As I look outside, there are bare branches on the trees, and the grass is covered in fallen leaves. The beauty of early autumn has almost gone, and winter is coming. The air is brittle and chilly, but not as cold as it will be in another month.
Yet, this is My Father’s world. I trust that winter will come, and pass. Spring will follow, and the trees will once again be covered in leaves and filled with birdsong and new life.
As I listen to the news, I hear of COVID deaths and hospitals filled with the sick and suffering. I hear of political unrest, and people spewing hatred, anger, and fear for the future. There is chaos and uncertainty, injustice, and pain. There are hurricanes and fires, floods, and earthquakes.
Yet, this is My Father’s world. He sends rain on the just and the unjust; He brings healing and hope, even in the darkest hours. This world does not belong to any one nation, or political party, or natural disaster, or epidemic. Such circumstances have the power to cause destruction and fear, but they do not have power over the Creator of all things. Their reign is temporary and limited. And ” ‘tho the wrong seems oft so strong,” God is eternally sovereign– nothing that happens today can either take God by surprise, or cause Him to quake.
I meet with people who are discouraged, angry, bitter, and scared. And I cannot “fix” the world around me with good intentions, or hard work. I cannot give assurance based on my own efforts or my own wisdom. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t have the solutions. I will make mistakes. I will say things that cause confusion, or even offense.
But this is not my world; and it isn’t the world of those who try to discourage me, judge me, take advantage of me, or manipulate me. This is My Father’s world. And in this moment, I will choose to look for His hand and listen for His voice.
I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.
But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.
Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!
Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?
Sometimes, prayer seems like a vapor–something that rises without substance, only to evaporate. We say our prayers and wait for an answer. And the Bible describes prayer like incense. It rises to God as a sweet fragrance. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+5%3A8&version=ESV But incense and vapor dissipate and evaporate without a visible trace. They have no form or solid substance. Is prayer equally fleeting and amorphous? Is prayer “real,” if we can’t see it working?
Vapors rise and mix with other vapors. They are carried on the wind. They form clouds, and the waters return to the earth as rain and snow. And incense diffuses and leaves its scent throughout a building long after it is burned. We know that incense has been burned. We know that water has evaporated. And we know that they are “present” even if we can’t see or touch them.
Prayers– especially prayers lifted in petition–rise away from us. They are meant to disappear from our view. Our focus should not stay on the visible troubles we lift up in our prayers, but on the invisible and all-powerful God who receives our cries. And as prayers rise, they are gathered and formed by God into clouds of blessing. The rain will fall where God wills it, to water thirsty souls, bring healing, and be lifted up in new prayers. The incense of our prayers will permeate the world with the fragrance of God’s love, even as they ascend to His throne.
This is part of the mystery of prayer. Just as God designs water to be lifted up and returned to the earth hundreds of miles away; just as He designs fragrance to spread without any visible evidence, so He has designed prayer to work in unseen and unpredictable ways. God delights in our participation in this mystery. He invites us to be part of the process of spreading His beauty and glory throughout the world!
Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I learned this prayer as a child. It seemed very grim, and pessimistic. As a child, I spent very little time (as little as possible) thinking of my own mortality, or the state of my soul after a day of playing with dolls or running around outside. I was blessed with a safe and easy childhood. Of course, I had days of sickness, a bout of chicken pox, the loss of a pet, news of neighbors who had died in war, fallen to cancer, or been killed in accidents–moments that caused me to reflect a bit more. But I didn’t want to think about serious things. I wanted peace and happiness.
As a younger adult, I came to the conclusion that prayers like this were old-fashioned, and designed to scare vulnerable children into a false faith based on fear and gloom. Shouldn’t children learn about the Love of Jesus and the Mercy of the Father, instead of worrying about death and eternal doom of their soul? Prayers like this would be “bad” for young children; traumatic and disturbing. Better to teach them prayers that were sweet and light, and full of only the goodness of God.
Lately, however, I remember things a bit differently. Yes, there is gloom and doom in this old children’s prayer, but there is also comfort, Love, and Mercy. As a child, I could “lay me down” to sleep in peace, knowing that God would, indeed, keep my soul from harm. I didn’t expect to die, but when I woke up dreaming of monsters, or suddenly became aware of mortality, I didn’t have to stay fearful. God is bigger than any monster; bigger then Death. I could not trust anyone better, mightier, or more capable than the Lord to keep my soul, or to “take” it safely to its final destination. I learned about the Goodness of God, but I also learned about stark realities– the persecuted Church, war, famine, injustice–things that God wants me to confront, and endure, and lift to Him in prayer. And for every “gloomy” reality, there are stories of victory and joy, faith and resilience, love and grace– because God is standing by, ready to rescue and reassure and redeem.
I am old enough now that mortality plays a bigger role in my thoughts. I have lost a parent, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. I’ve experienced both great joy and great sorrow. But I need not be afraid of disease, dilemmas, or even death. I need not worry about the state of my soul. I may have griefs, aches and pains, and worries about tomorrow. But I can “lay me down” in peace and patience, knowing I have a Good, Good Father whose love has surrounded me for over half a century. I can “Hush” all my fears, and sleep like a baby, knowing my God is always standing right by my side.
Yesterday was a roller-coaster ride–pain, annoying interruptions, difficult encounters, successful ventures, bad moods, beautiful skies. And I almost forgot to write this post. It was just one of “those” days.
I am comforted by three things, though:
God’s love is never a roller-coaster. It is steady, eternal, and extravagant. Even on days when I can’t feel it or turn my back on it, God’s love surrounds me. No matter what the circumstances; no matter what I’ve done or what’s been done to me, God’s love never changes– it never falters, it never diminishes. He loves me just as much as he would on a perfect day; just as much as He has on my “better” days. God’s love is not based on what kind of day I might be having. It is based on WHO HE IS!
Jesus had days like this, too– he KNOWS what I’m going through. He knew pain, frustration, misunderstandings, betrayal, loneliness, grief, joy, struggle, success, and even “failure” (at least in the eyes of those around him). Some days, it feels like no one understands; that no one wants to listen. Jesus was a great listener during his time here; better than any of his friends or family. And when no one wanted to listen to Jesus, he simply found time to get away and talk with the Father. What a great example for us to follow. Better yet, Jesus is always on call to listen and advocate FOR us to the Father. And the Holy Spirit gets involved, too, helping us find words and expressions when we pray. God made us. He understands our weaknesses. He doesn’t condemn– He stands ready to help!
God is Alpha and Omega. He is eternal, and He is God of the Past, Present, and Future. Today may be an awful day– or a wonderful day. Tomorrow is a mystery to us. Yesterday tends to haunt us. But God is present in all three times at once. Nothing takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wallow in worry or regret. And that should give us courage to live in the present (even if it seems chaotic or frustrating), knowing that God’s plans and timing are for our Good. Even if we “mess up” in the present, God has the power to redeem and renew our future– if we let Him.
My wise Mama told me there would be days like this–she knows from experience. And she also knows all the ways God is ever-present and ever-ready to give wisdom, courage, and comfort. Today, I want to pass along a little of that wisdom– just like she passed it on to me. I hope your day is not the kind of roller-coaster I had yesterday. But even if it is: God Loves you, He knows what you’re going through, and He is eternally present and powerful to give you all that you need to get through.
Some fears are understandable. Some fears are even logical. Some are not. I wouldn’t say that I am “afraid” of most things. I don’t spend hours of my life being afraid of unlikely events, like being struck by lightning or choking to death on a cracker. I have a healthy fear of electricity and fire. I don’t tempt fate by walking along the edge of cliffs or hanging out of thirty-story windows (both of which are rare where I come from, anyway) . But I have two phobias– irrational fears–that plague me. The first is my fear of snakes. My fear of snakes has not ruined my life, but it has caused me to limit activities– mostly nature walks– where I might be exposed to seeing a snake. I avoid the reptile house at the zoo; I avoid visiting places where snakes are more common. I don’t like to see pictures of them; I don’t watch “snake” movies.
The second fear is more irrational and causes more problems in my daily life. I am afraid of phones. This doesn’t mean that I cannot make a phone call, or ever answer the phone. But if anyone asks about the best way to contact me, I always suggest e-mail, texts, or other forms of communication. I don’t like hearing the phone ring. I don’t like making calls. I don’t like answering calls. And it has little to do with who is on the other end. It has much more to do with the medium. I can’t see the other person’s face; I can’t predict whether or not the other person is busy or distracted; whether they want a quick answer or a lengthy talk; whether the conversation will end well or leave one (or both) of us at a loss. People call at their convenience–not at the convenience of the person at the other end. Are they in the middle of cooking dinner? Taking a shower? Having an important conversation with a spouse or child?
But if I determine never to make or receive a phone call, I will miss other important conversations– family members who live far away; business that cannot be conducted in person; appointments that need to be set up; news about births, deaths, hospitalizations, even prayers and prayer requests.
I say all this because I knew there are some people who have a phobia about prayer. They are afraid to pray– not just in public, but even privately. They fear that they will say the wrong thing, or that they will “bother” God with their petitions. Some fear that God will not hear their prayer or that they will not get an answer. Some are afraid that they will “get what they pray for”– that God will hear their prayer and answer it, but that the answer will involve change, hardship, or pain that they were hoping to avoid. Some fear that their prayers will not be “good enough;” that God will misunderstand their motives or be offended by their words or their lack of knowledge. Some people are afraid of God– that He will reject them and their prayers because of something they have done or the way they have lived in the past.
Prayer is not meant to be intimidating or difficult. It is healthy to have awe for God. Even “fear” of God– He holds the power of life and death; He cannot be fooled or mocked or bargained with; He knows everything about us, including our thoughts and our past–God is not to be trifled with, even in prayer. But God invites us to pray. He calls us to come to Him; He seeks our fellowship, no matter what we’ve done or what words we string together. There is no magical “prayer formula”– no phrases or special “religious” words or a certain ritual or routine– that we must use to be heard. God– who formed the universe and keeps it running– is never too busy or too distracted to listen to us. Even groans and whimpers are important to Him.
Don’t be “afraid to pray.” And don’t let a fear keep you from praying. Pray through the fear– draw near to God– and He has promised to draw near to you.
Many years ago, I prayed to God, that He would increase my patience. I had well-meaning people– even pastors and other Christians– who told me not to do it. They were afraid that God’s answer to such a prayer would bring difficulty– that God would answer my prayer by making me go through hard times to learn patience. And He did just that. I wanted to be married and have a family–and I spent nearly 30 years waiting and learning patience! But I would not go back and undo those years. God answered my prayer and He gave me a wonderful husband and family– in His time. Sometimes in those decades of wondering and hurting, I had pain. But I — also had many blessings in singleness–opportunities I had never planned on, changes in perspective, unforeseen experiences and relationships that, I think, prepared me to be a better person and a better wife than I would have been at age 18 or 20.
My prayer for patience was something I felt strongly about– and patience is a Godly thing; it is an aspect of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I wasn’t praying for money or fame or a life without struggles. In fact– I wasn’t praying that God would “make me” patient. People who believe that my years of waiting for a husband were the direct result of my prayer for increased patience assume that God changed the circumstances of my life to force me to learn a lesson. But what if God changed my desires to match my circumstances? What if, knowing that I would marry after age 45, God put that prayer in my young and impatient heart? If I hadn’t asked for patience, would I have taken matters into my own hands and tried to “make” a family in my way and my time? Would I have experienced more pain– and brought pain to others– if I hadn’t learned patience?
God knows what we need. He knows that there WILL be trouble and hardship in our lives. And He knows that we can survive, and even thrive, in times of trouble, because He will be there with us. Nothing about prayer should make us afraid. Nothing about God’s answers should cause us not to seek His face. He loves us extravagantly; He knows us intimately; He controls and safeguards our future with perfect power.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.
“Surely you can’t be serious, doctor.” “I’m very serious. And stop calling me Shirley.”
Classic comedy makes use of the English word, surely, but the word has a very serious and powerful meaning. It means that whatever follows is for sure, certain, true, positive, undeniable, and guaranteed. In Psalm 23, David, the shepherd-king, is building to a triumphant conclusion. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” This is not wishful thinking or a faint hope. It is certain and expected that he will see goodness and mercy for the rest of his days. Are you living in that mind-set? Do you expect to see goodness and mercy every day? Do I?
And David is very particular about his words. Goodness and Mercy WILL follow Him, because He is constantly surrounded by his Good Shepherd, who embodies goodness and mercy. David did not say that health, wealth, comfort, popularity, power, or worldly success would follow him. He did not say that happiness, confidence, self-esteem, or even peace of mind would be his constant companions. But goodness and mercy will never be absent if we are in the presence of God. Because they are part of God’s character, they cannot be absent where He is present.
More than that, the word for “follow” here means that goodness and mercy are not just “tagging along” like an annoying younger sibling, or following at a polite distance. They are chasing after, in pursuit, even stalking us! God will chase after us, track us down, and surround us with His goodness! He will lavish His mercy on us– no matter how far we try to run and hide from it.
“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.
But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.
So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?
I think there are several reasons:
Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:
Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)