Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

Forever!

Psalm 23:6– And I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.

Forever is a concept we acknowledge, but we don’t fully understand. We talk about difficult circumstances, like the current pandemic, lasting “forever.” But they won’t. Such circumstances may last longer than we would like; they may be more difficult than anticipate; they may bring more pain and grief than we think we can bear, but they will pass. Even if they last throughout our lifetime, they will not continue indefinitely.

But God IS forever– He is eternal. And He has created US to be eternal– to live with Him (or apart from Him) FOREVER! Our experience does not prepare us fully for this reality– we only know an existence that is limited by time and space. But deep within, we have an awareness that there is MORE– more than our brief time here; more than the difficulty and disappointment we experience. God has planted this awareness in each of us; this desire to know what comes “after” death; what “forever” really means.

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David reminds us that forever is not just a desire for those who follow our Good Shepherd– it is the reality He has planned for all of us.

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And that should give us abundant hope and comfort in times like these. What we face today is temporary. This is the “valley of the shadow of death.” We cannot see what is directly in front of us. It continues to bring anxiety and pain, and even death. But, death is not the end. It is only a shadow hiding the light of Eternity. And “Forever” cannot terrify us; it cannot hold terror for those who belong to the one who holds forever in His hands!

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Someday, we will not need calendars. We will not need to worry about next week, or our 5-year plan, or deadlines. We will have unlimited opportunities, unlimited possibilities, unlimited life with the source of all good things!

…And I Will Dwell In the House of the Lord..

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, churches are being asked to suspend meetings– worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings–all must be conducted via internet, or some other remote broadcasting option. This will be the first Easter in modern memory when millions of people will be unable to celebrate in church.

I miss going to church. I miss seeing and talking to my friends. I miss singing as a congregation, and praying together. I miss my weekly Bible study group, my Sunday School group, and I miss seeing the kids jumping and twirling and full of energy. I miss visiting the “house of the Lord.”

But there are three very important things this time is teaching me:

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  • I miss “visiting” the house of the Lord, not “dwelling” there. There is a huge difference. As a member of the “body” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28) IN Him. I do not “visit” the body– I AM part of the body– which brings me to..
  • The building is NOT the “Church.” Our church is still operating– just in different ways for the different circumstances. Members are making phone calls, sending e-mails, greeting cards, and creating web content to help share resources, provide encouragement and prayer support, and inspire others. We’ve been praying for those who are battling COVID-19— some are suffering from the disease; others are on the front lines– doctors, nurses, emergency workers, “essential” services workers in groceries, post offices, truckers, and more; some are suffering financially from lay-offs and losses. We are sharing specific names and needs as they arise–church members, neighbors, extended family, needs close to home or around the globe. Even if we are not meeting face-to-face in a particular building, we are still The Church, and I am “dwelling” there.
  • We have been asked to “shelter in place”– to stay in our dwellings. And that is precisely what God asks of us, as well. We need to dwell in the House of the Lord through this crisis. He is our shelter, our place of safety, and our rest. Instead of seeing this as a negative, or a set-back, we can use this time to celebrate the safety of our eternal dwelling place– safe in the arms of our Savior!
  • Finally, I WILL dwell in the House of the Lord– I already am a member of the body; I already dwell in unity with the Church; I already live in the presence of God and with His Spirit– someday I will dwell with Him face-to-face in the same kind of intimacy I am missing now with my fellow believers. What I am missing now should cause me to be joyful! This is temporary– what will be is eternal and will never be interrupted by disease, distance, or the imperfections of our current fallen world.
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COVID-19 is the visitor– unwelcome, scary, dangerous, yes, but as a child of God, I dwell in the House of the Lord– and COVID-19 can’t change that for me or for anyone else who calls on the name of Jesus! Ever!

My Cup Runneth Over

“Are you the type of person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty?” Amateur psychologists like to ask questions like this, to determine if others are optimists or pessimists. But what happens when you realize your cup or glass is really full to overflowing?!

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Often, we look at our lives and circumstances with a pessimistic attitude. “I’m stuck at home during the pandemic– I can’t be with my friends, I can’t visit the gym, I can’t go to work..” We think of our “full” lives just weeks ago, and we miss all the things we took for granted– even the things we were complaining about before! And we worry and panic about tomorrow, or next week, or later today! But this is not God’s view. All that we are “missing” right now, God knows. He knows what we need, what we want, and what is best for us to have (or not have) during these days. Even if we are suffering from COVID-19, or waiting and praying for a loved one who is isolated and struggling, God knows. He listens for every breath– even the labored ones; He knows all that has come before this moment, and all that will happen in the next. If our glass is truly half-empty, we need only ask, and God will give us wisdom, patience, strength, and whatever He knows we need for the next breath; the next step.

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Sometimes, we carry an overly optimistic mindset–taking pride in our half-full glass, and not allowing God to finish filling it. We sit safe in our houses, confident that we will survive any threat and defeat any enemy, especially a tiny virus. We don’t need God’s help; His abundance of wisdom and grace. We’ve got everything covered with our half-full arrogance. But this is also not God’s view. God doesn’t want to fill our cup so that we can be smug and self-satisfied. God wants to fill us to overflowing, so that we can bless others, and see the incredible riches of His mercy and love! Some people look like they are “half-empty” from the outside– they are poor, or tired, or weak– but they are overflowing with God’s love; gushing with grace, lavish with love, exuding excitement, and overflowing with joy. Meanwhile, the optimist who is smug and self-serving, may seal up her “half-full” glass, refusing to share her hope and joy with others who need it.

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God is never stingy with His riches. Paul reminds us that God’s Grace is sufficient https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+12%3A6-10&version=NIV, that God can meet all our needs out of His abundance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A19&version=NIV, and that God is able to do more than we can possibly imagine https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=KJV; the Apostle James writes that every good and perfect gift is from above https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A17&version=ESV . However, we must be open to accept them, and open to share them with those around us! This is especially true when God’s riches may be hidden by clouds of doubt, worry, and fear.

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So today, I need to see, not whether my cup is half-full or half-empty of energy, or money, or health– I need to see where my cup is overflowing with God’s Grace, His Peace, and His Love!

Thou Anointest My Head With Oil

When I was just over a year old, I became very ill. Several doctors were consulted, but no one seemed to know what was wrong. I was losing weight, growing weaker, lost the strength to walk (something I had just started doing), and losing the will to thrive. I cried and moaned throughout the day, and had trouble falling asleep normally– demanding constant attention and comforting, but not showing any signs of fever or infection.

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Our minister at church anointed my head with oil for healing. Everyone prayed fervently. Mom and Dad took turns staying with me at the hospital, trying to calm my fears and hope that I would get better. Finally, one of the doctors (a third- or fourth-opinion at that point) suggested that I might have a protein deficiency–that my body was not processing proteins correctly, as I had just started eating meat and more complex dairy. He suggested a course of booster shots that lasted well into my fifth year; it was one part nightmare, and three parts miracle– daily, then weekly, monthly, and quarterly trips to get the dozens of booster shots, but I lived, grew, and was able to live a normal life. My childhood was filled with nightmares and many sleepless nights, even after my health began to improve. But I learned to love meat and dairy, trust the doctor and nurses who administered the dreaded shots, and embrace life.

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I tell this story in relation to Psalm 23:5, not to make a plug for anointing as a miracle “cure” or magical ritual. I realize that healing comes in God’s time and will, and that not everyone who prays for (or anoints for) healing receives it in this life. But I DO believe in the power of prayer, and I do believe in the act of anointing. It is not the oil, or the ritual involved that brings about powerful healing, however. It is a representation of God’s power to heal– and it brings with it an awareness of His presence and sovereignty.

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When David talks of anointing, he speaks from multiple layers of experience. As a shepherd, David would pour oil over the heads of his sheep. This served two purposes– it would keep insects from burrowing in and around the eyes, nose, ears, and necks of the sheep, where they could do untold damage, and where sheep could not dislodge them; and it would help them as they grazed among briers and rocks where they might get snagged, cut, or scraped. Oil brought protection and healing.

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But David was also a King. He had been anointed by Samuel to be the next King of Israel as a young man. Even though he had to wait through years of danger, war, and exile, he had been chosen and set aside by God. God had seen him through and raised him to prominence, and He had signaled all that through anointing.

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God is our Good Shepherd. He anoints our heads with oil– for protection, for healing, for service, and for ordination. Our Shepherd cares deeply for our physical and spiritual needs. And He appoints us to His service–He has a purpose and a position for each of us in His kingdom.

In days of confusion and suffering, we can forget to look for the Shepherd’s presence and His provision. We may lose strength, and even the will to thrive. But God can and will strengthen us with “spiritual protein” in His word and through fellowship. He will provide us with “booster shots” of blessings– friends who pray for us and with us; scripture that inspires and convicts; hymns and songs that remind us of His amazing grace and love; moments of prayer and meditation that carry us through the day. God will provide the daily anointing we need– and when we turn our face toward His, we will see eyes of love and feel His gentle hands of grace as He gives us all we need.

For more on Biblical anointing– it uses, meanings, and symbolism, check out these resources:

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/why-is-anointing-oil-important-in-the-bible.html

https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/anointed-definition-anointing-oils.html

https://equipherlife.com/2011/06/23/the-shepherds-oil/

In the Presence of My Enemies

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies..” (Psalm 23:5a)

I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like dealing with opposition. I don’t like having enemies. However, God’s word is very clear– I can’t avoid them or deny their existence. No matter how hard I try to make peace or stay on good terms with others, there will always be some who disagree, who dislike me, who stand against me.

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So it should not come as a great surprise that God, the Good Shepherd, promises that He will prepare a table before me in the very presence of those enemies. He does not expect me to stay hidden; He does not give His blessings in secret. Instead, He allows my enemies to see that I am never alone or abandoned to their power. He showers me with blessing, meets my every need, binds my wounds and comforts my sorrows right before their eyes. They may have limited access to hurt me or frighten me, but God will bring His justice– and they will be made to see it. (see Psalm 37 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+37&version=HCSB)

But more than that, God invites some of those very enemies to see His peace and blessing. God’s desire is that we would all share in the wedding feast of the Lamb; that the table He sets before us would be a chance to turn enemies into brothers and sisters. And He gives us the opportunity, through His blessings, to extend that invitation of Grace and inclusion–to Love our Enemies!

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Not all will accept this invitation– some will choose to watch in resentment, rebellion, and pride as we enjoy communion with our Shepherd; but they will be unable to disturb or destroy the joy and refreshment He brings. And not all “enemies” are the people who oppose us. God blesses us in the presence of those enemies who oppose Him. They may seek to hurt us, and turn us away from our Shepherd. But He will never turn from us. Even when we turn away, or doubt His presence or His purpose– even in the presence of our enemies–God is with us.

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In troubled times like these, that is especially comforting to know. Chaos, disease, doubt, fear, guilt, and in the “valley of the shadow of death:” our enemies may be present and looming, but God is laying out a table, preparing to anoint our heads with oil, and showing us with Goodness and Mercy, Justice and Righteousness– all in their presence. And they are powerless to stop Him!

Thou Preparest a Table Before Me

Mighty God,
You could demand…
Anything.
You need nothing.
You are worthy of
Endless adoration.

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Yet You prepare a table–
Lavish with blessings,
Personalized to the last detail–
For me.

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You, who could reserve all the
Wonders of nature for your own pleasure;
Cause the sun to rise, the birds to sing
For me.

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You lay the plates,
Polish the silver,
Serve out the banquet with
Flourishes, garnishes– All the best
For an unworthy beggar–for me.

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You pour the wine,
Wash my feet,
Break the bread
(Even give your body and blood),

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All for me.

Merciful and gracious God,
Humble and victorious Savior,
Mysterious and mighty Spirit–
I am undone by Your invitation to
This eternal banquet.

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“Do This in Remembrance of ME”
Remember My Creation.
Remember My Life.
Remember My Humble service.
Remember My Death and Resurrection.
Remember My Victory.
Remember I am Coming Soon!

Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.

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And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.

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God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.

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During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.

One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.

God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!

  • Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.

For Thou Art With Me…

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“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.

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But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.

So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?

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I think there are several reasons:

  • Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
  • God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
  • Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
  • Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
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God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:

  • Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
  • Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
  • Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
  • Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
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