This morning, I woke up. I took a breath of clean air. I opened my eyes. I heard my clock ticking. I took another breath. Thank You!
This morning, I woke up inside– protected from the rain and wind and cold. I woke up in a bed. I woke up with blankets for my body and a pillow for my head. I woke up, and moved my head, my hands and feet, arms and legs. I sat up and wiggled my toes. Thank You!
This morning, I woke up to hear my husband’s breathing. I woke up to the knowledge that I am not alone. I woke up to the knowledge that I am loved. I felt safe and comforted. Thank You!
This morning, I woke up knowing that even if I had none of the things I just mentioned, that I still have reasons to Thank You– Things I take for granted; things I haven’t even noticed; things I have not yet seen. Thank You for who You are. Thank You for Your Faithfulness; Your Majesty; Your Sovereignty. Thank You for the beauty of sunsets and snowflakes; for the seasons and the centuries; for family and friends; for triumphs and even for the tears that sometimes come my way. Thank You that you are greater, and deeper, more powerful and more tender than all that I know or imagine.
For many, this Christmas will be bittersweet– we have suffered greatly; some of us are still reeling from loss and grief. Others are living with fear and confusion about the future. In many ways, our situation is not so different from that first Christmas in Bethlehem. We feel “taxed” by events and circumstances. The world seems dark and dreary and cold. More than ever, we need to listen for the song of the Angels– for “good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
And, maybe more than ever in our lifetime, we need to be like the shepherds–eager to seek out the gift of the newborn Savior; Eager to embrace the wonder of Emmanuel; eager to share the hope we find at the manger. Hallelujah! Unto US a child is given; unto US a son is born! (Isaiah 9:6)
I’ve been writing a lot about Advent and Christmas lately, rather than focusing on Pursuing Prayer. But they are part of the same whole. I pursue a life of prayer precisely because Jesus came in the flesh and lived and died and rose again. I believe in the power of prayer because Jesus modeled how to pray– even as He faced betrayal and death. I believe in the gift of prayer because Jesus prayed for me long before I was ever born (see John 17). I pursue prayer with confidence because Jesus keeps His promises.
Have you ever thought that right now, somewhere in the world, someone is singing praises to God? Someone is praying somewhere in the world at every moment of every day. There is not a solitary silent moment in the universe, where God is not receiving the worship He deserves. In fact, Jesus told some angry Pharisees, when they asked Him to rebuke the people of Jerusalem, that if they (the people who were shouting praises) were to be silent, the very rocks would cry out! (See Luke 19: 37-40)
In fact, “the whole earth is full of His Glory” (Isaiah 6:3). From the smallest insect to the giant creatures in the seas; from the smallest of dust motes to the stars in the galaxies, all of creation sings, shouts, shines, and testifies to the Majesty of God.
We don’t hear this constant praise. Nor do we smell the aroma of constant prayers that rise up “like incense” to the throne of Heaven. But our prayer should be that Jesus would be as close as our every thought, word, and action throughout the day; that in everything we think, say, and do, we would be participating in the eternal and glorious worship of the One who is worthy. And that our prayers and praise would blend in harmony with all the others in the great “Song of the Redeemed.”
Prayer and praise should not be a single activity undertaken for a minute or even an hour a day. It should be as natural as breathing or blinking. And while we are in the flesh, and may not physically “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) we can ask God to “take our moments and our days–let them flow in ceaseless praise!”
5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
James 3:5-10 NIV via biblegateway.com (emphasis added)
‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’
Epictetus (Greek philosopher)
Have you ever made a tape of you speaking, and played it back to listen to yourself? Or have you had someone remind you of what you said earlier in the day or week? Have you been astonished to hear what came out of your mouth (or how someone else interpreted your words)? James, the brother of Jesus, had much to say about the dangerous power of an untamed tongue. “Fire”, “poison”, “corrupt”, “restless”, “evil”, and “deadly” are harsh words, but we should heed James’ warning.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing… Out of the same mouth come worship and complaining… Out of the same mouth come encouragement and gossip… Out of the same mouth come blessings and bitterness… Out of the same mouth come hymns of heaven and threats of hell…
And it’s not just our mouths, anymore. I see (and have seen it in my own feeds) posts on social media that make me wonder if the person posting is aware of what they posted just minutes or hours before–rants and boasts, complaints and smug condemnation sprinkled with Bible verses about Peace and Love, and pictures of puppies. We copy and paste, write and speak “in the moment” out of the emotions and thoughts that we allow to govern us. And while we may forget our momentary outbursts and random sarcastic comments, others do not. God does not ignore them, either. He can and will forgive them, but He isn’t “fooled” by our gracious cover-ups and flowery quote boxes.
When I pray today, I need to “listen” to what I’ve been saying lately. Do I need to deal with hidden anger or resentment? Do I need to confess (both to God and to someone else) about gossip? Do I need to reconsider the way I speak about my relationships and my achievements (and failures!)?
The same mouth that praises God should be speaking life, peace, healing, and hope to those around me. The same mouth that promises to follow Christ, should promise to reach out to those for whom He died. The same mouth that gives thanks for Salvation should be eager to share the Good News.
The tongue is powerful–whether as a weapon or a tool; whether controlled or out of control. God wants to teach us to use it as a tool for good. Not just when we pray, or worship, but every time we use it!
This has been a week full of distress.. My husband and I got our second COVID vaccine (even though we recovered from the virus earlier this year), and spent a day bedridden with fever, chills, and body aches. But we recovered. I got word that my great-nephew broke his arm. Someone I know had to take her daughter to the emergency room–Again–with a serious infection. Another couple delivered a stillborn son. Yet another delivered a tiny, premature little girl. Another woman is back in the hospital, and another friend is off work with a lingering illness that remains undiagnosed. And that is just a list of health issues!
It has been said that when we are in distress– especially with bedridden illness– we are forced to look up. And this gives us the impetus to call out to God. Not everyone will do so. And some will call out in anger or bitterness. But the Psalmist David used his distress to call out to God for help. In Psalm 18:6 he says: “In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.”(ESV via bibleref.com) David’s distress was not from illness, but from being hemmed in by King Saul, who had closed in and had David trapped and seemingly helpless–first in a walled city, then twice in the wilderness. (1 Samuel 23) Three times, David’s situation seemed hopeless, and three times, he was rescued from capture and death.
It is tempting to look out at our circumstances, and lose hope. Even when we know that God hears us and loves us, sometimes his answers are not what we expect. David called out to God, yet he had to face his enemy three times before Saul abandoned his hunt (temporarily!) My husband and I recovered quickly from our reaction earlier this week, but we faced the pain and symptoms three times– during the actual illness, and, less severely with each dose of the vaccine. My nephew will have to be in a cast most of the summer. The tiny baby will be in the neonatal ICU for several weeks, if she survives. Her family will be waiting and worrying and praying. Yet, God DID deliver David in a miraculous way; He brought my husband through a severe case of COVID that involved a stay in the hospital and a related case of pneumonia; He gave life to this precious little baby; He is bringing peace to the family that lost their precious little boy. His timing may not be ours; His ways are not our ways. But God’s ears are always open, and His ways are always good, and His wisdom is perfect.
Distress can make us impatient and cause us to doubt Our Father’s care. But when we remember God’s faithfulness in the past– both toward us and those we love–we can find the strength to wait and even praise God in the struggle.
Last week about this time, I was miserable. Feverish, achy, somewhat nauseous, and doubting my own sanity. I had chosen, along with my husband, to get the COVID vaccine– even though we already had the disease earlier this year! We should have a built-up immunity, and medically, there is no compelling reason to get the vaccine and take the risk of suffering all the symptoms I suffered last week.
Fever and pain have a way of making people cranky, impatient, and rebellious. Especially when they come as a result of trying to do “the right thing.” I was reminded of the Biblical character of Job, who suffered intense pain and suffering through no fault of his own. While my suffering was nothing compared to his– or to many of those who have suffered worse from COVID than I did– it brought some of the same thoughts and complaints. “What did I do to deserve this?” “Why me?” “Don’t you care about my suffering?” “How much longer must I be in pain?” “Wouldn’t it be better if I could just escape this fever and achiness?”
Most of us are not “good patients.” No one likes to suffer, even for a short while. And it can be easy to let our pain determine our prayer life. Our focus narrows to our own circumstances, and how we wish them to change. We tend to go to God with indignation–how could He let us suffer like this?! And yet, even in his indignation and self-centered moaning, Job never lost sight of God’s essential goodness and justice.
Job’s friends started out with a sincere desire to offer help and comfort. They heard of his sufferings, left their homes and traveled to visit and comfort their friend. When they arrived, they wept, tore their clothes, and sat, silent and supportive, for seven whole days! (Job 2:11-13) This is in contrast to Job’s embittered wife, who told him to “curse God, and die!” There is no other mention of her throughout all of Job’s suffering–which may have been one of the unheralded mercies of God!
Job’s conversation with his friends may not sound much like prayer, but we see into Job’s heart and mind through these conversations. As his friends remind Job that God is Just, and that He punishes those who are wicked and rebellious, Job defends himself. But he also defends God–God IS Just; but He is also merciful and loving. What is happening to Job is not consistent with all that Job has experienced of God. In fact, it seems capricious and unfair. Job’s confusion and his questioning are not only coming from his pain and suffering, but from his surprise at God’s silence and seeming absence. Job’s friends see Job’s circumstances as confirmation of his sin. But though Job is confused by sudden change of circumstances, he is convinced that God will continue to be Just– that He will hear Job’s complaint, even if He has decided against Job for reasons Job may never understand. In fact, Job is still convinced of God’s goodness, declaring that “I know my redeemer lives…I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me..” (Job 19:25-27), and that “the fear of the Lord–that is wisdom”(Job 28:28)
When we face the “ash heap” of despair, pain, grief, and doubt, whether we are isolated or surrounded by well-meaning friends, we have a choice in our response. We can praise God from the ashes, we can bring Him our doubts and questions. Or we can “curse God and die”– choosing to see only our circumstances and losing sight of who God is (and always has been).
The same God who brought David and I through our bout with COVID brought us through last week’s reaction to the vaccine. He is the same God who has comforted families who lost loved ones to this disease, and who has kept still others healthy throughout this crisis. I don’t know why or how we got sick back in February; I don’t know why I had such a bad reaction last week. I don’t know what the future holds, or what other pains and struggles we may face in the weeks and months ahead. The same God who finally appeared to Job–even though He never answered Job’s questions!–is the same God who holds the universe in His hand. He is the same God who never lost sight of Job. He is the same God who parted the Red Sea, healed lepers and kings, raised the dead, and promises everlasting life with Him.
So I may not know what troubles I will face tomorrow, and I may not have the answers to all my questions. But, like Job, I know that my redeemer lives! I know that whatever happens, God will remain Faithful, Good, Just, and Holy. And one day, “I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me”!
I’ve been reading through the books of Genesis lately, and I was struck anew by the story of the Flood. God caused it to rain for 40 days and 40 nights, and the floods raged for 150 days (See Genesis 7). But the description of the flood does not focus only on rain– instead, it talks about God opening the “springs of the great deep and the floodgates of Heaven” (v. 11).
There are some who argue that before this time, there had been no rain on the earth (see Genesis 2: 5-6). The Bible is not clear whether there was rain after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, but it appears that rain was unnecessary in the wonderful Garden itself. God had provided rivers and springs to provide water, and there were mists that rose and settled. If this was still so in Noah’s time, then the falling rain would have been terrifying in itself. Things that fall from the sky can inspire both fear and praise.
Rain is generally considered a blessing–we need rain in its season, in showers of good quantity, to water crops, provide nourishment for trees and soil, and to replenish springs, pools, lakes, etc. And rain is part of the water cycle…moisture evaporates and rises (like the mists of old) into clouds, where it is held in storage until it rains back down to the earth. Water is a resource, but it is meant to be replenished, renewed, and reused. “New” water is not created, so much as recovered from steam or taken from its current source.
Not so with God’s blessings and His mercies. They are “new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) He sends them down like rain or snow, letting them fall in refreshing showers, reminding us that even when we are separated from God, He still loves us, watches over us, and delights to lavish His gifts on us.
In return, we send up praise. The prayers go up, and the blessings come down. Which reminds me of a song we used to sing in Sunday School.
God sends rain–God sends blessings. Whether we feel blessed often depends on where WE are. Are we safe in the Ark? In a house built on the solid rock of faith and dependence? Or are we living in perilous ignorance of God’s power to save and sustain us?
Throughout the story of Creation, a certain phrase gets repeated– “And God saw that it was good..” God’s purpose and will are always to see the good. At the end of the creation process, God saw that it was “very good.” He placed mankind in a garden filled with goodness, peace, safety, plenty, and promise– a garden filled only with Good.
The one tree that was forbidden to mankind was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good AND Evil. Humans chose to know and see and experience evil in an effort to be “like God.” We still recognize Good; but now we are surrounded by evil– lies, greed, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, addictions, compulsions, disease, destruction, and death. We cannot go back to the beginning. We cannot just close our eyes and deny, ignore, or excuse evil in our midst. And we cannot control the consequences of our evil choices. We cannot stop death or reshape the past.
But we must make the choice to look for the Good– to look to the author and creator of all that is good, and true, and noble, and holy. It can be very difficult to do. The voices of this world will continuously call out all that is bad– all our past hurts and present difficulties; all our guilt and shame; everything that is ugly, diseased, unjust, lop-sided, dying, and ruined. And our knowledge of good AND evil will tempt us to justify evil means to “good” ends…
God, who sees the end from the beginning, has looked through time and space, and pronounced His creation “Very Good.” God who redeems and resurrects, renews and transforms, has promised to make all things new in His time. God not only has the knowledge of Good and Evil– He has the power over both. Our efforts to find Good on our own will end in heartache, failure, guilt, and shame. God knows we cannot redeem our own actions, let alone the legacy of evil we’ve inherited from the past. But the Good News is that He has done it for us! Just as He saw that everything was “Good” in the Garden of Eden, He sees the end result of His redemption– and it is “Very Good.” We don’t have to keep trying and failing to achieve what only God can do. We DO have to trust in God’s ability and His willingness to keep His promises!
Through prayer, we carry all that is wrong to the One who can make it all “right.” And, through prayer, we praise God for all the Good– the good that God has created in the past; the good that we choose to see in the present; and the good He has promised that we cannot yet see.
This year is winding down, and many people are ready to say, “Amen!” It was a difficult year for many, one filled with upheaval, disease, uncertainty, and fear. We are ready to say, “Goodbye, and Good Riddance!”
But when we pray, and we say, “Amen,” it doesn’t just mean “the end,” or “goodbye”. Amen means, “let it be so” or “so be it.” It doesn’t just mean that we are finished speaking to God for the moment. It means that we are giving God the final word– we are turning over all our thoughts, our requests, our praises, our worries, and our questions to God and leaving them in His capable hands.
And so it is with the year 2020. We are not sending 2020 on its way, attempting to bury its memories or remove it from history. Even in the pain and uncertainty, there were blessings, and lessons learned this year. But it is time to say, “Amen!” Even so, Lord Jesus, let it be as YOU will. Whatever losses, whatever struggles, whatever blessings we have faced this year, let it be to Your Glory and Honor. And let us accept and even embrace the new year, not just for its difference from the past, but for the plans and purposes You have already put in place. Finally, let us be thankful for the year you have given, and the fact that you have been with us every step of the way, no matter how steep or slippery the road. AMEN!
God is faithful. He is steady, and kind, and good– no matter what temporary circumstances we face. Nothing that happened this past year took our Lord by surprise. Nothing escaped His notice. He did not turn His face away; He did not make a mistake, or forget any of His promises. His timing and His ways may not be the same as ours, but His purposes are eternal and eternally perfect. We can rest in peace and confidence because He is Sovereign and Holy and His mercy endures forever! (see Psalm 136).
Can I get an AMEN?!
Let’s look forward to 2021, because God is already there, and we can trust that He will be in control.