Look UP!

(Note: this was originally posted in September of 2019. Please enjoy…)

Psalm 121:1-2 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

121 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+121%3A1-2&version=RSV
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Genesis 22:10-14 Common English Bible (CEB)
10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”
Abraham said, “I’m here.”
12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22%3A10-14&version=CEB
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Where to we look when we’re in trouble or need answers? I worked for many years in libraries– we “looked up” all kinds of answers for people. We looked in dictionaries, thumbed through heavy reference books, and scrolled through many websites. But even though we called it “looking up”, we spent most of our time looking down!

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Many people spend hours looking down at phone screens all day, or looking ahead as they drive down the road. Very few of us spend time looking up to see the clouds, the sunset, the towering buildings or trees on the horizon. And we spend too little time “looking up” to see how God is working in, around, or through our circumstances.

Abraham set off with his son, Isaac, to make a sacrifice. He had made provisions– he brought enough food for three days’ journey (and three days back!). He brought wood, and even fire. But God had asked him to “offer” Isaac as a sacrifice, so he took no ram–but he brought a knife. God’s instructions were ambiguous–He did not tell Abraham that he must kill his son, Isaac, only that he was to take him up the mountain and “offer” him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references this event:

Hebrews 11:17-19 New International Version (NIV)
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[a] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Footnotes:
Hebrews 11:18 Gen. 21:12

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=hebrews+11%3A17-19&version=NIV
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Abraham had looked up at the mountain; he had “looked up” how many provisions to take along; but at the crucial moment, when he looked up, he finally saw God’s provision. It was never God’s intention that Abraham actually kill his beloved son. It was God’s intention that Abraham (and Isaac) listen and act in faith. And so they did. The ram was already there– waiting for Abraham to look up!

Later, when the Israelites (Abraham’s descendents!) were wandering in the wilderness, they were faced with many trials. God sent pillars of cloud and fire to lead the people as they “looked up” and followed them. When snakes came into the camp, God had Moses make a pole with a brass snake at the top. Anyone suffering from a snake bite could “look up” at the pole and be cured. Jesus referred to this story as an illustration of us own crucifixion–saying that in just the same way, he would be “lifted up.” Those who “look up” in faith to the crucified and resurrected Jesus can be cured of their sin, and given new life! https://www.christianity.com/jesus/is-jesus-god/old-testament-prophecies/jesus-is-like-the-bronze-serpent-moses-lifted-up.html

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Let’s “look up” today in faith, knowing that God sees our circumstances; knowing that as we act in obedience, God will provide our every need.

Two Ears

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak!”

Epictetus
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I write about prayer–how I pray, when I pray, how other people pray, what the Bible says about prayer– but prayer is a two-way street. God desires to hear from us. But He also desires that we should listen. In fact, there is really nothing that we can “tell” God that He doesn’t already know. But there is much that we can learn when our mouth is shut and our eyes and ears are attuned to what God is telling us!

God rarely speaks to us directly, as another human would. God spoke to Moses face-to-face (see Exodus 33), and Jesus spoke directly to hundreds of people during His earthly life and ministry. He also spoke directly to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, though not face-to-face (see Acts 9). But most of us never hear the actual voice of God. Yet He is constantly sending us messages– if we are listening.

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Often, He sends messages through His word. When we read the Bible, or hear it read aloud, a certain passage or phrase will suddenly stand out, offering comfort, conviction, or insight as we need it. Sometimes, it is the gentle prick of our conscience, or an urgent “sense” that we are to do something (or NOT do something). It may even sound like a voice in our head– our own or someone else’s–urging us to do something out of the ordinary or out of our comfort zone. Sometimes, He speaks to us through the wisdom and insight of someone else–a neighbor, a friend, a family member; sometimes even a stranger–and we get a sense that what we are hearing is “bigger” or more important than just words. And sometimes, God “speaks” through our other senses– in the beauty of a sunset, or the cool breeze at the end of a hot day; through the wordless songs of a bird or a rippling brook; the smell of warm bread–His way of reminding us that He is present, and He is Good.

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We need to listen for such moments and messages. But we also need to listen carefully. Not all “feelings” are from God; not all “wisdom” is inspired. God will NEVER send us messages that are in conflict with His character. He may call us to do things that seem impossible, uncomfortable, “strange,” or even potentially “dangerous,” but He will not tell us to do something that contradicts His own word. God may nudge you to leave a toxic relationship, or move to another city or country to spread the Gospel. He may urge you to speak to a stranger on a bus, or give something away to a friend without knowing why. He may ask you to befriend someone who is homeless, or mentor a child, or volunteer your time in ways or places you never imagined. But God will never suggest (or send someone else to suggest) that you cheat on your spouse, or abuse the trust of a child, or mislead your neighbor, or steal from a stranger– NEVER.

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It isn’t just that God gave us two ears (and two eyes!) so that we can look and listen twice as much as we speak– we NEED to listen twice as much and twice as closely.

How will I listen today? How will God speak? When will I close my mouth, so that I can open my ears? Will I watch as well as listen? Lord, help me to hear You. Help me to discern your voice above the noise and busyness around me today.

Praying Scripture

This is not a great secret or a new discovery, but a reminder that we can “pray” the Scriptures. Sometimes, we do this in corporate prayer, as in a congregation reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” together. But often, it is when we are reading God’s word, or a particular verse haunts our memory that we echo the words in our prayer life. There are so many benefits from this:

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  • We are joining in a great tradition– much of Scripture records the prayers of the patriarchs and of Jesus Himself. When we echo those words, we affirm them–both to God and to ourselves.
  • We are praying in the light of the truth–God’s own words on our lips can keep us from trying to put our words in God’s voice!
  • We are deepening our understanding and experience of Scripture– making it personal, rather than just a learning exercise or a daily duty.
  • We are deepening our experience of Prayer– it is more than just me talking to God. It is me agreeing with God’s Word, and God’s Word literally speaking through me.
  • We are reminded of what prayer can do– many of the prayers of Scripture are followed by answers, from prophecies to miracles to movements of the Holy Spirit.
  • We are reminded that God answers prayer that is consistent with His will– not all Biblical prayers were answered in the ways that their petitioners hoped or expected!

The Bible is full of wonderful examples of prayers. Here are just a few to get started:

  • Abraham’s prayer for God to spare Sodom in Genesis 18 (v. 23-32).
  • Moses praying for God to forgive Israel’s sin and disbelief in Exodus 32 (v. 31-32)
  • Moses praying for a successor to lead Israel into the Promised Land (Numbers 27:16-17)
  • Gideon’s prayer for guidance in Judges 6
  • Manoah’s prayer for help in raising his son Samson in Judges 13
  • David’s prayer in 2 Samuel 7 (v.18-29)
  • Elijah’s prayer for God to send fire from Heaven in 1 Kings 18 (v.36-37)
  • Several of the Psalms, including 3, 51, 90, 102, 103, 105, and many others.
  • Hezekiah’s prayer for God to save Israel from their enemies in Isaiah 37 ( v.16-20)
  • The prayer of Jebez in 1 Chronicles 4:10
  • Habakkuk’s prayer for revival in Habakkuk 3: 2-19
  • Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 11:25
  • Jesus’ prayer for His disciples (John 17)
  • Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-44)
  • Jesus’ prayer from the cross in Luke 23:34
  • Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:59-60
  • Prayer of worship in Heaven in Revelation 5:13

https://christian.net/resources/the-top-most-powerful-prayers-in-the-bible/

In addition, Bible passages that describe the Character and Majesty of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be used as prayers of worship and adoration. Bible stories and events can be lifted up in worship of God’s power and faithfulness through the ages. Jesus’ teachings (such as the Beatitudes) can be lifted up as the desire of our hearts, and as requests for the strength and wisdom to follow Him.

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Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.

Jude 1:24-25

A Few Thoughts About Manna

I’ve already posted recently about Ash Wednesday (see the post from Feb. 15), so it may seem strange on a day of fasting and ashes to be writing about food. And manna doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to prayer– bear with me…

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  • Manna was, quite literally, “daily bread.” God sent manna each day for the children of Israel as they wandered and camped in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land. It appeared overnight, much like dew, and evaporated in the heat of the day. Yet the small “grains” could be gathered and made into nourishment for the thousands of Israelites who had no other source of bread. Manna and the bread made from it were only good for a day (except on Friday, when twice as much would fall so no work needed to be done on the Sabbath). God provides for our needs daily– we don’t have to worry and fret. Jesus returned to this theme often, including the Sermon on the Mount and The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Manna was uniquely suited for the Israelites in their situation. Manna did not require time to grow, harvest, or prepare. It did not require storage space, as it was collected and used up daily. It did not require yeast, salt, or sugar to be added to it–God designed it to be simple, sufficient, sustaining, and even sweet!
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  • Manna was provided even after the Israelites complained and accused Moses (and God!) of leading them into the wilderness to die. God will not withhold punishment (see what happened in Numbers 11 when the Israelites complained about the manna!), but He will provide for our needs out of His love for us, not as a condition of our righteous behavior. All the people had access to manna, even those who complained or were defiant. If someone went hungry, it was not because God refused to provide– but because they chose not to avail themselves of His gift, or because they refused to accept the nature of the gift.
  • Manna was consistent. God didn’t send manna one week and raisins the next; God is faithful and unchanging–the manna wasn’t just a nutritional provision, it was a reflection of God’s nature! God gives good gifts; it is our selfish nature that often takes His goodness for granted, and asks for what we do not need.
  • Once the Israelites reached the Promised Land, the manna stopped. God’s gifts meet our needs– in His way, and in His time. God does not give gifts blindly or absent-mindedly. God knew exactly how much manna to send each day, and exactly when the manna would no longer be needed. He was watching closely the whole time– every step of the journey.
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So today, whether or not you are fasting, you can rejoice in the knowledge that God has seen every step of YOUR journey. He will provide for our every need, including the need for forgiveness, courage, physical nourishment, and spiritual growth. All we need to do is look for it, gather it, and use it!

The Work is “Donne”

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do them still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun
Shall sine as it shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I have no more.

A Hymn to God the Father John Donne, 1623
John Donne

I enjoy studying the poetry of John Donne. https://www.biography.com/writer/john-donne Even though he lived 400 years ago, he wrote about very timeless and personal topics. Donne lived during a time of religious tumult and persecution. Born into a Catholic family, he later converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher, as well as a poet, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he wrestled with deep theological questions of sin, guilt, redemption, and death. Yet he did so with wit, humor, and passion. The poem above, written during a long illness and near the end of his life, is filled with puns on his last name, Donne. Would God’s redemptive work ever be “done” in “Donne?” He struggles with the knowledge that his sins, having been forgiven, must be forgiven again and again. Does God never say, “Enough! I am done!?” What about stubborn sinful habits? What about sins that have led others to sin? What about last-minute, unconfessed sins?

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The real question is, “How sufficient is God’s Grace?” Does God sprinkle out Grace sparingly on each sinful act, or does Christ’s blood cover All? Do our stubborn, habitual acts of rebellion pile up to a point where God cannot forgive? Having forgiven us once, twice, seventy times seven– is there a limit to His willingness to pour out Mercy? Theologically, the Bible is clear. The answer is a resounding, “NO.” God will not withhold His Grace from those who have sought it. God will never be “Done” with “Donne.” Nor will He be “done” with any of us who have chosen to follow Him. But in his all-too-human logic, Donne jokingly suggests that though God “hast” done/Donne, He “hast not” done/Donne. In other words, while Donne “belongs” to God– he has confessed his sins, and eagerly seeks to follow Christ, he still wrestles with fears that his small sinful acts prove that God does not fully “have” him– that He still lives separated from God.

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But the final sin of the poem is fear– fear that somehow, at the last, Death will prevail, and Donne will “perish on the shore,” rather than be taken into Heaven. He pleads that Christ’s blood (“Thy Sun/Son”) will be sufficient; that God’s promise of eternal life will indeed hold true, and that the work of salvation is indeed “done.” In the end, the poet hopes that “Thou hast Donne.” And he must trust that God’s promises will hold, for “I have no more.” Donne cannot stop death, he cannot do anything to save himself from sin, but he can be “done” with worry and trust in “Thy Sun/Son.”

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I am strangely encouraged by Donne’s poem. We all have moments of questioning and niggling doubts. And even though we “Know” the truth, our fears and emotions can play tricks on our mind. But Donne, even while putting such doubts and fears on paper, takes them to the Source of Hope. This is not a poem of accusation or despair. It is an honest and passionate desire to hear God’s calm assurance. And it is part of a long tradition that runs through the Bible. Jacob literally wrestled with an angel of the Lord (Gensis 32), Moses argued with God about going back to Egypt (Exodus 4), David questioned God (Psalm 10); even Jesus asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27). But in our doubts and questions, God’s still, small voice echoes, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).

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God’s work is ongoing, but it is also “done”– it is complete, whole, sufficient, and eternal. And even if we occasionally wonder and even question, we can choose to rest in His promises. Just as the poet concluded, if God “hast” done/Donne, “I have no more”– he needed to have no other fear of sin or sin of fear. And through Donne’s poetry, God’s assurance is being passed on– the work continues to be “Donne!”

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God of the Impossible

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:35-41 ESV

I’ve been reading through the Gospels this month, and one of the phrases that has stood out for me this year is “ye of little faith.”(or “you have so little faith!) Jesus uses this phrase to chastise His disciples, as well as the crowds– they claim to want miracles, yet when Jesus does miracles, they seem astonished almost to the point of fear. Or they attempt to “explain them away.”

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We live in a world of possibilities– when we are young, we see possibilities everywhere. “When I grow up…” we imagine ourselves as astronauts, or world leaders, or Olympic champions. As we grow older, our world of possibilities grows narrower. We become cynical (or more aware of our own limitations!) and, while we long to see miracles, we neither expect them nor ask for them. We know some difficult or unexpected things are still possible, but we tend to see more “impossibilities.” “My health will never get better.” “My boss will never listen to me.” “I can’t…”

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One of the biggest roadblocks to becoming a Christian (and to continue to grow in faith) is to accept that NOTHING is impossible for God. We set limits on God’s ability, His willingness, His goodness–we expect to be disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy– we end up disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened in others, in ourselves…

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Yet, God has given us an entire book filled with miracles and impossible events that are meant to show us that He is the God of the Impossible; the God of Miracles. From the beginning, God has demonstrated His willingness to make a way when there seems to be no way. From Noah and the Flood, to Abraham becoming the Father of many nations, to bringing Joseph from a pit to becoming the second-most powerful man in Egypt, to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery…the stories abound. Whether sending food from heaven, water from a rock, or fire from the sky, God’s power is on display throughout the Old Testament. The crowds following Jesus grew up hearing these stories. But after four hundred years of silence, they seemed to remember what God COULD do, but doubt what God WOULD do for those who call on Him.

Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, turned water into wine, cast out demons, raised the dead, and much more. And still the people wanted “proof.” But we are not so very different. Not only do we have all the stories of the Old Testament; we have all the stories of Jesus’ miracles. Yet we still wonder whether God will hear and/or answer our prayers. And it doesn’t take 400 years of silence to cause us to doubt. Sometimes it is four hours, or four days, or four months of seeming silence.

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Nothing is impossible with God. There are some things that are not productive; some things that are not part of His plan. Imagine Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego praying that God would not allow them to go into the fiery furnace? That wasn’t the plan. Instead, God chose to do the unexpected, the unthinkable–the impossible. He rescued them IN the fire– caused them to come through without being singed. Imagine those who prayed that Lazarus would recover from his illness. That wasn’t the plan. Instead, Jesus did the impossible– raising Lazarus after four days; after the funeral, after the burial, after all possible hope was gone.

God excels in the impossible. He delights in it. What impossible situation are you facing today? God may not choose to remove the situation. But He can take an impossible situation and turn it into a miraculous victory. Not because we demand “proof” of His divinity or power. But because His plans are bigger and better than what we can comprehend.

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I’ve shared a bit about one of my current struggles. My Mom is in her 88th year, and her health is failing. She is very independent and lives alone. My siblings and I are being “stretched” in trying to help Mom navigate several decisions and several changing conditions. God has not taken away her health issues, or conveniently provided an easy transition or simple answers to our questions. But He has been “with us in the fire.” That doesn’t mean that I understand all that Mom is going through, or how best to help her from moment to moment. And I’m not asking God to provide a dramatic “rescue” for Mom as she navigates this part of her journey. But I trust that God has already seen the end from the beginning– none of the “setbacks” or “unexpected events” we face can take God by surprise or leave Him unprepared to use them for His glory and our ultimate good.

“He Didn’t Come For Me…”

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how much I love the book/movie, “The Princess Bride.”

At one point in this fractured fairy tale, the title character, Buttercup– THE princess bride, is waiting to be rescued by her true love, Westley. She has supreme confidence that he will rescue her from having to marry the evil Prince Humperdink. But Humperdink is equally confident that Westley will NOT come– because he knows that the wicked Count Rugen has (supposedly) killed him! As the stuffy archbishop pronounces Buttercup and Humperdink ,”man and wife,” Buttercup is stunned. She keeps repeating, “He didn’t come for me.” She cannot imagine a future in which Westley does not show up and save the day. Her hopes are shattered, and she walks in a fog to the bridal suite, where she prepares to kill herself in despair.

I don’t want to give away everything, but Buttercup’s plans take an unexpected and miraculous turn before the end of the story.

I was reminded of “The Princess Bride” yesterday morning as I sat with my husband, trying to figure out what was happening with his blood pressure. He and I have been battling COVID, and he spent a week in the hospital. He has been home for several days now, and has been improving steadily, until early Sunday morning, when his blood pressure started rising. There were no other symptoms, and we consulted a doctor, who talked us through a course of action, but there was little to nothing they could do for him at the emergency room, unless he had chest pain, paralysis, or a splitting headache, which would indicate possible heart attack or stroke. We increased his oxygen intake level, kept his legs elevated, and his blood pressure came down.

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Then, last night, it happened again. No warning; no other symptoms. We made sure he had plenty of oxygen, elevated his legs, continued doing what we had done in the morning. Slowly, the blood pressure reading came back down– still high, but not dangerously so. We’ve prayed for healing– dozens of other family and friends have prayed for healing. Everything seemed to be going fine– why this? Why now?

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It is so tempting to imagine our story will be smooth and predictable– even when we have a struggle or set-back– to believe that better days and easier times are just around the next corner. And when it doesn’t happen the way we hope or expect, we want to question God– “Why didn’t you come?” “Why did you delay?” “Why didn’t you send word that I would have to go through this?”

But God HAS sent word– there are dozens of examples in which God delays, or simply does not send a swift and easy rescue. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son– and then delayed 25 years! On top of that, God asked Abraham to take Isaac, the son of the Promise, to be a sacrifice! God showed up–just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son. God rescued Abraham and Isaac from their ordeal, but it was a nail-biter! (See Genesis 12-22)

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God rescued His people from their slavery in Egypt, and led them straight into a trap! Caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, the Israelites seemed to be sitting ducks. How could they have imagined that God would open the sea so they could cross on dry land? Having been rescued in such a miraculous way, the Israelites should have had absolute confidence in God– but instead, they complained about food, complained about the leadership, complained about the weather–even as they could see God’s presence in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night! God rescued them over and over again in the midst of their struggle (and their lack of faith!). (See the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

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Daniel was taken into exile as a teenager– over fifty years later, after God had protected him and put him in a place of great power and prestige, Daniel was set up by his enemies and condemned to be eaten by lions. God did not rescue him by removing the lions or overturning Daniel’s sentence. Daniel had no reason to know that God would rescue him at all. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s way was to shut the mouths of the lions– something ONLY God could do–proving to Darius, to Daniel’s enemies, and to all who heard about it that God was more powerful and more loving than even our wildest imagination. God rescued Daniel through his harrowing experience– and even brought judgment on Daniel’s enemies in the process.(See Daniel 6)

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And the list goes on– Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, kings like David and Hezekiah, the exiles of Israel, the Apostle Paul, Queen Esther, Simon Peter, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the martyr Stephen. Many of these people went through famine, disease, prison, death threats, and even death itself! Yet God preserved their stories for OUR benefit. God reassures us that He is the God of the living and the dead– death cannot stop true love (another of my favorite lines from The Princess Bride)! Nothing can separate us from God’s loving and wise and perfect care!

I don’t know what today will bring for David and me. I don’t know if we will have to return to the hospital, or if they can help restore his blood pressure to “normal.” I don’t know if I will have a sudden relapse or complications from COVID. I don’t know what future changes, adjustments, or griefs we will have to bear. But I do know this– God is with us!

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Sometimes, God rescues us FROM a situation; sometimes He rescues us IN a situation; and sometimes He rescues us THROUGH a situation. We don’t know how God plans to show up and work in our lives over the next weeks. But we know we can trust Him to do what only God can do, and faithfully see us through the rest of our lives.

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I pray that if you are facing unexpected difficulties today, that God will cause you to be strengthened and reassured. He loves you. He sees you. He knows where you are, and, better yet, He knows the road ahead!

Fast Forward

I’ve written dozens of blog posts about prayer, and very little about fasting. Fasting is a practice that is often coupled with prayer, but fasting rarely appears in my blog.

There are several reasons for this. I don’t make a practice of dedicated fasting, so I don’t feel comfortable writing about something I don’t know well. or practice often. I also don’t want to give fasting equal time or importance, because I feel it can become a substitute or even an obstacle to prayer if done for the wrong reasons.

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The Lenten season is fast approaching, and it is a time when many people choose to fast, so I am stepping out of my comfort zone a little to give more time and effort to fasting (and discussing it here). Here are a few things I have found:

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  • While we often think of fasting as going without food or water (or both), there are actually many kinds of fasting. Fasting simply means that we do without or set aside something as an act of obedience, reverence, contrition, or worship. Fasting should be done with the goal of getting closer to God, increasing our focus and our dependence on Him. When we fast, we are creating a “space” of dependence– separating ourselves from one thing to be available for another thing– namely prayer and worship. It isn’t about not eating, so much as not allowing food and drink (or other things) to call us away from time with God.
  • Fasting is Biblical. It was practiced by Biblical figures from Moses to King David, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, and the entire nation of Israel! Jesus fasted and members of the early church practiced fasting as well. Fasting is encouraged, but not required. It is never prohibited, but there are several biblical warnings about improper fasting (see below).
  • For an excellent discussion (by people who have studied longer and know far more than I do), see: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/what-exactly-is-fasting-all-about.html or any number of other excellent blogs and websites, many of which are linked in the site I’ve listed.
  • Fasting is NOT meant to be an end in itself. There are many people who use fasting as a diet plan, or as an exercise in self-control. This is NOT biblical fasting. Whatever you are “setting aside” in your fast should be “filled” with prayer, meditation, and worship, and that should always be your focus. If you have health issues, a history of eating disorders or obsessive behavior, you should be very careful about fasting. Consider seeking advice or an accountability partner to help you remained focused on the real goals.
  • Fasting will not make you more righteous, or better than someone else who does not practice fasting. In fact, Jesus warned that when we fast, we should not do anything to call attention to the fact– no moaning or sighing, etc. Fasting isn’t about impressing others with our religious devotion. God knows our actions, but He also knows our heart.
  • Fasting is a commitment, and should not be taken lightly. If you decide to do a fast, and you’ve never done one, it’s best to start small and complete it, than to jump in headfirst and fail to keep your commitment. Not because God will be angry or disgusted– remember that God LOVES you and wants you to desire a closer relationship. But God wants each of us to grow to maturity. God will give us grace to do what He asks us to do; but He won’t honor our efforts to “outdo” Him.
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In taking a closer look at fasting, I am encouraged to do it more often. I have done short fasts, food fasts, and fasting from activities, and I can say that such practices often have surprising results. If you are planning to do any kind of fast for Lent, I pray that you will find it brings you closer to God and helps you in your own pursuit of prayer.

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Do Not Ask…

*Warning– The following poem is a work of fiction. The first part of this post is meant to reflect emotions that may be associated with depression and suicide. The represent things I have heard, and some things I have said…

Do not ask me, “How are things going?”
Things go on around me. Things happen at me.
Things are not going– of if they are, I am not going with them…

Do not ask me, “Are you ok?”
I will say, “Sure, everything’s fine.”
Not because it is; not because I am, and
Not because I care whether you believe me.
It is what I will say because it gives you permission
To feel good about asking, without actually having to
Share the pain and fog and futility of my honest answer.

Do not ask me, “How are you doing?”
I am not doing– not much of anything.
I live surrounded by unfinished tasks–
Stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry;
Unpaid bills and unopened mail.
I forget to eat or brush my teeth;
I have trouble finding the energy to remember how to
Smile, use polite words, look up, function…

Do not ask, “How are you?”
For I am not…

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How do I pray for someone like this? How do I pray AS someone like this?

Depression is devious and deadly. It impacts thousands of lives, and takes thousands of lives each day.
It is easy enough for me to say, “Snap out of it!”, or to blame the person who chooses to think and act negatively. After all, attitude is a choice. We choose to look at the positive or negative in life, and no one else can choose for us what to think or how to feel.

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What we can choose– all of us– is to turn our focus on God and away from the negative. I cannot rescue someone else from their own emotional demons; I cannot save myself with “positive” thoughts. I CAN cry out to the one who loves me more than I love myself– even on my best days–that HE would transform my thinking, and bring light into the darkness of those who cannot see past the fog and mire of their own gloom.

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And I can stop asking the surface questions– “How are you?”– prying and digging without being prepared for the raw ooze and festering pus that comes with honesty. Those questions may be well-meant, but they often come without context or conviction. They can become a polite way of skirting the obvious– we EXPECT the reassurance that everything is fine; and when it isn’t, we feel obligated to come up with a quick cure for a problem we haven’t fully diagnosed.

Depression is scary– both for those who experience it and those who encounter it in someone else. Ignoring it, covering it up, or trying to force it into the background doesn’t help. Nor does it help to wallow in it, trying to micro-manage it or hyper-spiritualize it.

The same God who listened to Elijah begging to die just after his momentous victory over 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19: 1-14); the same God who listened to David in exile, Jonah from the belly of the whale, Moses in the midst of rebellion and exhaustion, and Job from the ash heap– He listens to us in our weariness, our grief, our confusion, and our depression. This is the same God who Himself experienced the agony of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), and expressed a soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

If you are struggling with depression, even if you question whether God is listening, you can still pray. God will never ask, “Are you ok?”– He already knows. Moreover, He already knows the best that He has for you.

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If someone you know is struggling with depression, PRAY! But don’t stop there. When Elijah was depressed, God sent food and water. When Moses was struggling with the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness, God sent food and water– and wisdom from Moses’ father-in-law. Practical help, positive reminders, and consistent care DOES make a difference. I cannot begin to tell how many times a random smile or compliment has helped stem the tide for me. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile who doesn’t just jump in asking how I’m doing, or how I’m feeling, but instead comments that it is good to see me–someone who admits that they have struggled, and found grace and healing– someone whose primary goal is not to “check up on me,” or “fix me,” but rather to interact and connect and to be “present” with me.

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Losing someone to suicide is horribly painful, and it is tempting to carry a load of guilt and unanswered/unanswerable questions. PRAY! And then PRAY some more! God won’t send easy answers; He won’t take away the pain of loss; though He will provide healing and grace. But God will do as He has promised– to BE with us, no matter what, and to give us a peace that passes all understanding. God never punished the people in the Bible for feeling depressed, or for crying out in despair. God didn’t tell them to “Snap out of it,” or to “Get over it.” But neither did He coddle it. He did not rescue those, like King Saul, who fell on their own swords rather than falling on their knees.

For more Biblical information on depression: see https://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/depression/5-bible-figures-who-struggled-with-depression.aspx#:~:text=Even%20kings%20get%20depressed.%20King%20David%20was%20%E2%80%9Ca,Psalms%2C%20stem%20from%20any%20of%20several%20probable%20causes.

Please pray– but don’t ignore practical help. Even simple steps, like taking a shower, paying attention to sleeping, eating, and drinking habits, making sure you move/exercise/stretch throughout the day, can help. Ask for and accept help– true help–and beware of asking for “substitute” help that will enable you to continue with unhealthy thinking and behavior.

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Because I want you to “do well.” I want you to “be ok.” I want you to be!

The Long and Winding Road

Joseph and Mary traveled dark and dangerous roads to reach Bethlehem before the birth of the Baby Jesus. The wise men made a long journey to see the newborn king. The entire nation of Israel spent more than 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, Jonah, the Apostle Paul…there are many tales in the Bible of long journeys to unknown destinations and unknown outcomes.

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Traveling can be exciting and adventurous, but it can also be filled with detours, setbacks, and hardships. Traveling means being away from our comfort zone, our “safe” place– even if our “safe” place isn’t really safe. Travel often means going into the unknown, especially if we travel alone or travel against our own will. Where does this road lead? Who will I meet along the way? Where will I stay at night? Will I get lost? Will I get delayed? What if I get sick or hurt or attacked? Will I find my way back home? Can I feel safe in a new home, among unknown people and circumstances?

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Jesus was born “away from home.” The first people to greet him were not grandparents or giddy relatives or neighbors, but shepherds– unnamed in scripture, unknown to his parents. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say much about Jesus being close to an extended family– his own small family always seemed to be on the move! Later, Joseph was told to take Mary and the child to Egypt; another long and unexpected journey, another long and winding road.

As an adult, Jesus was also “on the road” for much of his ministry. Long dusty roads leading to Galilee, or Jerusalem, Jericho, or Bethany.

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At times, it can seem like our “roads” in life are long, winding, dusty paths leading to strange new places– lonely, rambling trails or busy superhighways taking us where we don’t always want to go. But we don’t need to fear traveling– even if we have to walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” God is always with us. Just as He was with Mary and Joseph on the long road to Bethlehem, where there was no room for them in the inn. Just as He was with Jesus on the lonely path in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the big fish!

As we await the Advent of the Christ Child this year, it is likely that most of us have been on a long and winding road. Though many of us have been prevented from physical travel to foreign lands, we’ve traveled on an emotionally and even spiritually exhausting road in 2020. Chaos, corruption, COVID, elections, “executive orders”, economic collapse, lock-downs, lawlessness, and loneliness–we seem to have traveled a lot of miles, and most of them have been perilous and unfamiliar. But God has a plan, and a destination. The journey may not make sense right now; it is not the journey we would have planned; not the journey we would have chosen. But let us follow it to Bethlehem– to the Manger– to the Cross– and finally, HOME!

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