…And Grace My Fears Relieved…

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

timelesstruths.org
Amazing Grace, lyrics by John Newton

As I write this, a massive hurricane looms in the Atlantic Ocean, devastating the Bahamas, and threatening several major cities along the southeastern coast of the United States. There is much fear, danger, and distress for people living in these areas, for their families, and for compassionate people watching helplessly from a distance. What can anyone DO in the face of such raw power and destruction? What hope or comfort can we offer?

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There are many questions we cannot answer in times like this– we can offer no definitive explanation why hurricanes form, how they behave, why they change courses, grow, shrink, or when or where they will make landfall. There are many actions we cannot take– we can’t stop a hurricane, or shift its course, weaken it or make it go away (though scientists and others have been trying for decades). We cannot provide immediate “fixes” for the damage that hurricanes (or other weather emergencies) leave behind.. roads and houses take time to rebuild; fields and forests must be replanted; families must heal and grieve.

What we can offer seems, on the surface, to be insufficient and condescending– we offer prayers, reassurance that God sees and knows and cares, we say, “trust in God and His promises.” And many sneer at such “gifts. God doesn’t promise to steer the hurricanes away from our loved ones, or our own villages or cities or islands. God doesn’t promise that we won’t experience disaster, fear, pain, or grief. God doesn’t promise us days of sunshine with never a cloud, or storm or loss.

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What God DOES promise is Grace– not comfort, not ease, not happiness– something mysterious, undeserved, and unexpected. God’s grace is sufficient– it is enough– through ANY and EVERY circumstance when we ask for it. ENOUGH–never lacking, never too much for us to use, but just right for His good purpose and our best interest in learning to know Him.

Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life; it allows us to experience victory in, through, and in spite of the storms. Grace makes us strong enough, brave enough, wise enough, healthy enough, kind enough, rich enough, and “good enough” to get to the next step in our journey. It may fall short of what we expect, or envy, or dream of for ourselves, but it is never too little to be useful. God’s economy is not about bigger and better, grander or “more.” Because “More” is never “enough”– there is never enough money to buy a longer life; there is never enough strength to defeat heartache and loneliness; never enough goodness to eradicate the injustices of a hundred wicked generations. Bad things will happen. Loved ones will be wounded or killed. Homes and roads and villages will be destroyed. But God is faithful to comfort us, strengthen us, sustain us, and give us a new vision, a new hope, and a new life. Only God is big enough, rich enough, strong enough, and wise enough to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=NKJV. The amazing part is that He sends us the Grace we need to be part of the unfolding story–just what we need, just when we need it most– not because of anything we have done, but because of His great compassion.

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Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life– this may seem unfair and cruel. God, even a loving God– allows us to weather storms, even to be broken and crushed by them. But God also brings blessing, renewal, healing, comfort, hope, and a renewed sense of purpose, compassion, and vision. These things often come only after the storm. Storms can bring us to a point of fear and despair, or to faith and dependence. Grace is a gift–God won’t force us to acknowledge or accept His Grace. We can choose to tremble at the storm’s approach, or rage, or try to run away. But God’s offer means we never have to face the storm alone.

Grace won’t take away the storms in our lives– and it won’t make us foolishly fearless in the face of hurricanes. But it can relieve our fears and give us the courage and wisdom to face even the fiercest trials in life; even the fiercest storms that rage. And isn’t that an Amazing hope?! Our prayers may seem small; our hope may seem insignificant– because we are not “enough” . But we serve a God and pray to a God who holds the future in His hand. Our prayers are held in the same hands– our faith is in the one who is more than “enough” to face the storm and relieve our fears.

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He Knows My Name

The Bible is full of names. Some we know well– Adam, Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, David, Moses, Mary and Joseph, Jesus, John, Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene. Others are less familiar–Nimrod, Eli, Darius, Deborah, Ezekiel, Jezebel. Some are just unbelievable– Keren-Happuch, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, Basemath, Abishag, Shammuah, Pallu…you get the idea.

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But sometimes, the Bible seems to get carried away with names. Take the lists of genealogies and “begats” found in Genesis, Matthew, and Luke. Endless names of fathers and sons, tribes, and descents. They can be boring to read; even mind-numbing. But there is also important information included in these lists, if you just take the time to look closely. https://christinprophecy.org/articles/those-boring-begats/

Similarly, in places like Exodus and Leviticus, 1 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and elsewhere, there are extensive lists of those who were leaders of clans and families, workers who helped build (or rebuild) the temple and walls of Jerusalem, those who served in the tabernacle, and those who were among the heroes of King David’s army. In the New Testament, there are lists of people in Paul’s letters– greetings, rebukes, side-notes and requests meant for various people who are never mentioned again. Why include what amounts to a post-script in Holy Scripture?

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It turns out that many of these names give us valuable clues about development of the nation of Israel– how the tribes settled and spread out; how they interacted with each other and with the surrounding nations. The names in Ezra and Nehemiah help us connect the returning exiles with their ancestors (and confirm the extent of the destruction of entire clans and families in the fall of Jerusalem). The names in the New Testament show a picture of the early Church– how it spread, who joined the early believers, and where they came from.

What does all this mean to us hundreds of years later? It show us:

  • God’s plans are detailed and inclusive–The Biblical writers did not have to include so many names– they could simply have condensed the story to say that Abraham had hundreds of descendants; that the tabernacle was built; that many people returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and walls, and that the early Church grew rapidly. But God wanted names included (even the strange ones) so generations of readers would see the scope and detail of God’s unfolding plan. These were real people– individuals–cherished by God and worth including in the Biblical narrative.
  • The Bible is more than a series of mythical adventures or allegories. Many of the names (of people and places) in the Bible have been confirmed in historical and archaeological records– even those that were thought to be “wrong.”
  • God’s plans are universal. The Bible lists include names from various nations and cultures– Jewish names, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Babylonian, Roman and Greek names, the names of tribes and clans that spread throughout the Earth. God knew them all. God watches over us all.
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  • Each of us has an important role to play in the ongoing story of God’s grace. Our names may not all end up in the pages of Scripture, but our names can be in the Lamb’s Book of Life. God knows the name of every person who has ever existed! He doesn’t call us by the name of our younger sister, or get confused by our nickname or birth/adopted name– He knows us intimately like no one else ever will!
  • Names are important. None is more important than the Name that is above all Names– Jesus. Messiah, Christ, Savior, Immanuel. His is the Name that saves. Let’s call on Him today!

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

There is no way I can give a definitive answer to the above question. In a thousand blog posts or three volumes of analysis, I could never cover all the issues this question brings up. I offer the question today for two reasons:

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  1. This question is raised in the Bible. Asaph raised it in Psalm 73 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73&version=ASV; Habakkuk and other prophets also asked it. Solomon pondered it in Ecclesiastes, and Job cried out against it. God is not afraid of such questions, but He doesn’t give glib answers, either. The psalmist received no immediate answer directly from God, but when he entered the sanctuary of the Most High, and considered the eternal destination of the wicked, his attitude changed. His envy, anger, and bitterness melted in a flood of awe and worship. God does not want us to be bitter, angry, or envious of the wicked; nor does He want us to be apathetic toward injustice, abuse, and inequality. There is something profoundly disturbing when we see the wicked prospering at the expense of the righteous and innocent. It should cause us to turn to God and seek His help.
  2. That brings me to the second reason I want to grapple with this topic today. I need to! I have the tendency to want an immediate answer, and to see the wicked suffer– until I am in the presence of a Holy God. There is no wickedness that is outside of God’s justice, or of His grace. God WILL bring complete justice– in HIS time. But His primary goal is to bring redemption, restoration, healing, hope, and salvation– even to the wicked; even to ME. God’s justice is not just reserved for those I deem to be wicked and prosperous. God’s ways are not my ways. What if, in my eagerness to condemn the wicked, I miss God’s plan to change the heart of a Zacchaeus, or an Ebenezer Scrooge, or a sinful King David or arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar? No amount of wickedness can overwhelm God’s love and mercy, or His ability to make “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) for those who love Him and are called to serve Him.
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When tempted to dwell on this question, there are some wonderful alternatives. See some of the links below.

https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/march-2013/when-the-wicked-flourish/

https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-7-what-do-when-evil-prevails-malachi-217-36

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/job-the-revelation-of-god-in-suffering

https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-god-papers/righteous-suffer-wicked-prosper/

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/bible-story-of-zacchaeus.html

Lord God, today I pray for eyes that see Your face, even in this broken and fallen world. May I look to see Your patience, Your mercy and Your grace, as well as Your Holiness and Justice. May I be an instrument of all these aspects of Your character as I live in Your grace today. Thank You for Your great mercy toward me, and to the promise of Eternal Life with You. Amen.

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Hannah and Eli

The story in the Bible about Hannah is about prayer; it is also about depression, anguish, misunderstanding, marriage, rivalry, infertility, trust, and obedience.

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the priest, Eli, and his wicked sons. It is that same Eli who becomes a surrogate parent for Hannah’s precious, promised son, Samuel.

Think about that. In all my years reading through this story, it never occurred to me that Hannah had already known about Eli’s sons and their wickedness. Hannah knew that Eli was not the best role model for her small son. She knew that she was sending her child into an environment that included corruption, injustice, and perversion. This child she had promised to “give back” to God would grow up in a family more dysfunctional and dangerous than if he had stayed with Hannah, Elkanah, and even Peninnah and his half-siblings.

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The Bible does not give us all the details of either family, (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A11-26&version=ESV ) but there is evidence that Elkanah was a good provider, an honest and worthy man, and a good father. Eli, on the other hand, was told of his sons’ wickedness, and, other than giving one mild rebuke, he turns a blind eye to their practices and grows fat and lazy in his service. There is no mention of a mother or motherly influence at all in Samuel’s new “foster” family. Why would Hannah surrender her maternal rights (and why would Elkanah agree to forfeit his paternal rights) to send Samuel into this hornet’s nest?

Perhaps the answer can be found just before the account of Eli’s wicked sons. At the end of Hannah’s Song (which we will examine in more detail later), we have a profound statement of faith:

1 Samuel 2:9-10 English Standard Version (ESV)
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
    for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces;
    against them he will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Hannah was not giving Samuel to Eli to raise; she was giving Samuel to God to raise and guide and protect.

I am writing this today, not to encourage parents to absolve themselves of responsibility for training and caring for their own family, but to encourage those parents who may not be in a position to guide and protect their children. Some of us have children, grandchildren, siblings, or other young and vulnerable family members living away from our care or influence. Some are living in dysfunctional and even dangerous environments. God KNOWS. He SEES. He HEARS. We do not know, nor do we understand, why God allows innocent people to suffer. We do not know what fears or concerns Hannah and Elkanah may have had about Samuel’s upbringing. We do not know what Samuel endured under Eli’s care, or what he saw or heard in the presence of Eli’s sons. As a child, he may have been spared some of the worst of their behavior.

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We do know two things, however. Hannah and Elkanah may or may not have had reason to trust Eli. He did allow them to visit each year, and he seems to have been fond of young Samuel; certainly the Bible stories I used to read in Sunday School made Eli seem like a kindly uncle. But the reality was that Samuel’s life was not in Eli’s hands–it was in God’s! Hannah and Elkanah trusted God to guide their son, even as they relished every moment they were able to spend with him. They certainly prayed for his safety and growth in wisdom as he served in the Tabernacle of the Almighty.

Secondly, we know that God can bring good out of even bad circumstances. Eli was weak and indulgent with his sons; he was warned and did nothing. He sat down on the job and faced judgment without repentance. When Samuel was grown, this pattern could have been repeated. Samuel’s own sons began taking bribes and perverting justice. Samuel was still serving faithfully, even as an old man, but his sons were not following his good example. However, when the people came to Samuel with reports of his sons’ activities and asked him to step aside and appoint a king, Samuel sought the Lord. God reassured him, and Samuel was faithful to appoint and advise Israel’s first king, Saul. God was faithful to guide Samuel’s footsteps, and to bring justice against the wicked sons of Eli.

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Eli’s flawed examples of fatherhood and leadership still served as models for Samuel. Even as a child, he showed wisdom, respect, and love for his “foster father” and mentor. Hannah and Elkanah never wavered in their trust that God could and would guide their son and provide for him. Their faith wasn’t based on the knowledge that Samuel would one day become the chief priest and anoint both Saul and his successor, David. They only knew that God could be trusted.

That is not a promise that every child in a bad environment will be “safe” and rise above their circumstances to become famous or powerful. But it is reason to keep hope and faith when we feel powerless. None of Hannah and Elkanah’s (or Peninnah’s) other children are mentioned in the Biblical narrative. They may have been honest, upright citizens, successful in business or esteemed in their hometown of Ramah. Samuel’s story is not a parable–there is no “moral” about “giving a child back” to God and being able to expect success and fame and blessing. There is, however, a lesson here about recognizing that every child is a gift– not a reward, not a burden–our children belong to God. We should do our best to guide them, nurture them, protect them, and above all, to love them. But their destiny– including tragic circumstances and glorious opportunities–is not ours to control.

Next time, we explore another important relationship– that of Hannah and her Son.

Hello, My Name Is…

Have you ever been to a conference for work, or a large meeting or convention, where you were required to wear a temporary name badge?  It might be a simple sticker with a space to write your name, or it might be a pre-printed card set inside a clear plastic pouch attached to a lanyard or a safety pin.  It may have a stripe or box in a bright color, and/or an introductory word or phrase, such as “Hello..” or “My name is…”
Perhaps you’ve had to wear a name tag for work on a daily basis, or you have to carry an ID tag pinned to your shirt, lapel, or around your neck or waist.

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Such tags serve a purpose; they are functional, if boring, and even if they are also annoying, they are temporary.  Some of them give a little more information, such as where you are from or what company, or plant, or building you represent.  Name tags make it easy to identify someone and put a name to a face.  But a name tag cannot reveal much beyond a person’s name.  Sometimes, a name tag doesn’t even meet that simple criterion.  I have a simple name, Lila, that is commonly misspelled and misspoken.  I have had people look right at my name tag and call me, “Lisa,” “Lily,” or “Leah.” Wearing my name on my shirt or hanging from my neck may (or may not) make me identifiable.  It does not make me knowable or known.

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When we come before the Throne of God, we need no name tag.  God not only knows our name, He knows us intimately– our thoughts, our attitude, our fears, our hopes, our weaknesses and strengths. He has numbered the hairs on our heads, and knows the words we will say before they reach our tongues.

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This knowledge might cause us apprehension– there can be no hiding from God–even if we can lie to ourselves about our actions, motivations, and feelings, we can’t lie to Him.  But this intimate knowledge should also ease our every fear– God knows all about us, and loves us unconditionally.

Prayer can be many things– joyful, contrite, needy– but it never needs to be small talk!

Praying in the Present

I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but I need a reminder every so often about living in the present (including keeping my prayer life centered in the present).  It is very tempting sometimes to wallow in the past or dream of the future.  There’s nothing wrong with learning from past mistakes or making future goals, but we are not to waste our time or our energies pursuing what isn’t, while ignoring what is happening around us.

TheLordsPrayer

If we look closely at the Lord’s Prayer, we see how centered it is in the present.  There are a couple of forward-looking phrases (Thy kingdom come…lead us not into temptation…For ever and ever..) but most of the prayer is for the present and foreseeable future.

I need to be reminded, through Christ’s example and through scripture, that God wants me to trust Him for my daily needs and follow one step at a time.  If I find myself spending more time asking God for things far out in my future, or continually bringing up things from my past, it may mean (though not always) that I am not fully trusting in the sufficiency of His Grace for today.

God has already seen my past– and loves me unconditionally.  His Grace will not be rescinded each time I face a reminder of my past; He will not change His mind if someone else carries a grudge against me.

God has also seen my future.  He knows my needs, my concerns, my desires.  He wants me to bring my whole heart to Him in prayer–a heart that is ready to trust His provision and plan, even when I don’t know the details.

Think what would happen if every parent-child conversation involved the following themes:

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  1. “Mom, do you remember the time I tipped over your plants when I was five, and you yelled at me.  I just want to tell you I’m so sorry I did that.  I know you said you’ve forgiven me, but I need to ask you again.”  “Dad, I know you were disappointed when I got into a fight with my brother back when I was eight, but I hope you can see how I’ve learned a lot since then.  Please don’t hold that against me today.”
  2. “Hey, Dad, I really want to drive when I turn 16.  Can I ask you for a purple sports car when I turn 16?  I want to be a good driver, and I just know that you want me to be a good driver.  I think a purple sports car would make me a great driver in another seven years.”  “Mom, will you promise to babysit my kids after I have kids?  I just know my kids will want to have a close relationship with you, so will you just promise to be close to my kids when I grow up and have them?”

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There’s nothing essentially wrong with the actual requests– but when we focus on the past or the future at the expense of the present, we miss learning what God has for us TODAY.  We also risk seeing God only for what He gives and what He has done, and not for Who He Is!

Let’s enjoy time with God today (and every day) as it unfolds.

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Surprise!

Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party?  Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”.  Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration.  (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)

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Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party?  Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father.  It required several months of planning.  We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends.  We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions.  All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing.  Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up.  We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.

 

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Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident.  The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration.  We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead.  With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan.  It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other.  Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away.  From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other.  The first several minutes were surreal and jarring.  But it was also cathartic.  As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt.  Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.

Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother.  Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event.  As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion.  All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time.  Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.

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What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties.  We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.

But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge.  “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party.  But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans?  When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome.  When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences.  What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing.  God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives.  Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.

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If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness.  And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing.  But we learned so many things that day.  We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way.  We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources.  We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt.  But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.

If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom.  If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life.  Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder.  We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.

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God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time.  He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds.  It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation.  Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.

As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way.  And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.

The Season’s Not Over, Yet!

Last Friday, I attended a high school football game in my home town.  It was homecoming, complete with floats and balloons, face paint, and screaming fans (myself included).

My hometown team is having a fantastic season so far– their record is 6 and 0, and they are winning by wide margins each week.  I’m a little biased, not only since this is my home town, but because I have a nephew and a cousin on the team!  They have already qualified for a spot in the playoffs for their division, and they have dreams of becoming state champions.

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I hope they make it.  I pray that they will play their best; that they will stay safe and healthy, too.  I want them to win, and I think they have a good chance.  But the season’s not over yet.  They still have to play a couple of tough teams in the regular season, and they will face stiff competition in the playoffs.

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As good as they have been so far, the teammates and coaches will still drill, train, and learn how to adjust the way they play based on whatever the next game throw at them.  Next week’s team may be better at passing, or rushing.  Their players may be bigger, or more agile, or more experienced than others.  The weather conditions may play a bigger role next week.

All that to say that we all go through seasons– sometimes even “winning” seasons– and each one requires that we prepare, work, train, and persevere until the season is over.  Some of us are facing a season of trials and losses–we’re waiting and hoping for the season to end.  And it will.  But the season’s not over yet.  Stay in the game– keep praying, keep training, and keep believing that there will be a new season of hope.  Some of us are in a season of victory!  That’s great, but the season’s not over yet.  Stay focused– keep training and preparing, and learning, knowing that there will come a season of trial.  Some of us are watching others in their success–but the season’s not over yet.  Stop comparing– reach out and connect.  Show respect; show compassion.

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This is true in all areas of life– there are seasons in our education, seasons in parenting and relationships, seasons in our careers and service, seasons in politics, economics, and even in our faith walk.  And in every season, God is there.  Like a proud parent or an ardent fan, He is cheering you on; like a great coach, He gives guidance and instruction; like a cherished teammate, He has your back.  In all of this, God roots for all His children– not that some will “win” and others will “lose”, but that all will learn to play their very best and become “victors”.

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No matter what kind of season we are in, or where we are in our season, we should remember a few things:

  • Life is both an individual and a team activity.  None of us can “win” on our own, nor can we expect the team to “carry” us to victory without any effort on our part.
  • We can’t see the end from the beginning (or even the middle).  But God can.  And we can trust His guidance and His timing, even if we don’t see the whole picture.
  • God goes not see “winning” and “losing” in the same way the world judges it.  What looks like “winning” to us may be superficial and false.  What feels like losing may be building a Godly character that will overshadow the temporary struggles of this season.
  • Seasons come and go, but not everyone experiences them the same way or at the same time.  In other words, don’t compare your winning swim season to someone else’s losing soccer season, or your dry summer to someone else’s monsoon season.  Instead, focus on your own season and your own growth.  Don’t close yourself off to others– you may have an opportunity to give or accept help, advice, training, and encouragement along the way–but don’t let others become more powerful (or less worthy of respect) than they really are.
  • At the end of the “season”, if we know Jesus Christ, we will share in the ultimate victory.  The celebration that occurs over each person who comes to Christ makes any celebration here on earth seem dull and timid–no amount of parade floats, lights, fireworks, screaming fans, balloons, or other excitement can compare to the joy of welcoming a lost soul into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Repent, relent, or resent?

I’m revisiting Jonah today.  The book of Jonah is a fascinating study–it’s just four short chapters, but they are packed with messages that inspire, convict, and encourage. More about Jonah here…

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At the beginning of the book, Jonah is sent by God to preach disaster to a city steeped in evil and violence.  Nineveh was an ancient metropolis of the Assyrian empire, located near modern-day Mosul, Iraq.  The people of Nineveh had been responsible for attacks against Israel, and it is believed that Jonah may have lost family members in these attacks.  Now God is sending him into the “belly of the beast” to preach judgment and doom.  Instead of following God’s command, Jonah tries to run away and gets swallowed by a big fish.

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This is the part of the story with which most people are familiar– Jonah and the “Whale”.  But this covers only the first quarter of the story!  Inside the fish, Jonah prays.  It is a beautiful prayer of praise and acknowledgement of God’s might and power to save.  This is not the sniveling coward of chapter one, but the great prophet he could have, should have been.  God gives him another chance and this time, Jonah is faithful to preach the message God sends– forty more days and He will wipe out Nineveh.

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But something unexpected happens.  The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s dire warning– a lone voice calling in the streets with a gloomy message– and they repent.  From the least to the greatest, they cry out for mercy, they fast and mourn and do a complete about-face.  Just as God saved Jonah from the fish, He relents and saves Nineveh from destruction.  Jonah’s enemies get to live to see a new day!

The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah resented.  The last chapter tells of Jonah’s temper tantrum in the light of God’s mercy.  God even sends him an object lesson in the form of a gourd vine.  The book of Jonah ends abruptly with God’s last statement.  We never read Jonah’s response; we never find out if he learned his lesson a second time or not.

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Even with its abrupt end, the book of Jonah teaches about three important responses:

  • The people of Nineveh repented.  When faced with judgment, they humbled themselves and called for mercy.  They received it.  In spite of their former violence, idolatry, and wickedness, God sent them a warning, and He extended the grace and mercy they did not deserve.
    • Two words of warning here:
      • 1) Their response was immediate, sincere, and dramatic.  That makes for an exciting story, but repentance sometimes comes over time and quietly.  God knows if our repentance is real.  It is not our place to judge someone else’s conversion or apology.
      • 2)  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance was short-lived.  God eventually destroyed the city and the Assyrian empire.  Just because we have a moment of sincere regret or keenly feel a need for mercy doesn’t mean that God has an obligation to extend mercy or to withhold judgment indefinitely.  Grace is a gift, not a negotiation!

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  • God relented.  God listens, ready to extend His grace.  He does not punish us as we deserve.  He does not mete out immediate judgment without hope of redemption.  God sent Jonah with a message of potential doom to Israel’s sworn enemy in the knowledge that they (EVEN THEY) would repent.  God sent dozens of prophets to the nation of Israel warning of doom and exile, and they mocked and even killed the messengers!  God is patient, loving, and kind.  But He is also just– evil will not be forgotten or left unpunished.  God will relent, but He won’t retreat, back down, or surrender.

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  • Jonah resented.  We don’t know if he stayed resentful, or rediscovered gratitude for God’s grace to Nineveh or to himself, but we are left with a picture that Jesus echoes in the story of the prodigal son.  Jonah is like the older brother who worries more about his brother’s misdeeds than his brother’s soul.  How many of us who have experienced grace sulk and pout when we see others enjoying their first delightful taste of it?  Do we stamp our feet at God when he sends us to bring the Gospel to people we have written off as uninterested in or unworthy of it?  Do we resent being corrected and humbled by a loving God?  Do we worry and fret over our creature comforts as Jonah worried over his gourd vine, while others live without hope, food, or shelter?

Three words, so similar in spelling and sound, but so very different in impact!

Lord, I pray that my repentance would always be immediate and sincere; that I would see others, and their need for your grace, through your eyes of compassion; and that I would not resent your goodness and patience toward others.  Thank you for your patience and mercy toward me, and may I give the same to those who need to see Your face.  Give me the wisdom to trust you and obey, even when my flesh would run away.  May I see the gourd vines and big fish in my life as your gifts.

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