I Am..

There are many ways to describe who I am (or who you are). I can describe myself in terms of my appearance, my social status, my occupation, age, familial role, or any number of other labels. These labels help distinguish me from other people around me, while also grouping me in with still others. Even my name functions in this way. My surname connects me with my current family; my maiden name with my birth family–my first name distinguishes me from my siblings within the family. However, there are many others in the world with either the same first name, surname, or both!

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I know that I am a unique person, but I am not singular. That is to say that while I am a unique combination of genetic materials, with unique hopes and dreams, I still belong to the human race, to my family group, and to the culture and time in which I live.

Only God can say “I AM!” and not have to add any modifier. God is..God. There is no one like God–no label that can be applied to Him and to anyone or anything else. We use words like “King”, “Father”, “Lord”, “He” even “God”, but none of them convey the fullness, the enormity, the eternity of the great “I AM.” Many ancient cultures worshiped gods; supernatural beings who ate and drank, married and had families, ruled the skies or waters or land or underworld, fought, loved– some even died. But none of them could say they were “I AM”. I AM stands in the face of doubt and unbelief; I AM remains unchanged and unchanging in the face of progress and technology; I AM defeats our attempts to shrink Him into our own limited understanding and our own limited lifespan; I AM is ever present, ever aware, everlasting.

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And this I AM created each of us to BE. Because of I AM, I can say that I am, too! And my purpose is to be, and to become more like He is, to the glory of I AM, and the fulfillment of what I am in Him.

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Lord, Father, and the great I AM– help me to see you more clearly for who you are. Help me to become more like you, and more like the person you created me to be. Help me to reflect your glory in the words I speak and the actions I take today.

Panic, Prayer, Praise, Peace!

Philippians 4:6 New International Version (NIV)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A6&version=NIV

I hope that today will be filled with peace, joy, and blessing for anyone reading this. But I know that today will bring bad news for some, pain for others, and hardship for many. Life is filled with struggle, disappointment, failures, and loss. Our first reaction is often to worry, which can lead to more worry, and a sense of urgency, even panic. In many cases, we have neither the resources nor the wisdom to overcome our struggles–even sustained effort or a “lucky break” may leave us without much hope. And the more we worry, the less we accomplish. But telling ourselves (or others) to simply “stop worrying” doesn’t banish worry; sometimes it increases it! Now we worry about worrying too much, or we find new things to worry about.

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But there is a time-honored and proven pattern that can help. Jesus spoke of it in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew 6, He gives us this advice:

“So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:31-34 (NIV)
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The Apostle Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Philippian believers. He told them to be anxious for nothing–that regardless of our situation or circumstances, we should not panic, but pray (seek God’s grace, righteousness, wisdom, and help). But more than that, we should present all of our prayers, petitions, and requests with thanksgiving and praise!

This is not the same as pretending that our struggles don’t exist, or that they are not important, or that we are glad about the pain, uncertainty, or hardship that they bring. Instead it is lifting our eyes to Heaven and finding that God is bigger than it all; that His grace, His strength, His wisdom is sufficient for the next step– for today’s worries–for today’s battles and burdens.

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This doesn’t happen naturally or automatically–we must seek, pray, pursue righteousness, ask for help, and continue to stand firm. There are some who point to the words of Jesus, or of Paul as a kind of “magic formula.” If we repeat a few promises from the Bible, or if we pray certain prayers, or convince ourselves and others that we have “enough” faith, God is obligated to change our circumstances and give us the resolution or relief we want. God is not primarily interested in our relief– He is interested in our redemption, our renewal, and our eternal reality. In following this pattern of turning our panic into prayer, and our prayer into praise, He promises that we will experience His peace. Our panic will be transformed–even if our situation stays the same; even if it gets worse before it gets better!

So how do we practice this pattern; how do we train for this transformation?

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Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Start by seeking God with abandon–pursue Him with your whole heart– thank Him for who He is, and for all He has done. It can be helpful to review some of the names of God–I AM, Almighty, Creator, Lord, King of Kings.. Or read a Psalm or find a song that reminds you of God’s character and power. Think of the times when God has been faithful in your own past.
  • Find something about your situation for which you can be thankful– genuinely thankful. Years ago, when I was young and single, I was laid off from my first full-time job after nine months. Was I worried? Yes! Where would I find another job? How would I pay my bills? But I resolved to start being thankful about all I had learned on the job– I had met new people, learned new skills, purchased a car…God knew my needs for the future, and even though I had to wait another eight months before I found a full-time job, I was able to find temporary work and interview for other jobs in the meantime. And I had friends and family who offered good advice and encouragement along the way. I know some situations are more painful and perplexing than the loss of a job. When I my father died, nothing made the pain less, but I could thank God for Dad’s life and the time we had with him. This is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be…It may not happen for days, or weeks–don’t give up!
  • Cry out to God– in praise, but also in petition, pain, confusion, confession, and raw emotion. God wants a real relationship with us, and that includes walking with us in the “valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t have to fear evil, or worry about the future, not because it holds no danger or dread, but because we never have to walk alone and defenseless!
  • Remember this is a pattern to follow, not a pill to swallow–none of this comes easy, and God’s peace is not an instant “fix.” Instead, it is a growing conviction that God is who He says He is– faithful, loving, victorious, eternal, and sovereign. Such peace defies our panic and erodes our worry, leaving us ready to face the battles before us, and move forward through the struggles.
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It is not will power or a change of circumstances that brings incomprehensible peace. It is not magic– it is Majesty!

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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Jacob the Brother of Esau

The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau has long baffled readers and scholars alike. I don’t pretend to have the answers to some of the tough questions it poses, but I’d like to take a close look at some of them.

Esau and Jacob were twins–the only sons of their parents–born just minutes apart. Yet their personalities, their destinies, and their relationships with God and others could not have been more different.

We spent the last post covering some of Jacob’s character flaws– his early years involved scheming and “cheating” this twin of his. Jacob’s life and actions are the focus of the story, after all. He is the one God chose to establish the nation he promised to Jacob’s father and grandfather. But why Jacob and not Esau?

In many ways, this story echoes that of the very first brothers in the Bible. God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his brother’s. We are not given an obvious reason why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable– or why Abel’s was. In this case, God does not give Rebecca a reason why her boys would fight throughout their lives or why the elder son would serve his younger brother. At one point, the Bible even says that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau! So we are left with a big question–Does God play favorites? Does He give His favor capriciously? If so, why bother to worship, serve, and obey Him if, in the end, He has already chosen who will be blessed?

We may never have a full explanation of God’s ways– we are told that they are not our ways; that they are higher and wiser than our ways–but there are several things I want to consider that may shed some light.

  • God is timeless. He lives beyond the boundaries of linear time, and he sees the end from the beginning. As we read through the story of Jacob, we see his progression, and the changes he makes as he matures and as he encounters the great God of his fathers as it unfolds in time. His beginning shows little promise, but God already sees Jacob as Israel, as the father of twelve tribes of people, as the ancestor of Moses, of King David, and of the coming Messiah. He sees all of this before Jacob is even born! It is part of His eternal plan that Jacob, the cheater, the underdog, the “lesser” brother should become all of these things.
  • God sees inside the human heart. Esau’s character is not fully shown in this Biblical story, but we get a few clues: 1) Esau despised his birthright– he was flippant about his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. 2) Esau took foreign wives who caused his parents distress–this detail may almost escape the modern reader. We do not tend to live with our extended family, but it was (and in some cases still is) common to the society in which Isaac lived. Esau did not consider his parents when bringing foreign women into the family. They had different customs and different gods. And Esau didn’t learn from the first two wives..when Rebecca commented on the Hittite women, Esau married a daughter of Ishmael, a woman likely to resent her father’s rival (remember Ishmael was banished on account of his resentment of Isaac!) 3) Esau plotted his brother’s death. His anger and resentment over the lost blessing caused him to plot murder. Jacob was sent away, not only to find an acceptable wife, but to keep him safe from his brother’s vengeance. Even though the two brothers later met in peace (Genesis 33), the meeting was filled with tension and the brothers were never close. 4) There is not one indication in the Bible that Esau ever sought the God of his fathers—no mention of him praying, offering a sacrifice, or acknowledging God. In fact, the sons and descendants of Esau (Edom) would attack and fight with the nation of Israel for centuries to come, finally being conquered and forced to serve the descendants of Jacob. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-edomites
  • God does not “love” or “hate” in the same way that we do. God’s love is universal and eternal. God loves even those who reject, mock, and hate him. So when God says, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated”, He is not talking about his feelings for individuals (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi+1%3A1-5&version=NIV and https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A6-16&version=MEV). Rather, He is talking about how He shows mercy. Jacob and Esau were real people, and God blessed both of them, and built both of them into great nations. But God showed mercy and favor on Israel for keeping his commandments, while destroying the nation of Edom because of its continuing wickedness. (God eventually showed wrath on the nation of Israel as well, sending its people into exile because of their unfaithfulness!) Even in their destruction, both nations retained a remnant and their peoples exist to this day.
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  • God did not abandon Esau. When Jacob finally reconnects with his older brother, Esau is the head of a mighty army. Esau’s sons became the heads of tribes and kings of Edom. God allowed Esau to prosper and grow strong. But Esau never sought God; Edom never showed humility, wisdom, or reverence–only arrogance, might, and hatred. God shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and grace to those who desire it, but He will not allow injustice and arrogance to go unchecked forever.
  • God’s grace is a gift–Jacob didn’t deserve to be favored; but neither did Esau, or Isaac, or Abraham. Nor do any of us. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A9-18&version=ESV Not one of us has earned God’s blessing. God chooses to love us even in our sin, and chooses to give us the Grace to return and receive His blessing!
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Praise be to the God of Jacob!

How Great Thou Art

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

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Clouds dot the cerulean sky,
A gentle breeze whispers,
And flowers nod as I walk
A country path.
Then sings my soul.

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Trees bow and rain coils,
Gales roar and city streets
Shiver as I wait
In sheltered awe.
Then sings my soul.

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A newborn nestles in my arms
Making sucking noises
In its slumber,
As arms and legs
Learn to measure open space.
Then sings my soul.

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Families gather in black
Murmuring comfort
In somber tones
As they learn to
Measure the empty space.
Then sings my soul.

How Great Thou Art!
How awesome in power!
How glorious your Creation!
How mysterious your ways!
How lavish in Life,
And triumphant over Death!

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My souls sings;
Sometimes sweet and low,
And sometimes keening.
My soul dances;
It reels and skips and sways.
My soul cries and laughs and trills.
But always, it says,
“How Great Thou Art!”

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Beyond Words

The world is filled with language–there are well over 5,000 recognized languages and dialects around the globe.  And within each language are thousands upon thousands of words– nouns and verb forms and adjectives; names and even grunts and sighs and “clicks” that vary from language group to language group.

In spite of this, we often find ourselves “speechless”– unable to find a word or sound that adequately communicates our thoughts or feelings in the moment.  We stammer or sigh, gesture, or scream– but the words either don’t come or they don’t exist.

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God knows and understands our innermost heart– with or without words.  The Apostle Paul refers to this in Romans, chapter 8, when he talks about the Spirit interceding for us with groans that words cannot express (v. 26).  And it’s not always groaning– sometimes there are no words for our joy– only dancing or tears of gladness.  Sometimes, there are wails and cries that come straight from our broken hearts.  Sometimes, our excited thoughts come so fast that we cannot form words and sounds to keep up.

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Prayer isn’t always about words– carefully drafted lists of requests or thank-you’s for our blessings–sometimes prayer is a spontaneous gush of sound or movement; sometimes, it is an intense stillness and profound silence, such that your heartbeat is deafening and the very air sings in your ears.  Sometimes, it is the eruption of pain and guilt, regret and despair–the sound of your soul being pulled up through your throat and ripped almost in two.  And sometimes, miraculously, it is the overwhelming presence of God in all of his Holiness, Splendor, and Might that defies any human utterance, but draws out pure praise, unfiltered by language!

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Reading the Charts

Many industries rely on charts.  Health care workers chart vital signs, fluid levels, symptoms and reactions to medication.  Publishers  of books and music chart sales by category, age of audience, geographical region, and more.  Transport and shipping companies chart routes, weather, road construction, and fuel efficiency.

Keeping charts, graphs, and records can improve performance, solve mysteries, and increase understanding.  It is good to keep charts in our Christian walk, as well.  Charting scripture can show us where we have or have not studied God’s promises, warnings, and wisdom.  Charting our prayer life can show us patterns in our communication with God, and help us see when and how God has answered our prayers.

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I keep a prayer journal.  Each day of the year has its own page, with lists of people to pray for in general, a geographical region, and more immediate special requests.  But the back of each page has blank space.  This way, as God answers prayers in these areas, I can record them.  I’ve been using this journal for three years now, so the back sides are beginning to get filled up.

But that is not the most amazing part of what I wanted to share today.  The most amazing part is that I have had to revisit some of the answers because God keeps answering them!  Here’s a case in point:  About two years ago, I wrote in a request for a friend who was looking for a job.  There was a promising interview, and many friends were praying for a “positive” outcome.  The job seemed like a perfect fit.  But it didn’t happen.  More prayers led to other opportunities and one of them seemed to be working out.  I wrote the “answer” in my journal.  But when I came across it again this year, I realized that God used both the previous opportunities to prepare my friend for something even better:  a job that no one imagined two years ago!  We prayed, expecting God to answer with something good.  When the first answer was “no,” we trusted God to bring about something else.  And He did.  But I’m glad that I had charted this request, because I almost missed seeing how God used prayer to prepare for more that we had asked!

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Another friend was going through grief and distress just a little over a year ago, and I was reminded of how God answered prayers for strength, peace, and rest.  But  I was also reminded to lift my friend up again on a painful anniversary, and to offer thanks for the ongoing healing I’ve seen– not just for my friend, but for her entire family.

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If you don’t do it already, I highly recommend making a prayer diary or journal.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated– I use wire-bound theme books and write in them daily.  But you could use an actual bound journal, or a simple memo pad or old address book.  Don’t worry if you miss a day or two– no one is keeping score or grading you–the main thing is to make it a habit to record prayers and answers.  You will gain insight, remember God’s answers and promises kept, and be encouraged in the wait for other answers to come.

Prayer Journal

Proactive Prayer Points

All Creation Sings His Praise

Tigers and turtles; flamingos and fleas; whales and warthogs; skinks and skunks; rocks and rosebuds; Eskimos and Ecuadorians–God’s world is filled with variety.  Chirping birds and thundering herds; roaring seas and buzzing bees.  Colors, sounds, smells, and sensations– we are surrounded by glimpses of glory, echoes of eternity, and hints of Heaven.

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Often, we take for granted the beauty of God’s creation– we don’t stop seeing it, we just stop marveling at it.  Instead of drinking it in, we drown it out.  We criticize, analyze, and theorize…why did God make rats?  how does He exist outside of time?  when will He change the seasons this year (will we have spring?  how long will winter last)?  what is the purpose of dust?  why are some animals (or rocks or plants) colorful, or noisy, or deadly, or smelly, or slow?   And we miss the forest for the trees– we get caught up in the amazing details and infinite variety in creation, and miss the majesty of the creator– His sense of the ridiculous in things like tumbleweeds and walking sticks, dust devils and platypuses, or His artistry in butterfly wings, dew on spiderwebs, and cascading waterfalls– in geodes and dimples and mewling kittens.  We miss the elegant design in a bees knees, or galaxies, or a banyan tree.

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God creates– it is an element of His character.  And we are made in His image– we long to create.  From drafting sentences to making a pie to shaping a piece of wood into something sturdy and useful– we long to produce, to concoct, to cause growth, to heal, to nurture, and to effect change.  We are also created with a deep appreciation of creation– the wisdom and the work it takes to set planets spinning, and ecosystems cooperating, and to unfold a new sunrise every morning.

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If you haven’t already, take a few minutes asking God to open your eyes and ears to the song and dance of creation today–from dandelions to darting dragonflies to the amazing variety of people dodging traffic or making conversation around you.  Join in!

A Sacrifice of Praise

Hebrews 13:15 English Standard Version (ESV)

15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.

Praise is an essential part of prayer– God is worthy of our continual praise and worship.  He is eternally good and thoroughly righteous; all-powerful and all-wise.  The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are to offer a sacrifice of praise–continually– to God.

This is more than just a simple “Praise the Lord” uttered when we are at church or surrounded by fellow believers.  A “sacrifice” of praise implies more than just a gift or even an acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and majesty.  It implies cost, and hardship; a giving up of something precious in the act of worship.

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Sometimes, the sacrifice is small–giving up our right to take credit for God’s mercies; being thankful (instead of jealous) of our neighbor’s success.  Other times, the sacrifice is painful– praising God in the aftermath of a daughter’s rape, or a spouse’s betrayal, or acknowledging God’s goodness after a diagnosis of cancer or dementia.

God isn’t looking for false and empty worship–He wants us to be real.  Sometimes, the sacrifice isn’t eloquent, polished, or “pretty”; it comes with tears, tormenting questions, and anguish.  Sacrifices are poured out, broken, or burned up– dreams that have been dashed, hopes and plans that have been abandoned, heartaches that crush the soul.

God wants these sacrifices– but not because He is a cruel God who wants to see us crushed and hopeless.  God wants these sacrifices because only when we are ready to put them on the altar can He make the exchange– Beauty for ashes; eternal hope for temporary dreams; trust and security for our doubts and fears.

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In the same verse (Hebrews 13:15), the author describes the sacrifice of praise as the “fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”  The Hebrews to whom he was writing were making a huge sacrifice in just uttering the name of Jesus.  They were beset on all sides– from the Jews who did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah; to the Romans who were using them as scapegoats for troubles within their Empire.  In the midst of their troubles, God did not ask them to slaughter their enemies, or to create a separate society and live only to themselves.  He didn’t ask for impossible deeds of daring–though many endured persecution and became martyrs for the Cross of Christ.  God asked for the sacrifice of praise.  God’s ways are not our ways– his weapons are not our weapons, and his words are not our words– God’s words are more powerful than any weapon or plan that we could ever imagine.

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The practice of praying the various names of God and titles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit– Almighty, Father, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Counselor, I AM, Savior, Redeemer, etc.–is the essence of praise.  In times of trouble, God’s attributes may seem hidden, but when we acknowledge what we do not see, we are harvesting the fruit of our faith and putting it on the altar.

Stand back– God has been known to set both the sacrifice and the altar on fire!

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