Of Rocks and Rills…

I love spending time in nature– walking, riding, or biking through woods and meadows, hills and valleys, along lakes or rivers.  God has created such beauty and majesty in every part of our world!  I grew up surrounded by woods and water– lakes, rivers, old forests and new-growth woods, with lots of farmland and meadows spread out over low rolling hills.  So it is always with wonder that I look upon mountains, deserts, rain forests and jungles, and tropical settings because they are not part of the “normal” landscape for me.  Even so, I never tire of the sites that greet me year-round–the steady breaking waves rolling in off Lake Michigan; the babbling of a small river or stream over field stone as it races down a small hill toward a pond; trees bowing and dancing in the wind just before a storm…

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Nature is not just beautiful.  It gives us yet another way to experience God’s “nature”– his character and provision.  God is steady like a rock– strong, enduring, a safe refuge.  God is refreshing and life-giving as a river– ready to wash away aches and soothe us.  God is eternal, and his love is as vast and deep as the ocean.  God is mysterious as the forest–giving shade and cover, and concealing treasures, and ancient secrets.  God is as open as a meadow, as pure as an ice shelf, as glorious as a desert sunset.

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God uses his glorious creation to illustrate his “nature.”  I pray that we can experience the both aspects of God’s nature today, and praise Him for who He is and how He has revealed Himself all around us.

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All Creation Sings His Praise

Tigers and turtles; flamingos and fleas; whales and warthogs; skinks and skunks; rocks and rosebuds; Eskimos and Ecuadorians–God’s world is filled with variety.  Chirping birds and thundering herds; roaring seas and buzzing bees.  Colors, sounds, smells, and sensations– we are surrounded by glimpses of glory, echoes of eternity, and hints of Heaven.

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Often, we take for granted the beauty of God’s creation– we don’t stop seeing it, we just stop marveling at it.  Instead of drinking it in, we drown it out.  We criticize, analyze, and theorize…why did God make rats?  how does He exist outside of time?  when will He change the seasons this year (will we have spring?  how long will winter last)?  what is the purpose of dust?  why are some animals (or rocks or plants) colorful, or noisy, or deadly, or smelly, or slow?   And we miss the forest for the trees– we get caught up in the amazing details and infinite variety in creation, and miss the majesty of the creator– His sense of the ridiculous in things like tumbleweeds and walking sticks, dust devils and platypuses, or His artistry in butterfly wings, dew on spiderwebs, and cascading waterfalls– in geodes and dimples and mewling kittens.  We miss the elegant design in a bees knees, or galaxies, or a banyan tree.

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God creates– it is an element of His character.  And we are made in His image– we long to create.  From drafting sentences to making a pie to shaping a piece of wood into something sturdy and useful– we long to produce, to concoct, to cause growth, to heal, to nurture, and to effect change.  We are also created with a deep appreciation of creation– the wisdom and the work it takes to set planets spinning, and ecosystems cooperating, and to unfold a new sunrise every morning.

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If you haven’t already, take a few minutes asking God to open your eyes and ears to the song and dance of creation today–from dandelions to darting dragonflies to the amazing variety of people dodging traffic or making conversation around you.  Join in!

That Voice in Your Head

Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.

Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will?  While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.

Isaiah 55:8-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper

It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible.  God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable.  God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will.  It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.”  But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either.  God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.

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So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers?  Here are a few guiding principles:

  • God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
    • God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal.  He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
    • Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK.  If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
    • God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer.  Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone.  I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
  • God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer.  But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons.  That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM!  Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!

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  • God may use time to answer your prayer.  I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46.  Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you!  There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
    • Don’t give up!  God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway.  Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along.  In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband.  Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God.  That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
    • Do the next right thing.  Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere.  Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere.  God wants our trust and our obedience.  As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do.  This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn.  So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad).  I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian.  I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people.  I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home).  I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it.  I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along.  I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
  • Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us.  In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God.  I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one.  I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider.  I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things.  Yet I felt compelled to leave.  I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan.  There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling.  But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me.  I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
  • Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said.  But this is another caveat (see above).  We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit.  In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will.  In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life.  God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed.  God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap.  That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts.  He WILL direct our paths when we do that.

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  • Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing!  Won’t God DO IT!

 

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.

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