Beyond Words

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.

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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.

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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!

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Why There Are No Do-Attitudes…

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.

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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!

Where Your Treasure Is…

Our church held a hymn-sing and ice cream social last Sunday.  It was an informal evening service, but we heard testimony of the power of hymns to shape our worship, and to help us remember scripture’s promises.  We also had the chance to just “call out” a favorite hymn to sing together.  We probably sang 15 or 20 hymns that night, and each one had special meaning to many in the congregation.  We treasure certain songs, certain verses, certain stories– they feed our soul, encourage our heart, steel our thoughts, and pour balm on our wounds.

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One hymn we didn’t sing the other night, though it is a favorite of many, was “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”  Sweet Hour of Prayer– lyrics and much more here  In getting ready to post for today, I thought about this hymn.  We treasure the thought of prayer being sweet and bringing relief, but do we treasure prayer enough to spend an hour or more at it?  If I add up the time spent in morning prayers of devotion, grace at mealtime, evening prayers, and “quick thoughts to heaven” throughout the day, it probably adds up to an hour…but I spend more time writing about prayer each day than I actually spend practicing it.  And when was the last time I got so caught up in prayer that I lost track of time and spent over an hour at it in one sitting?

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In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21 KJV)  This is true of our material treasures, but also our spiritual treasures, our thought treasures, and our time.  When I hear “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” one of my first thoughts is always, “That would be nice, but I don’t have an hour to spend praying– I’d never get anything done!”  But would I have said that about watching my favorite TV show?  Spending an hour on Facebook or shopping at my favorite store?

God is beyond time– he’s not counting the hours, minutes or moments we spend with Him.  But he feels our absence and our distraction just the same.  He isn’t trying to pull us away from important things to waste our time– he wants to pull us away from the things that weigh us down, worry us, haunt us, and eat up the precious time He has given us.

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I have found that when I feel “too busy” to spend time with Jesus, it’s a good time to pause and make time for prayer.  When I do (and it’s not as often as I should), three things happen:

  • I want more!  That time refreshes me, calms my spirit, and removes the burden of  worries, failures, and frustrations.
  • I accomplish more–maybe it’s a case of God re-ordering my other priorities; maybe he just gives me the power to work more efficiently; maybe it’s a miracle–but I find that the “time crunch” I worried about seems to melt away.
  • Jesus becomes “more” to me– I grow closer to Him, and closer to the person He created me to be.

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…

When “Mother’s Day” Hurts

Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration.  But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year.  Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers.  There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.

I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.).  I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor.  So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.

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But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”

Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year.  My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”

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My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten.  God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died.  Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.”  Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children.  God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers.  He sees you too.  He hears you.  He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.

More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort.  He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace.  He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love.  God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.

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God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.

Can You Hear Me Now?

We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend.  No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs.  We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal.  And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!

It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster.  I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication.  Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope.  (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)

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Isolation is an earthly concept.  God is eternally Triune.  He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18)  God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.

That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential.  It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

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But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us.  Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face.  Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer.   Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?

I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer.  I don’t know.  I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:

  • what comes easily has less value to us.  Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied.  Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge.  The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt.  Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being.  And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought.  We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.

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  • sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy.  When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
  • sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer.  However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong.  Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed.  Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
  • sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe!  It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith.  Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up.  God DOES hear, he DOES care.  Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!

And what can we do during those times?  Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:

  • Learn to “pray outside the box”–
    • Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
    • Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
    • Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
    • Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up.  Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?

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  • Count your blessings
    • Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
    • Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
    • Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack?  How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
  • Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
    • Search for answers in His word
    • Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
    • Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated

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The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.

 

The “Fake” Good News

I keep hearing about, and seeing reports of “Fake” News.  Even the term “Fake” News is somewhat misleading–is it news?  Is it False News?  Is it “fake” because it never happened, or because it has been exaggerated or taken out of context?  Or because it doesn’t say what I want it to say?  How do I know what is “real” news anymore?

The biggest problem with “Fake” news is that it “feels” real, true, and important.  In reality, it may be none of those things.  Yet there if often a kernel of fact, or a dusting of truth that makes it hard to disprove or dispel.  And, if it had already been accepted as legitimate news by thousands, it’s even harder to stop it from being spread.

But the more insidious problem with “fake” news is the time wasted trying to sort truth from fiction, and plain fact from exaggeration and distortion.  If my friend sends me an article, or a video, or a photo, I may accept it as true on the strength of my friendship.  But what if they’re just passing it on from another source?  What if I see it from a recognized news source?  Do I dare question it?  And if so, where do I turn to verify it?  There are several fact-checking websites, but even they have biases that cause them to weigh facts differently in various situations.  Whatever assumptions we used to hold about “neutral” reporting have been proved wrong.  We are being conditioned to trust none of what we hear and less than half of what we see!

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What about the “Good” News that Christians carry into the world?  Is it like the “Fake” news we see on TV or read about on our tablets?  And if someone challenges our faith in God’s word, how can we prove that the Gospel is not “Fake”, and that our Faith is not just more hype with smoke and mirrors?  If we are pursuing prayer, shouldn’t we be confident that our prayers are not in vain and that our faith is sound?

The claim of “Fake” news makes an assumption that there is such a thing as “True” news.  Similarly, saying the Gospel is “Fake” assumes that there is an alternate truth.  But the real burden of proof is on those who want to push for the alternative.  The truths of the Bible have been time-tested, and shown to be real.  The challenges I hear most often are to the exceptions, not the rule.  I don’t hear anyone saying that “Thou shalt not steal” is a “fake” morality.  Instead, I hear that, “Christianity is fake because I know Christians who cheat and steal.”  I don’t hear people claim that “it is not morally wrong to kill.”  Instead I hear them justify exceptions.  “I’m not promoting abortion as a good thing.  I don’t think it’s right to kill another human being, but this is just a fetus, and anyway, I’m just protecting a woman’s right to her own body.”  “I don’t think it’s ethical to force someone to stay alive if they are in pain and they want to die.”  “You can’t go around just killing anybody, but I think it would be better for everyone else if ___________________ (insert the name of a group– Down’s Syndrome children, Jews, Sunnis, Hutu/Tutsi) didn’t exist.”  “I don’t believe the morals found in the Bible are wrong.  I just don’t think you need to believe the rest of it to “be moral.”

People point to single passages, single verses, even single words to “prove” that the Bible is racist, sexist,  intolerant, and promotes violence.  The Bible includes many examples of people NOT following God’s laws, and yes, the results are grisly.  And there are difficult passages when God calls for a wicked city to be destroyed completely.  Critics are not wrong to point out that the Bible is not about perfect people behaving perfectly.  And the same Loving God who frees the slaves from Egypt is the God who destroys Jericho, and Sodom and Gomorrah.  Taken out of context, these few examples may seem to cast doubt on the authority of God’s word.  Yet the same critics who pound away at the same few examples in the Bible discount hundreds of instances of  historical events that highlight human sacrifice, genocide, mass infanticide, slavery, torture, and all sorts of other evil that occurred without the Bible’s influence.  Moreover, I hear a lot about claims against “Christians” who fought in the Crusades or owned slaves–I hear a lot less about Christians who worked to end slavery and the slave trade, or Christians who founded universities, charitable institutions, or brought revivals that sparked decades of social progress throughout countries and continents.

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I don’t hear many people claim that there was no such person as Abraham, or King David, or Solomon, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Pontius Pilate or Caesar Augustus.  But they want to deny the historical reality of Adam and Eve, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Apostle Paul, who are found in the same Bible.  Why?  Because if Adam and Eve are real, there must be a creation and a creator.  If Jesus really lived and said the things that are attributed to him, we must deal with the claim that he was Messiah.  If the Apostle Paul really lived and wrote his letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we must deal with his claim that he encountered the risen Christ and his life was dramatically and eternally changed.

However, there is a “Fake” gospel– Good news that doesn’t match the Biblical account–a “Fake” Christ that only said or did or “would do” what we want him to say or do; a Christ that isn’t holy or righteous, but just loves us because it’s the “zen” thing to do; a Christ who is without power to save or to sanctify; a Christ who is without mercy and loves only those who look the part or say the right things.  How do you spot a “Fake” Christ and a “Fake” Gospel?  Get to know the real ones of the Bible.  You’ll soon be able to spot an “imposter.”

“Fake” News will always fail the test of time and the challenges of real evidence.  Good News will transcend the test of time and the challenges of faulty evidence.

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Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again!  THAT’s the Good News!

 

 

Jephthah or Jabez?

There are many great examples of prayer throughout the Bible, but there are two that are often used out of context and applied wrongly.  One is found in the book of the Judges; the other in the Chronicles.

Jephthah was a mighty warrior– the son of a mighty warrior and a prostitute.  He had several half-brothers, but they wanted nothing to do with him.  He was an outcast for much of his life, but when things got tough, the people of the region changed their tune and begged him to be their leader and help deliver them from the oppressive Ammonites.   Before going into battle, Jephthah prayed, and made a tragic vow.  In fact, his vow has become a model of what NOT to do in approaching God.

Judges 11:30-31 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

Upon returning from his success in battle, who should come out of the door of his house, but his only daughter, singing and dancing in celebration of her father’s victory!  Having made such a rash vow, Jephthah now has to fulfill it, and sacrifices his only child on the altar.

Many people read this passage of scripture and are shocked– how could God be so cruel?  Why didn’t he stop Jephthah from making such a rash vow?  How could he hold Jephthah to such a vow?  Doesn’t this prove that God is either clueless or deliberately cruel?  Either God knew that the tragedy would happen, and failed to prevent it, or he had no idea  of the outcome.

But I think this is a misreading of events and a misrepresentation of God.  Just before Jephthah makes his vow, the text states that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.  He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced upon the Ammonites.”  People make note of the first part of verse 29, that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah prior to his making the rash vow.  But we should note that God’s Spirit did not require Jephthah to make ANY vow.   Jephthah’s vow was rash and ill-considered– these are not attributes of God or of His Spirit.  And God’s Spirit came upon Jephthah before he crossed his own native territory– territory he had fled early in life.  In crossing back through lands that now welcomed him after making him feel unwanted and ashamed, Jephthah gets cocky.  His vow is not about saving his nation from harm and oppression, or about bringing God glory.  It is about himself.  He mentions himself five times; his enemies, God, and his sacrifice, each twice; Israel never.  Jephthah had an incredible opportunity, not only to save his nation, but to redeem his reputation and become a leader of might and integrity.  Instead, he is remembered for his rash vow.  I believe that God could have stopped Jephthah from making such a vow, or kept his daughter from coming out of the house that day of her father’s return.  But I don’t believe it was cruelty that prevented him from acting.  I believe God is both omnipotent and good.  Jephthah learned the hard way that his rash self-promotion had disastrous consequences.  His daughter, who was innocent, could have berated her father, or cursed God– instead, she honored them both in a way that reflected her culture and teaching.  We are given a shocking reminder not to play games with our unknown future.  God does not keep us from our own folly, nor from its consequences, when we fail to seek His wisdom above our own pride.

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In contrast, we see another prayer in 1 Chronicles:

1 Chronicles 4:9-10 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, “Because I bore him with pain.” 10 Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from harm that it may not pain me!” And God granted him what he requested.

Once again, this prayer is sometimes taken out of context and misused to suggest that God is like a genie in a bottle, and that a pain-free life and expanded riches are ours for the asking.  If we pray the prayer of Jabez, and we don’t see an immediate change in our circumstances, we sometimes question God’s goodness and His provision– doesn’t He care about our needs?  Doesn’t he hear our prayer?

Jabez, unlike Jephthah above, is described as honorable.  His prayer is more balanced and conscious of God’s sovereignty.  Jabez mentions himself five times, just like Jephthah; but he mentions God three times in supplication– asking God to be with him, help him, and bless him, rather than vowing what he can do for God if God grants him victory.    Notice also the context of the preceding verse.  His prayer is partly asking God to remove the sting and curse of his name, which meant “pain.”  He is not asking for enormous wealth or power, so much as asking for God’s presence and blessing.  There is a subtle, but important difference here.  Jephthah is playing at making a deal with God– If you grant me a victory, I will make it up to you by offering whatever comes out of my house.  Jabez comes with nothing, and asks God to be his portion and protection.  He makes no bargain with God contingent on God’s answer.  There is nothing in this prayer that assumes God’s riches will be his or that God owes him anything; only the faith that God is able to bless him, and that God, in his goodness can keep him from harm.

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Jephthah, or Jabez?  Two examples…two very different outcomes.  May we have the wisdom not to confuse the two, or lose the lessons they teach.

Prayer In the Digital Age

Wilt thou love God, as He thee? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In Heaven, doth make His Temple in thy breast.
The Father, having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting (for he ne’er begun),
Hath deigned to choose thee, by adoption,
Coheir to His glory and sabbath’s endless rest;
As a robbed man which by search doth find
His stol’n stuff sold must lose or buy again,
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stol’n, to unbind.
‘Twas much that man was made like God before,
But that God should be made like man, much more.
John Donne, Holy Sonnets 1633, No. 11

 

In the Garden

1 I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

Refrain:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

2 He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing. [Refrain]

3 I’d stay in the garden with Him
Tho’ the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling. [Refrain]

Baptist Hymnal, 1991

 

Sanctus Real– Pray (You Tube)

 

Times have changed– God has not.

God does not have a Facebook or Twitter account; he’s not in Pinterest or Instagram.  He doesn’t post selfies or have a blog.  But he is the same God that Adam and Eve walked with in the Garden of Eden; the same God who spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend.  He is the same God who listened to the impassioned Psalms of King David, and the lamentations of Jeremiah.  He is the same God who has inspired awe and fear in the hearts of apostles, poets, philosophers, songwriters, and evangelists over the centuries.

When we come before God, it is tempting to see him through the lens of our own times– we want him to be one of our “peeps”, accessible, someone who will answer a text or voice mail, “like” our post or “follow” us as we babble about our hours and days and show pictures of what we had for dinner or what we looked like heading out to the concert. We want him to be about US, instead of us laying down our lives for HIM.

Media– especially social media, can help or hinder our prayer life.  We can access all kinds of helpful tools to focus our prayers, link up with prayer partners and groups, listen to inspiring music or peaceful slide shows for meditation…  But more often than not, media becomes a distraction or even a substitution for real, serious, personal communication with God.

God is not our virtual friend; he’s not one of our “peeps” or “the man upstairs.”  He is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe– every galaxy created at his command; every particle obedient to his whim.  And he has given us the privilege to come before him as his adopted and beloved children to lay our hearts before him and receive his wisdom, forgiveness, strength, and joy.  “Liking” your friends’ posts with Bible verses, sending a thumbs up or an emoji when someone puts up a picture of Jesus on their wall–if that’s the sum total of what you call worship, God has another name for it– Idolatry.

That may seem really harsh, but Idolatry is ANYTHING that we are worshiping in place of God himself.  There’s a reason we don’t have statues of God the Father in temples and churches, synagogues, and chapels around the world.  God warned us thousands of years ago about the dangers of creating substitutes.  Even things that are meant to remind us of him can become substitutes for worship.  That doesn’t mean that the crucifix necklace or the picture of Jesus knocking at the door are automatically evil– but when we stop reaching out to the real God, and focus on a false image, no matter how lovely or touching, we can fall into idolatry.  And the distractions of the digital age have been shown to create isolation and depression, and become impediments among our human relationships..  We don’t have meaningful meditation or intimate conversations online with people at the other end– what makes us think that wireless devices will bring us closer to God?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use technology to enhance our worship–just don’t make it an entertaining substitute for the real thing.  You wouldn’t (or at least I hope you don’t) text and catch up on Twitter while having a face-to-face and heart-to-heart talk with your spouse or child..give God the honor, the time, and the respect he deserves.  You don’t have to live like a stone age hunter to get some alone time with God, but it is a great idea to set aside some time to unplug from media and the noise of this world, and plug into the wonder of meeting with God in the Garden.pexels-photo-130154.jpeg

Presumptuous Prayer

The Christian life is often one of paradox–We are “in” the world, but not “of” the world; we “die to the flesh”, even as we continue to breathe and walk and eat in our fleshly bodies.  Prayer is part of that paradox– we dare to present ourselves before the throne of Almighty God, yet we are told to call him “Our Father”, and to come boldly.  We call on one who is unseen, unknowable, and sovereign, and we’re told to ask for anything in Jesus’ name, and it will be done.

This can lead to problems, as we try to resolve the paradox– sometimes we dare too much; other times, we ask too little.  I want to take a peek at how this works, especially as I have a problem with the latter.

Why do I feel it is a presumption to ask God for help?  Why do I ask God to do the least that I might expect from Him, when He offers miracles for the asking?  Why do I wait to bring my requests to God, hoping that I can solve them myself and not “bother” him?  Do I not trust him?  Do I not trust him enough?  Why do I get discouraged when my prayers are not answered “my way?”  Immediately!  When hardship comes, why do I assume that it is an accident–a miscarriage of justice–and call out to God as though he is unaware of my dilemma?

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I think we come to prayer with a few faulty assumptions about God:

  • we believe that God doesn’t know– that he is unaware of our needs or our circumstances, , our sense of urgency, or the depth of our despair; that he will be embarrassed by our lack of obedience or the simplicity of our request
  • we believe that God doesn’t care– we fear that God will be distant, disapproving, or even disdainful; unwilling to help us until we “clean up our act.”  Or we believe that he delights in testing us, watching us struggle, withholding help until we are properly humbled and abject in our obedience.  Perhaps we believe that “God helps those who help themselves,” and therefore, he is waiting for us to work ourselves to the limit before we bother him with our troubles.  We believe that “if God really cared” he would give us what we want, when we want it, and how we want it
  • we believe that God is unable– that we have messed up so badly, even God can’t fix our mistakes; that what we are asking is stretching God to do what is beyond his plan or purpose; that our request is too broad in its scope for God to attend to it
  • we believe that God isn’t really GOD–we have doubts about his existence, his reality, his presence, and his power over all our circumstances

We also come with assumptions about ourselves:

  • we believe that we are unworthy of God’s love, care, time, power, concern, or attention
  • we believe that we are worthy–worthy of special treatment and privileges denied to others because of who we are or what we’ve done; worthy of a life devoid of pain, stress, hardship, or struggle
  • we believe that we know better than God how to meet our needs; we believe that we have all the answers, and God’s job is to do our bidding
  • we believe that coming to God in prayer is a sign of weakness, laziness, or neediness that brands us as “less” than others who live life on “their terms”
  • we believe that our wants and needs are not important; that our dreams and desires must be squashed in order to serve God

If we assume any (or all) of these things, our prayers will swing wildly from wimpy hand-wringing and grudging worship to impatient demands and selfish complaints.

God knows– he sees everything; he knows your very thoughts before you think them!  God cares– he loves each of us with an eternal, limitless love– a perfect love that casts out fear and bids us to draw near to him, but doesn’t spoil us, indulge our selfishness, or set us up for failure.
God is able–just because we don’t see the answer we want in our current situation doesn’t mean that answer isn’t on its way.  Look back at the ways God has been faithful in the past–Can’t He Do It!

We are unworthy–in our own power–but we are also cherished by God, who makes us worthy through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Our privilege of coming to and communing with Almighty God is not a presumption in itself– it is a gift given by him in the moment that the veil was torn from top to bottom in the temple– the very moment Christ fulfilled the law, the barriers were removed, and God made it possible to come into his very presence.
We know only in part, and we see only in part– God sees the whole; the end from the beginning.  He knows what is best, not only for us, but for all of creation.
When we come to God, it is a sign of submission– not weakness.  It is a sign that we recognize God’s right to be God, and our privilege to live and work and commune with him, instead of acting and living in rebellion against him.
Because he knows our every thought, and he loves us completely, he cares about our every need.  When we trust in him– in his goodness, his faithfulness, his timing, and his sovereignty, he doesn’t promise us a life without hardship; but he does promise peace that passes all understanding as we go through those hardships.

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In the end, our faulty assumptions come from making ourselves too big– taking pride in our own worthiness, strength, and intelligence; or exaggerating our faults, mistakes, and unmet expectations– and making God too small to meet our needs or understand our hearts.

God wants us to presume on his Goodness and Might– not on our own wisdom and worthiness.

 

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