When God Uses a “Wasted” Opportunity

God’s ways are NOT our ways. And often, we can become discouraged by things that have happened in our past or things that seem like obstacles in the present. But our vision is limited by both time and space. We can’t see things from the outside looking in, and we can’t see things unfolding before they happen. Instead, we use our imagination, which can give us a vision that is wildly out of perspective.

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Take the case of Jonah (see Jonah 1-4). Jonah was given a clear mission from God– go to the great city of Nineveh and give them a message of judgment. Jonah could not “see” the outcome, but he could imagine a lot of things that made him run in the opposite direction! Nineveh was the capital city of his arch-enemies. The Assyrian armies had swept through Jonah’s land, and had very likely killed several of his family members. They were notoriously violent and Jonah must have presumed that there would be great danger involved in traveling into Nineveh, let alone proclaiming a message of certain doom!

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Jonah didn’t just ignore God’s command– he went as far as he could in the opposite direction. He wasted the opportunity to see what God had planned, choosing instead to run away. He boarded a ship for Tarshish. He probably thought that God would have to use someone else, or that He would bring judgment upon Nineveh without any warning. At least he, Jonah, would be safe. But God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. God brought a fierce storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors were terrified, but Jonah felt the weight of his guilt. He told the sailors to throw him into the sea, and God would save them from the storm. Though the sailors probably felt they were sending Jonah to his doom, they obeyed. And they were amazed as the storm disappeared! Nothing about Jonah’s words or actions caused these sailors to see God’s glory, but see it, they did. And they worshipped

Jonah missed the opportunity to see how God worked “around” him to amaze the sailors– instead, he got another lesson in how God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. Jonah may have expected to drown, but God sent a big fish to swallow him, instead. Jonah spent three days inside the fish, being saved from the icy waters of the sea, and transported back to land, where the obedient fish “spit” him out onto the shore.

God did not find someone else to send the message. God did not change His plans. God simply changed Jonah’s situation and gave him a second chance. This time, Jonah obeyed. And God performed another miracle. Instead of killing Jonah or ignoring his warning message from the Lord, the Ninevites believed. And they repented– from the King down to the lowest citizen. God relented and showed mercy in the face of such repentance. Jonah had the opportunity to see God’s mercy and wisdom.

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But Jonah wasted this opportunity, as well. Instead of seeing the gracious hand of God at work to change the hearts of his enemies, Jonah only saw that God had not acted with vengeance and harsh judgment. (Later, when the Ninevites returned to their old ways of life, God DID send destruction, but Jonah missed that, too.) In fact, Jonah was angry with God, and threw a temper tantrum as the Ninevites celebrated God’s kindness and mercy. Jonah was a prophet– he very likely had a long career doing God’s work. He probably had many successes, but the Biblical account we have of him tells only of his failure. In spite of that, we can see in the story of Jonah how God can use even failure to bring salvation and redemption to the lost. God’s ways are not our ways!

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Today, I want to be encouraged by Jonah’s story. So often, I get bogged down in the mistakes of my past–missed opportunities and failures, things left unsaid, or actions that can’t be undone. It is important that we acknowledge our sins and mistakes; that we do what we can to make amends, and that we repent. But we must also acknowledge God’s power to make all things work together for good (Romans 8:28) and remember that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6) Know too, that God knows the plans He has for you (Jeremiah 29:11) even though you and I cannot see the end of the story. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); they are higher and Holier. His wisdom and power are infinite, and His plans are ultimately for our Good.

“Wasted” opportunities need not lead to years of guilt and self-torture. Instead, they should be learning experiences that lead us to greater faith, quicker obedience, and greater joy!

Sometimes, It’s the Little Things…

The other day started out frustrating. I went to the pharmacy to drop off a medicine container for a refill. There was a line. The man in front of me had a dozen questions, and demanded to speak to a specific staff member. By the time I reached the front of the line, I felt as though I was already running late for the rest of the day. I said I would pick up the refill later in the day as I didn’t have time to wait. Then, I went to buy a birthday card for my nephew. When I went to check out, there was no one at the regular counter– I had to use the self-check machine. It asked if I had a “rewards member” number. I entered it, but the machine didn’t register the number. A staff member (who could have checked me out at the regular counter!) helped me re-enter the number. Instead of discounting the price of the card, the machine ADDED to the amount, “rounding up” for a particular charity. I asked the staff member why this happened, and she said that I must have agreed to round up my total. I said, “No,” I hadn’t done so, but she said I must have done so some time in the past, and the machine automatically rounds up every time I make a purchase.

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It’s not that I want to be parsimonious–I like to think I am a generous person. But if I hadn’t typed in my “reward member” number, I would have saved a little money. To be more exact, I would have saved three cents! Now I know that sounds really petty, but sometimes, it’s the little things that really sting. After waiting (not all that patiently) at the pharmacy, this hidden consequence of a past act of generosity, coupled with the inconvenience of using the self-check, really made me angry.

I am reminded of a story in the book of 2 Kings 5 about a man called Naaman. Naaman was the commander of the Syrian army under the powerful king Ben-Hadad. But Naaman had a big problem. He had contracted leprosy. Not only would leprosy destroy his skin and extremities, but it would make him an outcast and a pariah, and ruin his legacy. When he heard that there was a prophet from Israel who could heal him, he pulled out all the stops and went to see him. But Elisha did not come to the door. Instead, he sent Naaman instructions through his servant, and told him to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

Naaman felt insulted and infuriated. Why? It was such a simple solution– no drastic diet, no expensive and painful treatments–just take a bath in the river! But the Jordan River was considered dirty. That’s where the poor and destitute bathed, and where animals drank. Naaman almost lost his opportunity to be cured through pride over such a little thing. Thankfully, he was talked into doing what Elisha had asked, and he was completely healed. He was so grateful, that he asked for some dirt (!) so he could build an altar to the God of Israel who had provided his healing!

So often, God uses the little things to point out what really matters. After my less-than-gracious reaction to a couple of minor inconveniences, I had to step back and take a look at my morning from God’s perspective. The line of people at the pharmacy all had needs, and, like the man ahead of me with questions, each one had a right to service. It wasn’t their fault I was impatient or feeling “late”– and, it turned out, I wasn’t really behind schedule after all. I just didn’t like waiting! And my anger over the self-check machine was out of proportion. I still found a birthday card for my nephew, and I had the ability to go to the store, pick out the card, pay for the card, and I got to spend time with my nephew later that day. And some worthy charity got a whopping three cents!

Sometimes we fail to see the importance of the “little” things in life. And we allow “little” problems to grow all out of proportion. We allow petty injustices to fester; we withhold forgiveness; we get angry over perceived slights, and hand on to pride or envy. We forget to lift up “little” burdens and requests; we are blind to the “ordinary” blessings that fill our lives; we lose opportunities to do the simple things that can help others–a smile, a word of encouragement, a helping hand–we miss out on the miracles that hide among the “little” inconveniences of our day.

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My prayer today is that God will open our eyes to the “little” things in our lives– opportunities, mercies, blessings in disguise– and that we, like Naaman, will find healing and joy where we least expect it!

For more on Naaman, you can check out these links: https://www.logos.com/grow/important-detail-forget-story-naaman/ https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/tackling-the-sickness-of-pride-like-naaman.html

Of Lighthouses, Watchtowers, and “Friendly” Reminders…

I live just about an hour away from one of the Great Lakes. Within a comfortable driving distance, there are at least three beautiful lighthouses along the lake. Driving to or from the lighthouses, we pass through an area known as the “Fruit Belt.” Orchards, vineyards, and croplands are bursting this time of year–the very air is redolent with the smell of ripening apples, grapes, corn, beans, berries, wheat, and more. Some of the orchards and vineyards still have old watchtowers, though many have been removed or replaced with digital cameras.

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Lighthouses and watchtowers serve a purpose– one that is still important today. Lighthouses help ships and other lake traffic avoid dangerous reefs and rocks along the shore, as well as sandbars. They guide travelers in the dark, and through storms. Watchmen in towers protect crops from dangers such as fire and predators. They watch for storms, and signs of draught and frost. Both lighthouses and watchtowers are fixed, steady, visible, and convey safety and security.

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I’ve been reading through the prophets lately– Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…the prophets were sending out a warning to the rebellious people of Israel and Judah. Even though the imagery is often graphic and stark, the message was one of steady love and warning from God. God loves us enough to guide us through the rocks and perils of life. He sends warnings– not to harm us but to keep us from harm. He sends faithful friends and other messengers to stand firm with us through the storm and drought and danger around us.

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Just like the light from the lighthouse, or the sound of a foghorn, the message may be glaring and unpleasant, sometimes. We may be sailing along with no notion of the rocks ahead. Or we may be strolling through the vineyard, unaware of a prowling animal or a fire just over the next rise. We may even resent the warnings we read in the Bible or hear from friends. We may be afraid to BE the one giving out the warning– afraid of being misunderstood or resented or even rejected.

God asks us to be watchmen– to be lighthouses– ready to shout out a warning to those who may be in danger. He also asks us to be vigilant and ready to heed the warnings He sends through others.

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How do we know when “friendly” reminders and warnings are true? How can we be sure that they are not just petty criticism or overreactions?

Check them against Scripture. And check them in the context of Scripture. A single verse, taken out of context, that seems to contradict other passages should always be suspect. But a general principle, found throughout the Old and New Testaments should be heeded.

Look for consistency. Lighthouses and watchtowers don’t bend and sway with the winds of change. “Warnings” that change with circumstances, or seem relative to certain situations should be suspect.

Listen for (and speak with) Love. Friends may speak words of warning, but they will also speak of mercy and hope.

Listen for (and speak) truth–warnings should contain specifics, rather than vague fears or blanket accusations.

Listen (and speak) with humility. That doesn’t mean that we cannot speak in our defense, but we should not be defensive or resentful– even if the warnings are spurious. Remember, Jesus was accused of being “from Satan” during His own ministry, yet He answered firmly and gently, not with anger or hatred.

Give Thanks! Give thanks that God sends us warnings, and gives us opportunities to recognize danger and error, and opportunities to repent and change course, and encourage others to do the same!

Interrupted Prayer

I sat down to pray this morning.
My phone rang.
Somewhere a dog barked.
I suddenly remembered I had to swap out the laundry.
I got distracted by the breakfast dishes…

And yet..

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My call was from someone I love– someone I was going to pray for anyway.
The dog probably belonged to my neighbor– someone else to lift up in prayer.
Which reminds me of the woman at church who just lost her beloved pet…
I hung up my new sweater; a gift from my husband. How blessed I am!
Our dryer is old, but it still works– another blessing.
And the dishes–well, we had food to eat this morning.
But they can wait until I finish spending time on my knees.

Prayers, like life, get interrupted. But we can see those interruptions as excuses or opportunities.

The Privilege of Prayer

Pursing prayer sometimes leads to taking prayer for granted. Prayer becomes a habit; a daily activity; even a task to check off the list. But prayer is so much more. Prayer is a lifeline; a divine mystery. I can’t explain how prayer “works.” But I know from experience that it transcends the words I speak and the emotions I feel as I pray. I’m not praying to “a higher power” or an abstract “spiritual being.” I pray to the One who created me, and the One who loves me more than I can even comprehend.

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More than that, I am praying to the One who oversees the universe, and all the inhabitants thereof. There is something powerful and mysterious about prayer. I was reminded of that just recently, when I asked for prayer for my mother, who fell and injured herself. She is 88 years old, and very frail. She is also beloved by many in her family and community. Within minutes of posting a very general request for prayer, several dozen people had responded– some with a simple message of “praying” or “sending prayers.” The next day, I was more specific, and again, dozens of people responded within minutes– “praying for your mother,” “prayers for healing,” etc.. Suddenly my prayers became more confident and hopeful. And I was reminded of all the prayers I lift up each day–those “daily prayers” that sometimes seem like little tasks. They are unique, personal, and important– not just to me, but to many others.

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I shared recently about praying for others’ requests. This is also a privilege. In a mysterious and divine way, when we pray for others we join in God’s work of bringing hope, healing, and love to others. I can pray for others (and they can pray for me) regardless of where I am, or what my situation may be. I cannot always DO something, or BE somewhere. I can always pray. And where I can act, prayer often sharpens and directs my actions to be more effective.

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If you’ve ever tried to help in the aftermath of a disaster (as a member of the general public and not an emergency worker or someone deployed to help), you know it can be frustrating. If you’ve ever been caught in a disaster zone, you know it can be frightening AND frustrating. People do their best to help and offer hope, but in times of chaos and lack of communication, people can be left behind and resources can be misdirected or spoiled before they can get to those who need them most. Prayer never gets misdirected. It never goes unanswered or forgotten; it is never a wasted effort. God is faithful. His ways may be difficult for us to understand, but they are not warped, doomed, or limited in any way.

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There is great comfort in that reality. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of how powerful and necessary our prayers are. God loves to hear them. He loves to answer them. He loves to use them for His glory and our wholeness. What a privilege to carry EVERYTHING to God in prayer!

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