phobias– irrational fears–that plague me. The first is my fear of snakes. My fear of snakes has not ruined my life, but it has caused me to limit activities– mostly nature walks– where I might be exposed to seeing a snake. I avoid the reptile house at the zoo; I avoid visiting places where snakes are more common. I don’t like to see pictures of them; I don’t watch “snake” movies.

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The second fear is more irrational and causes more problems in my daily life. I am afraid of phones. This doesn’t mean that I cannot make a phone call, or ever answer the phone. But if anyone asks about the best way to contact me, I always suggest e-mail, texts, or other forms of communication. I don’t like hearing the phone ring. I don’t like making calls. I don’t like answering calls. And it has little to do with who is on the other end. It has much more to do with the medium. I can’t see the other person’s face; I can’t predict whether or not the other person is busy or distracted; whether they want a quick answer or a lengthy talk; whether the conversation will end well or leave one (or both) of us at a loss. People call at their convenience–not at the convenience of the person at the other end. Are they in the middle of cooking dinner? Taking a shower? Having an important conversation with a spouse or child?

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But if I determine never to make or receive a phone call, I will miss other important conversations– family members who live far away; business that cannot be conducted in person; appointments that need to be set up; news about births, deaths, hospitalizations, even prayers and prayer requests.

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I say all this because I knew there are some people who have a phobia about prayer. They are afraid to pray– not just in public, but even privately. They fear that they will say the wrong thing, or that they will “bother” God with their petitions. Some fear that God will not hear their prayer or that they will not get an answer. Some are afraid that they will “get what they pray for”– that God will hear their prayer and answer it, but that the answer will involve change, hardship, or pain that they were hoping to avoid. Some fear that their prayers will not be “good enough;” that God will misunderstand their motives or be offended by their words or their lack of knowledge. Some people are afraid of God– that He will reject them and their prayers because of something they have done or the way they have lived in the past.

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Prayer is not meant to be intimidating or difficult. It is healthy to have awe for God. Even “fear” of God– He holds the power of life and death; He cannot be fooled or mocked or bargained with; He knows everything about us, including our thoughts and our past–God is not to be trifled with, even in prayer. But God invites us to pray. He calls us to come to Him; He seeks our fellowship, no matter what we’ve done or what words we string together. There is no magical “prayer formula”– no phrases or special “religious” words or a certain ritual or routine– that we must use to be heard. God– who formed the universe and keeps it running– is never too busy or too distracted to listen to us. Even groans and whimpers are important to Him.

Don’t be “afraid to pray.” And don’t let a fear keep you from praying. Pray through the fear– draw near to God– and He has promised to draw near to you.

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Many years ago, I prayed to God, that He would increase my patience. I had well-meaning people– even pastors and other Christians– who told me not to do it. They were afraid that God’s answer to such a prayer would bring difficulty– that God would answer my prayer by making me go through hard times to learn patience. And He did just that. I wanted to be married and have a family–and I spent nearly 30 years waiting and learning patience! But I would not go back and undo those years. God answered my prayer and He gave me a wonderful husband and family– in His time. Sometimes in those decades of wondering and hurting, I had pain. But I — also had many blessings in singleness–opportunities I had never planned on, changes in perspective, unforeseen experiences and relationships that, I think, prepared me to be a better person and a better wife than I would have been at age 18 or 20.

My prayer for patience was something I felt strongly about– and patience is a Godly thing; it is an aspect of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I wasn’t praying for money or fame or a life without struggles. In fact– I wasn’t praying that God would “make me” patient. People who believe that my years of waiting for a husband were the direct result of my prayer for increased patience assume that God changed the circumstances of my life to force me to learn a lesson. But what if God changed my desires to match my circumstances? What if, knowing that I would marry after age 45, God put that prayer in my young and impatient heart? If I hadn’t asked for patience, would I have taken matters into my own hands and tried to “make” a family in my way and my time? Would I have experienced more pain– and brought pain to others– if I hadn’t learned patience?

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God knows what we need. He knows that there WILL be trouble and hardship in our lives. And He knows that we can survive, and even thrive, in times of trouble, because He will be there with us. Nothing about prayer should make us afraid. Nothing about God’s answers should cause us not to seek His face. He loves us extravagantly; He knows us intimately; He controls and safeguards our future with perfect power.

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And we don’t need to use a phone to call on Him!

Death Cannot Stop True Love

I’ve spent the past few days revisiting one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. The movie is based on a “fractured” fairy tale, written by William Goldman. In it, a spoiled young farm girl falls in love with a lowly farm hand. When he leaves to make his fortune, the girl promises to wait for his return. When word comes back that he has been killed, she swears that she will never love again, and becomes a pawn of a wicked prince.

** SPOILER ALERT**

Of course, her true love, Westley, has not been killed, and when he finally finds Buttercup, she has agreed to marry the wicked prince, who has had her kidnapped and plans to kill her. “Why didn’t you wait for me?, ” Westley asks. “Well..you were dead,” replies Buttercup. “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it a while, ” says the intrepid Westley, to which Buttercup replies, “I will never doubt again.”

In true fairy-tale fashion, Westley and Buttercup must face many obstacles, including all the dangers of the “fire swamp,”capture, torture, a fake marriage ceremony, and Westley being “mostly dead”– again– before they can have their happy ending. But in the end, “true love” wins over all trials and obstacles, and Westley and Buttercup “live happily ever after.”

We live in a post-modern age, where people tend to sneer at notions like fairy tales, true love, and “happily ever after.” We are more likely to echo the words of the bitter Dread Pirate Roberts, who tells Princess Buttercup that “life is pain, highness, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Ironically, the Dread Pirate Roberts is really Westley in disguise. His life is filled with painful trials, and “inconceivable” obstacles, but he perseveres, and his “happily ever after” makes all that came before fade from memory. Because, in the end, death CANNOT stop true love. It may take a few miracles, and lots of patience, forgiveness, and faith, but true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV)

God’s love is true– it is sure and enduring. God’s presence goes with us even into the valley of the shadow of death–even if the shadows and darkness block our sight; even if death seems sure to win. His rod and staff are not tools of torture and dread, but reminders that He is there to guide us, even if we cannot see His face in the gloom.

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Life is filled with pain–and Westley was right; anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. God doesn’t promise that our path will always be on smooth ground in sunny pastures. We may face separation from loved ones, flame spurts and quicksand, betrayal by friends, battles with giants, wicked rulers, even rodents of unusual size. But in each of these situations, we have God’s very presence to comfort us and help us endure to the end. And the “happily ever after?” It is eternal and glorious like nothing we have ever known or even imagined.

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Fairy tales are not real– but God’s word is. The very reason such tales and myths and legends endure is because they echo what we know to be true– Truth, and Love, and Justice, and Honor, and Hope, and Faith–they are eternally enduring and strong. We recognize the truth that “Death cannot stop true love– all it can do is delay it for a while.” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A31-39&version=ESV

The Three-and-a-Half Miracles of Inigo Montoya

**Spoiler alert** If you have not seen this movie, or read the book, I will be disclosing large portions of the plot in the paragraphs below.

I love the movie, The Princess Bride. Though it is not a “spiritual” tale, and not meant to be a Christian allegory, I find a lot of Biblical truth in this story. In my last post, I looked at the skeptic, Vizzini, whose exaggerated claims of intellect and trust in his own brilliance lead to his downfall.

Today, I want to look at one of his sidekicks– Inigo Montoya. Inigo is a reluctant mercenary. He works for Vizzini “just to pay the bills.” His only real ambition is to find his father’s killer and demand vengeance. This has been his guiding ambition for over 20 years, and he is committed to killing his father’s murderer in a duel– if only he can find the elusive villain!

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Inigo knows three things– he knows the villain roams free and has never been brought to justice; he carries the scars from his own failed sword fight with the man, so he knows his skill and ruthlessness; and he knows the man has six fingers on his right hand. He doesn’t know the man’s name or rank, where he lives, what he does for a living, if he still lives, if he has a family– he really doesn’t know how or where to look for him, and he has no plan beyond challenging the man to a rematch to avenge his father.

I cannot condone Inigo’s thirst for vengeance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+12%3A19&version=ESV, nor his half-baked plan to achieve his goal. But Inigo’s great love for his father and his belief in justice make him a likable character. Unlike Vizzini, Inigo seems concerned for the princess’s welfare and fate, and reluctant to be involved in something that could lead to her harm (or even death). Once he meets the “man in black” who comes to rescue the princess, he treats him with honor and admires his courage and skill, even as he is pledged to try to stop him. He allows his foe to catch his breath, prepare for battle, and even shares his sad tale in the hopes that the man in black can help him find his Nemesis.

Inigo isn’t a very good villain; he is too honorable, too ready to help others he meets along the way. But he attracts miracles along his journey, and I’d like to look at three-and-a-half miracles today.

Miracles come in different types. Some are miracles of preservation; some are miracles of healing; some of transformation.

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Inigo’s first “miracle” is actually a series of miracles of preservation. Three times, Inigo is involved in sword battles, and three times he is preserved. At age eleven, he watches as his father is ruthlessly slaughtered by the villainous six-fingered man. Inigo tries to fight for his father’s honor, but is defeated. The six-fingered man leaves him scarred and humiliated, but considers Inigo nothing more than a “brat,” and considers that he has “taught him a lesson,” so he lets him live. It doesn’t seem like a miracle, but Inigo is given a chance to grow up, when he easily could have been killed. He uses this opportunity to become a great swordsman, so he can find his father’s killer and challenge him to a rematch! When Inigo challenges the mysterious man in black, he is formidable in battle, yet he loses. He is winded, scratched, and disarmed by the stranger, and expects to be killed. Yet, again, he is spared– this time out of respect. The stranger renders him unconscious, but does not kill him. Inigo recovers and finally gets the chance for vengeance against his nemesis, Count Rugen. He challenges the Count to a duel. But the Count cheats, and Inigo is gravely wounded before the battle even begins. Miraculously, he finds the strength of body and will to continue the fight. Struggling against the loss of blood, the taunts of his enemy, and his own sense of failure, Inigo continues to fight, gaining strength and momentum, until he wins–bringing justice to his father, and defeating his enemy.

The second miracle is one of guidance. Inigo needs help to reach his goal of finding and confronting Count Rugen. He needs the help of the very man he fought earlier– the mysterious man in black. But the tables have turned. The man in black has been taken captive and tortured. Inigo must find and rescue him. In desperation, he prays for guidance. He enlists God’s help in locating the man who can help him. But his prayer seems to go unanswered. He stumbles around in the woods, lost and defeated. Finally, he leans against an old tree–and in doing so, he triggers the secret door leading to the torture chamber where the man in black lies, left for dead.

The third miracle is one of revival and restoration. The man in black seems to be dead, so Inigo and his friend, Fezzik, take the body to a man named Miracle Max, to be brought back to life. Of course, this is a fairy tale (though a fractured one). We don’t expect to find miracle workers in the middle of a forest. But we often pray for miracles in hospital wards, courtrooms, and rescue shelters. God sends miracles– but he often does so through the skills and willingness of others. In this case, Miracle Max delivers a crushing blow– he does not have the power to bring someone back from the dead. However, the man is black is NOT dead; he is only “mostly” dead. Miracle Max concocts a restorative potion, delivered in a chocolate-coated pill. The man in black makes a halting, but timely, recovery, allowing Inigo to track down the evil Count and bring him to justice. (It also allows the man in black to finish his quest, rescue the Princess and defeat her wicked fiance.)

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After three miracles, Inigo finishes his quest and faces a surprising new problem. His whole life has centered around revenge. Now that he has achieved his goal, he has no future; he has lost his sense of purpose. And this is where the “half” miracle happens. Inigo’s character is noble, even if his obsession with vengeance has been unhealthy. Along the way, he has befriended Fezzik, and rescued a man who was deemed to be an enemy. He has fought bravely and with honor, and has not been corrupted by money, power, or violence. His new friend, the man in black, offers him the chance to start over– as the Dread Pirate Roberts! (Lest this sound truly “dreadful”, it has already been explained that the name and reputation are what brings terror into the hearts of the other pirates..once again, this is a fairy tale, where pirates can be heroes.)

Inigo Montoya is a flawed character– he is a drunkard, a mercenary, living with years of failure and haunted by his thirst for revenge. He is not wicked in the same way as Count Rugen or the evil Prince Humperdink, but he is lost, confused, angry, bitter, and unable to save himself. He is a sympathetic character because he is a lot like many of us. But Inigo’s life is transformed by miracles– mostly unsought–giving him the opportunity to start a new life, make new friends, and explore new opportunities.

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What unsought, and even unacknowledged, miracles have come into your life? How many times has God preserved your life, guided you in unexpected directions, provided healing or renewal to your physical, emotional, or spiritual being, and given you unexpected new opportunities?

God doesn’t always give us an instant or dramatic miracle– even when we pray for one. Sometimes, he allows us to collapse against a tree, or be scarred by our enemies, or spend twenty years chasing a quest only to find ourselves unfulfilled at the end of it.

But God IS in the business of miracles– and unlike Miracle Max, he doesn’t charge a fee. God’s ways are not our ways https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+55%3A8-9&version=ESV , but His ways are always working for our eventual and ultimate good https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A28&version=ESV— if we learn to trust. The big difference between Inigo and his unfortunate employer, Vizzini https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/17/inconceivable/, is that Inigo trusted in something bigger than his own exaggerated intellect. He sought to help others and be helped by them, instead of merely using them.

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May our lives be filled with miracles today– great or small–and may we see them and celebrate their true source!

Troubled Waters

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

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

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

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

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

Let Nothing You Dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour

Was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy;

O tidings of comfort and joy!

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We celebrate Christmas–we play music, dance, laugh, hang up festive decorations, feast, and exchange gifts.  But for many years, Christmas was a holiday overshadowed by Advent.  Advent is all about preparing for the coming of Messiah, much as Lent is about preparing for the crucifixion and resurrection of Good Friday and Easter.  Advent can be a joyful time, but it can also be a time of fear, darkness, and atonement.  Added to that, Advent comes during the darkest months of the year for the northern hemisphere; the farther north, the darker it gets in December.

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The early Protestants, especially the Puritans, feared the admixture of Christian teachings with pagan rituals associated with the Winter Solstice, and in doing so, they smothered much of the joy and celebration that had come to be associated with Christmas.  However, certain songs and carols survived.  Among these was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  The title and many of the lyrics seem strange to our modern ears, but the title simply means, “may God keep you merry (or happy, blessed, joyful, even hearty or healthy), Gentlemen (and Gentle Ladies).”  It was a blessing sung by peasants (or the local watchman) to their local lords and ladies, but it was also an excellent and joyful summation of all that the season really means.  (See more explanation of the origins and meaning of the song here..   https://www.carols.org.uk/god_rest_ye_merry_gentlemen.htm     www.acecollins.com/books/storiesbehindchr.html  )

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Advent IS a good time for reflection and preparation, but it should also be full of joyful anticipation.  Christmas, and all that follows, is all that the angels heralded– good news of great tidings.  And the Gospel is news of comfort and joy!  Not the temporary comfort of a warm fire or the fleeting joy of a delicious feast in the company of merry men and women.  Christmas offers the comfort of knowing that Christ has fulfilled the ancient promises– He has come; he has lived among his own; he has defeated death and the grave; he has risen and ascended!  There is nothing left to fill the Christian with dismay or terror.  It is fear and pain that are temporary–life and peace are eternally promised for those who accept the good tidings!

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This life will still hold pain, grief, injustice, and darkness– but it is not inevitable and it will not prevail!  God is greater than our most pressing problem, deeper than our grief, wider than our capacity to stray, and more powerful than Satan’s thorniest snares.  Christmas Day reminds us of these truths, and allows us to live in true love and brotherhood with those around us, no matter our current circumstances.

Taxing Prayers

It’s tax time in my neck of the woods, and that means that a lot of people are praying.  Some are praying for a tax refund; others are praying that their tax bill is lower than expected, or that they can somehow find the money to pay it.

Taxes are not pleasant, but they are a constant reality of this world.  Even Jesus had to pay taxes–to an oppressive foreign empire, no less.  The people of his time wanted him to lead a rebellion against Roman occupation.  But even if he had done so, their own religious leaders collected Temple taxes.

There are a lot of other unpleasant realities in this life– injustice, bigotry, hatred, disease, natural disasters, accidents, and death.  God doesn’t remove them, no matter how hard or how earnestly we pray… he may send healing, comfort, or strength to get us through a crisis, but he never promised to end poverty, or remove the consequences of sin, or wipe out cancer–YET.

These are the taxing prayers that we continue to pray– prayers that come from our pain and longing for a new Heaven and a new Earth.  It is in our fallen nature to yearn for the perfection of God’s original creation;  a world we have never experienced, but for which our souls were designed.  In praying for things to be made “right”, we acknowledge that they are, in this present age, very wrong.  And we acknowledge that our best efforts can never be “enough” to overcome the ravages of sin.  Finally, in bringing them to God, we acknowledge that only He has the power and wisdom to “fix” them– in His time.

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Taxes are not pleasant, but there will come a day when they are abolished.  God’s love, his mercy, his blessings– they are tax-free, and they are in endless supply.

Even during tax season, that’s something to celebrate!

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