This morning, I woke up. I took a breath of clean air. I opened my eyes. I heard my clock ticking. I took another breath. Thank You!
This morning, I woke up inside– protected from the rain and wind and cold. I woke up in a bed. I woke up with blankets for my body and a pillow for my head. I woke up, and moved my head, my hands and feet, arms and legs. I sat up and wiggled my toes. Thank You!
This morning, I woke up to hear my husband’s breathing. I woke up to the knowledge that I am not alone. I woke up to the knowledge that I am loved. I felt safe and comforted. Thank You!
This morning, I woke up knowing that even if I had none of the things I just mentioned, that I still have reasons to Thank You– Things I take for granted; things I haven’t even noticed; things I have not yet seen. Thank You for who You are. Thank You for Your Faithfulness; Your Majesty; Your Sovereignty. Thank You for the beauty of sunsets and snowflakes; for the seasons and the centuries; for family and friends; for triumphs and even for the tears that sometimes come my way. Thank You that you are greater, and deeper, more powerful and more tender than all that I know or imagine.
Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of wonder. But it is also a time to wonder–to ponder and reflect on the meaning of Jesus Christ. Why did He come? Why did He choose to be born where and when and how He did? The Bible gives us some of the “big” answers– He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45); He came to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37); He came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17); He came to give salvation and everlasting life (John 3:16)–and more. But there are still many things to ponder.
I wonder why Jesus came as a helpless infant. He could have taken on flesh and appeared as a full-grown man, and a king at that. He chose to come in weakness and in need– the Lord of all Creation needing to be fed and clothed and carried from place to place.
I wonder about His early life. Jesus had to learn how to crawl, to walk, to talk, to run, to write. Imagine, the eternal Word of God having to learn to speak! The One who would one day walk on water had to learn to take His first steps on land. He was once toothless! Did He lisp when He was first learning to talk? Did He fall down as He learned to walk? Did He run too fast, and skin His knees? Were there foods He didn’t like, or others He preferred? Did the other kids tease Him and hurt His feelings? Did He suffer from headaches or toothaches or upset stomach (or even diarrhea)? Did He get splinters working with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop? Did He have a favorite teacher? When did Joseph die, and how did this change Jesus’s family situation?
Jesus was fully human, and He lived as a baby, and a child, and as a man. His ministry spanned only a short three years– less than a tenth of His earthly life. What did He see in those years? What did He learn? What did He “wonder?”
What if part of the process of Jesus’s earthly life was to remind us that God is with us from our earliest, neediest, and most vulnerable moments to our last breath? What if it was to remind us that even Jesus had “bad hair days” and skinned knees? That He came to experience ALL that is part of being human, including the long wait to grow to maturity and to fulfill His mission, and the hundred little obstacles of everyday life? Or maybe it was to remind us that there is awesome wonder in the ordinary–that even God found it worth marveling over those little moments with family or friends, or watching a glorious sunset, or catching a firefly.
It’s so easy for us to lose the wonder of the Christmas season. But it’s also easy to lose the wonder of those ordinary moments–a shared smile or tear, the excitement of someone else’s birthday, the taste of fresh-baked bread, the way the sun sparkles on the lake. Jesus came to redeem us. And in the process, He came to redeem our sense of Wonder, too.
Just before writing this, I found a spider crawling on my shoulder. I’m not a big fan of spiders. This one wasn’t huge or furry or anything, but it startled me. I didn’t scream, but I did jump, and frantically brushed at my shoulder, and then stomped on the spider a couple of times for good measure as it tried to crawl away.
Spiders are not uncommon. They eat other annoying insects, and many are not harmful to humans. But they are “creepy.” They have all those legs and eyes and they hide in corners and drop down from ceilings. Some of them jump and some bite. There are a lot of “creepy” creatures in this world– spiders and snakes, rats and lizards, worms, and bats, and scorpions, roaches and fleas, and more. “Creepy” critters startle us; they scare us in the ways that they move, in the noises they make, and in the threat of danger– diseases, poisons, filth…
This time of year it is not unusual to see “creepy” creatures in movies and decorations and costumes for Halloween. Another type of “creepy” sighting involves things associated with death or near-death– ghosts, zombies, skeletons, ghouls, vampires…Their creepiness comes from the idea that Death has power over the living. The idea that Death stalks among us causes fear. Death is an enemy we cannot conquer. Everyone has to taste death and the unknown that follows. Everyone has a skeleton in life, but a skeleton walking without muscle or skin is terrifying to us. Everyone has a soul, but a soul without a body (or a body without a soul) makes us fearful–will that be our fate? What kind of existence would that be?
I am not a big fan of “creepy” stories and horror flicks. I don’t like being frightened for entertainment, and I have never understood why such things appeal to others. Recently, though, I heard from someone an explanation that made me think. They said, “I enjoy watching horror films and reading scary books because I know, no matter how scary it gets, that Good will always win out in the end.” Well, all right. I still don’t want to watch spooky stuff, but I can agree with the sentiment of the speaker.
Not all frightening things in this world are “creepy.” Cancer, blindness, aging, loss of a loved one, job loss, homelessness, loss of reputation, betrayal, false arrest, slavery to addiction, abuse, starvation–all are scary realities that can leave us overwhelmed, afraid, and even feeling hopeless. Nothing we can do will eradicate the threat of hardship, suffering, and death that await us all. We can make plans to “cheat” death, or build walls against getting hurt or suffering loss. But we cannot banish the threat or the fear of “what if..”, nor can we slay Death.
The Good News is that Death doesn’t win in the end. Death seems like the final word, but we can endure even this, knowing that “Good will always win out in the end.” God has not destined us to be skeletons, but to be saints–awakened to new life, cleansed of all sin and disease, and eternally Alive in Him! I can be startled by the spider, “creeped-out” by a skeleton, and knocked down by a debilitating disease. But I can turn the page, open my eyes, look up, and keep going, knowing that God is on His Throne.
And there’s more good news–Life, Hope, and Love are always with us. No spider, skeleton, sickness, or other threat will ever find us alone; none will ever take God by surprise; nothing can separate us from God’s Loving Care.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:7-11 (NIV)
6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I live in the Midwestern United States, in an area known for lots of lakes and streams, woods and forests, and fertile farmland. I don’t have to imagine the smell of pines, or the sound of frogs at night, or the sight of cornfields turning ripe in the summer heat. I don’t have to imagine frost on late autumn mornings, or ice and snow on tree branches in January. But I’m not as familiar with mountains, deserts or the ocean. I have visited such areas, but I have to remember the scent and sting of saltwater coming off the ocean, or the dry heat of the desert, or the thin air of the mountains.
Thankfully, there are photographs, and videos that help refresh memories and capture some of the wonder of jungles and plateaus, waterfalls, tundra, and dunes. We live in an awesome world, and our Creator has filled it with beauty, grandeur, and majesty. Even more amazing, God has created solar systems, and galaxies beyond our ability to visit. We cannot experience such places “in person,” but we can see dazzling views through telescopes of stars and worlds millions of miles away.
But there are places that are beyond our ability to view– even beyond our imagination.
Heaven is one of those places. We have limited descriptions of Heaven in the Bible– a place of joy and perfection; where God himself is the light and source of life. A place where there is no disease, no death, no sin, and no fear. Several people have tried to depict it, but there is really no way to picture it accurately. Some people imagine a place of boredom, filled with “saints” sitting around playing the harp through all eternity. Others imagine a place filled with all their loved ones– an eternal family reunion, with laughter and singing. But the Bible is clear– Heaven is where God lives and reigns–HE is the focal point of Glory and Dominion and Eternal Praise and Purpose.
Another place we cannot imagine accurately is Hell. Again, we have a few clues in the Bible, and many attempts to depict what Hell might be like– a place of eternal torment and regret, without the presence of God– without light, love, comfort, or hope. We don’t like to imagine going there. We don’t like to imagine anyone being there– not really. Even in anger, we should not want to waste all of eternity watching anyone else suffer the agonies of Hell, and we certainly don’t wish to have a “front row” seat!
The Bible doesn’t give us lengthy descriptions of either of these eternal destinations– and for a reason. We have a life to live here and now! While our eternal destination is of vital importance, it is not for us to spend precious time creating an imaginary set of expectations– pearly gates or fire and brimstone–in our minds. Rather, we are to concentrate on THIS life– THIS gift of God to use and enjoy for His glory.
Sometimes, we get a small glimpse of eternity– a transcendent moment of such natural beauty that we are hyper-aware of God’s Sovereignty; or a horrific scene of destruction and Sin that makes us shudder and recoil. But the rest is better left to eternity as we pursue God in this life.
My husband has celebrated his birthday this week, and it reminded me of some of the many ways we celebrate life. Before a baby is even born, we share special moments of excitement–sonograms, gender reveal parties, baby showers, picking out names, feeling little “kicks” and movements in the womb. We give gifts and blessings when the baby arrives. We take baby photos and commemorate all the “firsts”– first tooth, first steps, first words, etc. And each year, we remember. We send cards and other birthday greetings; we give gifts and have parties with special cakes and songs and party hats. We invite others to celebrate, as well.
Not everyone celebrates birthdays, and some people make a mockery of their advancing age, but most of us think birthdays are a big deal, and worth celebrating. LIFE is a big deal. Life is a sacred gift, and we should cherish every moment of it. We celebrate the events of life– achievements, milestones, graduations, new jobs, promotions, relocations, marriages, anniversaries, retirements, and much more. Celebrating life is an industry– cards, balloons, T-shirts, reception halls, catering, special clothing (wedding dresses, tuxes, caps and gowns, etc.), special foods, party favors, confetti, gift items– we spend a lot of time, energy, money, and even “life” celebrating our lives.
And we also celebrate life at its end. Even as we grieve the loss of loved ones, we seek to memorialize their lives. We hold funerals, publish obituaries and memorials, erect tombstones, build monuments, and write tributes and biographies. We celebrate the achievements, memories, and legacies of those who pass on. Their lives mattered. They don’t cease to matter when death comes. For the Christian, there is a special reason to celebrate the end of life– because it is NOT the end! Imagine the celebration of Life that will never end–the celebration of eternity with the Author, Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life!
Many people have wished my husband an happy birthday this week, and they’ve offered prayers and good wishes. Today, I will be praying for many people who are celebrating a birthday. I will offer up a thanksgiving for their life, and celebrate the One who created each unique person on today’s list.
We’re going through a journey that has focused on worldwide death– fear of death and disease, despair, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of death around us, but we mustn’t let it overwhelm the life that is within us. Life is worth celebrating–ALWAYS!
Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.
But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.
And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.
This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.
Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!
The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.
In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.
So what are we to do?
First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.
Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!
Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.
One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)
In the Gospel of John, there is the curious story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were good friends of Jesus. There are other stories throughout the gospels of Jesus interacting with this family. But this story appears only in John’s gospel, and it contains some details that raise several questions.
The story begins with an urgent message. Lazarus is gravely ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly. Yet Jesus seems to dismiss the message, saying that it is not a sickness that will end in death, and he lingers two days before he decides to begin the journey toward Bethany. There is no sense of panic or urgency in Jesus’s response. And, though it says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he seems unmoved by their obvious distress.
When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The two sisters both mention, with some bitterness, that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother need not have died. Jesus never gets defensive, but he challenges the sisters about their faith. In his exchange with Martha, he says that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus redirects her faith–“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (v. 25b-26). Her statement of faith, in spite or her grief and bitterness, prompts her to act. She goes to find her sister and bring her to the Savior, that she might be comforted.
Martha’s faith is small comfort in the circumstances. Her brother is still dead. His body lies rotting in a nearby cave. Her faith is fixed in the distant future, even as the author of Life and Eternity stands next to her. Her belief is wispy– more of a wish or a dream than the solid God-in Flesh standing before her.
Yet Jesus chose to use this seeming defeat as a showcase for His power to give life and resurrection. Many people who saw this were transformed and put their trust in Him. Others saw Jesus’ growing ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. They reacted with fear and even anger, that Jesus would bring the miraculous into their well-ordered normality. The Pharisees, including the chief priest, Caiaphas, determined that Jesus must die in order to “save” them from the Romans. Instead of seeing Him as the agent of their eternal salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle to their limited “freedom” to operate under the Roman oppression.
What is my faith like as I pray today? Do I believe that God “could’ve” or “should’ve” solved a problem in my past? Do I believe that God is not acting fast enough or decisively enough? Do I have a wispy faith that God will make all things right in Heaven, but is uninterested in the “here and now?” Do I believe that God’s answers might upset my life or cause me to “lose” control?
God, as you challenge my faith, help me to declare even my weak and imperfect belief; help me to act on it, and bring others to you for comfort. For in doing, so, I may be preparing the way for an incredible miracle– for revival and renewal; for the glory of Your great Name! And help me to see your answers through eyes of faith, and not fear of the unknown. Help me to trust you for the future I cannot see– a future that is in your capable and loving hands.
I have a friend who is very keen to study if prayer “works.” His theory is that if someone were to measure the number of prayers said in various regions of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare those numbers to the rates of infection, numbers of deaths, etc, for the same regions, one could “prove” whether or not prayer is effective.
I don’t think my friend is being sarcastic or overly cynical– I believe he is sincere in wanting to study prayer. I accept his desire to study prayer–to quantify it, even to “prove” it, or legitimate it for those who are skeptical. Unfortunately, he wants to study it as an observer, and not a participant, and he wants to conduct a physical study of a metaphysical practice.
Scientists are conducting several studies during this time, to see what “works.” Does social distancing “work” better than building up “herd immunity?” Is there a treatment that works better, or faster than others? Can we develop an effective vaccine? What practices– social, hygienic, medical, political– might help mitigate the spread of future viruses? Even these studies will not be definitive. The results will depend a great deal on methodology, and the conclusions will be open to interpretation.
There are additional problems in studying whether or not prayer “works” or not, because prayer is metaphysical. Here are just a few of the “measurement” problems:
How do you measure prayer? By length of time? Number of words used? The number of prayers prayed by each person over a certain period of time?
Do you count ritual prayers? Mantras? Meditation? Unspoken “thought” prayers? Recitations? Prayers spoken “in tongues” or in ecstatic states?
Do you count corporate prayer as a single prayer or by the number of people in the group?
What about social media? Do you count all the people who say they will send “thoughts and prayers?” Do you count those who say they “will pray,” or only those who are “praying,” or “praying now.”
If you are testing by geographical region, how do you account for people who are praying for others around the world?
How do you measure the efficacy of prayer (as opposed to other factors)? If a region has a higher mortality rate, even though many people prayed, does that mean that prayer “doesn’t work?” Or does it mean that the mortality rate would have been even more devastating (given other factors) without prayer?
More than just measurement problems, there are problems with the very nature of prayer that make such a study impossible:
Even if you could come up with a standard definition of “prayer” in order to get a count, prayer is not a physical substance or action. Prayer is not a “cause and effect” exchange. It is communication. If ten people say the same thing at the same time to the same person, it is not necessarily “more effective” than a single person-to-person exchange. If a thousand people pray to the same “god” who is not a god–“Mother Nature” or “The Force,” for example, it cannot be compared to a single person praying to a Loving and All-Powerful God.
God’s ways are not our ways. If we are measuring for one thing, God may be working for a different, unseen outcome. If more people contract the virus during the “study period”, we see that as “failure.” But God may be preparing that region to build up a resistance or immunity for a future outbreak. God answered prayer in a mighty way that we won’t see immediately. I have known a great many people, and prayed for a great many people who have not received physical healing in this world. They have suffered. They have died. But that doesn’t mean that prayer “didn’t work.” Their sufferings and eventual deaths have often brought about unbelievable works of God– salvation, families restored, friends discovering renewed purpose, strengthened efforts to fight disease, injustice, poverty, etc., and communities coming together in unity and hope.
Prayer is not about measurable results. Prayer is a heart-cry to a caring Creator. It doesn’t just involve asking for healing or miracles or “wish fulfillment.” Prayer involves thanksgiving, worship and adoration, repentance and confession, sharing burdens, asking questions, and building an eternal relationship with God Almighty.
In the end, any study results will be interpreted differently by different people. Some people will be convinced by numerical comparisons to re-consider their view of prayer. Others will never be convinced, no matter how much “evidence” someone else presents.
Prayer isn’t like taking an aspirin, or holding a protest rally, or doing research for a cure. Prayer isn’t about “winning the battle.” It isn’t about “what works.” It isn’t about “what” at all. It’s about WHO.
God “works.” God is sovereign, loving, and wise beyond what we can imagine. His ways endure. And He has vanquished the power of death and disease. Yes, it can still touch us in the here and now, spreading havoc and pain and mourning. But it will never triumph over Hope, and Life, Truth, and Faith. And when we pray, we connect to the source of all that is Eternally victorious! Beyond ANY measure!
Psalm 23:6– And I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
Forever is a concept we acknowledge, but we don’t fully understand. We talk about difficult circumstances, like the current pandemic, lasting “forever.” But they won’t. Such circumstances may last longer than we would like; they may be more difficult than anticipate; they may bring more pain and grief than we think we can bear, but they will pass. Even if they last throughout our lifetime, they will not continue indefinitely.
But God IS forever– He is eternal. And He has created US to be eternal– to live with Him (or apart from Him) FOREVER! Our experience does not prepare us fully for this reality– we only know an existence that is limited by time and space. But deep within, we have an awareness that there is MORE– more than our brief time here; more than the difficulty and disappointment we experience. God has planted this awareness in each of us; this desire to know what comes “after” death; what “forever” really means.
David reminds us that forever is not just a desire for those who follow our Good Shepherd– it is the reality He has planned for all of us.
And that should give us abundant hope and comfort in times like these. What we face today is temporary. This is the “valley of the shadow of death.” We cannot see what is directly in front of us. It continues to bring anxiety and pain, and even death. But, death is not the end. It is only a shadow hiding the light of Eternity. And “Forever” cannot terrify us; it cannot hold terror for those who belong to the one who holds forever in His hands!
Someday, we will not need calendars. We will not need to worry about next week, or our 5-year plan, or deadlines. We will have unlimited opportunities, unlimited possibilities, unlimited life with the source of all good things!