His Eye is on the Sparrow

We had an unexpected visitor to our store the other day…a sparrow somehow managed to get inside our store over the weekend, after we closed on Saturday. We assume it found its way in through a small vent, in an attempt to get out of the heavy rain, and couldn’t find its way back out. We don’t know how long it was trapped inside, but by the time my husband found him, its leg was caught, and it was unable to fly away. It was scared, dehydrated, and weak. My husband gently and carefully extracted its leg, and I got a small dish of water. The sparrow was listless, and its breathing was shallow. We feared the worst. Putting small drops of water on his fingertips and holding it up to the bird’s beak, David finally got it to drink some water. After several attempts, the bird started perking up, and finally flapped its wings and flew off!

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I was reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 10: 29-31–Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

Source: https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Sparrows

Sometimes, we pray for guidance, or protection, or safety when we know we will be facing certain trials or long journeys. And we should acknowledge known dangers and our continual dependence on God. But how many times does God guide and protect us without our awareness!? How many times do we, like this little sparrow, find ourselves in an unfamiliar or dangerous situation and wonder whether anyone even knows where we are? We struggle, only to find ourselves caught– helpless and without much hope. God’s eyes are always on us– wherever we are, whatever our circumstances. His love is unchanging and sure. And sometimes, He sends help in the most unlikely ways and times. Sometimes, He chooses to work through US to help the most unlikely candidates– even a sparrow!

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God gave us the opportunity to save this little sparrow– and He gives us opportunities throughout each day to help those around us– to encourage, give, protect, defend, support, and even “save” them as the arms, hands, feet, and voice of God in the world. Similarly, He sends others to cheer us, to warn us, to come alongside us, and to “save” us when it seems like all hope is lost.

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Lord, for today, I pray that you will open my eyes to the “sparrow” moments– whether I am the one offering help, or the one who needs to accept it. May I see my worth, not in my circumstances, but in my relationship to you. May I see others as precious and worthy of care, respect, and love. Thank you for sending a little sparrow to remind me how much you love us all.

Prayer Priorities

What’s the most “important” prayer you can pray today? Sometimes, we think it is the prayer we pray in a moment of crisis. Or maybe the one we are asked to lead in front of a congregation. But the setting or the situation doesn’t make one prayer more important than any other.

It’s almost a trick question, really. Jesus never taught that some prayers were more “important” than others. But He did teach the some prayers were more effective than others. And His answers may be surprising to some.

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The prayers Jesus praised were prayers of humble confession and needy request. God doesn’t judge our prayers– He judges the heart of the Pray-er. Jesus praised the prayer of the Tax Collector over that of the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). While others might have been impressed by the Pharisee’s words and confidence, Jesus heard the desperation and the dependence of the Tax Collector. Just before this exchange, Jesus told the parable of a persistent widow, whose constant nagging resulted in getting justice from corrupt judge (Luke 18:1-8). It’s a strange parable–the woman is not meekly accepting of her situation; the judge is corrupt, initially refusing to do the right thing. Yet Jesus prefaces the story by telling his followers to “always pray and not lose heart.” (v. 1) So, the very prayers we dismiss– the nightly prayers for our loved ones, the “unspoken” request we lift up on behalf of a friend, or the seemingly unanswered requests–are no less important than any others.

Finally, Jesus praised (and prayed!) prayers that were “real.” He poured out His heart to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane; He lifted up His friends’ needs at the Last Supper (John 13-17); He said simple grace before feeding the crowds.

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So often, we judge our efforts when we pray– did we say the “right” thing? Did we say it the “right” way? Did we leave something out? Forget to say something? But God knows what is on our heart and in our mind. He knows what we “meant to say.” He knows everything we need– and all the needs of everyone else we could mention! He already knows all His names and attributes! And though He loves to hear us speak words of praise, He also listens to our heart, and–26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NIV via biblegateway.com)

There is one caveat– because God knows our heart, He also “sees through” prayers that are insincere, proud, self-centered, and thoughtless. Some of the most “important-sounding” prayers fall short of touching God’s ears. He will not listen to the prayers of those who wish to “strike a bargain” with Him, or convince Him of their own self-worth. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t value each one of us– after all, He became Sin who knew no sin, so that we could become the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). But God’s love is a gift–when we try to bargain for His gifts and earn His Grace with our eloquence, we lose sight of Who He Is.

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Many centuries before Jesus walked the earth, Hannah poured out her heart in tears, wordless anguish, and groaning. (1 Samuel 1). Her prayer was such a mess, the priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk! But God heard her heart, and answered her prayer, and because of her great faith, her son, Samuel led Israel through some of its most trying times. Hers was a very “important” prayer.

What if our stumbling effort to pour out whatever is on our hearts and lift it up to Almighty God–our praise, our failings, our grief, our desperate need–is be the most important prayer we can pray today?

“God Brought You to Mind..”

How many times have you suddenly felt the desire to lift someone up in prayer? You have no idea why or what to pray about, just that you should lift them up– in concern, in gratitude, in remembrance…It might be that someone mentioned their name; or you’ve just seen someone who reminds you of someone you knew long ago; suddenly, they are in your mind–an old neighbor or friend, a classmate or co-worker, maybe even someone who hurt you or betrayed you. But you feel an urge to pray–urgently.

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Maybe you’ve been on the other end– you get a sense that someone has been praying for you– something that you were dreading turned out to be less scary that you thought, or you had a “near miss” on the highway.. you don’t know who or where, but you know that someone, somewhere just prayed for you.

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God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we ask others to pray for us; sometimes they let us know that they will be praying for us– but other times, we break into spontaneous prayer for someone “God brought to mind.” We may not know the situation; we may not know the particulars. Sometimes, we don’t even know the names or places– we just know we need to pray for a general group– missionaries, police officers, government leaders, teachers, fathers…

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Stories abound of people who have obeyed such urgings– praying for people they barely know, or haven’t thought of for years–only to find that in that very moment, those people were in crisis and in need of help. Such stories help us see the heart of God. God is powerful enough to step in and take control of any situation. He doesn’t “need” us to pray for others in such cases. But He wants to include US in His plan! And by “bringing to mind” those who need prayer, and “bringing us to” the minds of others in our time of need, He reminds us of the importance of interconnectedness and dependence on Him.

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Of course, we should be looking for opportunities to pray for those around us–faithfully, consistently, earnestly. But we also need to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who works to involve us in His ongoing work. Our hearts and minds may wander or waste time in empty thinking, but the urge to pray is one we should be quick to follow.

Aromatic Prayer

We have a tiny herb garden. It’s just a couple of plants each of a few different herbs– basil, rosemary, parsley, chives, etc., in small planters on our back stoop. Just enough to have fresh herbs for cooking. They smell really good when I go out to water them, or clip some to add to chicken stew or spaghetti sauce or noodles and butter.

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They add flavor and color, too, but it is the smell that grabs the attention and brings immediate joy.

Our prayers are supposed to be like that, too. The Bible compares our prayers to incense with a pleasing aroma. God delights in the fragrance of our prayers.

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That seems reasonable for prayers of praise, but what about prayers of pain? How can such prayers bring joy to God?

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When I water my herbs, they give off a pleasing aroma. But when I chop and crush the herbs to use them, the scent is stronger, the flavor richer, as the plants give all they have to the dish. Left in their planters, they will grow tall, but they will not be useful. They will smell good, but they won’t fulfill their greater purpose.

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God wants our praise– certainly. And He is worthy of it–completely. But God also wants our chopped, crushed, bruised, torn, and painful prayers of need and brokenness. He wants us to trust Him to make even our groans and cries for help into fragrant offerings.

I Shall Not Want..

Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?

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Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.

This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.

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I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.

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“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.

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Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.

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I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!

Paying for the Privilege

I read a most astonishing article the other day. Wealthy white American women are paying up to $2,500 for a meal and a gut-wrenching session about how racist and bigoted they are. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/race-to-dinner-party-racism-women?fbclid=IwAR12AvWdTyht5RV0vfBfZ5XUEnA4441GU8efLSX8xtdfePI2R9KEesCipI8 Over a fancy dinner, they discuss how their privilege has caused them to ignore and deny the needs and rights of others, based largely on prejudices and fear.

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I won’t waste space to analyze all that I think is wrong with this scenario– but I will say the following:

  • $2,500 is a lot of money for most Americans, let alone many others around the world.
  • Talk is (according to the old phrase) cheap.
  • If having difficult talks over a plate of overpriced pasta and wine could solve major problems, I’m shocked that no one else has tried it.

I’m dismayed by this article. I hope that some good comes from these efforts, but I don’t expect such tactics to end racism, bigotry, or ignorance. These women are paying for a privilege on top of all their other privileges– the right to feel righteous and “woke” to lingering problems that have never personally touched them. It would not occur to them to invite 10 women who don’t look like them, don’t live like them, don’t speak like them, and don’t dress like them to come to dinner. They would not share their hospitality, their fine china, or their fancy dessert with a working-class woman with olive skin and an accent, or a single mother fighting to make ends meet and losing the battle– of any skin color. They might give another $2,500 to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen– they would not befriend anyone who needed those services, however.

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Most importantly, they are likely to believe that by “owning” their prejudices, they are absolved of their responsibility to “love their neighbor as themselves.” They can be comfortable in the belief that their feelings “do them credit” and make them better than others who “are in denial” about their “subconscious biases” and “micro-aggressions” toward the people with whom they interact. They may take high-minded actions to force the government to “deal with” people less fortunate than they, but they will take no steps to get involved personally with the families who suffer from injustice and poverty just outside the gates of their exclusive communities.

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But what about me? I may sneer at the hypocrisy and foolishness of others, but what am I doing? Am I any different from the ladies who leave me shaking my head? What do I say and do to combat ignorance, hatred, racism, classism, and injustice?

Lord, my prayer today is that I would pour out compassion– even on these ladies–and on those who need it most. Your heart is that all of us would live in peace and lovingkindness. Help me to see my neighbors as you see them–ALL my neighbors. All the time.

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The real privilege is not of wealth or comfort. The real privilege is to learn to love and be loved as Jesus loves– freely, sacrificially, whole-heartedly and without limit.

I Surrender All?

I have been revisiting old hymns lately as I write about my pursuit of prayer. This is partly because I believe that prayer is a form of worship, and is closely tied to other forms of worship– meditation, singing, etc.. Sometimes, it can be helpful to pray songs or to sing prayers– look at the entire book of Psalms!

Our church has recently been involved in revival services– two weeks of time set aside to evaluate our daily walk with Christ. We need periods of revival and refreshment, conviction and confession, repentance and reflection. Without them, we will wander; without them we will wither and grow cold, and lose sight of our first love.

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One of the first nights, we explored the idea of surrender. We say that we trust God; that Jesus is Lord, that we are followers of Christ…but do we really demonstrate those truths by the way we live? Have we really surrendered our will, our lives, our futures to God? We claim that He is sovereign over big things– all of creation, world affairs, and such–but is He Lord over the little things? Do I trust Him with my reputation when someone misrepresents me to others? Do I trust Him with my diet when I am tempted to overeat? Do I trust Him with my time when someone asks me to help them on my day off?

One of the keys to this hymn (and to prayer) is in the first verse– “..in His presence daily live.” There are times when I feel the need to surrender; times when I feel wholly surrendered and devoted. But there will be other days when the feeling just isn’t there. My surrender needs to happen daily– in the “good” times and in the “difficult” times. Sometimes, I just need to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and empower me to recognize and surrender those areas that I have tried to “take back” from Him.

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And then, I need to be intentional about letting go–one piece at a time, if necessary–each day saying, “Yes” to God instead of “Yes” to those things that pull me away. It’s not always easy to say, “I surrender all.” It’s even harder to actually follow through. We want to hang on to things that are comfortable, familiar, even “good.” We want to hang on to things that seem to promise safety, success, or fulfillment– even when God offers more.

I’m not writing this because I have mastered the discipline of surrender– I need to learn to let go, to trust God more, to risk what I cannot keep to gain what I cannot lose (paraphrasing from Jim Elliot–https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jim_elliot_189244.
That is my prayer today, for myself, and for others.

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