Always Remember, Pray, Give Thanks

The Apostle Paul is consistent in opening most of his letters with a phrase that uses the same four key words– Always, Remember, Prayers, and Thank. The order of the words may change, but the idea stays the same. Paul is always remembering others, always praying for them, and always thankful to God for them.

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Paul uses similar phrasing whether addressing individuals, like Timothy or Philemon, or church groups, like the Ephesians or Philippians. But the message is always very personal. He is not saying a general “Thank You” to God for people “like” Philemon, or “like” the church in Ephesus. He is remembering shared burdens, shared laughter, shared experiences, and thanking God for those deeply held memories. He is lifting up individual burdens, such as the on-going disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Philippians 4:2), or Timothy’s stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23).

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It is easy, and costs nothing, to pray generic prayers for a large, faceless mass of strangers. It is easy to love humanity from afar. It is another thing to enter into another person’s “messiness” and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); to remember struggles and sacrifices made on behalf of others (or to remember being the one in great need of another’s sacrifices). Life– abundant, vibrant, and glorious–calls us to get involved. Not just from the sidelines, not just when it’s convenient, but “always.”

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Prayer calls us to be involved. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray “general” prayers– for peace in foreign lands, or and end to drought or hunger, etc. But we must not neglect “wrestling” prayers–prayers for our unsaved loved ones, prayers for persecuted believers (whether next door or around the world), prayers for our community workers, and prayers for those who are in need. Nor should we neglect prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving for those who have come into our lives. Finally, we need to be willing to let individuals KNOW that they are being remembered, prayed for, and appreciated.

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One of the greatest blessings I know is remembering all the special people who have crossed paths, shared the journey, and borne shared burdens with me, and knowing that each person, each memory, each moment, is eternally and infinitely precious to God! What a privilege it is to share good times and even “battle scars” with so many amazing, unique, beloved people! What a privilege to lift them up before the throne of grace!

How Will You Be Remembered?

Today would have been my paternal grandmother’s 118th birthday. I have many memories of my grandmother, and I wish more of them were pleasant.

I remember dreading time spent at Grandma’s house. She wasn’t a horrible woman, but she was not peaceful or kind or warm. Her house was small and dark, with cobwebs and dust bunnies in the corners and under furniture. There were very few toys, and most of them broken. Grandma always wanted my sister and I to be still and silent, and I always had the feeling that she dreaded our visits as much as we did. I had a cousin who loved it when we came over, because she was just a bit older and an only child. If the weather was nice, Grandma would send us all outside, and my cousin would dare us to climb trees, or jump over a pit or some other physical (usually dirty and dangerous, too) activity. When we came in, Grandma would frown and comment on how dirty and sweaty and noisy and un-ladylike we all were.

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Growing up, I didn’t think of Grandma as someone who had ever been young, and noisy, or happy and excitable, or awkward and easily hurt. She seemed to have been perpetually old and cranky and bitter. In hindsight, I can see how circumstances– being the middle child of seven living on a farm; starting her married life living in with a bossy sister-in-law and verbally abusive father-in-law; losing her husband when he was only 50–had been allowed to shape her character in negative ways.

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There are some pleasant memories, and I cherish them. Grandma was a good cook. She made wonderful chicken dinners, and a strange candy out of mashed potatoes and peanut butter. She always had cold tea on a hot day. I knew that she loved my dad, and that she could be proud of us, in her own way. I was sorry when she died. Sorry that I hadn’t made more of an effort to know her better. Sorry that she had chosen bitterness, and that I had chosen to stay distant from her.

I write all this, difficult as it is, to say that Grandma–both her good and bad qualities–lives on in my memory as someone I would not choose to be. I don’t want to grow old like her. I don’t want my family members to dread spending time with me while I live, and dig deep to remember something good about me when I’m gone, or justify my bitterness and negativity.

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My grandmother claimed to be a woman of faith. And it is not my place to be her judge. But I saw very little evidence of faith in her daily life. I cannot remember ever hearing her pray. She did not attend church. She had a Bible, but I never saw her reading it. Her better qualities, and her walk with Christ were overshadowed by rancor, bitterness, anger, hurt, and pettiness. I do not want that to be my legacy. I want people to know, not just from my words, but in my actions and choices, that God’s love lives in me, brighter and stronger than memories of Grandma.

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Shortly before her death, I ended up spending an afternoon with Grandma– just the two of us. She had moved into a small apartment in town, and somehow, it transpired that I had to be in town on Saturday morning for a school event, and no one could pick me up until that evening. We were forced to keep company. It began awkwardly, but as we talked, Grandma opened up about her childhood, her love of music, and more; she asked about my time at school and my love of history. It is the single most pleasant memory I have of her, and I wish there had been more afternoons like it; more afternoons to bond; more afternoons to cherish, rather than dread.

After her death, I learned a couple of things about my grandmother– things I wish I had known earlier. I found an old copy of her high school yearbook, which contained a story she had written. Grandma’s story was full of wonderful details and imaginative characters. She was a writer– and I never knew! I also found out that Grandma not only loved music, she was a singer– an alto, just like me. At some point in her life, she stopped writing, and she stopped singing. I hope that, even if I never saw it or heard it, that she never stopped praying. And I hope that when I’m gone, those who remember me will never have to wonder if I sang, or wrote, or prayed.

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Miniature Joys

Life is full of “big” things–birth, marriage, death, buying a house, losing a job… But it is also full of small moments– a quiet smile, a child’s laughter, the smell of new rain, a cup of cocoa.

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Often, we let the “big” things overwhelm us, and we miss the miniature joys all around us. I was reminded of this over the past weekend, as we were able to spend time with various family members– many of whom we had not seen in months because of the pandemic. Of course, some of the “big” topics came up in conversation– COVID-19, riots in cities around the world, frustrating job situations, ongoing health concerns, and so on. But the miniature joyful moments–sharing silly memories and laughter, noticing how much the teens have grown, sharing a meal, hearing familiar voices–these are the things that stay with us and sustain us through the “big” things.

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One of the weekend activities was a birthday party for our granddaughter. It was a smaller gathering, and limited to family members, so there were no young girls for her to play with. All her siblings and cousins are boys, and the grandparents outnumbered the children. We sat outside on the hottest day of the year (so far), and sang “Happy Birthday” and watched her blow out candles on a small cake. And we made a promise to phone our granddaughter on her “actual” birthday two days later.

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Two days later, we had a busy day– we were running errands, and spending time with my niece and nephew. We had appointments and important phone calls to make, and e-mails to answer. We almost forgot about our promise..but our granddaughter had not. When we stopped our “big” plans, sat down and made the promised phone call, the joy in her voice was enough to light up a hundred candles and shine brighter than the sun. Such a little thing. We had already wished her a happy birthday, given her gifts, and shared her birthday cake. But in keeping our “small” promise, we shared something priceless. There is a bond of trust and love that makes the small moments vitally important in our relationships, and in our own character development.

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And the same can happen in reverse. In the book of Jonah, God sent a gourd vine. Such a little thing, and Jonah had done little to deserve it. But God sent it just the same. A tiny bit of shade to comfort Jonah in his bitterness while he watched his enemies receiving God’s grace. Several thousands of Ninevites saved from destruction v. Jonah being saved from the heat of the mid-day sun–it seems like a ridiculous comparison. But in his selfishness and anger, Jonah missed the obvious. Yet God still provided–extravagant grace to Nineveh; the grace of a gourd for Jonah. When God caused the gourd vine to be destroyed, Jonah’s reaction was fierce and extreme. He could not find joy in Nineveh’s salvation; he couldn’t sustain joy in God’s gracious gift of the gourd vine. All he could feel was the anger and bitterness. After all, isn’t it possible that some of the very Ninevites who had been spared would have been glad to offer shelter to the prophet who had brought them a timely warning? What kind of joy and healing might Jonah have experienced in the company of his former enemies?

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Lord, please help me to rejoice in the small moments, and see Your glory in the miniature joys of life. Open my eyes to see past the “big” things in life, because I know that You are bigger than all of them. Thank you for restful moments, and fleeting pleasures; for glimpses of Glory, and poignant snatches of memory; for grins, and sips of cold water on a hot day; for old photographs, and new snapshots; for Your faithfulness, and Your mercies, which are new every morning!

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I Love to Tell the Story

I’ve mentioned this before, but many of my childhood memories of church revolve around old hymns, sung with more gusto than musicality– joyful noises, just not always faithful to the notes. But they were faithful to the Word, and the Worship of Christ. I will always be grateful for that heritage.

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In the more informal services on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights before we settled in for prayer, the worship leader would often ask for members of the congregation to call out the number of any random hymn. We would (attempt) to sing it, often a capella, just the first verse, or maybe the first and last. It gave people a chance to sing an old favorite, or a hymn we hadn’t sung in awhile. Sometimes, a brave soul would find a “new” hymn– one no one (or almost no one) had ever heard. Occasionally, the evening church hour would revolve solely around this worship model– a hymn-sing service. It’s a dying practice, and one that deserves to be preserved. My church has done it a few times over the past years, a local chapel does it once a month, and Bible Study Fellowship in our area begins with hymn-sing every week. It’s a great way to learn old hymns, long-forgotten choruses, and treasured truths of doctrine set to music.

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But I digress. As a child, I liked this spontaneous activity, except for one thing. I knew that if Mr. Teeter opened the hymnal and started to clear his throat, that he would suggest the same hymn he always picked. It never seemed to vary– ever. Mr. Teeter was one of the older men of the church. He was in his seventies, short, with wisps of white hair, wise and twinkling eyes, and a big, red nose like a strawberry, which he often blew–loudly–into his pristine white handkerchief. He always came to church in a suit, complete with a hat, which had its own special spot on the hat rack in the entryway. I could not imagine him any other way. And every time he had the opportunity, he would choose to have us all sing, “I Love to Tell the Story.”

I wasn’t much impressed with the song. It seemed old-fashioned. It was simple. It had no soaring musical passages– sometimes, it even sounded whiny to my young ears. I dreaded the thought that we would sing it (yet) again. I would try to get my hand up and choose another hymn, any other hymn, before Mr. Teeter could clear his throat. I did not understand why he never seemed to want to sing other hymns– I knew he liked “Standing on the Promises,” “Blessed Assurance,” even “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!” But, while he could be stalled for one or two other numbers, he would eventually call out the dreaded number, and we would sing at least one verse. It’s not that I hated the song, and I certainly had respect for Mr. Teeter, but I just couldn’t figure out why THIS song? Why EVERY time?

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Just a couple of years before his death, Mr. Teeter gave his salvation story in front of the church. Many of us had never known about his wild early years; his drinking or his rebellion against his family and the church. Many of us assumed he had always lived a quiet, rather pious life. He radiated the peace and wisdom of a man who walked daily with his God. And then, he told of his fascination with this old hymn. He liked the very simplicity of it–his life wasn’t based on some grand theological argument, or a complicated list of heroic actions he had achieved to win his salvation. His life–his born-again, wonderful, eternal life– was because someone had told him an old, old story, he had believed it, and that had made all the difference. That simple old story has been the same since the beginning– God made the world, mankind sinned and fell short of God’s glory, God sent His Son to pay the price of that fall, and Jesus’ death and resurrection allows anyone who believes to be adopted as a son or daughter of God. And though Mr. Teeter knew the old story inside and out, and lived it, he never tired of it. He was “hungering and thirsting” to hear it again!

Whenever I hear this song now (or suggest it), I think of Mr. Teeter singing with saints and angels, his quiet voice full of emotion, his eyes filling with tears of gratitude and worship, as he gets his request–“and when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love!”

Looking at the Negative

Growing up in the age before digital cameras, I remember waiting for photos to be developed from a roll of film. We would drop off a roll at the pharmacy or photo shop, and pick up a package containing the prints and several strips of negatives from the original roll of film.

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I was fascinated by these negatives–images with the exact opposite of the prints– dark was light, light was dark, and everything seemed topsy-turvy. Sometimes things seemed creepy and even somewhat sinister–people with white hair and white pupils shining out of dark eyes; icy trees against a dark sky.

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Of course, the negatives were not the prints, nor were they intended to be the finished product. The negatives were included so that new prints could be made at a later time. We didn’t put the negatives in our photo album; we hid them away in a dark place, out of sight and far from the light. Most of them eventually got ruined or degraded over time, while the photos they produced were preserved and cherished.

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Life holds a lot of “negatives”– negative experiences, negative emotions, negative thoughts, bad memories, scars–we all have them. But we are given the opportunity to produce something positive out of even the most negative of circumstances. It’s what God does– His light shines in the darkness and changes our view.

But we need to be exposed to the truth, and developed by faith, just like film. And we need to come back into the light, not as a negative, but as a faithful image of what (and who) God intends us to be.

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The world is full of negatives– distorted images and situations caused by exposure to sin, pain, grief, anger, bitterness, and hatred. We can dwell on such images, and fill our days staring at the negatives, never seeing the reality of what God has done all around us. Or we can allow God to develop the negatives in our life and create albums of God’s Grace–filling our eyes and minds with the truth and beauty that comes only from our Loving Father.

Philippians 4:6-8 NIV

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (taken from bible.com)

Someday, God will finish destroying all the “negatives” in this fallen world, and reveal His full Glory. What a sight that will be!

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The Seven-Layer Prayer

Growing up, I loved going to pot-luck meals at our little country church.  Neighbors, family, and friends would bring large dishes of home-cooked deliciousness for all to feast on as we chatted, laughed, and encouraged one another.  There were certain dishes we all could count on–homemade yeast rolls, courtesy of Lulu M.  Jello with fruit was my mom’s standard.  Another lady almost always brought meat loaf.  Baked beans, candied carrots, fried chicken, chocolate cake, scalloped potatoes– my mouth still waters just from the memories!  The wonderful woman who has since become my mother-in-law brought her famous cookies, and often, a seven-layer salad.

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I love Mom’s seven layer salad, and I have learned to make my own variation.  It’s easy, it’s delicious, it’s healthful, and it travels well.  I’ve seen other recipes that use different vegetables, don’t use eggs or meat or mayo–I’m sure they’re ok, but I’m happy to stick with the basic outline that follows below.

I was thinking about the seven-layer salad the other day– it’s a wonderful dish for this time of year– chilled and utilizing fresh produce, and I realized that you can use a similar “recipe” for prayer.  So here’s my modified “Seven-Layer Prayer” recipe:

 

  • First, start with a layer of “Let Us”
    • Prayer doesn’t happen without an act of the will.  We must be deliberate about setting aside time and thought for prayer every day.  We should “leaf” the busyness and chaos of the day and “romaine” in fellowship with the Father!

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  • Next, add a layer of “Care”-rots (shredded).
    • 1 Peter 5:7 New King James Version (NKJV)
      casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
    • Give your worries and cares over to the One who cares most about you and all those you love.
  • Now you can add the “Peas” that passes all understanding
    • Trust that God hears and answers prayer.
    • Trust that God is in control.
    • Trust that God is Good, Wise, and Loving.
    • Rest in the knowledge that “God’s Got This!”

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  • Here’s where I like to add some “Meet” (usually bacon!, sometimes ham or chicken)
    • While it’s vital that we spend time in personal, private prayer, God also wants us to meet regularly with others for fellowship, mutual encouragement, accountability, PRAYER, and guidance.
  • Now it gets a little dicey–diced onion (sometimes I substitute green onions or sliced or diced mushrooms)
    • Time to peel back the layers, and cut through to the root of anything that is getting in the way of a closer walk with God–confess it and give it over to Him.
    • Sometimes, this process may cause tears, or involve a little dirt– clean it up before you proceed!
  • Time for some dressing– mayonnaise or salad dressing.  Annoint your salad, and your prayer, with oil.  Remember, God has annointed you to spread His love and grace to others.  Don’t forget to add this to your prayer life.  Just as the dressing will coat all the elements of the salad, so God’s Spirit will surround and influence your words and actions done for Him!
  • “Cheese!”  It’s a “gouda” idea to round out prayer with a time of joyful thanksgiving.  Pile it on– God’s given us a LOT for which to be “grate”-ful!

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  • Finally, the garnish– Hard-boiled eggs.  These remind me of the new life we have in Christ, the Triune nature of God (we used to have lessons in Sunday School about the egg having three parts but being a single egg.  We don’t use the shell in the salad, of course, but you can’t make a boiled egg without all three parts…), and also, the yolk reminds me of Heaven’s streets of gold.  In prayer, we should remember God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises, and the hope we have in Him.

That’s the basic recipe for a seven layer salad– enough of each ingredient for a healthy “layer”.  I’ve added extra layers a couple of times–diced tomatoes or peppers are good if you are planning to eat the salad quickly, but they will cause sogginess  if you let the salad sit.  (Also, if you use peas, use fresh if you can– drain canned peas, or get rid of any ice crystals if using frozen peas. )

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A good seven-layer prayer should also be presented fresh, and savored.  It’s delicious, it’s good for you, it feeds others, and it travels well!  Try some!

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