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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“Ever Hearing”

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who just pretended to listen? They nod or make a sympathetic face, but clearly they have no idea what you are saying. Maybe they nodded at the wrong time, or even interrupted you with some comment that was completely off-topic.

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God not only hears what we say to Him, He understands better than WE do!

That is not the case with us. We can be “Ever Hearing” but “Never Understanding,” just like the people of Israel during the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. (see Isaiah 6: 9-13) Isaiah brought warnings and prophetic judgments from God–calls for repentance and warnings of impending punishments. He spent years delivering the same message to hundreds of people. They heard his message, but they did not listen, understand, or repent. Jesus, in Mark 4:12 alludes to this passage in Isaiah– clearly, the people of his day were equally “deaf” to the truth, even though thousands came to hear Jesus speak

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Jesus’ brother James, in his epistle, rephrases the same idea– “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV) Just because we have believed the Good News does not make us immune to hearing without listening, understanding, and obeying.

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We have thousands of Bible study books, websites, videos, broadcasts and webcasts, blogs, and live meetings–and, for many of us, they are free and easy to access. There are billboards, memes, t-shirts, Christian radio stations, and more, sharing scripture, testimonies, cartoons, songs, prayers, and more, 24 hours a day in almost every corner of the world and in most of the world’s languages.

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But sometimes, the very prevalence of such material causes us to take it for granted; and our hearts and minds become numb to the glory of God’s wisdom and the urgency of His warnings. We hear that God is sovereign– and we say that we believe–but we act as though we know better than God how the world “should” be. We hear that God is gracious and merciful– and we sing praises for His mercy toward us– but we have no mercy for others who fall short of our expectations. We hear that God is close to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18), but we act as though God favors the proud and self-sufficient.

Why would God command Isaiah to continue preaching to those who refuse to listen and obey? And why would Jesus follow in Isaiah’s footsteps– relying on parables and teaching the masses who misunderstood His Gospel?

Scholars have different theories, but I think there are two main reasons:

  • We know from examples and from experience that the same message that falls on “deaf”ears over many years can suddenly “click.” God know this better than anyone. He is patient and humble. God’s message doesn’t change, but sometimes, it takes a while to “seep in” to the heart and mind. Someone who is “ever hearing” may be processing more of the message than we know. God’s spirit whispers, and His truth can be drowned out, but it cannot be silenced. It is important for us to continue to speak, to write, and to LIVE the truth– not just for others, but to make sure we are still listening, understanding, and obeying the truth.
  • God IS truth. And God may whisper, but He will not be silent. God is mysterious, but not absent, or cold, or withdrawn. In Romans 1: 18-32, Paul says that God has revealed all of His invisible qualities in all of nature throughout all of time. We cannot say that we NEVER saw the glory of a sunset, or heard the power of thunder, or felt the warm kiss of the sun, or in some other way experienced the loving and majestic reality of God. We CHOOSE to ignore or rebel against God’s ever-present, all-gracious love.
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What glories will we see, hear, and experience today? Will we be “ever hearing” but “never understanding” “how wide, and long and high and deep” (Ephesians 3:17-19) is the Love of Christ? I hope we will take every opportunity to listen, understand, and obey His call today!

24-Hour Help Line

My husband and I run a small business. And I am always surprised at the number of people who call us “after hours.” Sundays, early mornings, late at night…they seem to be under the impression that we will be available to answer their questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have a website, which includes frequently asked questions, and a list of our hours, but people still call when we are not available. Some of them even call to complain that we are not open as they stand outside our door–which also has a list of our hours! We just can’t be at our shop all the time, and we can’t anticipate when someone will call or want to stop by.

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God doesn’t have any “after” hours. He’s always available when we need help, have a question, or want to express our feelings and thoughts. There is no busy signal, no “peak” time, and no need to “hold” while waiting for Him to listen to our call.

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We know this, or we ought to, but we often take for granted this incredible gift of access to the Almighty. Suppose God went on vacation for two weeks every year, or took a siesta every afternoon, or had a staff of “receptionists” to screen prayers, so that only certain ones reached His ears? Imagine a God who could only be reached between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, or could only be reached at His “main office” in Peoria, or Lagos?

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God– The Only, Sovereign, Eternal God–is accessible in a way that no one else can ever be. He is our “ever present help in time of trouble” (Psalm 46). No matter when, no matter where, God is “on call.” And He is available to anyone and everyone at all times. Hundreds of thousands of prayers rising up at any given moment– ALL reach His ears and capture His attention.

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It is tempting, especially when we expect an instant answer, to interpret God’s seeming silence as inattention or even rejection. We begin to wonder if God has heard us, if He cares, or if He is indifferent to our pleas. One way to keep things in perspective is to journal our prayer life. Not just the requests, but the answers.

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I keep a prayer journal, and periodically, I go back over the requests from last week, last month, or even last year. I am astonished at how many I’ve forgotten in the march of time, and how many of them God has answered– often in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. He never forgets, but He often acts in His own ways and in His own perfect timing.

God is the ultimate 24-hour help line– ALWAYS there to listen; always available; always able; and always compassionate.

Praying in Heartbreak

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And it was a good day. It started out cold and wet, but I got to spend time with my mother, my mother-in-law, several other family members, and some dear friends from childhood. It was a happy day, and it ended with sunshine breaking through the late afternoon clouds, birds singing, and a full heart of memories and gratitude.

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But Mother’s Day wasn’t always like that for me. For many years, it was one of the worst days of my year. No matter the weather or the company, there was always a shadow of barrenness and emptiness. Yes, I was grateful for my mother; for my grandmothers and aunts and other relatives; for my friends and their adorable children. But I felt shut out– I was not a mother. I would never be a mother. I was always on the outside looking in.

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My circumstances are slightly different now, but I am still not a “natural” mother. No one calls me “mama” or even “grandma.” But Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be a day of sorrow and emptiness, and after years of prayer and letting go of expectations, God is showing me how to enjoy and embrace the circumstances in which He has placed me.

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I am not alone in this struggle– far from it. For the past few weeks, I have heard from heartbroken people who dread Mother’s Day. Those who have lost their mothers face the reminder of their grief and loss. It is particularly hard on those who were unable to spend precious days with a dying mother due to COVID restrictions, or lost their mother to COVID. Some mothers are reminded of the wrenching loss of a child– still birth, drug overdoses, suicide, auto accidents, childhood cancer– gut-churning emptiness where once there was a promise of joyful life, grandchildren, shared memories, and so much more. Other mothers (and their children) face the pain of separation and severed relationships. Many, like me, face the reminder that they are NOT a mother– not a “real” mother–even if their circumstances or careers are filled with children “not their own.” And some people face multiple circumstances that cause grief, bitterness, alienation, anger, and despair.

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These feelings of sadness and loss are natural, but they do not have to weigh us down or control how we face each day. God wants to share these burdens; He wants to carry the weight of our brokenness and free us to experience joy and peace– even in the midst of our pain! And on those days when our circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, God is never more than a prayer away. He doesn’t make our grief disappear; He doesn’t erase our memories. But He can redeem them with a changed perspective and new hope.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.– each can bring bitterness and heartbreak, as well as joy. We do well to pay attention to those around us who dread such holidays, and offer the comfort, hope, and encouragement of a listening ear, a loving heart, and, most of all, a loving God who longs for us to pray in and through our heartbreak.

But I’m Right!

Social media is a dangerous place these days. Everyone is an expert on something– pain, medicine, race relations, politics, religion…
I’m an expert, too. I am an expert in my own opinion! I know all I ever need to know about how I feel, what I’ve experienced, how I would solve all the world’s problems, and what everyone else should know, do, and think.

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And when I pray, I am an expert in what I want, and what God should do–right?

Turns out, the Bible disagrees with me. Prayer is not about telling God what I think He should do. And one of the things He doesn’t want me to do is go about telling everyone how much I know and how right I am about everything.

I know– it flies in the face of common thought and practice. But my words are not to be about how good I am, how smart I am, how righteous I am, how “woke” I am, or how tolerant I am. My words shouldn’t be all about ME. When I do speak (or write), it should be for one of four reasons:

  • To praise– to bring honor and glory to God for who He is and all that He has done. To rehearse and proclaim His good deeds and righteous acts so that others may hear and praise Him, too.
  • To encourage, build up, edify, or heal others. Words have the power to bring hope, energy, confidence, light, and love. They also have the power to destroy, devalue, and discourage. Finally, words have the power to suck energy, waste time, and bring confusion and chaos. When I speak carelessly, selfishly, or foolishly, it does nothing to build up others. (And it probably doesn’t do me much good, either!)
  • To speak truth and stand up for righteousness–not in an arrogant way, and not to win “points”, but to honestly and firmly defend what I know to be true. I must realize that there will be others who will stand in opposition to the truth and refuse to hear what I say. Others will misconstrue and misrepresent the truth. It is NOT for me to make them believe– only to stand up and give voice to the truth when I see it under attack.
  • To express unique and creative thoughts, which is part of praising my maker. Everyone has SOMETHING to say– something that expresses their inner thoughts and unique perspectives. That should cause me to take great joy. And it should cause me to take the same joy in helping others find their voice and share their stories and ideas. Not because I’m “right” about the world, or because they are “right” in their ideas. But because God gave each of us a voice. I can listen and not agree; they can do the same. But sometimes, in the act of listening, we do more to come to understanding and agreement than we ever do by speaking. And in being allowed to speak freely, we might listen to ourselves more carefully, too.
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Jesus spoke wonderful parables, deep and thoughtful prayers, piercing sermons, and tender words of encouragement and love. But He also listened–not only to the critics and enemies, but to those who hid in the shadows; those who were outcast and oppressed; those whose voices were drowned out by the crowds. He was RIGHT! More than anyone ever, He had the right to be heard…He chose to listen as well as speak. Jesus was more interested in being Himself than being “right.” More interested in showing love than showing off. More interested in understanding than overpowering. Jesus spoke–but He also laughed, and wept, and lived, and listened.

May we do the same today.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

George: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Billy: Uh-huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served, dinner…
George: No, no, no, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.

James Stewart (as George Bailey) in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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I’ve mentioned before that I love the old movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  In it, the protagonist, George Bailey, is in despair and considers taking his life.  As his family and friends pray, God responds by sending “an angel, second class” named Clarence, who shows George what life would be like if he had never been born (and how much impact his life has had on those around him).

One of the key events in George’s life happens when he is 12 years old.  He dives into a freezing river to save his brother from drowning, but in the process, he loses the hearing in his left ear.  This hearing loss weaves its way through the rest of the movie.  As a young man, George designs an indoor swimming pool under the gym floor for his high school (the movie makes no direct link to the earlier event, but it might be presumed that his experience caused him to think of ways to keep active kids indoors during winter months…)  His bad ear (and his need to help his dad at the Bailey Building and Loan) keeps him from playing football in high school.  It later keeps him from fighting in the war, but leaves him stuck at home coordinating scrap drives and air-raid drills–“safe” but less-than-honorable positions for a young man of his day.

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There are many things George cannot hear, but three things he listens for– Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles!  George spends much of the first part of his life longing to leave Bedford Falls (his home town), to travel the globe.  While his friends travel to exotic places and build successful careers in big cities, George gets tangled up in financing small houses for ordinary people in his small town.  All around him are bitter reminders of the life he dreamed of leading.  His brother becomes a pilot– a fate denied to him.  His best friend makes a fortune selling plastic parts for fighter planes, and takes cruises and fancy vacations that George cannot afford.

There is a dramatic change, however, when Clarence turns George’s life upside-down.  One of the first things George notices after Clarence declares that George has gotten his wish (and never been born) is that the hearing has “returned” to his left ear.  He marvels at this simple but profound change, but attributes it to his recent encounter with more freezing cold river water.  Soon other changes capture George’s attention–his brother is dead because George wasn’t there to save him; his mother is destitute and care-worn because George wasn’t there to save the Building and Loan after his father’s death; none of the houses he helped finance were ever built, and dozens of families are living in squalor and being over-charged for rent by the evil Mr. Potter.  And the peaceful town of Bedford Falls has been transformed into a noisy hotbed of crime and filth, anger and greed.

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After George has a change of heart and is “returned” to his wonderful life, the hearing loss is back– this time, George laughs in gratitude as his “disability” confirms that all is back to normal.  He no longer listens for plane motors or trains whistles– instead, he eagerly listens for the sound of his kids as he returns home, and the breathless call of his wife as she returns home with help and hope in the form of neighbors and friends.  The sirens and screaming of his earlier nightmare are replaced with joyous music and laughter.

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One of the last shots of the movie shows a tiny, tinkling bell on the Christmas Tree.  Zuzu says that her teacher has told the class that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, and George, hearing the bell ring, simply says, “Atta boy, Clarence.”

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What are we listening for in life?  Are we consumed with the sounds of excitement and adventure?  Or are we listening for the important sounds of lonely people softly crying, children giggling, birds singing their morning worship song, or raindrops dancing on the sidewalk?  Are we listening for the Spirit’s whisper in the wind, or God’s voice in the thunder?  Exciting sounds can sometimes deafen us to important sounds.  God calls for us to “be still” and know that He is God (see Psalm 46:10)–what we hear in the stillness and silence is rest and peace for our souls.  And that is one of the best sounds of all!

Childlike Faith

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I got to spend the day with my granddaughter earlier this week.  She’s three, and has all the energy of a firecracker, and the curiosity of a kitten.  She is learning to discern what things and which people are trustworthy (or not).  Having worked with children from infants to teens over the years, I have seen this progression in others– sometimes with good results, and sometimes ending in disaster.

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We hear about “childlike” faith–Jesus spoke of it; even praised it.  Yet we see examples of people whose simple faith puts them in danger from predators, bullies, scam artists, and other perils.  Is this really what Christ wants from us?  No!  Jesus didn’t commend foolishness; he told dozens of parables warning of foolishness and simple-mindedness.  The Apostle Paul also talks of “babies” in the faith needing to grow wiser and stronger.  There is a difference between having the faith of a child, and having the brain of a child.  Jesus doesn’t want us to be ignorant, gullible, or bratty, but He loved the willingness of children to ask questions, seek out answers, and listen with open minds and hearts.

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Most people become cynical over the years– some far earlier than others.  They trust no one and nothing but themselves, thinking they know best, or frightened to find out what they don’t know.  In many ways, they are as vulnerable (or even more so) as those who trust everyone.

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My granddaughter is still at the stage where she trusts her parents and grandparents to watch out for her, give her good advice, and answer all her many questions.  As she learns new skills, she often “consults” with us; asking our approval, wanting our input–as she meets new people, she will also take many of her cues from us.  Should she be polite, informal, respectful, quiet, reserved, loud, assertive?  She is still learning, but she still trusts us more than, say, her brothers or peers.  There will come a time when she will develop the habit of either following the examples we have set for manners, traditions, habits, and such, or looking to other models.

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Watching her, I was reminded of two very important questions I need to ask myself?

  • What does she see and hear from me?  Am I trustworthy in the way I talk to (and about!) others?  About her?  Am I giving her solid advice and good examples that will help her develop good habits and relationships?  Am I “present”– not being distracted or half-hearted in responding to her needs?  Am I teaching her wisdom about the dangers she must face in this world?  Or do I pretend they don’t exist or won’t touch her?

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  • Who am I trusting?  The obvious “right” answer is Jesus Christ, but is that the reality?  Do I lean on my own understanding, or consult with “experts” without asking for God’s wisdom or seeking His approval?  Am I seeking to learn from Him how to navigate the dangers of this world, or pretending they won’t touch me?

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Having childlike faith is not the same as having a childish faith; it’s not the same as being foolish or ignoring facts.  Smart children ask questions– lots of them!  But they listen to the answers.  Foolish children (and foolish adults) claim to know all the answers, and refuse to listen to advice.

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If Only I Had Known…

I would have taken the scenic route
Stopped to smell the new-mown grass,
Or the languid marshy odors
Drifting through the open window of my car.

I might have stopped off to see my old friend
Whose house I have passed a hundred times
On my way from somewhere to somewhere else–
Stayed awhile, relived memories or made new ones.

I would have let the others speak
Drinking in their words, tasting them, weighing their wisdom
And nodding, or not, let them take the spotlight a little longer
While I held my own cleverness in check.

I would have prayed with more reflection, and
Less impatience.  I would have used fewer words,
And chosen them with more care.  I would have shown
More gratitude and less “attitude.”
I would have cried more and sighed less.

I would have risked speaking up in those awkward moments:
“I didn’t mean that.”  “I’m glad to know you.”
“I’m so sorry.”  “I love you.”  “Please know that I love you.”
“You have an amazing smile.” “You are important.”
“God loves you with an everlasting, unshakable love!”

I would have watched more sunsets and fewer TV shows.
I would have written more stories and read fewer magazines.
I would have danced like no one was watching.
I would have sung like no one was listening.
I would have invited others to join me.

If I had known that I have five more years;
Or five more months, or five more decades…
Would I live differently?  Pray differently?
Love differently?  I hope so.  I just don’t know.

 

To Love Thee More Dearly

How can I love Jesus more than I already do?  If I can love him more, does that mean that I don’t love Him enough?  That I don’t really love Him as much as I think I do?  That I love Him the wrong way?  How can I “love thee more dearly…day by day”

I want to explore the second prayer in the folk rock song “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell” (see yesterday’s post).  When I write about pursuing prayer, this is a major focus of the pursuit– to develop my love for Jesus.  But there’s more to it than just spending more time, or even “better” time in prayer.

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I love my husband, and that love grows over the years– not because we are in an eternal “honeymoon” period, where life is rosy and all I know about him is the wonderful image I’ve built up–but because in living with him, working with him, even struggling with him, I learn to value who he really is.  I learn about qualities I never knew he had.  I learn to trust him and respect his judgment; I learn about the deepest part of his heart that he only shares with those closest to him.  And even though I learn about his faults, I see him desiring to be the best that he can be.  In his turn, my husband does the same with me– learning my strengths and weaknesses.  Together we learn how to work together to strengthen and support each other.  We even learn how to argue better!

But we all know marriages (and no marriage is immune) where doubt, distrust, disdain, and despair creep in.  The very qualities that attracted us in the beginning become sore spots that tear us apart.  The joy is swallowed up in little hurts that go unresolved; little misunderstandings that grow into lengthy silences and slammed doors.  Struggles that should bring us together cause us to run to separate corners.  Our feelings change, our hopes are dashed, and our relationship crumbles

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Relationships require trust–if I say that I love God, but I don’t trust Him, I’m not being honest with myself.  If I pray to Him, but I don’t really think He’s listening; if I read His word, but make excuses for my continued disobedience–I don’t really love Him.  I may idolize Him, even worship Him.  But I don’t really love Him.

Unlike a marriage partner, family member, or close friend, God’s love for us never changes.  We never have to pray that Jesus should love US more dearly.  It’s impossible.  The same love that spoke the universe into being and designed you to be the awesome and unique person you are, is the same love that stretched out his arms so they could be nailed to the cross– the same love that calls out to you no matter what you’ve done or who you are and offers you peace, joy, and rest.  Loving Jesus isn’t a matter of measuring how I feel about Him from day to day, but spending each day learning to know Him better for who He is and not just what He has done or what He can do for me.  The prayer should be for me to really learn better how to honor Him, how to trust Him, how to obey Him, praise Him, listen to Him, and walk close to him.

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More about this last one Monday…

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