“How Are You Today?”

I got a scam phone call the other day. The lady on the other end started the conversation by saying something like, “Hello. My name is Jane, and I’m calling from the Business Lending Department. How are you today?” Her voice was pleasant, and her question innocuous, yet my “radar” went off, and I hung up the phone, rather than answering her question.

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Why?

Three things:

  1. I answered the phone by saying, “Hello” and the name of my little shop. It’s a business phone number, and I get many calls from customers, and from salespeople as well. Usually, as soon as I say my greeting, they jump right in with their request, or their name and request, i.e. “This is Sharon. I was in the other day, and I was wondering about…” or “This is Matt from (Name of my insurance agency), and I need to speak with you about a change in your coverage.” A business person may occasionally say something like, “I hope you’re doing well today.” or “Is this a good time to talk?” A friendly customer or a friend will often ask, “How are you?” or “How are things going?” But this was different. There was a long pause, which seemed odd, as though the call might be from far away. The phone number that came up on caller ID was not from a local area code and didn’t include a state listing or a company name (Pennsylvania or Wyoming, State Farm, or Citibank, etc.) This can happen with cell phone calls, but it can also be an indication that the call is coming from a hidden number. “Jane,” while she sounded pleasant, also sounded like she was reading from a script. “My name is Jane” indicated that she was not someone I would have met before, and “How are you today?” sounds like the opening line from a stranger’s sales pitch.
  2. I have read articles about scam calls. One of the first things they do is ask an innocuous question like, “Can you hear me, ok?” It seems like a simple, silly, harmless question, but if they ask you a Yes/No question, and you say “Yes,” they can record your answer and use it to “prove” that you agreed to a product or program by phone– even if you didn’t. “How are you today?” isn’t a Yes/No question, but it is the kind of question most people will answer without thinking, and it naturally leads to other seemingly innocuous questions, like “Can you hear me?” Call me hyper-cynical or super-suspicious, but these questions seem– from a complete stranger– like “set ups” to me after reading about how they are sometimes used.
  3. “Jane” is such a common and unassuming name. I have friends named Jane. One of my favorite novels is “Jane Eyre.” I love reading books about Miss Jane Marple, the unassuming, crime solving spinster of the equally unassuming village of St. Mary Mead. She was just “Jane.” Not Jane Torquist, or Jane Sullivan, or Jane Suzuki. And “just Jane” was calling from “the Business Lending Department.” Not the business lending department of a particular bank or business group. Not Wells Fargo, or Chase, or even a local banking chain. Not Visa or American Express. Just “the Business Lending Department.” Again, call me paranoid, but that set all my alarm bells ringing.
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Now– what does any of this have to do with prayer? Bear with me, as I tell the “rest of the story.”

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After I hung up, I felt bad. Hanging up–even when I suspected the call was far from innocent–seems very rude. “Jane” had been very pleasant. It felt churlish and even cowardly to hang up on her. I started stewing. I don’t like to think of myself as rude, churlish, or cowardly. After all, what would Jesus do, right? So I prayed for forgiveness, even though I wasn’t sure precisely what I had done wrong.

And God answered my prayer immediately. “Jane.” The woman had given her name as “Jane.” I have a friend named Jane who is going through a tough time right now. I have been praying for her for weeks. Had I prayed for her today? Not yet! God had sent me a reminder of my friend Jane via a scam call! Aren’t God’s ways mysterious and magnificent?! He also gave me a great idea to help me be at peace about the phone call. I thought, “if “Jane” ever calls back, I’m not going to answer her question, and play a passive role in the conversation. I will simply ask her what company she works for, and how SHE is today!”

And guess what! About an hour later, “Jane” called back. The call started exactly like the earlier call. The script was exactly the same– the same pause, the same wording. So when she asked, “How are you today?” I simply asked her, “which company do you work for? You said you are calling from the Business Lending Department, but which one?” And this time, SHE hung up! I had been right to be suspicious– right to stand my ground and not get involved in a scam– on any level.

Such a simple encounter, but so many lessons to be learned:

  • God answers “little” prayers; “awkward” prayers; He answers earnest and simple prayers when we just don’t even know what to pray or why. Things that seem silly (like whether or not I seemed rude or cowardly to a scam artist!) are never too silly or unimportant to take to the very Throne of Grace.
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  • God uses simple things to call our attention to bigger things. This woman could have chosen any name, but she said her name was Jane, and I believe that was God-ordained, to remind me to lift up my dear friend– to move my mind from something silly, like a phone scam, to something infinitely more important, like thanking God for Jane’s friendship over the years, and sharing in her immediate concerns.
  • God teaches us to recognize authenticity– and insincerity–as we follow Him. My “alarm bells” went off almost immediately when I answered this phone call. Why? Even though “Jane” was pleasant, she didn’t seem authentic. She used words and phrases that seemed friendly and harmless on the surface, but the delivery just seemed “off.” The same thing can happen when I read an on-line article, or listen to an advertisement, or even get involved in conversations. God sends us a spirit of Discernment that is sharper than just “being savvy.” But it comes from Him– not our own intelligence or listening to “smart people.” I know this because I know people who are acknowledged as “intelligent” who fall for amazingly stupid schemes and make appallingly bad life choices, while others who are called “simple” avoid such things without even being able to explain how. It reminds me of a story about a famous pianist practicing a complicated piece. She was playing along and suddenly stopped, saying she had missed a single note. “How can you tell?,” asked her friend who was standing nearby. “Your fingers are flying over the keys. How can you tell that you missed anything. The piece sounded fine to me.” “But I practice hours each day. I’ve heard myself play this piece hundreds of times correctly. I know what it SHOULD sound like. And this time, I missed a note.” When we practice listening to God’s voice– whether in the Bible, or in our conscience, or in the advice of others, we learn to hear “what it SHOULD sound like!”
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  • God teaches us wisdom, and gives us “second chances” to put it into practice. Jesus faced malicious Pharisees who tried to trick Him with seemingly innocuous questions. They came to Him with polite but false flattery, and tried to catch Him “off guard.” Jesus generally responded by asking them simple questions in return– questions that often exposed their real motives. He didn’t lose His temper; He didn’t passively fall into their traps. He didn’t walk away without an answer, either.
  • God can use “bad” experiences to teach us good things. He is teaching me to recognize a “scam” when I start to hear it. But (hopefully) He is also teaching me to speak and act more authentically myself! How often do I ask someone “How are you today?” not because I actually want to hear the answer, but because it is the “polite” thing to do? How often do I ask seemingly harmless questions without thinking? My words can bring healing– or suspicion, harm, or confusion. Jesus asked some probing questions, but always with the intent of helping others see the truth.

Lord, I am so thankful for the lessons you give us– even in the simplest situations in the midst of our busy lives. Help me to listen for your voice– even when “Jane” is on the line. What an amazing and wise God you are!

When God Uses a “Wasted” Opportunity

God’s ways are NOT our ways. And often, we can become discouraged by things that have happened in our past or things that seem like obstacles in the present. But our vision is limited by both time and space. We can’t see things from the outside looking in, and we can’t see things unfolding before they happen. Instead, we use our imagination, which can give us a vision that is wildly out of perspective.

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Take the case of Jonah (see Jonah 1-4). Jonah was given a clear mission from God– go to the great city of Nineveh and give them a message of judgment. Jonah could not “see” the outcome, but he could imagine a lot of things that made him run in the opposite direction! Nineveh was the capital city of his arch-enemies. The Assyrian armies had swept through Jonah’s land, and had very likely killed several of his family members. They were notoriously violent and Jonah must have presumed that there would be great danger involved in traveling into Nineveh, let alone proclaiming a message of certain doom!

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Jonah didn’t just ignore God’s command– he went as far as he could in the opposite direction. He wasted the opportunity to see what God had planned, choosing instead to run away. He boarded a ship for Tarshish. He probably thought that God would have to use someone else, or that He would bring judgment upon Nineveh without any warning. At least he, Jonah, would be safe. But God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. God brought a fierce storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors were terrified, but Jonah felt the weight of his guilt. He told the sailors to throw him into the sea, and God would save them from the storm. Though the sailors probably felt they were sending Jonah to his doom, they obeyed. And they were amazed as the storm disappeared! Nothing about Jonah’s words or actions caused these sailors to see God’s glory, but see it, they did. And they worshipped

Jonah missed the opportunity to see how God worked “around” him to amaze the sailors– instead, he got another lesson in how God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. Jonah may have expected to drown, but God sent a big fish to swallow him, instead. Jonah spent three days inside the fish, being saved from the icy waters of the sea, and transported back to land, where the obedient fish “spit” him out onto the shore.

God did not find someone else to send the message. God did not change His plans. God simply changed Jonah’s situation and gave him a second chance. This time, Jonah obeyed. And God performed another miracle. Instead of killing Jonah or ignoring his warning message from the Lord, the Ninevites believed. And they repented– from the King down to the lowest citizen. God relented and showed mercy in the face of such repentance. Jonah had the opportunity to see God’s mercy and wisdom.

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But Jonah wasted this opportunity, as well. Instead of seeing the gracious hand of God at work to change the hearts of his enemies, Jonah only saw that God had not acted with vengeance and harsh judgment. (Later, when the Ninevites returned to their old ways of life, God DID send destruction, but Jonah missed that, too.) In fact, Jonah was angry with God, and threw a temper tantrum as the Ninevites celebrated God’s kindness and mercy. Jonah was a prophet– he very likely had a long career doing God’s work. He probably had many successes, but the Biblical account we have of him tells only of his failure. In spite of that, we can see in the story of Jonah how God can use even failure to bring salvation and redemption to the lost. God’s ways are not our ways!

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Today, I want to be encouraged by Jonah’s story. So often, I get bogged down in the mistakes of my past–missed opportunities and failures, things left unsaid, or actions that can’t be undone. It is important that we acknowledge our sins and mistakes; that we do what we can to make amends, and that we repent. But we must also acknowledge God’s power to make all things work together for good (Romans 8:28) and remember that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6) Know too, that God knows the plans He has for you (Jeremiah 29:11) even though you and I cannot see the end of the story. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); they are higher and Holier. His wisdom and power are infinite, and His plans are ultimately for our Good.

“Wasted” opportunities need not lead to years of guilt and self-torture. Instead, they should be learning experiences that lead us to greater faith, quicker obedience, and greater joy!

Writing the Next Chapter

Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!

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It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?

Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.

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I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!

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God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.

My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!

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