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.

Promises, Promises…

God keeps His promises.  Not just small promises, not just some of them, or some of the time.  God Keeps His Promises!  Every single one.  Every single time.

In this world of failed promises, assumed promises, “campaign” promises, and broken promises, it is almost impossible to believe.  Surely there must be some promise that God has not fulfilled– some promise that he has taken back or “modified” somehow…

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Isn’t there?  There are people who claim to have examples– proof that God cannot be trusted.  They list tragedies that God allowed to happen, or dreams that did not come to fruition.  They list times they could not feel God’s presence, or understand His ways; times He seemed silent or harsh.  Didn’t God promise His unfailing presence?  Didn’t He promise peace and love and joy?

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Good questions–just what DID God promise?  To whom did He promise it?  When?  Were there some promises that were conditional, and, if so, what are the conditions?

  • God’s presence–Jesus said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 ESV)  There are numerous other passages where God says to Israel, or to one of Israel’s leaders, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  The writer of Hebrews echoes this in chapter 13 of his letter as he seeks to encourage early Christians.  This is a solid promise, and one that we can trust.  But we won’t always “feel” God’s presence.  That’s one of the reasons for the promise– to give us an anchor for our faith when our feelings are confused.  God will be with us even (and often especially) when we feel alone, frightened, overwhelmed by our circumstances.  What makes the thought of Hell so frightening is that it falls outside of this promise– at the “end of the age”, there will be a time and place where God’s presence cannot be felt– God will not be there, nor will the essence of God be available.  No love, no peace, no light, no life, no joy, no hope.  Even those who utterly reject God in this life still have access to hopes and dreams, love and goodness, because God is still present in His creation.
  • God’s promises to Israel–God made hundreds of specific promises to the nation of Israel.  Some were made for specific circumstances and times.  Some were made to be eternal and never broken, canceled, revoked, or transferred.  Many promises (including those given through prophecies) were given to specific nations, including Israel/Judah/Judea as it existed at that time.  Others were given to a restored Israel– one that has not yet been completely restored.  Other promises were made to those who are the spiritual heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– regardless of their genetic heritage.  It is very easy to co-opt a promise that isn’t really ours to claim in the context of when or how it was given.
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  • “Circumstantial” or “Personal” promises– God fulfilled certain promises to individuals throughout the Bible.  These are recorded to remind us of God’s faithfulness and His power to bring about miracles.  They are not meant to act as personal promises to us because We want the blessings that God gave to someone else in other circumstances.
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  • “Difficult” promises– Not all God’s promises are ones we want to remember!  God has promised that we will suffer.  He promises that people will hate us, abandon us,  or persecute us on account of our faith.   Death and judgement are stark realities– God has promised that we will face both– and that we can face both without fear!  Jesus himself foretold of natural disasters, war, poverty, disease, injustice, hunger and other difficult circumstances that will continue until His return.
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  • “Victorious” promises– God has promised future restoration and renewal– eternal life, a new Heaven, and a new earth.  But He hasn’t promised easy victory.  He promises Justification, not “just a vacation” by Faith.  When we face struggles, it is not God breaking His promises.  And it is not always because we aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith.  Sometimes, God sends us into the thick of the battle for reasons we don’t understand.  He doesn’t give us the victory we think we deserve or the victory we dream of.  But we can trust that the victory already belongs to Him.

Prayer is more than just a wish or a vague hope– it is trusting my life, my future, my fears, and my heart to the one who can be counted on to listen and to respond.  Always!

Field Day

My husband and I are licensed amateur radio operators.  This weekend, we participated in an exercise/contest known as “Field Day.”  Every year for Field Day, tens of thousands of radio operators across North America spend twenty-four hours trying to make as many radio “contacts” as they can, in conditions that mimic being “in the field” or off-grid.  Many groups, clubs, and even individuals will set up in camp sites, open fields, county fairgrounds, barns, sheds, and other locations.  Some will use their radios on generators, batteries, solar power, or the lowest power settings available.  Some will have campfires and cookouts; others will order in pizza, but all of them will be seeking to make radio contact with people from all over the continent.

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To make an official “contact,” certain key elements have to be exchanged.  Every licensed amateur operator has a “call sign”– a unique identification code.  There is also a “report”, telling how many radio stations are being used by the group, and what kind of conditions and power supplies are being utilized.  Finally, there is a section code, telling where the station is located.  Most codes are similar to the two-letter state codes used for mailing letters, GA for Georgia, CT for Connecticut, BC for British Columbia.  All three elements must be sent, received, and understood by both operators to qualify for a “contact”.  In other words, if I am listening, and I hear an operator in Texas give his call sign, his report code and his section code, it doesn’t count unless I know he has heard my information, and he knows I have his.  Only if both parties have exchanged and verified all information can the contact be “logged” and counted.

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Communicating via radio is an amazing experience, even in this age of cell phones, and Skpye, and social media utilizing satellites.  Knowing that your voice is being carried by the thin air and transmitted to someone across miles using simple machines that use less power than a desk fan or a microwave oven is mind-blowing.  But on Field Day, it is even more miraculous to listen as thousands of voices are carried simultaneously.  The radio hums and crackles with the static of ten thousand tongues all trying to get their message out–“Here I am!”  “Can you hear me?”  “Did you get my message?”  “Where are you?”  “Who are you?”  Letters and numbers and codes all mingle and form a messy barrage of sound.  Voices, beeps, pops, whistles, and more assault your ears, before you can tune into just one understandable voice.  There is a thrill in hearing that lone voice calling out their message..they could be anyone from any number of places.  You get ready to respond, and then you hear it—static of a hundred other stations trying to get through.  All those radio waves carrying the hopes and messages of a hundred or a thousand others just like you, wanting to make contact; wanting to be heard and understood.

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Sometimes, miraculously, you get through on your first try– you send your call sign, and the other operator repeats it back, telling you it’s ok to send the rest of your message and receive his/hers.  The two of you exchange the three elements, sign off, and you can tune to another frequency and try to make another contact.  Most of the time, though, you spend several minutes calling out your ID, hoping to be acknowledged, only to listen as others get to make their contact, waiting your turn.  Even more frustrating, as you wait, sometimes the atmospheric conditions change and the voices all fade out into a low buzz of static– the contact opportunity is lost.  Conditions may change in another minute– or an hour– or not at all.  I may hear from someone in Alaska, or Vermont, but I won’t be able to count them as a contact this year.

Field Day is exciting; sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating.  There is a thrill to making a contact and finding out that you’re talking to someone from Alberta, Canada, or South Florida, or Rhode Island, or the San Joaquin Valley in California.  It’s exciting to make a contact, and realize it’s someone you know from a neighboring county!  We have a logbook program on our computer that “shades in” the various sections as you key in a contact, so our map becomes colorful as the contest period continues, and we tense up to see if we can fill in most of the sections– can we “get” Hawaii?  Nova Scotia?  Wyoming?  South New Jersey?  Will the weather and atmospheric conditions cooperate?  Sometimes a series of thunderstorms or solar flares can break through or distort the radio waves and make it impossible to stay tuned in long enough to send and receive even a short message.  Sometimes, you can make clear contacts with certain regions and not with others, even ones close by– one year, we got zero contacts with a neighboring state, while getting several other regions hundreds of miles away!

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While Field Day is exciting, and it serves as a great way to test and practice with radio equipment in case of a nationwide or region-wide emergency, it is still just an event–a single 24-hour period of making contacts with complete strangers (in most cases) for a couple of minutes.

Prayer is a thousand times more amazing than Field Day for a number of reasons.  Think about it:

  • God is ALWAYS listening–twenty-four hours, seven days a week, every moment, every year of our lives.
  • God is ALWAYS tuned in to our cries– there is no distortion, no static.  He hears millions of cries simultaneously and with perfect clarity.
  • We don’t need a “call sign” or identity code.  God knows each voice intimately..He doesn’t have to ask us to speak louder or more distinctly.  He doesn’t hear an “accent” or lisp, or rasp in our voice.  He doesn’t have to ask us to repeat our request three or four times because He didn’t understand us the first time.
  • We don’t need a section code– God knows where we are better than any GPS system every invented.  We can’t hide from Him, and He isn’t surprised to find out where we are, or where we came from.  He already knows where we are and where we’re going!
  • Our messages can be as personal and as lengthy as we want.  God doesn’t need to “hurry up” to get to the next person’s request, and He wants to hear all our thoughts and needs.
  • Prayer is not an event or a contest– it’s not a practice run–it is an actual conversation with our Loving Father!
  • You don’t need a license, or a radio, an antenna, or a microphone to contact God!
  • We can pray for others anywhere, anytime, for any reason, and God already knows the details– where they are, what their needs are, and what is best in the long run.  Just as He already knows us intimately, He knows the needs of everyone we’ve ever met– and everyone we haven’t met yet!  Some groups will have made upwards of 500 contacts over the course of Field Day– God can make millions in the same moment, and not miss a single one!
  • God doesn’t want to make contact with us to fill a quota for a contest; He doesn’t want to hear from us because it’s thrilling to hear from someone new.  He wants to have a relationship with us– filled with love and trust and hope and joy.  He doesn’t just want a Field Day with us– He wants Eternity!

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Why Ask Why?

I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot lately in regards to this blog.  Why am I spending my time writing about prayer?  Wouldn’t I be better served to spend my time productively– making something useful, keeping the apartment cleaner, going to the gym–even spending more time in prayer instead of dissecting it and babbling on to an invisible audience?

But the truth is that I began writing this blog in response to another question, a more basic question thrown at me (not personally, but thrown out to all who believe in the power of prayer)–  “WHY?”  They weren’t asking the question because they really wanted to know my reasons for praying; instead, they wanted to make me feel ashamed and embarrassed, to doubt God’s goodness and my faith.  In fact, they weren’t asking “WHY” so much as asking “HOW”.  How can you continue to believe in God and continue praying in light of random shootings, manifest injustices, rampant corruption, and senseless tragedies?  How can you say that God is good, when people continue to get away with evil?  If God exists, where is he, and how can you just sit back and trust in him?

The fact that I DO continue to trust God doesn’t mean I don’t have questions and concerns, and even righteous anger about the state of the world and the tragedies that fill it.  The questions come pouring out, sometimes keeping me awake at night, sometimes catching me at a raw moment and they are important questions.  To pretend that I never wrestle or struggle with the questions is to say that good and evil, justice and mercy, that God himself– none of it really matters enough to seek an answer.  God forbid!!

But there is a vast difference in asking “Why?” and asking “How? or How come?”

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Consider a small child who asks, “Why is the sky blue?”  (Don’t you just love the inquisitiveness of small children?)  “Well…” I can explain that the sky itself isn’t really blue…I can go on to talk about scientific principals– the property of light, refraction through water molecules and dust particles, and more..I can point out that the sky doesn’t always appear blue, etc.  At the end of my long and factual discourse (assuming the child hasn’t already interrupted), s/he is likely to simply shake their head and ask, “But, why?”  WHY?  Because I haven’t really answered the heart of the question.  I explained HOW, not WHY.

Now suppose I don’t feel like being pedantic, and I answer “Because.”  You can guess what comes next.  The child will ask, “Because WHY?”  Because “Because” isn’t a sufficiently satisfactory answer.  The child wants more; he/she yearns for more comprehension; more understanding.

As an adult, we find this kind of questioning frustrating and annoying.  I think it is because we have been conditioned to think that questions either have a “How come” explanation that sweeps away much of the wonder and mystery, or a “because” answer that leaves us unsatisfied.

As an adult, I may well ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”  This is an important question; one I should be asking.  Experts can and will give me all kinds of “how” answers– how the brain is wired, how emotions work, how society has failed various groups of people, how political structures create oppression, how religion teaches intolerance, how poor diet or lack of sunny days … there are a million explanation of “how” evil exists or why it persists.  And many of these explanations contradict each other, so they can’t even give a conclusive answer.  But just throwing up my hands, and saying, “just because” does nothing to answer my question OR provide understanding that could help alleviate the effects of evil in the world.  “Because” communicates my powerlessness to comprehend.

BUT

Something amazing happens when I stop merely asking people for answers to these questions and start asking God.  I don’t get a magical, comprehensive, incontrovertible answer to life’s thorny questions.  God doesn’t send me a “cheat sheet” with all the “right” answers.  I’m not suddenly an expert on good and evil or what should be done to eliminate crime and disease and poverty.  I still have to wade through the “how come” explanations and use my limited judgment to decide what course of action I can take to try to make a positive difference.  And I will make some mistakes along the way.  But when GOD says, “Because”, there is an authority, a majesty, and a wisdom that can never be present in my answer.  I say “because,” because I have no more to say; no better answer.  God says, “Because,” because HE IS the cause!  And he gives explanations in his word for many of my questions– even if I don’t like the answers!  He doesn’t explain “how come” the sky is blue– he causes it to be blue.  “Why is the sky blue?”  God says so.  “But why?”  Because He is God and I am not.  God explains “how come” there is evil in the world– it’s called SIN–but he doesn’t leave it there.  “Why?”  Because we have the free will to choose good or evil.  “Why?”  Because God wants willing obedience and loving companionship with us.  “Why?” Because God is love!  “So why does he allow evil to continue?”  Because he has a plan that involves redemption and restoration and renewal.  He is the cause of this plan, it’s author and finisher.  Moreover, he is the cause of my desire to ask “why?”, to seek for a more fulfilling answer, to yearn for a solution to the very evil that prompts my questions.

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I won’t stop asking “why.”  Not because I don’t have any answer, or because I don’t know the answer.  It’s just that the answer is so much bigger, so much better, so much MORE than I can handle in the shortness of this lifetime.  And it’s important that I not only keep asking the question, but that I keep defending the answer.

 

1 Peter 3:14-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

 

Perfect Peace

I know several people (myself included) who are facing stressful situations on a daily basis– some are fighting cancer, some are caring for aging parents, some have rebellious teens, some have lost jobs or are in danger of losing their home, some are fighting depression or addiction, others have lost close family members–some are facing multiple stressors every day.

Stress is a killer and a thief.  It robs us of energy, time, and focus.  And it isolates us– as we focus on our stressful surroundings, they begin to close in on us, hemming us in and keeping others out.  We long to be stress-free–sitting on a beach or lying in a hammock  or on a chaise without a care in the world– no worries, just peace.  And we pray for it.

But peace isn’t the absence of stressful circumstances.  I once met a man who was, in fact, lying on a chaise by a poolside, a sandy beach less than 100 feet away– palm trees and gentle breezes relieving the searing heat, icy drinks available at a whim.   He had nothing to do but soak in the heat and sea air, relax, and enjoy his day.  He had all the time and money he needed to find perfect peace– but he didn’t have it.  He was bored, and restless, and dissatisfied with life.  He couldn’t lie still, and he found no wonder in all the beauty and peace all around him.

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Peace doesn’t come by denying stressful circumstances, or running away from them, either.  Ask the next three people you meet how they are doing, and they will likely answer, “I’m fine.”  We know they’re not really “fine”– they know that we know they’re not “fine,” yet neither of us tells or demands to know the truth.  Stress isn’t contagious, but we avoid sharing it.  I don’t want to hear about your stress, in case it reminds me of my own; you don’t want to share your stress in case I judge you as being weak or whiny.  We learn from others around us that “success sells.”  “Fake it until you make it,” as some would say.

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We can’t get peace by any means in our own power– we can’t manufacture it, legislate it, demand it, buy it, trade for it, or wish it into being.  In fact, the more we try to chase after it, the more elusive it becomes.  Peace is a by-product of faith and trust– the result of a relationship in which circumstances are not borne or understood only by us, but shared with someone all-wise and all-powerful.  Our circumstances don’t need to disappear, but we must believe that they are not insurmountable or permanent, and that we are not forgotten in the midst of them.

Peace comes from knowing and sharing with the Prince of Peace.  He doesn’t take away our circumstances (though he can, and sometimes will remove some of our stressors–even against our will).  Most of the time, Jesus will take away our blinders, instead.  He will turn our focus away from our own pain, loss, frustration, or confusion, and allow us to see Him working around us, in us, through us, in ways that put things back in perspective.

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The peaceful scene I described above– the beach, the pool, the gentle breezes– I was in the same location, and enjoying every minute of it.  This in spite of numerous bug bites, an almost certain case of sun burn, and a very short time before I had to return to the snowy Midwest, and the normal stresses of my ordinary life.  But, while I knew they were waiting for me, I wasn’t concentrating on them.  And even while I enjoyed the beauty of the beach, I wasn’t focused on the sun or the sand, or my tan/burn progress.  I was enjoying the memory of working with rescued children, of meeting amazing foster parents and missionaries, and of seeing what God was doing to heal and bring peace to lives that had been ravaged.  I was seeing in the beauty of my short stay at the resort the promise of what God has in store for me throughout eternity.  THAT will be perfect peace– not shortened by time, not diminished by restlessness or dissatisfaction, or denial.

Puzzling Prayers

Have you ever had one of those days where things just don’t seem to make sense?  It doesn’t have to be a “bad” day, necessarily–just a day when things don’t seem to “fit.”  I had one of those days yesterday.

I journal my prayer life– I have notebooks with names and places for each day of the year.  Yesterday, my notebook included the city where my daughter lives and the names of three people celebrating birthdays, among other needs.  One of the names was a complete mystery to me.  I couldn’t remember who this person was, or how I knew either her or her name…I was drawing a blank and didn’t know how I should pray for her.  Was she a former classmate? Was she a daughter or mother or sister of someone I knew better?  I ended up praying a very general prayer– for her health, her family, etc., but it bothered me.

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Hours later, speaking with someone on the phone, another name came up, along with a prayer request– a man suffering with an illness who happened to have the same surname.  Coincidence?  Possibly, but the name stood out, and I prayed again– for both.  Now I was really curious.  I did some digging.  The first person WAS the sister of someone I knew, and their father is the one suffering from an illness.

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God is amazing, and one way is how he gives us the opportunity for “a-ha!” moments like the one I had yesterday.  I have spoken to several Christians who are sometimes separated by several time zones from those they normally call on for help or advice.  In crisis moments, they have cried out to God.  Thousands of miles away, someone will be awakened from a sound sleep with a sudden urge to pray for their distant friend, or another will be stopped in their tracks and send up a random prayer as their mind wanders.  Often, this will be in the exact moment of the crisis, and God will intervene with a miraculous healing or rescue or provision.  Days later, the two parties will connect and be astonished at the timing.

What used to puzzle me about such prayers was this– if God already knows the need, and plans to act, why involve the second (or third) party?  Because stories like this, while impressive and inspiring for those who believe, rarely cause a skeptic to come to faith, and aren’t necessary for those who already believe.

I think God has many answers, and I know I don’t have all of them, but here are three things I believe God is doing through such puzzling circumstances and outcomes:

  • While it doesn’t turn a skeptic into a believer, it DOES give the skeptic something to explain away– one such instance might be ignored as coincidence, but five?  two hundred?  And we have a Biblical precedent in the book of Acts, chapter 12, when Peter is rescued from prison and shows up at the very house where believers are praying for his release!  Even they didn’t believe at first, and left Peter out in the cold!
  • It IS an inspiration and an encouragement as a follower of Christ to know that he not only hears our prayers, but he recruits others to think about us, bear our burdens, and share in our trials.
  • Last (on my short list; I’m sure God has many other wonderful answers I haven’t imagined yet), I believe that God’s purpose for us involves communion– eternally living, sharing, and loving together with Him and with each other.  It is one of the highest honors and greatest privileges to be involved in God’s work through prayer…it is something we all can do, anywhere, anytime, but it requires being humble and willing to stop what we’re doing, commit our moments and our hearts in prayer for others (sometimes without knowing why!), and trust God to do all that we cannot.

Prayer sometimes seems puzzling, but that’s because we don’t see all the answers– yet.  Someday, what a marvelous and miraculous picture will unfold– and we have the opportunity to fill in the gap; to be the answer to 34-down; to be the missing piece of the pine tree in the upper right corner– to answer the call and finish the puzzle!

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The Smallest Detail

Have you ever looked at a series of pictures that “zoom” in or out (or both)?  Something that seems “normal” in size suddenly becomes a tiny detail in a much larger picture.  Or one tiny detail grows large enough to show intricacies hitherto unseen.  It is mind-blowing to think of how many details there are in God’s universe–little things that go unnoticed and unappreciated every day.  But not by God.  God knows and cares about every single detail– from the  individual hairs on your head, to the variations and whorls of each of your fingerprints; from the gradations of colors in each moment of each sunrise, to the exact air temperature in each square foot of atmosphere around the world; from the wings of every butterfly to the fins of every fish– nothing escapes his notice or falls through the cracks.

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We can pray with confidence that God hears every word we say, and knows the thoughts we can’t even put into words.  I believe God loves to hear all our details.  He loves listening to us, because of his great love for us.  He wants us to hold nothing back.  This is especially true when we pour out our deepest delights and our most pressing burdens.  He wants to share them with us– to double our joy, and shoulder our pain.sea-nature-animals-fish.jpg

I was reminded about God’s attention to detail while reading His word this morning.  I was reading through one of the books of history (II Kings) in which the various kings of Israel and Judah are listed, along with short accounts of “what happened” during their reigns–some kings are given several paragraphs or a couple of chapters;  others merely a sentence or two.  In the midst of all this, there is a curious reference in II Kings 14:25.  King Jeroboam II of Israel is accounted a generally wicked king, but he did restore some of the ancient boundaries of the country, “in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher”– that’s right, THAT Jonah– the one of the giant fish and the adventure in Ninevah (see Paltry Prayer ).  How many times have I read the story of Jonah, and passed right over this reference to him in another book!  The Bible is full of such hidden hints and corroborating details.  I believe that God put them there to remind us of his great attention to detail.  The God who lists genealogies throughout his word— long lists of otherwise forgotten names;  the one who makes a point of listing palace guards and minor officials, and builders and temple workers–this God sees ME!  He sees YOU!  He hears us when we call.  He knows all of our quirks and idiosyncrasies– and loves each unique detail of our makeup.

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