Bless the Lord, O My Soul


A Psalm of David.
103 Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord executes righteousness
And justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses,
His acts to the children of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
14 For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.
17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
18 To such as keep His covenant,
And to those who remember His commandments to do them.
19 The Lord has established His throne in heaven,
And His kingdom rules over all.
20 Bless the Lord, you His angels,
Who excel in strength, who do His word,
Heeding the voice of His word.
21 Bless the Lord, all you His hosts,
You ministers of His, who do His pleasure.
22 Bless the Lord, all His works,
In all places of His dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

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Often in our churches, we focus on two factors of our relationship with Christ– worship and obedience.  Worship focuses on His majesty and worth.  Obedience focuses on His power and authority.  But when the Psalmist speaks here, he is actually focusing on another element.  Blessing isn’t so much about majesty or authority; it isn’t about obedience or worship.  It is about communion.  We bless and are blessed, not just by a word or deed, but by the speaker or doer–they bless us by what they say or do, but they ARE a blessing to us for who they are.

God is worthy of our worship and obedience, but he wants us to be a blessing– to come to him in Love and fellowship, and to be blessed by Who He Is as we meet with him.

Today, worship God.  Obey Him.  But let’s take time to bless Him and be blessed in return as we spend time with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
   Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
   Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
   The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
   That live in this beautiful sea;
   Nets of silver and gold have we,"
            Said Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
   As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
   Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
   That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
   Never afraid are we!”
   So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
   To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
   Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
   As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed
   Of sailing that beautiful sea;
   But I shall name you the fishermen three:
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
   And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
   Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
   Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
   As you rock in the misty sea
   Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.


What does a child’s poem have to do with the Bible and prayer?

I’m not sure there is an exact answer to that..I was wistfully thinking of something to write about, and as I looked for a Bible verse for inspiration, I came upon an odd Proverb (which I’ll get to in a minute) about winking.  This set me to thinking about the old child’s poem and song– one of my favorites.  I wondered– if the Bible has something to say about winking, does it also address blinking and nodding?  And, if so, can we draw a connection between the three and then from all three to prayer?

I think we can… bear with me.  Since the poem has to do with sleeping as well, I want to start, (and come back in the end) with this passage from Mark, where Jesus is praying, and the disciples are nodding off.

Mark 14:32-42 English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

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How often have you prayed early in the morning or late in the evening, only to find yourself nodding off?  I’ve certainly done it– more embarrassingly, I’ve seen (or rather heard) it happening in a group setting!  It’s not a laughing matter at any time, but in this setting, Jesus is in anguish so powerful he was sweating out blood– he even describes it as being “sorrowful even to death”–yet his disciples failed to stay awake, keep watch, or help him pray.
Hold onto that image for a minute.

When I was first thinking about what to write, I didn’t start with nodding.  I found a verse about winking in Proverbs 10:10: “He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin.”  (NIV)  There are other verses throughout scripture that talk about the danger of winking.

See verses about winking

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Winking isn’t exactly the same as nodding or sleeping, but it involves closing ones eyes (or eye) to evil– giving it a momentary pass.  Winking “maliciously” is not only turning a blind eye, but actually colluding with evil– giving it a figurative “nod” of approval.  We don’t often think of winking as a sin.  Winking is winsome, flirtatious perhaps, but it is passive.  How can it hurt to wink?  We don’t wink at war, or genocide, or injustice…do we?  How often do we excuse what is clearly bad behavior because we don’t want to offend someone else, or come across as “judgmental”?  How often do we fall into the false justification that “the ends justify the means”–that a small lie or bad habit can be ignored or overlooked in light of “the greater good” we expect will result from our overall actions?
God calls us to integrity– being honest with ourselves as well as with others.  When we wink at so-called small sins, we begin to close our eyes (or at least one eye) to the truth.  Sin disguises itself as winsome and flirtatious, but it is not passive– it eats away at truth, life, peace, and joy–it is corrosive, poisonous, and deadly.

time

1 Corinthians 15:52 New English Translation (NET Bible)

52 in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

2 Peter 3:8 New English Translation (NET Bible)

Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day.

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8

Winking at evil is especially dangerous if we lose sight of the urgency of these last days.  There is a tension in the Christian view of the future–on the one hand, we expect the “soon” return of Christ.  He will come in the “blink of an eye”; like a “thief in the night” with no warning, and with judgment.  On the other hand, he is patient, not wanting any to perish.  God is beyond and above Time– he is slow to anger, and slow to judgment–but he is also eternally aware and omnipresent.
We don’t choose to blink– and we do it often throughout the day.  In fact, it is good and necessary that we do so.  But, because blinking is an automatic function, we don’t think about it–even when we are tired and blinking turns into “nodding off.”  If we continue to look about, or try to read, or worse, drive in this condition, we will miss important information, and we risk making mistakes and getting into accidents.
The same can be true as we walk through our days waiting for the return of Christ.  Sometimes, instead of resting in Grace and looking to God for help, we get focused on all the distractions around us.  In our restlessness we put much of our focus on what will happen in the “blink of an eye” and less focus on the single day or even the thousand years that God has given us to bring in a harvest.

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And this leads me to the nodding…Jesus had something to say about this very tension of waiting and anticipating his return.  He gave several parables, but I want to focus on just one– the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25.

Full parable here…

Jesus pointed out that even if we are invited to have a role in the wedding feast, we need to be prepared.  The virgins in the story were not punished for having fallen asleep (as all of them might have been), but the five foolish virgins had no oil when the bridegroom finally came.  They didn’t just “nod off” waiting for the groom, they were winking at their own lack of preparation, blinking back their false expectation that what they had in their own lamps would be enough, and nodding off with no concern that they might be left out of the festivities.

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In the same way, we can be guilty of winking at our own lack of obedience and commitment, blinking in the flashy distractions of the world around us, and nodding off unprepared for the very event we claim to hope for most.  If we were with Jesus in the garden, would we be any more faithful or watchful than the disciples?  Are we sending up vague and half-hearted prayers as we get sucked into the distractions around us?  Are we so busy pointing fingers at others or excusing our own lack of diligence that we have nothing left to bring to God in earnest prayer?  Have we given up on prayer in favor of social media or social action to “let our light shine”?  Are we winkin’, blinkin’, and nodding off in our Christian walk?

Instead, Jesus asks us to “watch and pray” during these dark and dangerous times.

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Let’s take his warning to heart!

How’s My Serve?

“Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving–
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon…”
(Be Our Guest from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

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Philippians 2:3-8 King James Version (KJV)

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

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1 Peter 2:13-19 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

[a](or,  every institution ordained for men)

  

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The English word serve has at least seven different definitions, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary see here, and that’s just the intransitive verb form!  The concept of service and serving is often misunderstood and denigrated.  Our culture (especially American culture) in general has a low opinion of servants.  Value is placed on independence– neither needing service nor being required to give it to others.  But service is much broader then “servitude”, and good service requires that we place our value on interdependence, rather than independence.

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Good service requires a lot, but I think there are three key ingredients–obedience, humility, and love.

I don’t normally recommend Disney as a source of moral instruction, but just in the short two lines of lyrics above there is a great example of a servant’s heart.  A good servant isn’t reluctantly or resentfully dragged into service.  (Oh, there are days or circumstances that are trying and tiring, but that’s the exception, not the norm.)  S/he is eager to serve, and even restless when unable to be of service.  A good servant is also personal.  Their service is not given by rote, but with attention to the individual “soul” they are serving.  It’s hyperbole, of course, but the verve and giddiness found in the singing and dancing dishes of a Disney movie should be reflective of the kind of service we provide at work, at home, and at church– “Be our Guest!”

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As followers of Jesus, we should also look to His example.  Paul reminds us that Jesus did not seek fame or attention or demand respect or recognition during His time on Earth.  Instead, He gave up all the glory of Heaven to become a man– and not just a man, but a helpless baby born in obscurity and growing up without entitlements and comforts; the child of a working-class family  in a small town under foreign occupation.  He lived as a homeless itinerant teacher, and died as a common criminal under shameful circumstances– naked and bloody, displayed in public, to be mocked and used as a warning for others.  But Jesus wasn’t a doormat–he was humble, he was meek–he CHOSE to submit to the pain and humiliation and even the injustice of a rigged trial and a death sentence by mob rule.  He had opportunities to grab the glory, to turn the tide, to escape his unfair fate, and/or to become a great political or military leader.  He didn’t take those opportunities– instead, he was obedient to the Father.  He showed love and compassion even to those who mocked him, betrayed him, and murdered him.

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It’s frightening to serve with that kind of abandon.  It’s not humanly possible to let go of one’s life with joy for the sake of those who have taken it from you.  My human desire is to grab hold of life and get as much out of it as I can.  Even when my intention is not to hurt anyone else, it is not in my nature to put someone else’s needs and comforts ahead of my own.  But it needs to become part of my nature.

I want to serve like Serena Williams–slamming my passion at the speed of a bullet train and earning trophies.  (And this is not meant to be disrespectful– I am a great admirer of Serena’s talent and drive, and I think there is much to learn from her perseverance and excellence.)  But tennis, while fun to watch and good for exercise, does not teach good “service”.

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I’d like to serve like a CEO– guiding a company to greater success and huge profits.  I might even help hundreds of people by creating more jobs and increasing their wealth.  But in the end, this is not the kind of service that has everlasting consequences, or “soul” benefits.

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I honor those who have served in the military; those who work in service industries, or provide emergency services.  And those who have served in government, whether local, state, national, regional, provincial, or other.  Many have served selflessly and given their lives, willingly, in combat or rescue missions.  For every story of someone who has abused their office, or fled in the face of personal danger, there are many more stories of courage, compassion, and sacrifice.  Such service should also “serve” as an example to all of us.

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I enjoy serving customers at work– helping them find something they want or need, or answering questions.  But that’s my job.  I get a certain gratification, and a paycheck, that help motivate such service.

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God wants me to learn to serve from the pure joy of service– pouring myself out with abandon to help others succeed– rejoicing with them when they reach their goals; grieving with them in their loss.  And, like Jesus, God wants me to do it, not in my own limited strength and wisdom, but in obedience to His will– not becoming a dupe or a doormat to anyone who wants to step on me, but discerning what is best for others and cheerfully doing what I can to bring it about.

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That’s a tall order, and it requires that I take time to ask God and trusted friends– How’s my Serve?

To Love Thee More Dearly

How can I love Jesus more than I already do?  If I can love him more, does that mean that I don’t love Him enough?  That I don’t really love Him as much as I think I do?  That I love Him the wrong way?  How can I “love thee more dearly…day by day”

I want to explore the second prayer in the folk rock song “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell” (see yesterday’s post).  When I write about pursuing prayer, this is a major focus of the pursuit– to develop my love for Jesus.  But there’s more to it than just spending more time, or even “better” time in prayer.

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I love my husband, and that love grows over the years– not because we are in an eternal “honeymoon” period, where life is rosy and all I know about him is the wonderful image I’ve built up–but because in living with him, working with him, even struggling with him, I learn to value who he really is.  I learn about qualities I never knew he had.  I learn to trust him and respect his judgment; I learn about the deepest part of his heart that he only shares with those closest to him.  And even though I learn about his faults, I see him desiring to be the best that he can be.  In his turn, my husband does the same with me– learning my strengths and weaknesses.  Together we learn how to work together to strengthen and support each other.  We even learn how to argue better!

But we all know marriages (and no marriage is immune) where doubt, distrust, disdain, and despair creep in.  The very qualities that attracted us in the beginning become sore spots that tear us apart.  The joy is swallowed up in little hurts that go unresolved; little misunderstandings that grow into lengthy silences and slammed doors.  Struggles that should bring us together cause us to run to separate corners.  Our feelings change, our hopes are dashed, and our relationship crumbles

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Relationships require trust–if I say that I love God, but I don’t trust Him, I’m not being honest with myself.  If I pray to Him, but I don’t really think He’s listening; if I read His word, but make excuses for my continued disobedience–I don’t really love Him.  I may idolize Him, even worship Him.  But I don’t really love Him.

Unlike a marriage partner, family member, or close friend, God’s love for us never changes.  We never have to pray that Jesus should love US more dearly.  It’s impossible.  The same love that spoke the universe into being and designed you to be the awesome and unique person you are, is the same love that stretched out his arms so they could be nailed to the cross– the same love that calls out to you no matter what you’ve done or who you are and offers you peace, joy, and rest.  Loving Jesus isn’t a matter of measuring how I feel about Him from day to day, but spending each day learning to know Him better for who He is and not just what He has done or what He can do for me.  The prayer should be for me to really learn better how to honor Him, how to trust Him, how to obey Him, praise Him, listen to Him, and walk close to him.

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More about this last one Monday…

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!

 

The Power of a Praying Mother

Mother’s Day is coming, and I wanted to say a few words about the mothers in my life and their legacy of prayer.  My Mom is a prayer warrior.  I blog about prayer, and I pursue a better prayer life, but my Mom is a seasoned soldier,  and the daughter of another mighty woman of prayer.  Most of what I know about prayer, I learned through the examples of my Mom and Gram, but I have also been blessed by the godly examples of my mother-in-law, sister and sisters-in-law, aunts, cousins, and many more.

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From my Mother, I learned to pray from the depths of my heart.  I have seen and heard her pray through pain, grief, and despair– not just her own, but more often that of someone else.  I have caught her holding back sobs over relatives and neighbors who don’t know or aren’t following Christ.  I’ve seen her pause in silent prayer over the plight of a person who is facing a lost job, or chemotherapy, or a migraine.  She very seldom offers to pray  aloud,”in the moment”, but she prays fervently, nonetheless.

 

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From my Grandmother, I learned to be patient and consistent in prayer.  Gram was quiet and unassuming, but she had an unshakable faith.  She prayed for years over situations that looked hopeless; often for people who or situations which never changed.  I asked her once how she kept from getting angry and frustrated.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, “We can’t change somebody else, and we can’t make them do what’s right.  That’s not our job.  Our job is to love each other, pray for each another, and let God deal with the rest.”  She died never seeing answers to some of what she prayed for, but that didn’t stop others from taking up the banner, and it never stopped her from earnestly and joyfully “taking it to the Lord in Prayer.”  She never gave up, never lost hope, and never stopped showing compassion.

 

There have been many other prayer warriors in my life– women (and men) of great faith who sought the Lord, and whose lives and words have had an unimaginable impact.  My family, members of my church family, classmates and friends from school or college, neighbors through the years…some of them have held my hand and prayed with me face-to-face; others have prayed on their knees in private; some have prayed for special needs and circumstances; others have prayed at the Holy Spirit’s prompting, never knowing why, but bowing in obedience.

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Praying mothers are a treasure.  If you have one, or had one, don’t underestimate the value of her example.  And don’t just say, “Thank you”…Pay it forward.  Pray for family, neighbors and friends.  Pray early, pray often, pray without ceasing.  We all need more praying mothers, fathers, cousins, neighbors, co-workers, etc.  If you did not have a praying mother, you have a golden opportunity to become that good example to someone else.  You also have the opportunity to adopt a prayer partner– a surrogate praying mother–to pray with you and for you.

Trust and Obey

It’s a song I sang as a child in Sunday School–

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

It bothered me as a child, the part about “No other way.”  It seemed narrow-minded and harsh.  Surely, I could be happy in Jesus just doing my own good things and singing his praises.  Besides, I did trust him, I followed the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule, and I was a nice person.  So why did I feel that I was missing something?

In all the years I’ve been a follower of Christ, I have learned the importance of trust and obedience.  I can’t truly follow someone I don’t trust.  I can learn from them, admire them, even try to act like them, but eventually, I will try to take the lead, or let go and walk down a different path.  Similarly, I can’t say that I trust someone if I won’t obey them.  If they ask me to do something, and I ignore their request, or re-interpret it, or come up with excuses why I won’t do it, it really boils down to one thing: I don’t trust that their request has any merit.

In a broken world, filled with sin and pride and selfishness, there are many reasons NOT to trust or obey certain people.  Abusers, users, sadists and sociopaths abound.  Such people may suggest that there is “no other way to be happy..” than to trust them and obey them implicitly.  So when God asks us to put our trust in an invisible Godhead, it seems terrible, final, and harsh.  Is God demanding abject humiliation and mindless adherence to his law?  Will we lose ourselves in drudgery and joyless obedience to a harsh taskmaster on the whimsical hope of a happy afterlife?

That is a view that is often peddled, and ridiculed.  But I think a closer look at the Bible gives us a different picture.  Yes, God is harsh and wrathful against sin and sinners–but so am I!   I find myself getting furious over injustices and pain caused by sin in the world–I can only imagine how angry God must be to see the way we lie and cheat and abuse each other, and the untold painful consequences he has witnessed through the years.  The only thing holding him back is the power of his Mercy.  His anger is swallowed up in patient and unfathomable love that is ready to forgive even the worst offenders.   And God’s wrath is pure, unlike mine, which is selective against those who have hurt me, but wants to smooth over my own sins.  His love is even more pure– he loves even the worst sinner, and even the most unloveable people (in my flawed estimation).  He is unwilling that ANYONE stay lost and enslaved by their sinful past.

Think about it– Jesus, who knew God best (being part of the Godhead himself) never painted his Father as a brute who demanded people to become “useful idiots” just to stroke his ego.  He didn’t talk about a harsh and unforgiving God who “hated” sinners.  Instead, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and spoke to sinners and outcasts as though they were more important than the religious elite…because that was his heart!  But more than that, Jesus showed us what it meant to “Trust and Obey”–he didn’t seek fame or fortune for himself, he never owned a home, or sought public office, and he never ran arouns worrying and fretting that God would leave him in the lurch.  Even under the worst circumstances leading up to his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus only spent one hour worrying about what was to come, and in that hour of prayer, he found the peace and strength to say, “not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  In his ministry, he humbly walked the byways and taught those who willingly followed him.  He healed and encouraged and saved those who came to him; those who trusted him as he trusted his Father.  He did not pat on the back those who claimed to follow his Father, but wouldn’t trust him.  Nor did he reward those who claimed to obey God, but hated their neighbors, justified their own self-righteousness, and changed God’s laws to feather their own lifestyles.

Does “Trust and Obey” mean that we might lose our status, our wealth, our comfort, and our lives?  Not necessarily, but there is no promise that we will be richer, or healthier, or more popular for following Jesus.  He didn’t come to make us comfortable or “better than” someone else.  In fact, he warned us that while we are in this world, we will have troubles and sorrows (with or without our faith!)  So how can we be “happy in Jesus” if we end up homeless, hated, or sick?  How can we talk about being happy in Jesus under awful circumstances?  Is this just some brainwashing tactic to make us forget how miserable we are?  What’s the “payoff” of Trust and Obey?

The answer involves a choice–Do I trust Jesus when he says that he came to give us, not just life, not even just eternal life, but abundant life?  If Jesus isn’t trustworthy; if I am not sure that he can or will make my life MORE than I ever dreamed, MORE than I imagine–even in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances–then I will never be happy in Jesus.  But if I DO trust Jesus, then I can be happy, not because of my circumstances, but because I can trust all that he says about them, and that his grace is more than sufficient to see me through.  And I know that whatever trials I may be going through can be turned to good because I trust his power and his goodness.

And true obedience can only follow true trust.  If I say that God’s rules aren’t important, or don’t apply to me, then I’m really saying I don’t trust him to know what’s best, or that I don’t trust that He is really Good.  The temporary happiness that comes from following my way (even if I think I’m doing it for the right reasons) will give way to resentment against God.  How dare he stop me from that one thing that brings me joy– how dare he question my “needs” or call my actions “wrong”.  How dare he suggest that His way could be better or more abundant than what I know–even if I suspect that what I know and experience isn’t always the best it could be.

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No– the longer I follow Jesus, the more that old song rings true, and not harsh or condemning, but full of wisdom and promise.  It is with the faith of a child (not stupid or simplistic, but hopeful and eager), and humble (not abject or reluctant) obedience that we find happiness in Jesus, peace for our souls, and strength to face the trying circumstances of this life.

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Sowing the Wind

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  Hosea 8:7

Hosea was a prophet who foretold the destruction (and eventual restoration) of his people.  God was pouring out his judgment against an unfaithful nation, and he used the tragic family life of Hosea as a living example of his dealings with Israel.  Hosea married a prostitute; an unfaithful and unloving spouse who chased after men with ready money and cheap gifts.  But when her activities resulted in slavery, shame, and despair, Hosea redeemed her and restored her as his wife.  In the same way, God had made a promise to the people of Israel, but they had broken their covenant and followed their own rules, chasing after the surrounding cultures, with their foreign gods and their hedonistic rituals, including human sacrifice, temple prostitutes, and divination.  There are many metaphors used throughout this book, but one that often stands out is the short phrase found in chapter eight.  In it, God is talking about the unfaithful priests and leaders of Israel, who have not only betrayed God in their rebellion and idolatry, but have led others astray.  God says of them that they have sown the wind, and are reaping/will reap the whirlwind.

How does this relate to us today in our pursuit of prayer?

I believe that many of us are sowing the wind– we do it in our careless words, gossip, rumor-mongering, complaining, babbling, prattling, and yes, in our half-hearted obedience, and our tepid prayers.  We often come to God, not eager to commune with him, or to hear his voice, not in humble adoration and open confession, but to complain, wheedle, and boast.  We pay lip service to his Holiness, while refusing to give up that bad habit that “isn’t really all that bad.”  We thank him for his Grace, but harbor resentment against a neighbor or family member who slighted us.  We ask for him to bring us success in our plans and ventures without really making sure if they line up with his will.  We excuse our lack of attendance at church, and our failure to spend time in God’s word.  We make rash promises to do “better” if God just gets us through this week.  We ask for his blessing, and thank him for the riches he has bestowed on us, but we turn our noses at those in our backyard who are in need.  We are bold about posting “Christian” sayings on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram–almost as bold as posting about our favorite new Brew Pub or Spa trip or “almost inappropriate” joke, or latest political rant.  Except that our “Christian” posts are less entertaining and more critical of others.  (They’re usually really pretty, though– pictures of flowers or mountain streams or desert sunsets–it’s really easy to “like” and “share” a sunset!.)  We cheapen the Gospel, we cheapen the Christian walk, we cheapen prayer, when we pursue it as a hobby or a social habit.  It is not something we do only because (or only when)  it makes us feel “good” or “better”– it is something we pursue because it brings us life and peace for eternity, and it brings glory and joy to the King of Kings.

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  There is a price for this shallow, careless pursuit of something that looks and feels vaguely like Godliness.  It is the whirlwind…being tossed about by “every wind of doctrine” as Paul warns against in Ephesians 4.  It is being caught up in doubts and half-truths, compromises, hypocrisy, division, scandal, and shame.  It is having to face the onslaught of detractors and persecution that come as a result of so many of us abusing and misrepresenting the very Gospel of the one whose name we carry.   “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear; All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  The words of that old hymn are no less true today– when we trifle with prayer, carrying only our selfish needs, our petty complaints, and our flimsy agendas to God in prayer, we pay a huge price.

There is another metaphor, this one in the Gospel of John, that I think helps us combat this tendency to “sow the wind”–  Jesus says of himself in John 15 that he is the vine, and we are the branches.  If we are faithful, we remain in him– we draw our life and strength from him– and we are fruitful.  Remaining in him, we are grounded– he provides the roots that keep us from blowing every which way.  And he provides the nourishment, and strength to grow and produce more fruit.

I say “we” because I too am guilty of having sown the wind.  The great news, in Hosea and in the Gospel of John, is that God is eager to restore us– to graft us in–to welcome us home after our storm-tossed wanderings.  Let’s get serious about abiding in God, instead of scattering the latest “feel-good” religious spam.  God, forgive me for the times I have cheapened your precious gift of prayer.  Help me to abide in you, and refrain from careless words to you, about you, and about others.

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Transformative Prayer

This cute meme has been making the rounds on Facebook and Pinterest.  It suggests that prayer turns meek kittens into mighty lions.  And it can.  Most times it should.  But how often do we experience this level of transformation when we pray?

I began this blog, partly in response to recent comments I’ve heard that belittle the effectiveness, the power, of prayer.  I talk a good game when it comes to prayer–I pray daily, I keep a prayer journal, I consider myself a prayer veteran, even a prayer warrior.  I believe in the trans-formative power of prayer.  So why do I often feel like a kitten both before and after prayer?

I’m afraid that, too often, I don’t want to be transformed when I pray.  I want to be heard; I want to be comforted; I want to be refreshed.  But I don’t really want transformation.  Transformation is not cute or comfortable–it hurts, it stretches.  Transformation requires risk and commitment in the face of uncertainty.  I want to be a kitten who thinks of herself as a lioness, but I want a cozy lap to rest on, and a bowl of gourmet cat food laid out for me.  Kittens may wrestle with yarn or mice; lionesses wrestle with crocodiles and wildebeests.  I want to lift up those in pain, those who struggle, those in need– but I want to do it from the comfort of my own quiet corner.

If my prayer life isn’t causing changes in every other aspect of my life, I need to be concerned.  Prayer that never calls me into battle; prayer that leaves me feeling comfortable while others suffer..that isn’t really prayer.  That is giving lip service without heart-service.

But I also need to be careful to be transformed by the renewing of my mind (See Romans 12: 1-3).  Prayer should be transforming my heart and mind, but in Christ’s likeness.  Christ, who is not only the Lion of Judah, but the Lamb of God.  There are times when I should charge out of the prayer room, energized and ready for battle.  But it must come from God’s spirit, and not my own pride or in conformity to the world’s pattern of fighting.  Transformation doesn’t come about just because I pray– it comes about as I walk and talk with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  I don’t have the power to transform myself, nor do I have the power to decide the nature and speed of my journey.

I think sometimes, I see it as all or nothing– either I am running full speed ahead and making great conquests (Lioness), or I am mewling  and helpless (Kitten).  But God sees the bigger picture.  Sometimes,  we should enter the prayer room as kittens and leave like lions; other times we should enter as lions and leave as lambs– recognizing that our own roaring will never win the battle, and also recognizing that sometimes, in quiet obedience and sacrifice, we are doing what is necessary in the larger plan.  What should never happen is that we go running into the prayer room eager and ready to serve, and come sauntering or swaggering out, puffed up with our own importance, but unmoved toward others.

So the challenge is to go into the prayer room, expecting to be transformed– by God, for God’s glory, into the people God wants us to be– expecting to be changed, stretched and challenged.

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