For Thou Art With Me…

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“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.

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But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.

So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?

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I think there are several reasons:

  • Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
  • God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
  • Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
  • Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
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God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:

  • Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
  • Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
  • Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
  • Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
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Hearts, Hype, Hatred, and Hope

Today marks the celebration of St. Valentine– Valentine’s Day. It is a day of hearts and flowers, romantic dinners and gifts, all celebrating love and marriage. Many people choose to marry on Valentine’s day; many more choose this day to propose marriage (my dad did, in fact, and he and my mom were married just a few months later in 1963).

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Gifts have gotten more elaborate and expensive over the years, though there are many who choose simple, homemade gifts or cards, as well. Advertisers promote their products as being perfect expressions of romance and love–diamonds, lacy nightwear, expensive candle-lit dinners, vacations, deluxe tool boxes, cars, spa treatments–if a new broom or pair of socks can be made to look romantic, look for them to be advertised as “perfect” for this year’s gift.

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I have a long and difficult history with Valentine’s Day. I remember, as a school girl, being forced to choose, sign, and address valentine cards for every person in my class at school. Some were easy enough, but I had to send cards to classmates I didn’t like; classmates who teased or bullied me, or were just “icky.” I think most parents did the same, but I noticed that I rarely got cards back from everyone, and sometimes, the “icky” kids only got two or three cards, which they hid away in their desk or threw away. I never knew if they were glad to have gotten the few cards, or if they were embarrassed and hurt (especially if they had no cards to give to anyone).

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As a young woman, I disliked Valentine’s Day for its way of sorting out the “loved” from the “unloved.” I was loved by my parents, and liked by friends and colleagues, students and neighbors. But every 14th of February, I was reminded painfully that I was not considered “loveable” by the young men buying candy, flowers, or engagement rings. Year after year passed with no gifts, no dates, nothing to signify that I was worthy of romantic love or attention. As I write this, I know there are millions of young women who are facing pain and rejection today, where they might feel confident and happy on any other, normal, day.

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This year, Valentine’s Day seems like a bad joke– talk of love and romance rings very hollow when I see the amount of hatred being spread on social media. Should I feel “loved” if I receive a card from someone who spews hatred and death wishes for people they barely know because of something they said about politics or the environment? If I followed my parents’ rules and bought valentine cards for everyone at the office, would I be brave enough (or foolish enough) to send them?

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The original St. Valentine (though this is disputed and there may be more than one martyr with the same name from around the same time) is believed to be a young martyr who was beaten, stoned to death, and beheaded for marrying young Roman soldiers against the mandate of his emperor. It was felt that soldiers would fight better if they were unmarried and unencumbered by family ties, but soldiers who had converted to Christianity wanted to live pure lives, married to one woman, and faithful to their vows. St. Valentine was committed to helping these men and women live their new found faith and show love for each other, and for God. For that, he was jailed and sentenced to die a horrible death. There were no greeting cards, no diamonds, no spa treatments on that day. There was suffering, death, sacrifice, humiliation, and loss. And plenty of hatred.

But St. Valentine’s death had quite the opposite effect than the emperor intended. God’s love has a way of shining brighter for being targeted, tormented, and beaten down. Real love doesn’t show itself in new clothes, hothouse flowers, or candle-lit dinners. It shows itself in a pouring out of self, and being willing to suffer for others– even those who do not love us back.

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This Valentine’s Day, I live in hope that Christians around the world will demonstrate the true love that comes from God– a love that practices Grace, Kindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Patience, and Joy, even in the face of Hatred and Evil. Hatred shouts and raises its fists. Let Love whisper and reach out hands of service. Let Love kneel and pray for our enemies, and bless those who curse us. Let love be ready to die rather than spread hatred and return evil for evil.

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Love One Another (1 John 3:11-24 ESV)

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers,[a] that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God,[b] and God[c] in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

Solitary Prayer?

So often when I pray, I do so in isolation, and I think of it as a solitary activity.  I am communicating with God– often silently–it is a private conversation.  Or is it?

At any given moment on any given day, millions of prayers are ascending to Heaven.  Consider the arithmetic of prayer– millions of prayers, millions of pray-ers, and God is part of each one–twice the number of participants.  But God is triune– so now there are four participants in every “personal” prayer, and four participants for every one in a group prayer!  It’s mind-blowing to think of all the spiritual investment that is happening through prayer at this very instant around the world.  And in heaven?  Our prayers ascend; God likens our prayers to incense– a pleasing aroma.  If I light a scented candle, or burn incense, the aroma is not personal– it permeates the air, penetrates my clothing, clings to my hair, lingers and touches on all who are nearby.  This doesn’t diminish the intimacy of prayer, but transcends it, and transforms it.  God is relational– from the intimacy of private prayer to the glory of his kingdom– he wants us to belong, to share, and to love.  Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It is not a solitary activity, nor one in which anyone is “just a number.”

I think we are often deceived and intimidated by numbers and statistics.  We sometimes feel very small and powerless and alone.  We measure our prayers by their duration or the number of our words, or how small our perceived influence.  We pray alone or in a tiny group, or seem to get swallowed in a crowd, and we think our prayers travel a linear path to God’s ears and they are ended.  May our eyes be opened to the reality that we are never alone, never helpless, and never unimportant to God–that our prayers, like incense, linger, radiate, and echo as they ascend.

God uses the small and humble things in life to confound those who think they are wise and powerful and important.  He is the God who changes our suffering into sufficiency, and our abiding into abundance.  He multiplies our faith, and increases our joy; he divides our sorrows and cancels out our sin.  He hears our every sigh.  He dries our every tear.  He knows our every thought.  He inhabits the praises of his people– let that sink in as we pray today.

 

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Praying through the Tears

My mother was fond of using quotes and pithy sayings–“Pretty is as pretty does”, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile”, “Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”  But one of the sayings that always bothered me was, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone.”

As a child and a young adult, I dreamed of a family— laughing with my husband and children around the dinner table; tucking in sweet-smelling, freshly bathed toddlers– I knew it wouldn’t always be dreamy like that, but I knew those precious moments would be worth the pains and frustrations that came with them.

Except they didn’t.  The years passed.  I worked hard, I dated occasionally, and I waited.  I loved my work as a teacher, and later as a youth services librarian.  Many of my friends married; my siblings married and had children.  I was surrounded most days with amazing, talented, infuriating, inspiring, adorable, mostly happy, and sometimes moody teens and children.  Other people’s children.  And I felt guilty, frustrated, and angry.  I wanted marriage.  I wanted my own children.  Well-meaning people kept setting me up on dates or suggesting pen pals, dating services, other churches to visit (“they have such a great program for singles…”), moving to a different town or bigger city.  Some even suggested that I wasn’t trying hard enough–I needed a make-over, a new wardrobe, a new strategy.  I needed to be more assertive with men, or less independent, or more feminine.  I needed to be less picky.  Other suggestions were even harsher–I wasn’t mature enough; God needed to “grow me up” before I would be ready for marriage.

In my mid-thirties, just as my “clock” was ticking louder and more insistent, I received an awful blow.  “Polycystic ovary syndrome” meant that I had certain symptoms (underactive thyroid, facial hair, a greater risk of ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, and heart disease) and certain irregularities, mood swings, etc. associated with my monthly cycle.  But it also meant that my dream of having children was unlikely ever to be anything but a dream.  Even if I had married young; even if I married within a week and started hormone therapy or invitro, my chances of conceiving and carrying to full term were essentially nil.  I was stunned.   I was numb for several hours, and then I cried.

And I cried alone.  I wasn’t always crying; I read a lot, and watched a lot of TV and movies, sang along with my favorite CDs, danced around my living room like no one was watching (after all, no one was watching!), and, sometimes, I prayed.  But I cried a lot, too.  And I prayed through the tears.  My prayers were sometimes prayers of anger, or confusion, questioning God’s love, his timing, his purpose.  All those years of praying, asking God for a husband and children– had he been laughing at my pain?  He knew I couldn’t have children– why had he allowed me to hope for so many years?

But long before I knew that I was barren; long before I had fully formulated my dream of the family I would never have, God had a plan for my good.  For every tear I shed, he was right there with me– even when I couldn’t feel him there; even when I raged at him.   I had a dream– it was a good dream, but it was a dream.  And God’s plans are better than my dreams. ALWAYS.  His plans are for our good–but not always for our pleasure.

Sometimes I still cry at night for the children I never had.  But when I finish crying, I thank God.  Not because of those missing children, but because out of that pain has come compassion– for other women who cry similar tears.  Tears for children lost or never born; tears for children they chose to give up, or children who were taken.  I thank God because of the many experiences I ended up gaining as a single woman– opportunities to travel, to pursue interests and develop skills.  How many more opportunities might I have taken had I trusted God more than my dreams earlier and more fully?

And I thank God because of what he has given–nieces and nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, former students and patrons who are still in touch and who still enrich my life.  Most of all, I thank God for the privilege of leaving my tears to join my husband (a man who pursued me even as I was ready to give up on my dream of being a wife–I became a bride at 46!), my step-children, and our grandchildren; as well as a new set of wonderful nieces, nephews, and great-nephews (we’re still waiting for great-nieces on that side of the family).

Even if I never had the “happy ending” of a husband and family, I would still be grateful to my very good Father.  And I will continue to pray through the tears when they come.

joyinthemorning

 

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