Fixing the Snarls

A few years ago, I got really ambitious and decided I would take up crocheting. My grandmother taught me the basics many years ago, and I thought I would be able to pick it back up and make delightful scarves and mittens and maybe even afghans… Except, when I started a scarf, I ended up with a nice start attached to a horribly snarled up ball of yarn. No problem. I would simply work at the snarl until it melted away, and continue with my scarf. Except it didn’t melt away. I was able to “move” the snarl a foot or so down from where it was, but I couldn’t work it all the way out.

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I struggled with that snarl far longer than I should have, and eventually gave up the project and moved on to making candles (another story for another time). But I learned a painful lesson. I would love to say that I prayed about the snarl and God unraveled it for me, but that didn’t happen. I prayed– yes; but God allowed me to continue in my stubbornness and self-confidence to do battle with a few yards of green yarn for days, when I could have been doing more productive things.

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I have a great need to try to “fix” things– I think most of us do at some level. We live in a broken world, and we know that there are things that are “snarled” all around us–relationships, situations, circumstances–that need fixing. And God has given us opportunities to do good works that can make the world around us better. But it is not our job to “fix” the brokenness in the world. Only God can really “fix” it–even though He may give us work to do along the way.

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And that brings me back to prayer. No, God didn’t “fix” the snarl in my yarn. And He didn’t “fix” my stubborn attitude or my willingness to finish the project another way or ask for help from someone else. God isn’t interested in making our lives (or our projects) easier for us by removing our problems. And God isn’t impressed by our stubborn efforts to “fix” the situations in our lives. God’s ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9; and check out https://blackaby.org/gods-ways-are-not-our-ways/.

So many times, we think of prayer as a last resort, as a crutch to fall back on when our efforts seem to be failing, or when we think a situation is “too big” for us to handle on our own. Even in the things of Christ, we tend to plan first, and pray later. Prayer becomes our Plan B. But what if, in the grand scale, prayer was always our Plan A? What if we started the morning, not looking at our planners and calendars, but listening for God’s direction? Even if it meant scrapping our own plans and leaving the “snarls” to God? What if, as our churches planned for programming and outreach, we resolved to do nothing until we had prayed for a month about our goals for the coming year? What if our churches had more people coming to prayer meetings than coming to Family Game Nights or Teen Overnight Parties? In my own life, what if I spent less time writing in my prayer journal than asking God to inhabit my prayers?

In the book of 1 Samuel, King Saul undertook a mission for God– God had chosen him to be King over all Israel, and to lead the nation against the wicked peoples in their midst. Saul led his warriors in battle, and even had success, but God rejected Saul because of his disobedience. Saul wanted victory to confirm his status as a warrior and a king. He listened to God’s instructions– superficially. He even insisted that he had followed God’s instructions– after all, he defeated the enemy! But he didn’t do it God’s way or for God’s glory. God gave him victory in many battles, but Saul was impatient, imprudent, and impudent. Saul ended his reign in shameful defeat because he wanted to “fix the snarls”– his way.

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I’m not saying that my prayer journal is wrong, or that churches shouldn’t do programming– not at all. But it is something to think about, before the next yarn snarl comes along… Am I busy trying to “fix” a situation that I can’t (or shouldn’t) fix, when I should be watching for God’s next assignment? Am I trying to win a battle to prove myself worthy, or am I letting God set the terms and take the Glory that is rightfully His? Am I busy asking God to unsnarl yarn, when He wants to move mountains?

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Search Terms, Algorithms, and Prayer Requests

I used to work in a public library. I was the Youth Services Librarian, which meant that most of my time was spent working on building up the collection of children’s books, planning and presenting programming and story times, and going into schools to do book talks and promote library offerings. But I also spent time at the reference desks– both in the Children’s Area and the Adult Services area– and some of my time was spent finding answers to a wide range of questions:

  • Does the library have books or articles about Okapis (for a 4th grade report)?
  • Do you carry tax forms for my out-of-state business?
  • What are the school colors for _______ college (a small community college in Nebraska)?
  • Do you have a picture of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut?
  • What is the title of a children’s book that featured muskrats making chicken soup?
  • My great-aunt left me a set of dishes and I want to know if they’re worth anything.
  • Do you have a recipe for pemmican?
  • What color is yak’s milk?
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Some questions were easy to answer. Some required a little research within the library’s resources. Some were next to impossible and required hours of searching databases, or calling on expert help. Searching a database can be tricky. You need to find solid key words and search terms. For instance, our computer catalog did not recognize the the search term “cooking” or “cookbook.” You had to use the term “cookery” to get the best results. You could also use “cook***” to force the algorithm to look at all words that contained the letters c-o-o-k and any other letters that followed, such as cooks, cookies, cookery, etc. (Many library databases have since been updated, so searches will automatically redirect or refine common terms like this.)

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Databases and search engines are amazing things, but they have limitations. They will only search for what you type in, and they will only search in the way they are programmed to do so. Computers (currently) “think” laterally–they do not make leaps of imagination, nor do they second-guess what you might have meant to ask but didn’t. If I want to know about pemmican, but I misspell it, the search engine may not find what I’m looking for.

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That’s where algorithms come in. If I misspell pemmican by leaving out the second “m”, the algorithm will look for words close to what I typed, based on thousands of other inquiries. It may ask if I meant to search for pelican, instead. Or it may ask if I want pemmican. But if my spelling is really bad, or if the word I type in is actually another word, the search engine may miss my real inquiry altogether, and send me on a fruitless search. If I’m searching for a children’s book with muskrats and chicken soup, and the search engine doesn’t find both terms in a description, the algorithm will usually stick with the first term, and give me a list of children’s books with muskrats. Hopefully one of them also includes chicken soup… If I type the key words in reverse, I will get a list of children’s books with chicken soup…hopefully one of them includes muskrat characters! And algorithms can be skewed by advertisers or other interest groups that pay to have their information appear more often or first whenever certain search terms are entered.

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How does any of this relate to prayer requests?

When people request prayer, they are usually focused on what they perceive as their greatest need. They are searching for an answer; a solution to a specific problem or situation. “Pray for complete healing.” “Pray that my son/daughter will…” “Pray that I get this job.” And it is tempting to pray very specifically. This is not wrong. But sometimes, it limits how we see prayer and how we look at God’s answers. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, we pray so broadly, that we may not see God’s answer for what it is. Sometimes, we pray, hoping to change some sort of algorithm and get to the “top of the list” or get the “right” answer. This is not what prayer is about…we know this, but sometimes, our wants blind us to what we are actually asking (or asking others to ask for).

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So what are some of the key words we can use in our prayer requests and prayers? Jesus gives us a fantastic blueprint in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):

“Our Father”–remembering to whom we are praying is vital. We are not praying to a distant, absent-minded, shadowy figure; He is our Father. He knows what is necessary, and what is best.

“Who art in Heaven”–God is Omnipotent. There is nothing we can ask or imagine that is too big, too difficult, or too much to ask. That doesn’t mean that God will give us whatever we want, whenever we want it, but it does mean that God is not limited by the same things that limit us!

“Hallowed by Thy Name.”–God is not our “genie in a bottle.” He doesn’t work for us, or at our command. God is sovereign; He commands the Universe. And even though He makes Himself known and wants a relationship with us, He is not like anyone else–He ALONE is GOD. When His answers seem “wrong,” or don’t make sense, it isn’t because He didn’t hear us, or because He doesn’t love us, but His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–There are a lot of “good” things that are NOT part of God’s best will for us. There are a lot of difficult and painful things that God can use for our good. He wants to hear the cry of our heart–“I want to be healed.” But He also wants to hear our willingness to accept that healing may not be immediate or easy.

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“Give us this day our daily bread”– It is not “wrong” to pray for things in the future, or to pray for “big” or complex things, but our dependence on Him is shown best when we acknowledge our everyday basic needs are met by Him.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”–Don’t be fooled. God will not ignore our hidden resentments, hatred, disdain, rebellion, and unforgiveness. Our requests can be sidelined by holding on to grudges and harboring secret doubts about God’s essential fairness, as well as hanging on to sinful habits.

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God doesn’t need algorithms or special prayer “search terms”. We can come to Him with our requests, and He knows precisely what we want and what we need. But we will learn more about ourselves and about who God truly is when we refine our hearts and our prayer life.

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.

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