We have entered the season of Advent, and as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child, one of the first steps should involve quieting our hearts.
This can be difficult in the daily noise and bustle around us– particularly in this season! We have filled Christmas with sparkle and glitter; the ringing of bells and endless songs about reindeer and jolly fat men and decorated trees. But this is NOT Christmas– not yet. The bright lights of Christmas, the joyful songs of the angel hosts, all need a proper context. And that means a cold, dark night more than 2000 years ago. It means an emptiness. A heavenly silence that stretched over 400 years. Silence from heaven; silence in the earth; silence in the soul.
In silence, we ponder. We wait. We anticipate–perhaps even dread– what may come. What will God say when He finally speaks again? Will it be judgment–severe, holy, deserved, undeniable? Will it be condemnation? Will it be that final pronouncement of God’s Holy Sovereignty, and our utter failure to measure up?
The joy of Christmas comes, not because of seeing light shows and snow glistening on trees, or listening to jingle bells and laughter. It comes from knowing that God’s Word is Peace! It is reconciliation and restoration. It is Freedom and Victory over Sin and silence and eternal Death! It is not first felt in the blaring of anthems and resounding of carols. It is in the soft cooing of new Life coming into a dark and silent world. Of everlasting love being wrapped in rags and gently laid in straw.
God delights in turning earthly things upside-down. And so He comes to us, not with fanfares and regal procession, but in stillness and gentleness, in the middle of a dark and silent night.
I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.
But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.
Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!
Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?
But that is an illusion. I have the same amount of time as anyone else. And I can’t do anything to add to the amount of time I have in a day, or a week, or even a lifetime.
27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:27; 33-34 NIV via Biblegateway.com
What’s more, I was created for eternity– I have all the time in the world! Or, at least, I will. Right now, I feel bound and limited by time. And sometimes, I feel controlled by it. Deadlines, promises, schedules–all hem me in and press in on me, making life stressful and forcing me to make tough choices.
Will I choose to use my time each day wisely? Will I let pressing tasks and urgent interruptions throw me off-stride or make me feel guilty? Will I see time as a resource, or let it become my master?
Over the years, I have found several things to be true about time– you’ve probably noticed them too (and maybe even more!), but it’s nice to have a reminder every now and again:
Time spent with God in prayer, meditation, worship, and Bible study is NEVER wasted time. It is an investment in eternity. No matter how long or short, it never seems as though I’ve spent “too much” time with God at the expense of other things. It’s when my quiet time turns into self-talk or daydreaming, or when my mind is divided with worry and distraction that it eats into the rest of the day.
Time spent caring for others is better than time spent amusing myself. That doesn’t mean that I don’t need “down” time, and “self-care”, and boundaries– everyone does. But hoarding time for my entertainment and achievement at others’ expense is a recipe for depression and emptiness.
Time IS a resource. It should be managed wisely. That means having a schedule, but not being enslaved by it. There is always something you CAN be doing, something you probably SHOULD be doing, and something you SHOULDN’T be doing. None of them matter. What you CHOOSE to be doing is what will get done. Someone may argue that they have no choice–” when I’m at work, I don’t get to choose what I do; when I have chores or housework or family obligations, I don’t have a choice”–but that’s a false argument. You CHOOSE to go to work, to fulfill your obligations and family commitments, to do the “next right thing” that comes your way. And every time you make a choice, you show what is important to you. The difference is owning up to your choices– both good and bad– and recognizing that time (in this life) is a finite commodity. You can’t be everywhere at once or do everything at once.
God is beyond time and the giver and keeper of time. He doesn’t want us to waste His gift, and He won’t give us “more” time in our day, but He can redeem some of the mistakes we’ve made with time, and He can give us the wisdom to make the most of today, and help us manage each day to come.
“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.
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?
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.
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)
Psalm 23:2a King James Version (KJV) 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
Many years ago (never mind how many..) there was a television show called “Green Acres.” It was a comedy about a couple from New York City, who moved to a small town in the country. The husband was excited about the move– he was tired of the rat race and bustle of the city; his wife, however, was reluctant to leave all the opportunities– she missed the shops and activity.
More than fifty years later, you can often see these shows on networks like TV Land. They are still popular among some viewers, who like the nostalgia and the gentle humor. These shows all have happy endings. They don’t involve grotesque murders, lots of foul language, preachy lectures on social issues like homelessness, domestic abuse, or drug addiction, or copious amounts of sex, violence, or nudity. They don’t talk about war and gangs, poverty or prejudice, or urban sprawl. They celebrate family, fresh air, hard work, community, truth, justice, kindness, and humility.
What does “Green Acres” (or Andy Griffith or any other old TV show) have to do with Psalm 23 and Pursuing Prayer? Not a lot, but I would like to look at the phrase in verse 2– “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures..” Not the same as “Green Acres,” but I think the green pastures of God are viewed by the world in much the same way as “Green Acres;” scorned by a small and vocal group, but quietly cherished by many others.
Our Shepherd causes us to lie down– to find rest and nourishment and refreshing– in green pastures. That doesn’t mean that He won’t lead us through times of bustling stress, struggle, anxious moments, or rugged paths. But He will make us lie down. He will cause us to stop our frantic rushing, and renew our strength in green pasture. He doesn’t offer green pastures as an “escape from reality”, but as a reminder that dealing with reality requires us to see beyond the immediate stresses of the day and listen beyond the distracting noises around us.
God’s green pastures won’t look like “Green Acres” with old tractors and fresh-mown hay. They may not look like the small town simplicity of Americana. In fact, God’s green pastures may not be places at all, but practices– spending time in Scripture, time in prayer, times in fellowship and encouragement, time in meditation, even time in service to others. You may find green pastures in the heart of a barrio, or in the quiet of a walk in the forest, or in praying as you climb a flight of stair or fold laundry. But you will find spiritual nourishment and renewal in God’s green pastures, wherever they are and whatever they look like. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-23-2.html
God’s green pastures will have many critics, who will ask that you cancel these practices. They will call them old-fashioned, failed practices– naive, simplistic, even laughable. But as we respond to God who make us lie down in green pastures, others are watching– and taking heart. The critics in our life may be loud and insistent. It may seem like they have the power to “cancel” our rest, and pave over the green pastures to build another fast food restaurant. But there are others silently watching, longing to experience the kind of rest and refreshment they see in us– the kind that cannot come from sophisticated treatises on war or crime, or harsh critics’ disdain, or yet another trip to an upscale shop or fast food restaurant or spa.
A few years ago, I left a full-time job– a job I loved–to help my husband open up a second-hand store that also sells amateur radio equipment. Most people would look on our store as a failure–it doesn’t make a lot of money; we don’t have hundreds of sales in a week; it hasn’t made us famous or important. But it gives me the opportunity to spend time talking and listening to the customers we do have, many of whom are lonely. It gives David the opportunity to do the same. And it gives me time to pray more, spend more time in God’s word, and write and edit this blog. It has allowed me more flexibility to spend time with my family. And it has reminded me that God is our provider and protector in ways I took for granted when I drew a bigger salary and had a more prominent position. From a worldly perspective, this is a move I would never have chosen. I spend most of my days lonely and unpaid–hardly a recipe for worldly fulfillment. And many days, I actually miss the bustle of deadlines, the drama of staff conflicts, and the extra money in the bank. And some days I am frustrated and ungrateful and restless–God has led me to the green pastures, but I refuse to lie down and receive the rest He wants to give me. And God may choose to make me get up and move through valleys, up hills, or over rocky paths to the next pasture. But for this season, in this pasture, He is teaching me to lie down–to be less busy about my business, and more open to His.
The world may offer us Times Square; God offers us fresh air. The world may offer us clever ways to spend our time and money– God gives us peace that passes all understanding. God’s “Green Acres” is the place to be–resting where and how our Shepherd leads us.
Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.
Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”
But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.
It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.
There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.
I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.
By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?
Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.
I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.
I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.
Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.
Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.
Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.
He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.
In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.
Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.
*”Grant Us Peace!” (In Latin, Dona Nobis Pacem) “When Peace like a River attendeth my Soul…” “Peace be with you..” “Give Peace a Chance..” Peace that passes all understanding–Phil.4:7
We spend our days rushing, working, worrying and stressing, always hoping for a time of peace, believing that if we work hard enough, rush fast enough, hope fervently enough, we will be rewarded with peace.
But this is contrary to the Biblical pattern. God has already given us a blueprint for peace, rest, and contentment. And it doesn’t involve working harder! It involves trusting more. God wants us to work, yes, but He also wants us to rest, to seek times of solitude, meditation, and silence. This is not a suggestion given to a lucky few–it is a principle to be practiced by all of us. God wants to give us peace for the asking—not for the earning.
When prayer becomes a priority, and not just something that happens in our “spare” time, or after all the “important” things get done, we should find that peace is a by-product of our pursuit. Taking time for prayer gives our mind a new focus, calms the rhythms of our heart and body. It forces us to step aside from the frantic pace of life– to lift our eyes (or close them) away from the flickering light of the tablet or phone, to sit (or stand or kneel) still and apart from whatever task is beckoning, and listen, not to the blare of the radio or TV or street noise, but to the underlying sounds of life–heartbeats, breathing, the slow ticking of a clock, or the retreating rumble of the world.
Most importantly, through our time spent in prayer, we access the source of peace– The Prince of Peace! And it is this same Prince of Peace who will “grant us peace” if we just ask. You may not be able to set aside hours for blissful meditation. But if you ask, God will help you guard your time, and help you find those few precious moments of prayer and peace– peace with Him, peace from Him, peace that passes all understanding.
The world is filled with language–there are well over 5,000 recognized languages and dialects around the globe. And within each language are thousands upon thousands of words– nouns and verb forms and adjectives; names and even grunts and sighs and “clicks” that vary from language group to language group.
In spite of this, we often find ourselves “speechless”– unable to find a word or sound that adequately communicates our thoughts or feelings in the moment. We stammer or sigh, gesture, or scream– but the words either don’t come or they don’t exist.
God knows and understands our innermost heart– with or without words. The Apostle Paul refers to this in Romans, chapter 8, when he talks about the Spirit interceding for us with groans that words cannot express (v. 26). And it’s not always groaning– sometimes there are no words for our joy– only dancing or tears of gladness. Sometimes, there are wails and cries that come straight from our broken hearts. Sometimes, our excited thoughts come so fast that we cannot form words and sounds to keep up.
Prayer isn’t always about words– carefully drafted lists of requests or thank-you’s for our blessings–sometimes prayer is a spontaneous gush of sound or movement; sometimes, it is an intense stillness and profound silence, such that your heartbeat is deafening and the very air sings in your ears. Sometimes, it is the eruption of pain and guilt, regret and despair–the sound of your soul being pulled up through your throat and ripped almost in two. And sometimes, miraculously, it is the overwhelming presence of God in all of his Holiness, Splendor, and Might that defies any human utterance, but draws out pure praise, unfiltered by language!
In Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus listed what have become known as “The Beatitudes”. Each phrase begins with “Blessed are..” or “Happy are…” (depending on the translation). The blessings are specific, but they are also reserved for those who do not appear to be due for blessings– the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Each group seems pitiable, not suited for accolades and celebration. They’ve done nothing to deserve blessing. Yet Jesus calls them “Happy” and assigns them amazing gifts and blessings– not for their hard work or achievements, but because of their emptiness; their need and their ability to receive the blessings of God.
There are wonderful sermons and analyses and studies on the Beatitudes, but in relation to prayer, I want to look at this aspect. There are no blessings in the list for the doers– the movers and shakers, the revolutionaries and the organizers and life-changers. Throughout the Sermon, Jesus spends more time on attitude than on action–Murder is an action– forbidden by the Ten Commandments– but it is based on attitudes like hatred, disdain, envy, and rage. Clearly, Jesus does not want us to be unproductive or isolated from the needs of others, but our busyness, our stress, our huffing and puffing and scurrying about, does not impress Him, nor does it bring us the kind of happiness only God can offer.
He gives the same emphasis when he discusses prayer– prayer is not about public eloquence or long strings of words or excessive emotional outbursts. In fact, effective prayer has little to do with who is praying, what words or word order or language they use, where they pray, or when they pray. It IS about how and why and TO WHOM they are praying. And the only active verb not assigned to “Our Father” is found in the phrase, “…as we forgive…”
God does not command us to pray seven times a day, or to have a prayer list a mile long, or to pray only when we are in great need. He wants us to “pray without ceasing”, not as a recurring action, but as a constant state of being aware of and responsive to His presence.
I have a niece who has spent several years in dance. When she was a beginner, it was both comical and sad to watch as she and many others agonized and counted the steps out as they performed– often getting all the right steps, but a slight beat ahead of or behind the music and/or the other dancers. But what a delight to see the development of young students into graceful dancers– seeing the transition from just doing the right steps at the (approximate) right time to internalizing and coordinating the music and movement into art.
I have friends who are runners, and while I don’t run, I have watched those who do…there is a difference in the stride, the posture, and the face of someone who is “a runner” and someone who is just “running.” It’s not the action, but the attitude that makes the difference.
Prayer is a gift; a privilege; a sacred meditative conversation with our Creator, Our Father, and our King. I don’t want to just pray– I want to BE in Prayer!