Praying the Perimeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes of the Faith

When I was just a girl, many of my cousins and playmates were fans of comic-book heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, X-Men, Spiderman, and many others. In fact, in second grade, we had a “superhero” club that met at recess and played out scenarios. Most of us got to be heroes; a few had to take turns being villains. We ran as fast as we could; we pretended to fly; we pretended to save the world!

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Each super hero has a special super power (or several super powers), and each one has a “fatal flaw”– some weakness that could keep him (or her) from easy victory over a villain. Superman can fly; but he cannot overcome the effects of Krypton. Batman has a seemingly endless array of cool gadgets, but they are not always enough to counter the cool gadgets of his foes. Spider-man can spin webs, but being a superhero doesn’t pay his bills. Wonder Woman has a lasso of truth and an invisible airplane, but she must struggle between promoting peace and fighting to stop violence and war.

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I was reminded recently that we often confuse Biblical characters with comic-book superheroes. Abraham had extraordinary faith. Moses had his staff. Samson had great strength. David wrote poetry and killed giants…and so on. And each “hero” of the faith seemed to have a “fatal flaw”– Abraham did not wait for God’s promise of Isaac. Moses had a temper. Samson was arrogant and forgot the source of his strength. David was tempted by lust, which led him to commit adultery and murder!

There is nothing wrong with honoring men and women of faith and courage and obedience. The entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews is devoted to “heroes” of the faith, and the faith of Godly heroes.

But we can turn heroes into idols, and that leads us to false thinking. We falsely believe that God only calls those who are already heroic and strong. We sometimes feel that God cannot use us unless we first show that we have some super power. We also carry a false guilt about our “fatal flaws,” feeling that we have somehow ruined God’s plans or let the enemy “win” whenever we stumble. Finally, we fail to see that our ordinary obedience–even our shaky and stumbling faith– IS heroic.

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Superheroes are not Biblical, and Biblical characters were never “super” heroes. Most of them spent their lives doing mostly ordinary things– farming, fishing, carpentry, tax collecting, herding sheep! There is only one “superhero” in the Bible– God himself–and He has no fatal flaw. Instead, He chooses flawed and ordinary people to obey Him as HE does extraordinary things through them.

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One consistent thing about the people we celebrate as “heroes” in the Bible– they all prayed! They all knew that real power (and wisdom and help) comes from God alone. Prayer and obedience are not guaranteed to make us famous or heroic. But God can use the simplest acts and the smallest measure of true faith to do great things in, and around, and through ordinary people just like us!

At the Impulse of Thy Love

Sometimes, I am impulsive. I blurt out my thoughts and emotions; I end up buying a candy bar as I finish checking out my groceries; I decide to turn left at the intersection instead of going straight. Generally, impulsive actions are frowned upon. They can be foolish, wasteful, even dangerous. God does not call on us to be foolish or thoughtless, but there are times when He wants us to act on HIS impulse– to obey without stopping to weigh the pros and cons, without stopping to consider how we will appear to others or how obedience might “mess up” our carefully planned day.

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Have you ever felt the “impulse” of God’s love moving you to an unexpected action? Maybe you had a sudden urge to speak to a stranger on a train, or get in touch with an old friend. Maybe you felt compelled to give a gift to someone or stop and offer to help carry a load for them. Maybe you saw a news story and it caused you to pray– and to remember someone’s need and pray some more!

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Our own selfish impulses can get us into a lot of trouble. But God’s impulses can lead to blessing beyond our understanding. Just remember:

  • God’s impulses will never cause you to act contrary to His word. Buying things you know you can’t afford (especially for yourself!), or blurting out judgmental and hurtful comments– such impulses are NOT Godly. “Speaking the truth in Love” is not the same as spewing finger-pointing condemnation and self-righteous justification. Trusting that “God will provide” is not the same as assuming He wants you to have everything you desire.
  • Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience. God’s impulses are meant to be spontaneous moments of joyful service– not grudging acceptance of an imposition. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a split second to discern God’s voice (see above) and respond appropriately. But God wants our “moments” as well as our “days”–He knows our plans. But He also knows His plans are better. If we are not willing for our plans to be redirected, then God is not really our Lord.
  • God’s impulses almost always involve others. God is LOVE. His impulses, therefore, are all about showing love–HIS LOVE–giving, serving, listening, helping, sharing, encouraging! God’s impulses will be directed outward, either toward others or toward God on the behalf of others. Amazingly, in God’s economy, we often reap a residual reward when we put aside our own plans. Sometimes the reward is not immediate or obvious–we may seem to meet with rejection, or even failure at first. Our actions may be misunderstood; our offers to help may fall flat; our prayers may seem to go unheard. But the love we show is not empty or worthless. We may never see the fruit of our actions or prayers, but we can still plant the seeds and water them!
  • God is a God of Grace and Mercy. Did you fail to act on a Godly impulse today? Stop. Take a moment to repent. Learn from today. Ask for wisdom to do better at the next opportunity!
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I’m always amazed at the miraculous opportunities God has given me to bless others, and to learn more about His amazing Love. From unexpected encounters in faraway places, to reminders and prayer requests on Facebook or local news stories, to a sudden urge to do a random act of kindness– God’s impulses give us the opportunity to participate in His miracles!

Stop, Drop, and Pray!

Does it ever feel like you spend your days “putting out fires?” Taking care of little problems before they become bigger problems? Never getting a chance to rest or relax before the next crisis hits? Trying to put out a fire that keeps getting out of hand?

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Fires can become very dangerous very quickly. Experts advise that we shouldn’t try to stay and fight a fire for which we are not equipped–it puts you and others at far greater risk. There is a simple phrase that can help people survive and escape a house or building fire: Stop. Drop. And Roll. A similar phrase can be helpful in facing the spiritual and emotional “fires” we face: Stop. Drop. And Pray!

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  • Stop! Often when we face trials, our first reaction is to rush in and try to “save” things– ourselves, our loved ones, our possessions, our pride…the list goes on. This is a natural reaction, but not always the wisest course. In the initial panic, we are likely to make poor judgments, and miss warning signs. With the best of intentions, we can make situations worse: maybe we don’t have the skills, the equipment, the authority, or the knowledge to offer salvation or safety. That doesn’t mean that we must walk away from danger, or fail to offer help when we are able to do so. But it means that we must remember that Salvation and Wisdom come from God.
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  • Drop. Fire is an obvious danger, but smoke is a silent killer. We can see fire; we can feel the heat of it. But the smoke can immobilize us long before the flames reach us. Spiritually, we may be able to see obvious sins in others, but ignore the smoke of compromise and apathy in the air all around us. Smoke rises– just like pride, and arrogance, and denial. We need to be “on our knees” –lowly and humble– if we want to keep from getting choked and suffocated.
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  • Pray! Pray with a heart to listen for good advice and obey. Sometimes, we need to stay still and wait; sometimes we need to flee! Sometimes we need to get involved; sometimes we need to walk away. We don’t need to know the next seven or eight steps, however. We need to do the next right thing– even if it seems insignificant in the face of the threat. What we can see is not always where the danger is greatest, nor where the help is most available.
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  • Finally– Don’t wait until you are in danger to practice these steps or prepare for what may lie ahead. There is a popular but unbiblical phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is NOT what God says! God says that He will help those who humble themselves (Luke 14:11; James 4:10); those who seek Him (Psalm24:6; Amos 5:4); and those who believe (Mark 9:23; John 20:29).

Mothers and others..

Sunday will be Mother’s Day. People are already talking about how this year will be “different” because of COVID-19. They say it will be more difficult because of the social distancing measures in place. And it will be for many families. There will be few family gatherings, few long and happy discussions around a dinner table, fewer flowers, fewer hugs…Many will still have the opportunity to see their mothers/children via skype or zoom or through a window. Many can still hear a familiar and much-loved voice over the phone, and send messages via text, email or even a letter or card. But it’s not the same. There is something about a mother’s presence– her touch, her voice, her smile, the subtle scent that belongs to no one else– that we cherish and celebrate.

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But for many people, this Mother’s Day will be no different. Sadly, there are many who will spend Mother’s Day alone. There is a visceral, painful place– a gaping wound– where there is no “Mother” on Mother’s Day. Maybe it’s caused by death–either the death of our mother, or the death of our child/children. Maybe it’s some other wrenching separation– Alzheimer’s, a ruptured relationship, addiction, mental illness, abandonment, deployment, rejection… We miss what once was, or we miss what we never had. COVID-19 may bring this horror to some this year, and it may leave some with that horror for years to come, but the pain and loss is no different for being caused by a virus. The pain of losing (or not having) a Mother runs deep. It may be felt more keenly on this day, but it aches and gnaws every day. Mothers give life. They nurture. They are the safe arms in which babies find peaceful rest (..eventually). They are the kissers of boo-boos; the proud recipients of our first attempts at writing, and drawing; our first audience for concerts and dances; our first teachers and nurses, police officers, drill sergeants, and life coaches; often our first playmates, too.

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For many years, I have lived on “the other side” of motherhood. I am a daughter– blessed with an amazing, kind, strong, wise and Godly mother. I cherish the relationship we have, and look forward to the time when I can visit with her in person, instead of over the phone. She spent long nights rocking me to sleep; hours praying and crying by my hospital bed when I almost died as a toddler; listened patiently while I ranted and railed in teenage rebellion; encouraged me when I was exhausted from work and frustrated about living alone; and taught me the joy of spending time with God and loving others. And I want to honor her every day for the Godly example she has been to me and to others.

But I have spent most of my adult life outside the experience of motherhood, watching others with tiny arms wrapped around their necks, others kissing boo-boos and receiving artwork, others taking pictures of their graduating seniors and swapping stories with other moms. And, I have been reminded– sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes with contempt–that I do not “belong.” “You don’t know what I go through.” “You don’t understand.” “Who do you think you are to tell me about my daughter? You’re just her teacher. I’m her MOTHER!” “You can’t tell my children what to do.” None of these statements are wrong– but they hurt. And most of them come from someone else’s pain– their fear of failure, their frustration, their guilt, even a lack of sleep or a migraine…

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Because of my experience, however, I have learned two things– a greater appreciation for my own excellent mother; and a new appreciation for the role I have been allowed to play as an “Other.”

Mothers are vital, but they are not perfect, and, especially where they are missing or rejected or removed, the world needs Others. Women (and men) who will stand as surrogates, substitutes, and valued helpers. Sometimes it is a thankless job; often it is temporary, even momentary, and unexpected. Throughout our lives, there are Others who inspire us, who have our backs, who cheer for us through track meets, or at dance recitals, or spelling bees. Others who may not kiss boo-boos, but patch them up in the moment. There are Others who are the first to spot our hidden potential, or warn us of dangers that no one else has spotted. Others who pray for us, cry with us, and share our smiles. Others who buy Girl Scout cookies, or magazine subscriptions, lemonade, or raffle tickets.

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It was not God’s will for me to be a Mother. I have been blessed in recent years to be a step-mother and -grandmother, and I adore my kids and grandkids. I am so grateful for the mothers and others who shaped their lives, and the honor of being part of their families. But God has also given me a lifetime of being an Other. I may not have the “normal” experience of Motherhood, but I’ve had my share of doubts, failures, “bad” days, and sleepless nights. And I’ve been blessed to get to know hundreds of children– through school, Bible School, Sunday School, mission trips, Story Hours, school visits, Summer Reading, camps, baby sitting, extended family, and more.

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If you are a mother– celebrate Mother’s Day this year. There are millions who have been denied the honor. And many who have lost the privilege.

If your Mother is still alive, but you can’t be with her– celebrate Mother’s Day this year. If you can’t be together in person, make an effort to be together in word and spirit. Flowers are nice; a fancy meal is fine, too, but your time– listening, sharing laughter and memories–it priceless. There will come another year when you won’t be able to be with her– and no phone line or video chat will be able to bring her closer. If your mother is alive, but your relationship is strained, you can still celebrate Mother’s Day. Use this day as a starting point to move forward– some relationships can be repaired if you are willing to take a first step. Others need closure. All relationships need forgiveness– for YOUR sake.

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If you are missing your mother or have no mother–celebrate Other’s Day this year. Look for the people who have encouraged or uplifted you– aunts, neighbors, teachers, college roommates–let them know they’ve made a difference.

If you are not a mother– and even if you are– you are someone’s Other. Celebrate the opportunity to be the best Other you can be. Someone needs an Other today!

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Mayday!

Today is the first of May. This is also known as May Day or Mayday. In many countries, there are traditional celebrations, including dancing around a May Pole, or leaving a small bouquet of fresh spring flowers on someone’s doorstep. It is meant to be a happy occasion, signaling the arrival of spring flowers after a month of showers and growth– the promise of more growth and greenery after a long winter and cool, wet, spring.

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This year, many people have been looking forward to May 1 as a potential “end” to the lockdown/shelter-in-place orders. They are eager for a chance to return to “life as normal,” including spending time in parks and gardens, and celebrating with friends. They long to chat, mingle, and dance with their friends and loved ones in the sunnier, greener weather. Others are just tired of being “cooped up,” and want to get out into the busy marketplaces and public squares. But many leaders (mayors, governors, ministers, presidents, etc.,) are extending the orders to continue social distancing during this pandemic season.

There is another meaning for the phrase “Mayday!” It is an urgent call for help. It comes from the French phrase m’aidez– help me–and is used mostly in radio transmissions from ships in danger. Many people around the world today are, figuratively or metaphorically, calling out “M’aidez!” They are calling on their political leaders, financial institutions, hospitals, emergency workers, and others for help– healing, testing, equipment, food, answers to impossible questions, guidance, and comfort. For many, it feels like drowning in a sea of uncertainty and danger.

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Even in times of uncertainty and danger, we have a Faithful and Loving God. When we cry out, “Mayday! Help!”, He is ready and able to answer our call:

I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.

I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.

Many times in his life, David had called on the Lord, and found him faithful– to protect him, rescue him, bless him, and forgive him. David danced and celebrated God’s provision for Israel, and he also cried out in anguish and bitterness of soul. And in every situation, God heard David’s “Mayday! M’aidez!”

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  • King David’s descendant, King Hezekiah, also cried out to the Lord. He led the entire nation of Israel in celebrating a magnificent Passover feast and a Festival of Unleavened Bread. He also built up and fortified walls that had been allowed to crumble. He strengthened a weakened nation. In spite of his measures, however, the nation was threatened with invasion and destruction by a powerful Assyrian army. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Chronicles+32&version=ESV But Hezekiah, along with the prophet Isaiah, sent up a “M’aidez!” to God, and He answered in a mighty way: 20 Then Hezekiah the king and Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, prayed because of this and cried to heaven. 21 And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword. 22 So the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all his enemies, and he provided for them on every side. 23 And many brought gifts to the Lord to Jerusalem and precious things to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.
  • The Apostle Peter called out as he was sinking into the waves. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+14%3A22-32&version=NIV His faith, which made him to want to walk out to Jesus on the water, faltered. Peter knew the danger of open water, he faced such dangers in his fishing boat nearly every day. Without a miracle, he would sink below the wind-churned waves and be unable to make it back to the boat or swim all the way to shore. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” “M’aidez!” And Jesus was there to hold his hand and bring him to safety. Later in life, Peter went forth boldly preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, and spreading the Good News that Jesus Saves! Peter knew from first-hand experience that Jesus not only brought physical salvation from storms, but He offered spiritual salvation, renewal, and hope. In fact, it is in one of Peter’s epistles that we find this verse of hope: “..casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
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This May Day, we may call out to God in desperation, or in celebration, or both. But let’s take every opportunity to call on His Holy Name.

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Three Words

Essential

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about people who are “essential.” In times of crisis, certain skills and services are necessary to preserve or protect life. In times of war, soldiers, medics, makers of tanks and arms, helmets, planes, boots, and armor become essential. In times of famine, farmers, and anyone with reserves of food or water become essential. In times like these, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and those who make or distribute medicines, PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, etc., are essential.

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Being “essential” may sound wonderful, but it comes with a heavy price. Doctors and nurses are stretched and stressed, working ridiculously long shifts and scrambling to find ways to arrest the progress of COVID-19 among their patients who test positive. Meanwhile, their neighbors are complaining about being told to stay home and do nothing because their skills, their businesses, and their contributions are considered “non-essential.” Grocers and the cashiers, restaurant owners, farmers, and truckers are risking their lives to keep people supplied with food, only to have people complain about prices and temporary shortages. And any one of their customers could be spreading the virus– not just to them, but to their other customers. Police officers, already putting their lives on the line, are now asked to interact with those who may be carrying and spreading this virus, as well as dealing with an angry and frustrated population chafing under orders to stay home and stay inactive. And those who are “essential” are also vulnerable– tired and frightened and inadequate to meet every need–they are not infallible or indefatigable.

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There are really only a few things in life that are actually essential–breathing (which is one of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary, because it attacks the lungs), water, food, and basic shelter (protection from excessive heat or cold). And, while many around the world are facing more extreme shortages than others, most of the chafing and complaining has less to do with not having the essentials than with being (or not being) labeled “essential” with very little notice or guidance, and asked to bear the brunt of a crisis they cannot predict or control.

Redundant (non-essential)

For every person who is feeling the pressure of being “essential” in a time like this, there are others who have been labeled “non-essential”– redundant, expendable, “in the way.” “Stay home!” “Stay away!” “Don’t!” Don’t shake hands, or hug, or visit friends or loved ones (unless you can do so via phone or internet). Don’t touch– don’t touch door knobs or counters or surfaces– don’t even touch your own face!

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The intent of these messages is a positive one–“help stop the spread of this virus”–but the message often gets lost in the tone of fear and panic that accompanies it. “If you don’t (go away, stay away, stop touching, stop asking questions, stop being in the way…) other people, especially ‘essential’ people, will get sick and die.” “If you could just go away, disappear, be quiet, etc., until this crisis dies down…” Feeding your family, keeping your business open, earning a living, using or developing your skills, offering your services or products– none of that is “essential” right now. You have nothing to offer in a time of crisis– you are expendable. Perhaps not forever, but just now– just for a few more days, weeks, months?…

Jesus offers us a shocking view of what is/who is “essential” or “redundant.” In his encounter with the “rich young ruler,” (see https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/07/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/) Jesus listens as the young man seeks to justify himself. He has done everything he deems “essential” to inherit eternal life. But Jesus challenges him with one “essential”–sell what he has in order to serve the poor and “redundant.”

Jesus had frequent encounters with lepers– the most “redundant” and expendable people of his day. They were contagious, “unclean,” unwanted. And Jesus also encountered those with great power and prestige–priests and rulers, centurions and tax collectors. Many of them were also considered “unclean,” and unwanted! Those for whom Jesus had the sternest warnings were those who refused to accept, respect, or help those they preferred to judge.

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Whosoever-

Jesus, the only One who actually has the right to judge, didn’t come to further the division of people into categories and labels. While he didn’t turn a blind eye to sinful activities, neither did he point fingers. And while he celebrated faith and service when he found it, he didn’t flatter or fawn over those whose service was more “essential” than others’. Instead, Jesus invited “whosoever” to believe in him (John 3:16), to follow him, and to become part of the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 22:17). Someday, He will judge us, and we will be separated. But the one “essential” will be whether or not we have chosen to depend on Him and trust Him for the wisdom and strength to do His will in service to “whosoever” we encounter.

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There is no one so “essential” that God is required to accept her/him into the Kingdom. This may be a strange notion to some of us, who have fallen into thinking that we earn our salvation through good works or memorizing doctrinal statements. But NO person is essential in Heaven. And that’s not bad news or meant to condemn–it is simply a reminder that God’s standard is level and fair. We don’t have to strive and stress; we don’t have to have all the right answers, or do all the “right” things– in fact, we can’t.

And there is no one so “redundant” that God cannot accept him/her into the Kingdom. Again, this may be a strange notion, that we cannot “out-sin” God’s salvation. We can’t mess up, wash out, face-plant, or fail such that God cannot redeem, rescue, or revive us. God will never tell us to “stay away,” “wait,” “don’t get too close.” Instead he says, over and over again, “Come!”

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Whosoever is struggling with exhaustion, or impossible expectations, panic, fear, sickness, anger, depression, loneliness, hunger, rejection, injustice, confusion, or emptiness– let them come!

I Will Fear No Evil

These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.

But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.

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In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?

In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:

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  • Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
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  • Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
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  • Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
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Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.

Helpful links:

https://www.who.int/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/15/hospitals-are-overwhelmed-because-coronavirus-heres-how-help/

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/15/success/small-businesses-coronavirus/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-51821470

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-national-day-prayer-americans-affected-coronavirus-pandemic-national-response-efforts/?utm_source=link

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!

Great Things He Hath Done

2 Corinthians 9:15 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

via biblegateway.com
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I love this season of the year–as we approach Thanksgiving and prepare for Advent and Christmas, it is a good time to reflect and celebrate all the wonderful things God has done, and all the ways He has blessed us. But there is also a danger in this season. We are tempted to look around and compare our blessings (and our struggles) with others around us. We are tempted to be envious, depressed, and stressed about our circumstances. Or we look at our blessings and feel smug and self-satisfied, instead of grateful and humble.

What “Great” things am I thankful for? Sometimes I make a list of all “my” blessings–my health, my family, my home or car, my freedom (as though I had done anything to earn such blessings)–and I stop. Sometimes I make another list of all the “Great” things God has done in nature–beautiful sunsets and majestic forests, glistening snowflakes and spring blossoms–and I stop. Sometimes, I even thank Him for the trials and struggles and difficult relationships that He has allowed to refine me and build my character to be more like His– and I stop. Sometimes, I thank Him for the great things he has done for others–miracles of provision, safety, or healing.

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But there is a deeper level of thankfulness– one that takes my breath away and causes me to fall to my knees– one that thanks God for WHO HE IS– truth, righteousness, salvation, mercy, wisdom, power, and boundless, unconditional love. Every great work of God has its origin in God’s Character. Every sunrise shows His faithfulness, every snowflake His infinite creativity. Even tragedy can reveal His tenderness and healing and precious promise that NOTHING can separate us from His love. In giving His greatest gift, God spared no expense; he held nothing back. Jesus defeated sin and death by becoming sin and experiencing death–FOR YOU and for ME! For anyone, for everyone, who will accept His gift and trust in His character. How often do I list all the great things God has done and stop before I let the amazement of the Great I AM to overwhelm me? How often to I celebrate Thanksgiving without ever reaching this level of true Thanks-giving?

Whether we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie, or with beans and wienies; whether we celebrate with family, friends, strangers or alone; even if we celebrate on a different day, or in a different way, may we always find ourselves amazed by the Greatness of God. May we truly give God more than just thanksgiving this year. May we give Him all the Glory–Great things He hath done!

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