My husband has celebrated his birthday this week, and it reminded me of some of the many ways we celebrate life. Before a baby is even born, we share special moments of excitement–sonograms, gender reveal parties, baby showers, picking out names, feeling little “kicks” and movements in the womb. We give gifts and blessings when the baby arrives. We take baby photos and commemorate all the “firsts”– first tooth, first steps, first words, etc. And each year, we remember. We send cards and other birthday greetings; we give gifts and have parties with special cakes and songs and party hats. We invite others to celebrate, as well.
Not everyone celebrates birthdays, and some people make a mockery of their advancing age, but most of us think birthdays are a big deal, and worth celebrating. LIFE is a big deal. Life is a sacred gift, and we should cherish every moment of it. We celebrate the events of life– achievements, milestones, graduations, new jobs, promotions, relocations, marriages, anniversaries, retirements, and much more. Celebrating life is an industry– cards, balloons, T-shirts, reception halls, catering, special clothing (wedding dresses, tuxes, caps and gowns, etc.), special foods, party favors, confetti, gift items– we spend a lot of time, energy, money, and even “life” celebrating our lives.
And we also celebrate life at its end. Even as we grieve the loss of loved ones, we seek to memorialize their lives. We hold funerals, publish obituaries and memorials, erect tombstones, build monuments, and write tributes and biographies. We celebrate the achievements, memories, and legacies of those who pass on. Their lives mattered. They don’t cease to matter when death comes. For the Christian, there is a special reason to celebrate the end of life– because it is NOT the end! Imagine the celebration of Life that will never end–the celebration of eternity with the Author, Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life!
Many people have wished my husband an happy birthday this week, and they’ve offered prayers and good wishes. Today, I will be praying for many people who are celebrating a birthday. I will offer up a thanksgiving for their life, and celebrate the One who created each unique person on today’s list.
We’re going through a journey that has focused on worldwide death– fear of death and disease, despair, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of death around us, but we mustn’t let it overwhelm the life that is within us. Life is worth celebrating–ALWAYS!
It’s Football season again here in the U.S. (American Football, that is). High Schools and colleges across the country are having “homecoming” festivities, as their teams return “home” after playing games on the road. Elaborate floats, dress-up days, pep rallies, parades, ceremonies, homecoming princes and princesses, dances, tailgate parties..homecoming is a big deal. There is something about the idea of returning home that captures our emotions and brings out joy and excitement.
One of the most famous of Jesus’ parables involved a son who comes home after living a life of dissipation, folly, and dishonor. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+15%3A11-32&version=NIV. As he is making his way home, but is still “a long way off,” his father sees, him, has compassion on him, and runs to meet him and welcome him. He then commands that clothes should be brought, and a feast prepared to welcome his son back home.
What a beautiful picture of God’s love for us–it overcomes shame and disgrace, dishonor, and ruin. God watches for us to change directions and seek His face. But He doesn’t demand that we crawl home in defeat and beg Him to take us back. He runs to meet us with joy and excitement even greater than all the parades and floats and dances of any homecoming celebration. All of Heaven rejoices over every one who comes to repentance!
But there are two sons in this story. The “other” son does not want to join in the celebration– he is resentful and bitter over his brother’s behavior and his father’s willingness to celebrate. We do not get to know all the reasons why he might be resentful, but his father gently reminds him that he is loved and secure, and still has his inheritance. The return of the brother doesn’t change any of that.
In prayer, we should remember this parable and some of the lessons it can teach. Let’s ask ourselves:
Am I making some of the same mistakes as the “prodigal son?” Am I running away from “home” and God in selfish pursuits? Am I asking God for an “advance” on my inheritance–wanting blessings and rewards before God’s time or outside of God’s will? Am I wasting time or resources or talents that God has given me? Am I stubbornly refusing to return home, even when it’s obvious that “my” way isn’t working? Do I think I need to work my way back to God by bargaining my good works?
Am I making some of the mistakes of the “other” brother? Do I resent God’s mercy toward people I think of as “unworthy?” Do I refuse to celebrate and welcome my brothers or sisters who have come “home?” Do I blame God for “withholding” blessings, even though I never sought them? Do I doubt God’s love for me because my life story isn’t dramatic or filled with miraculous demonstrations of grace (apart from the ultimate miracle of the Crucifixion and Resurrection!!!)
Am I watching and running with the Father to welcome others “home?” Am I joining in the Homecoming festivities for those who are being rescued from ruin and death? Am I filled with joy and excitement about the Gospel?
Am I anticipating the ultimate “Homecoming” –the indescribable joy of spending eternity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all the saints in Glory?
Lord, help me to see the faces of my neighbors and friends, and enemies, and even strangers, as you do–help me to delight in their redemption, ready to celebrate and share in the joy; help me to search for them, run to them, and lead them to You! And help me to never take for granted the amazing love you have for me–even me!
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, Calling for you and for me; See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching, Watching for you and for me.
Refrain: Come home, come home, You who are weary, come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!
Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading, Pleading for you and for me? Why should we linger and heed not His mercies, Mercies for you and for me?
Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing, Passing from you and from me; Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming, Coming for you and for me.
Oh, for the wonderful love He has promised, Promised for you and for me! Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon, Pardon for you and for me.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.