Winter has arrived full force in my part of the world– snow, falling temperatures, ice, and freezing winds make travel difficult and even dangerous. But snow brings about some good things–and one of those things is its color. The white of the snow helps reflect every small bit of light during the short, gray days of winter. When there is no snow cover, some of us can suffer from a condition called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD). We don’t get enough exposure to sunlight, which can lead to depression, diminished immunity, and other health-related issues. And, while snow doesn’t contain vitamin D or create sunlight, it does reflect it and sometimes that is enough.
I am enjoying the whiteness of the new-fallen snow as I write this. Even though it is late afternoon, and normally, it would seem dark by now, the snow makes it lighter; I can actually see better because of the snow! (Of course I couldn’t say this if I were driving and the snow was blowing about or covering my windshield…) Many people in my community are rejoicing in the snow and cold– it means they can go skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, and build snowmen and snow forts. Some of the children (and their teachers) are hoping to have a “snow day” today. And some people are hoping to make some money from shoveling or plowing driveways and parking lots!
There will be many people praying for snow; and others praying for the snow to end! And in a few days, the pure white snow may end up dingy and gray from being exposed to unclean air particulates, vehicle exhausts, smoke from chimneys, animal tracks, tire tracks, boot tracks, and trash. But for now, it has a purity and beauty that brightens the spirit.
God uses the imagery of snow to speak of His Salvation. In Isaiah 1:18, He says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The psalmist David says to the Lord, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) And the Apostle John writes, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John 3:3)
I don’t feel particularly pure most of the time– I know my past; I know my own failings, and the times I have NOT sparkled, or reflected God’s perfection. And God’s salvation doesn’t ignore any of that. God doesn’t declare that I have never sinned–instead, He takes the dirt, shame, and guilt that I deserve, and swallows it up in His grace. In its place, He gives me a renewed mind, a clean heart, and the power to make choices that reflect His heart and mind.
In a “SAD” world that is cold and gray, depressed and weak, God offers redemption that can make us purer, lighter, and fresher than new-fallen snow. We can reflect His light to a darkened world. And, even though the world is filled with contamination and filth, God has the power (and the desire!) to purify us, protect us, preserve us, and give us a sparkling purpose.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my Soul. (It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)
…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)
Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.
Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.
It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.
There is a curious story in the Bible about the Apostle Paul and a young man named Eutychus. https://www.gotquestions.org/Eutychus-in-the-Bible.html. The story is found in Acts 20:7-12, and involves a young man listening to the Apostle Paul. As Paul talks on into the night, the young man, sitting in the third story window, falls asleep, falls out of the window, and plummets to his death. Luke, who authored the the gospel which bears his name and the book of Acts, was a doctor, and an eyewitness of this event. He clearly states that Eutychus died from his fall. But Paul runs outside and brings Eutychus back to life, returning inside to finish his talk and eat with the crowd– who are amazed and relieved to have their friend alive and well.
Luke’s story doesn’t say whether or not Eutychus was alone in the third story window, or leaning against a wide window frame or perched precariously before he fell into “a deep sleep.” I have always imagined him perched comfortably leaning against the side of a wide and open window frame, one leg drawn up and the other dangling as he listened to Paul speak. As the night wore on, he may have slouched a bit, or even turned to lean his whole back against the frame, pulling both legs up onto the wide ledge. My mental picture may be completely wrong, but I don’t think of him hugging a narrow space and sitting tense and clinging before sleep claimed him.
A few days ago, I referenced an old hymn knows as “The Solid Rock” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand. ” One of the lines of the hymn states, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.” But the flip side of this is that Jesus IS the solid rock and the “frame” on which we can both stand and rest secure.
I was reminded today of another old hymn; one that I heard as a child and did not understand at all. Have you ever heard a new song, and completely mis-heard the lyrics? As a young child, I often heard hymns sung that were old to the adults but “new” to me. This was one of them. I paid little attention to the first verse, but the chorus!?! I was sure the congregation was singing, “Wienies (the word my grandparents sometimes used for hot dogs)! Wienies! Wienies on the everlasting arms…” It sounded like a righteous chorus of hot dog vendors at a baseball game. I giggled and snorted, and my grandmother, who was standing next to me, quietly leaned over and asked what I found so funny. When I explained it to her, she too began to giggle a little, and we shared a (quieter) giggle and smiles throughout the rest of the hymn. (Sacrilegious, I know, but it seemed very funny to a five-year-old.) Later, my grandmother lovingly explained the hymn–turning a “silly” song into a wonderful testament of God’s tender, loving care that touches me to this day.
I don’t recommend to anyone that they trust themselves to a window frame, a third story balcony, a too-comfortable seat at the theater, or to hot dogs eaten in bleacher seats at the baseball game. God doesn’t call us to get comfortable! Even if we are listening, and trying to follow Jesus, we may still fall– literally, like Eutychus, or figuratively. We may misunderstand, or get confused or weary and lose our focus. We may put ourselves at risk by leaning on the wrong frame.
God could have kept Eutychus from falling from that third story window, but I believe He meant for that story to come down through the ages. It is not just a miracle, and a testament to the power of God and given to the Apostle Paul. It is a great reminder that even when we are trying to listen and follow God, we can still end up trusting in the wrong things and “falling asleep”. But no matter how far we fall, or how broken or “dead” we may seem to be, God sees us, cares for us, and wants to give us new life! We can rest “safe and secure from all alarms” when we remain in (or return to) the reassuring, everlasting arms of our Savior.
Some days, I feel like Eutychus– lying broken and useless three stories below where I began. Other times, I feel like a confused hot dog vendor, calling out to God for “Wienies”, when I really need Wisdom and Grace. But God is faithful to bring me back time after time, wrapping me in his amazing “Everlasting Arms”:
One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.
Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.
But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.
And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.
Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.
Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.
I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.
But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.
And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.
Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.
It’s that time of year again…my birthday is coming up and I will need to visit the Secretary of State’s office to renew my license plate tag; this year, my driver’s license also expires, so I have to renew that as well.
This is not a pleasant process– I will wait in line, answer questions, and have a photo taken. I will write out a check or have money debited from my bank account (ouch). I may have to wait another week or two for the new driver’s license to be sent out, and then I will have to live with the horrible photo for a few years. What a drag! I often hear people complaining about the process–it’s a time-consuming, costly, bureaucratic nightmare, or it’s just an annoyance.
Except I don’t really “have to” do any of those things. Being a licensed driver is not a life or death matter. The law says that I must possess a valid license in order to drive, but thousands of people drive every day with no license, or a suspended or expired license, and “get away with it.” Others choose not to drive, and do not carry a license or state-issued photo ID.
But I choose to go through the annoying process because of the benefits. Driving is a privilege– one denied to many who can’t afford, or can’t operate a vehicle. Renewing my license brings much-needed revenue to the state, so they can (attempt to) maintain the roads, bridges, and traffic-related signs and lights that we use every day. Renewing shows my commitment to obey the laws and authorities that govern (the roads in and around) my city, county, state, and nation. Renewing my license gives me an opportunity to register (or confirm my status) as a voter. It even gives me the opportunity to learn patience and people skills!
All this to talk about another kind of renewal…
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2 NIV)
The Apostle Paul speaks about the “renewing of your mind.” In renewing my license, I am conforming to the laws of the land. This passage is not telling me to break the law; it is calling me to transform the way I view the world, the way I process the world, and the way I allow my thoughts to shape my behavior. Instead of thinking about the license process as an inconvenience– I need to weigh the inconvenience against the benefits I receive from having a valid license. Instead of focusing on the negatives around me– fear, hatred, selfishness, complaining, greed, lying, etc., I need to focus on how I can respond in hope, love, compassion, encouragement, generosity, and truth. And I need to depend on the work of the Holy Spirit to transform the way I think about the world, about myself, and about God.
There is a lot of ugliness in the world, lately; but there is also a lot of beauty. There are urgent needs, but there are also abundant resources in Christ Jesus. There are hardships, but there are also moments of peace, healing, and hope.
It’s time for renewal!
8 Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8 MEV)