He Who Began a Good Work…

 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:6 (ESV)
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I have a lot of unfinished projects–scrapbook pages, crafts, stories I began writing, closets I started cleaning out..some projects were abandoned due to waning interest; others due to distractions or other more urgent tasks. A few of the projects I can pick up and continue (if I choose). Others must be discarded or started over again. I began each task with good intentions, but some proved to be more complicated than I anticipated. Their very presence reminds me that I bit off more than I could chew.

Sometimes, it feels like I am an unfinished project– because I am! While I still live, I continue learning and (hopefully) growing more like Christ. But every day I am reminded (as with my unfinished projects around the house) that I have a long way to go. And I occasionally wonder if God will get tired of me and set me aside– lose interest or just decide His efforts will be more rewarding somewhere else. And yet, Paul assures me that I will never be abandoned or left “undone”–God always– ALWAYS– finishes what He starts. And His finished project are always perfect.

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And what is true in my life is true in the lives of others, and in the wider world. We may not see the way forward. It may seem as though things or people around us are falling apart. But God sees the end from the beginning. And He works — sometimes in mysterious ways–to bring all things to their appointed end.

There are two “caveats” to the above statements:

“He who began a good work in you…” God created all of us in His glorious image, but He has not begun a good work in those who have not trusted Him to do so. It is God’s desire that all of us should reach perfection, and that none should perish. However, the Bible is very clear that not all of us will seek to be reborn, reshaped, redeemed, and reconciled to God.

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“…at the day of Jesus Christ.” We will not be perfected in “our” time, but in God’s. We will be tested, refined, purified, stretched and shaped, but what we will be “has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2) We should pray for continued growth; we should humbly submit to the renewing of our minds and hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit, but we should not consider that we have reached perfection or that we have learned all there is to know.

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I am so glad that I serve a God who will never tire of me, or find me “too much” to handle. And I am so glad I can fall on His grace and mercy when I fail in my tasks (or fail to complete them). God isn’t finished with me yet– but by His Grace, He will not leave me incomplete or lacking in any good thing!

The Silent Treatment

Have you ever had someone give you “the silent treatment?” Or have you ever been angry or disgusted and refused to talk to someone? It can be very frustrating. You may ask a simple question– even look the other person in the eye–only to face a wall of silence. Silence of this type can be oppressive. It is less an absence of sound than a presence of something heavy and dark.

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God spoke through His prophets, messengers (angels), and sometimes, in visions throughout the days of the Old Testament. But then, He was silent. For four hundred years! There were no new messages, no prophetic visions– just a gloomy silence. There was still noise in the world– chaos, confusion, war, debates, chattering, gossip– but no word from God. He had spoken for thousands of years, and His laws and the words of the prophets still stood, promising a coming Messiah, a rescue and a redemption for the nation of Israel. But then, nothing.

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Imagine how much more glorious it must have been when the angel hosts announced the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds! After such a long silence, they must have nearly exploded with the joyous news! The shepherds, already frightened by the sudden appearance, must have been held in thrall to hear voices from the heavenly realms– something that hadn’t been heard or even heard of for over a dozen generations!

And that’s how it often is–after a period of silence, the sound comes spilling out in a mad rush. Feelings, thoughts, announcements, all waiting to rush out in an explosion of sound and excitement. The silence is over! The heaviness is lifted. The dam has burst, and the words pour out in a great flood.

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When Jesus– the Word of God– arrived, He spoke to many. He told parables and spoke words of healing and kindness and even warning. But at His trial, He refused to answer many of the questions that were posed. He dared to give “the silent treatment” to Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. People who had refused to listen to Him during his ministry suddenly wanted answers. But He had already spoken and told them everything they needed to know.

Not so with His disciples. He spoke to them plainly and promised them a “counselor.” The Holy Spirit would speak, and would teach them how to speak. There would be no more “silent treatment” for those who knew the Spirit. No need for angelic messengers or prophetic visions (though God could still choose to use them as well)–God’s Spirit would dwell in the hearts and minds of His people.

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And yet, we often feel that God is “silent” in our own time. But is that really the case?

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Have you ever given God the “silent treatment?” How long have you held in resentment or doubt over something God did or didn’t do; a prayer He answered in a way that left you feeling hurt or confused? Is there a wall of silence on your part? It may not even be full silence. Is there some issue or topic you refuse to bring to prayer? Some secret desire you won’t discuss with Him? How does it weigh down the rest of your relationship?

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I have found myself holding things back, keeping silent about things in my life. It stunts my growth and hinders my prayers. But when I finally break my silence, pouring out the full measure of my fears, confusion, and deepest desires, it is like a weight sliding away, and light breaking through the clouds. The joy and relief are overwhelming. (See Psalm 32 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+32&version=ESV) What the psalmist says about sin can apply to doubt, anger, or confusion, as well. Unconfessed and unspoken, it will weigh upon us.

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Don’t give God the “silent treatment.” He already knows all that you would keep back from Him. Silence doesn’t “treat” anything– real healing comes from open communication with the Great Physician. Don’t wait four hundred years– or even four hundred seconds! Let the words (and maybe the tears) flow…And don’t be surprised if your silence is replaced with singing!

Abide With Me

Often, when I pray for those who are in pain or grief, I will ask, “God, BE WITH…” This is a natural desire, but in one sense, it is also superfluous. God is always with us; always present, no matter our circumstances.

So when I ask God to “be with” someone, I am not really asking that He stop whatever else He is doing and go to that person. He is already there. I’m not asking Him to become aware of their heartache or suffering; He already knows. I’m not asking that He do something new or different from His will or His plan. What I am asking is that His presence would be revealed in and through the situation– that my friend or loved one (or stranger whose needs have been brought to my attention) would have a supernatural sense of God’s abiding, powerful, compassion and grace.

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Intellectually, I can know that God is omnipresent and omniscient. I “know” that God is always with me. The Bible is filled with God’s promises to “be with” His people. (See https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/beautiful-verses-to-remind-you-that-god-is-with-us.html) But I also know, emotionally and experientially, that I don’t always feel His presence. I have moments of doubt and despair– I think all of us do. That’s part of the curse of Sin–being separated from the awareness of God’s continual presence. Even Jesus, as He was dying, felt the awful anguish of being separated from the Father, crying out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

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God promises each believer that He (through His Holy Spirit) will dwell with us. He will “abide” with us. But just like living with a spouse and other members of a family, there are times when His presence seems to be in another room; and we feel alone. There may be many reasons for this– sometimes, it is because we have walked away, or turned our face away. But at other times, we long for that closeness, that awareness that God is right beside us, only to feel that He is far away. As strong as that feeling may be, we need to remember that it is NOT the reality. God still abides with us. He is still present, even if He is silent.

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So, when I know that feeling, or when I know someone else is going through that feeling, I pray, not that God will come to us, or come back from being away, but that our awareness of God’s presence and closeness will be deepened or reignited.

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Someday, I won’t have to pray that prayer. Someday, and for all eternity, we will be surrounded by God’s Glorious Presence. But in this fallen world, what a privilege and hope to be able to pray to a God that abides with us!

Armchair Olympians

24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. 26 So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 CSB

I must confess, I haven’t been watching much of the Olympic games currently taking place in Tokyo. Over the years, I’ve spent hours glued to the television, watching the competitions, gobbling up the emotional stories of various athletes and their struggles to qualify and chase their dreams. In fact, I used to get so involved in watching the Olympics, that I would fall behind in my housework, social obligations, and sleep! It can be very inspiring to watch as various athletes from around the world challenge themselves (and their competitors) to go faster, reach farther, and climb higher. And many of the stories and names have stayed with me over the years.

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There is nothing wrong with watching sports, and cheering on those who have worked so hard. And I love the pageantry and good will of the Olympic games, where I find myself cheering for athletes and sports I would never know otherwise–those who have overcome tragedy and incredible obstacles just to participate; those whose achievements have set new standards and inspired others to greater heights. But as Christians, we should consider our OWN level of achievement. Not in a competitive sense, and not in the sense of “earning” God’s salvation or approval, but in the sense of growth and development of self-discipline.

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We admire athletes, not only for their natural abilities, but for their discipline and spirit. They train for years, undergoing rigorous drills, keeping tight schedules, pushing their bodies– often to the point of injury–to get a little more speed or distance or strength. They prepare for the stress of competition and the pressure of expectation. They learn to leave behind the failures and the victories of yesterday as they get ready for tomorrow. We watch them, and we talk about being inspired. But inspired to do what? I have never developed the level of self-discipline to rise every day at 6 a.m. to run or stretch, let alone train for a race or a swimming meet. I briefly flirted with becoming a gymnast after watching Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10.0 in the Montreal Olympics of 1976, but I quit after only one weekend!

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The Apostle Paul calls us to follow his example and “run the race” as we live for Christ–we are to develop our character and practice spiritual discipline in the same way that an athlete develops her body and practices physical and mental discipline. And our motivation is not a gold medal or a world record that will eventually be broken, but eternal victory over Sin and Death!

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I’m ashamed to say that I have not always followed this example. I’ve been an “armchair Olympian”– content to watch others do the hard work, and enjoy the vicarious feeling of victory when they cross the finish line. I cheer for those Christians who are called to foreign missions–I’ve even traveled on “short term” mission trips– but I don’t always see my everyday life as a “mission.” But that’s exactly what it is. Jesus didn’t watch the disciples heal the sick or preach about the Kingdom of God as He sat on the sidelines. And He certainly didn’t spend time analyzing and dissecting the “performances” of the prophets and patriarchs of old. He didn’t even tell the disciples to analyze His miracles or study His sermons. He simply said, “Follow Me!” “Walk with Me.” Christianity is not passively cultivating a feeling of victory in Jesus. It is living victoriously THROUGH Jesus.

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Our character won’t be changed by sitting on the couch or in an armchair, watching others do the hard training and running their race. Cheering from the sidelines isn’t going to increase our patience, or develop our faith, or make us more Christlike. Listening to Christian Radio or watching sermons on television won’t automatically translate into a life of integrity and peace. Even reading the Bible, or keeping a prayer journal, or writing a blog about spiritual things won’t teach us humility, gentleness, or love for others. We need to make the effort. And we need to seek the wisdom and discipline of the Holy Spirit– our “coach”– as we follow the example of Christ. It starts with small decisions– daily habits–and learning to be consistent. It also takes a willingness to repent and get back on track when we fail. And we will fail in our own efforts!

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We can admire earthly athletes. But we shouldn’t worship them. And we shouldn’t let them become idols that substitute for the kind of work WE need to be doing to learn discipline and faithfulness. I want to reach the finish line, knowing that I’ve run my best race for the King!

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Freedom and Blueberries

My husband and I went blueberry picking earlier this week. The local blueberries are at the peak of their freshness and flavor. Our friends have a farm, complete with a blueberry patch, where you can buy farm fresh blueberries by the box, or you can pick your own and pay by the pound. We went early in the morning, while the dew was still on the berries. The day promised to be hot and muggy, but not until we had finished our labors among the bushes. We saw butterflies and heard the happy chirping of birds nearby; otherwise, it was quiet and we focused on gently rolling dark, sweet berries into our hands and dropping them into our buckets. We picked a little over 12 pounds of berries (enough for several pies!) in a little over an hour–a good harvest at a leisurely pace.

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I love visiting the blueberry patch. It brings back wonderful memories of visits with my mom and grandma, my sister, my husband, and even my oldest nephews. I love the feel of the berries as I gently pull them off the bush and as they roll into the bucket. I love the feel of the bucket pulling as it fills with fruit. I love measuring out the berries for pies or cobbler or just making sure we have several quarts frozen for later use.

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I’ve been picking blueberries for years. I’ve picked from several different farms in several different locations all around the area. Some years, the berries are huge. Other years, they are small and tend toward sour (still good for pies and baked goods, but not as tasty to eat by the handfull!) In all those years, I took for granted the wonderful freedom of being able to enjoy this activity. This year was different.

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There were two reasons for the difference. First, this was the year after COVID kept many people from enjoying “normal” activities– even outdoors–throughout most of the world. Even the ability to pick berries was limited by social distancing mandates and fears of catching COVID from other pickers or from touching the same bucket or being in the same weighing area as someone else. This year, I knew what it was NOT to be able to do something I considered to routine.

Secondly, we’ve been talking about freedom lately at church– the freedom we enjoy as citizens of America, but more importantly, the Freedom we enjoy as citizens of God’s Kingdom. As citizens of this country, our friends have the freedom to own their farm and grow whatever crops they choose. They also have the freedom and the opportunity to sell their produce as they see fit– commercially to stores or privately at a farm stand, or as U-Pick. They have the freedom to set their own prices and hours. And we have the freedom to choose from many such farms to purchase delicious, fresh fruit–and even to select the fruit ourselves! I had always accepted this as a “given.” But many people have never had this incredible opportunity, and I am so thankful for the many years I have enjoyed it!

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That’s an amazing thing– and I have spent a lifetime taking it for granted. But even more amazing is the Freedom I have through Christ. I am free to choose my attitude and behavior each day. I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to make the kind of choices I would not make in my own selfish mindset. I am free to live without the painful load of guilt and regret over the past– not because it didn’t happen or doesn’t have consequences, but because it no longer defines who I am or who I can be. Just like picking the plump, juicy blueberries from the bush, I can harvest the Fruit of the Spirit; I can have a life filled with Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control! (Galatians 5:22-23) Just like being able to store up delicious fruit for the coming months, I can do what is required to please God– to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with (my) God (Micah 6:8 paraphrased). Just like choosing which farm I will visit, I can seek out opportunities to reach out to people near and far with the incredible Gospel of Christ– in word AND in action.

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Who knew blueberries could be so powerful and so liberating! Thank you, Father, for blueberries. And thank you for the blessing of Freedom through Jesus Christ!

Shibboleth

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15 KJV)
Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent (harmless, guileless, and without falsity) as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 NKJV)

(All Bible references, including emphases, via biblegateway.com)

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Hucksters, charlatans, con-artists, false prophets– we’ve all seen or heard them. Some are easy to spot; while others seem sincere. They “talk the talk”–they “Praise the Lord,” they pray, they quote scripture. How can we tell if they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”

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In the Old Testament book of Judges, two tribal groups had a battle. Afterwards, the victors set up a “test” for soldiers trying to cross the Jordan River. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not contain the “sh” sound. When asked to say the word, Shibboleth, they could not pronounce it correctly, and so were unable to hide their identity as enemy soldiers, even though they looked just like the others waiting to cross.

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There is an old Irish prayer that says, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” God doesn’t always “turn their ankles,” but He will give us the wisdom to discern false prophets– If we ask and listen. Even those who “talk the talk” will speak with a worldly “accent” that gives them away. They will fail the test of “Shibboleth.” Their talk will be filled with spiritual-sounding words and phrases, but it will deflect honor away from the only One truly worthy of our worship. Their teaching is described in 2 Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV) Beware of teaching that proclaims the power of the Human Spirit over that of God’s Spirit; or speaks of God’s power being demonstrated only in terms of worldly success. They may not “limp,” but they will “lisp.”

When the Gileadites used the “Shibboleth” test, they were looking for a specific mistake in pronunciation to identify their enemies. When we are testing Christian teachers, we should also look for specific “mis-pronouncements.” And just as important, we should look for words that don’t match actions and attitudes. For example, anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian or Christ-follower, but won’t proclaim Jesus Christ– His ministry, life, death, and resurrection– should be suspect. Many people want to proclaim a Jesus who will appeal to the masses– a Jesus who will be your pal, your guru, your cheerleader, or your “life coach,” but NOT your Lord. Others will present Him as a Savior who is distant, whose love is conditional on abject obedience and blind trust. Neither of these are accurate pictures of the biblical Jesus Christ. We must also beware the teachers who present a Jesus whose lifestyle is nothing like the one they practice. None of us is perfect, but we should be living a life that testifies to God’s faithfulness, not our own popularity or power or purse.

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The best way to learn to detect imposters and false teachers is to spend time each day with “the real thing.” When I spend time reading scripture each day, it become easier for me to detect a “lisp” when someone misquotes it or takes it out of context. When I spend time asking God to reveal more of his character, I will learn to spot His character (or absence!) in those around me.

Father, may I have ears to discern Your voice and Your power today. May I be wise as I listen to those who speak of You. And may I not say, do, or write anything that doesn’t reflect Your Truth and Your Glory. Thank You for Your wise counsel, Your examples throughout Scripture and in those who desire to follow You faithfully, and for Your Spirit, who reveals Truth.

Who’s On First?

One of the classic comedy routines of the 20th century was a skit by Abbott and Costello, called “Who’s on First?” It’s all about mistaken identities and confusion, when the roster of players on a baseball team contains unusual names and nicknames that sound “question-able”.

I love baseball, and comedy, but the routine should make us do more than laugh. One of the big problems we face is that we often don’t know “who” is on first (or second, or in left field) in the game of life. We tend to become spectators, and fans, but we don’t always know the names of the players, or what position they play. We watch as players–celebrities, government power brokers, athletes, etc.–come and go on the “roster.”

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And it can filter into our prayers. While we look at the line-up of human “players” around us, we can forget that God is in charge of the outcome of the “game.” God knows exactly “who’s on first,” and who will be there at the bottom of the fourth. He knows who will strike out in the third, who will hit a grand slam in the fifth, and who will drop the ball in the sixth. While we watch the players and bite our nails when the bases are loaded and there is a full count, God already knows the next pitch.

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We may not understand why “Who” is on first, instead of someone else. Sometimes, we see people rise to a position only to abuse their power and oppress others. We may question “Why?” as well as “Who?” Sometimes, we may ask, “How?” “How could God put them in the line-up?” And the only answer I can offer is, “I don’t know.” God’s ways may not make sense to us in the moment. We may never understand the How or Why of our lives or circumstances. But God sees the whole picture, and His ways are not our ways. His understanding is far greater than ours.

Finally, we need to make sure that we are more than just spectators. Watching from the sidelines may seem safer, but we won’t really learn how to pray if we never learn how to “play.” God loves prayer warriors, but He commands us to be “doers of (His) Word.” (James 1:22-25) If we are just listening from the sidelines, we will continue to be confused and frustrated– in our praying and in our living!

We may not always know “Who’s on First.” But we should take comfort in knowing “Who IS First.” No matter who takes their position as shortstop or who is throwing the pitches, God is always sovereign. No matter who seems to be “winning” the game, God has already determined the outcome of the ultimate “World Series.” We can pray with confidence, knowing that, with God as our manager, Christ as the umpire, and the Holy Spirit as coach, we have the winning team!

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Prayer Priorities

What’s the most “important” prayer you can pray today? Sometimes, we think it is the prayer we pray in a moment of crisis. Or maybe the one we are asked to lead in front of a congregation. But the setting or the situation doesn’t make one prayer more important than any other.

It’s almost a trick question, really. Jesus never taught that some prayers were more “important” than others. But He did teach the some prayers were more effective than others. And His answers may be surprising to some.

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The prayers Jesus praised were prayers of humble confession and needy request. God doesn’t judge our prayers– He judges the heart of the Pray-er. Jesus praised the prayer of the Tax Collector over that of the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). While others might have been impressed by the Pharisee’s words and confidence, Jesus heard the desperation and the dependence of the Tax Collector. Just before this exchange, Jesus told the parable of a persistent widow, whose constant nagging resulted in getting justice from corrupt judge (Luke 18:1-8). It’s a strange parable–the woman is not meekly accepting of her situation; the judge is corrupt, initially refusing to do the right thing. Yet Jesus prefaces the story by telling his followers to “always pray and not lose heart.” (v. 1) So, the very prayers we dismiss– the nightly prayers for our loved ones, the “unspoken” request we lift up on behalf of a friend, or the seemingly unanswered requests–are no less important than any others.

Finally, Jesus praised (and prayed!) prayers that were “real.” He poured out His heart to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane; He lifted up His friends’ needs at the Last Supper (John 13-17); He said simple grace before feeding the crowds.

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So often, we judge our efforts when we pray– did we say the “right” thing? Did we say it the “right” way? Did we leave something out? Forget to say something? But God knows what is on our heart and in our mind. He knows what we “meant to say.” He knows everything we need– and all the needs of everyone else we could mention! He already knows all His names and attributes! And though He loves to hear us speak words of praise, He also listens to our heart, and–26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NIV via biblegateway.com)

There is one caveat– because God knows our heart, He also “sees through” prayers that are insincere, proud, self-centered, and thoughtless. Some of the most “important-sounding” prayers fall short of touching God’s ears. He will not listen to the prayers of those who wish to “strike a bargain” with Him, or convince Him of their own self-worth. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t value each one of us– after all, He became Sin who knew no sin, so that we could become the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). But God’s love is a gift–when we try to bargain for His gifts and earn His Grace with our eloquence, we lose sight of Who He Is.

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Many centuries before Jesus walked the earth, Hannah poured out her heart in tears, wordless anguish, and groaning. (1 Samuel 1). Her prayer was such a mess, the priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk! But God heard her heart, and answered her prayer, and because of her great faith, her son, Samuel led Israel through some of its most trying times. Hers was a very “important” prayer.

What if our stumbling effort to pour out whatever is on our hearts and lift it up to Almighty God–our praise, our failings, our grief, our desperate need–is be the most important prayer we can pray today?

“God Brought You to Mind..”

How many times have you suddenly felt the desire to lift someone up in prayer? You have no idea why or what to pray about, just that you should lift them up– in concern, in gratitude, in remembrance…It might be that someone mentioned their name; or you’ve just seen someone who reminds you of someone you knew long ago; suddenly, they are in your mind–an old neighbor or friend, a classmate or co-worker, maybe even someone who hurt you or betrayed you. But you feel an urge to pray–urgently.

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Maybe you’ve been on the other end– you get a sense that someone has been praying for you– something that you were dreading turned out to be less scary that you thought, or you had a “near miss” on the highway.. you don’t know who or where, but you know that someone, somewhere just prayed for you.

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God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we ask others to pray for us; sometimes they let us know that they will be praying for us– but other times, we break into spontaneous prayer for someone “God brought to mind.” We may not know the situation; we may not know the particulars. Sometimes, we don’t even know the names or places– we just know we need to pray for a general group– missionaries, police officers, government leaders, teachers, fathers…

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Stories abound of people who have obeyed such urgings– praying for people they barely know, or haven’t thought of for years–only to find that in that very moment, those people were in crisis and in need of help. Such stories help us see the heart of God. God is powerful enough to step in and take control of any situation. He doesn’t “need” us to pray for others in such cases. But He wants to include US in His plan! And by “bringing to mind” those who need prayer, and “bringing us to” the minds of others in our time of need, He reminds us of the importance of interconnectedness and dependence on Him.

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Of course, we should be looking for opportunities to pray for those around us–faithfully, consistently, earnestly. But we also need to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who works to involve us in His ongoing work. Our hearts and minds may wander or waste time in empty thinking, but the urge to pray is one we should be quick to follow.

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.

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