As I look outside, there are bare branches on the trees, and the grass is covered in fallen leaves. The beauty of early autumn has almost gone, and winter is coming. The air is brittle and chilly, but not as cold as it will be in another month.
Yet, this is My Father’s world. I trust that winter will come, and pass. Spring will follow, and the trees will once again be covered in leaves and filled with birdsong and new life.
As I listen to the news, I hear of COVID deaths and hospitals filled with the sick and suffering. I hear of political unrest, and people spewing hatred, anger, and fear for the future. There is chaos and uncertainty, injustice, and pain. There are hurricanes and fires, floods, and earthquakes.
Yet, this is My Father’s world. He sends rain on the just and the unjust; He brings healing and hope, even in the darkest hours. This world does not belong to any one nation, or political party, or natural disaster, or epidemic. Such circumstances have the power to cause destruction and fear, but they do not have power over the Creator of all things. Their reign is temporary and limited. And ” ‘tho the wrong seems oft so strong,” God is eternally sovereign– nothing that happens today can either take God by surprise, or cause Him to quake.
I meet with people who are discouraged, angry, bitter, and scared. And I cannot “fix” the world around me with good intentions, or hard work. I cannot give assurance based on my own efforts or my own wisdom. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t have the solutions. I will make mistakes. I will say things that cause confusion, or even offense.
But this is not my world; and it isn’t the world of those who try to discourage me, judge me, take advantage of me, or manipulate me. This is My Father’s world. And in this moment, I will choose to look for His hand and listen for His voice.
One of the things I find amazing about prayer is hearing about and seeing God work globally through the prayers of His people. God is Sovereign–He can choose to work however, whenever, and wherever He chooses. But He gives us the awesome privilege of participating in His work.
I use a prayer journal. In it, I keep names of people, ongoing and urgent prayer requests, and a list of places. Each day, I pray for those who are celebrating their birthdays or anniversaries (if I know them). I also pray for ongoing and urgent requests as I receive them. I pray for world leaders, local officials, and even those who wish me ill (if I know of them). Lastly, I pray for a particular place each day–as I write this, I am on the day reserved for Uganda. I don’t know anyone in Uganda; I’ve never visited, and I know very little about the nation. But God knows. God knows the people, He knows the weather, the land, the economy, and the spiritual needs of Uganda. I don’t have to know any of that. I just need to be faithful to call out to God on behalf of this land that is precious to Him. Some days, I pray for a nation; sometimes a city or a region; sometimes an ocean or desert.
My prayers rise to God like a mist, but God gathers prayers to form clouds and send a shower of blessing wherever He wills it. I may never see the answer to my prayer for Uganda today. But I trust that God will send blessings like rain– maybe today, maybe next week– to someone in Uganda. Someone I’ve never met. Someone I hope to meet and love in Eternity–my long-lost, never-before-met brother or sister! And as I pray for those with birthdays or urgent needs, I trust that others are doing the same. God may not choose to answer those prayers in the way we expect. But He WILL send out showers of blessing. The rain will fall on the just and the unjust https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+5%3A44-45&version=NIV and it will fall where and when God decides.
God doesn’t need me to pray for Uganda or any particular person or place. His work will progress with or without me. And if I pray for Moldova or Tokyo or the Arctic Ocean tomorrow, it won’t change God’s plans. But it might change MY outlook. And I will know the joy and glory of joining in God’s work as I watch it unfold. Amazingly, I know that some of those showers will fall on me and my family as other believers– perhaps strangers I have never met– pray today. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+113%3A3&version=NIV
Sometimes, prayer seems like a vapor–something that rises without substance, only to evaporate. We say our prayers and wait for an answer. And the Bible describes prayer like incense. It rises to God as a sweet fragrance. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+5%3A8&version=ESV But incense and vapor dissipate and evaporate without a visible trace. They have no form or solid substance. Is prayer equally fleeting and amorphous? Is prayer “real,” if we can’t see it working?
Vapors rise and mix with other vapors. They are carried on the wind. They form clouds, and the waters return to the earth as rain and snow. And incense diffuses and leaves its scent throughout a building long after it is burned. We know that incense has been burned. We know that water has evaporated. And we know that they are “present” even if we can’t see or touch them.
Prayers– especially prayers lifted in petition–rise away from us. They are meant to disappear from our view. Our focus should not stay on the visible troubles we lift up in our prayers, but on the invisible and all-powerful God who receives our cries. And as prayers rise, they are gathered and formed by God into clouds of blessing. The rain will fall where God wills it, to water thirsty souls, bring healing, and be lifted up in new prayers. The incense of our prayers will permeate the world with the fragrance of God’s love, even as they ascend to His throne.
This is part of the mystery of prayer. Just as God designs water to be lifted up and returned to the earth hundreds of miles away; just as He designs fragrance to spread without any visible evidence, so He has designed prayer to work in unseen and unpredictable ways. God delights in our participation in this mystery. He invites us to be part of the process of spreading His beauty and glory throughout the world!
He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Matthew17:20 ESV (via biblehub.com)
Faith is a vital part of life, and especially a life in pursuit of prayer. If I don’t believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) then my prayers are little more than wishes made on a star or empty dreams.
During Jesus’ ministry on earth, He lamented often that His disciples had so little faith. And yet, He said that if they had “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” nothing would be impossible. In fact, Jesus used seeds in a lot of His teaching. He talked of seeds scattered on different types of soil; mustard seeds growing into large plants; seeds in good soil yielding exponentially large harvests. There is something about seeds that can teach us about the nature of faith. And, according to Jesus Himself, we need to learn about and practice faith in greater measure!
So what are some of the seed lessons we still need to learn?
Seeds start out small. Jesus used a mustard seed, mentioning that it is one of the smallest of all seeds. So often, we want to start out “large” in our faith. We see our doubts as failure, rather than immaturity. We see our slow growth as weakness–and it is! It is that very weakness that God wants to use to show HIS strength. When Jesus “lamented” that the disciples had so little faith, He wasn’t condemning them– instead He was pointing out that faith is a process–that seeds GROW into larger plants.
Seeds do not produce plants unless they are planted! I see websites and Christian bookstores selling jewelry featuring a small glass case with a tiny mustard seed inside. It’s a nice reminder of Jesus’ teaching about faith, but carrying around a mustard seed is NOT the same thing as having faith like a mustard seed. Faith that is never planted and rooted in good soil will remain nothing more than a seed– useful as a piece of decoration, perhaps, but dormant and unproductive. If I have faith “like a mustard seed” in money, or power, or in my own wisdom and skills, it is no more effective than if I throw it on the sidewalk, wear it around my neck, or put it in my pocket.
Seeds need soil, light, and water. Faith doesn’t grow in isolation. I need to listen to others, share with others, and, most of all, live in the good soil of God’s word. I need to pray for others– and I need the prayers of others! I need to talk to God daily; but I also need to read His words to me daily!
Seeds are designed to produce a harvest– fruit, grain, trees, and new seeds! I get distracted, thinking of how faith impacts MY life and my Christian walk. God wants me to grow stronger in my own, yes. But He wants my faith to be multiplied by being visible. Even a root vegetable sends a shoot or a plant above-ground, so there is evidence of growth underground. In doing go, the original seed will disappear! There are days when I cannot see my “mustard seed.” But that is (I hope) because the seed is becoming a mustard plant– producing evidence of God’s sustaining power and love, and providing “seeds” for others to plant.
There are days when my faith may feel small and dead. But I need to remember that the power is not in the “seed” of faith– no matter how small; no matter how large its potential–it is in planting that seed and letting God’s power transform a seed into fruit that will last!
Have you ever seen a photo collage–a large picture made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny photos? If you stand back, you can see a large picture– a face, or a landscape, perhaps–but when you get closer, you can see the many smaller photos that make up the details.
Prayer is like that. Each of us is a tiny details in the grander scope of the world’s population. Millions of people are praying at any given time on any given day. And we don’t see all of the others– sometimes we don’t see or hear or think of anyone else as we pray. But God sees and hears them all–moreover, God weaves and blends our prayers into something amazingly more than meets our awareness. Prayers of thanksgiving add a dash of bright color; prayers of anguish sound a minor tone; prayers of confession rise like incense, and prayers of worship wrap around all the colors and sounds and scents.
Yesterday, I was feeling very depressed and small. It was difficult to pray. My perspective was off, and I could only see my own problems and emotions. Prayer helped change my perspective. As I spoke to God; as I thought about His power and omniscience, I began to see that I WAS small–but my God is enormous! And while He sees the entire picture– all places and times and peoples–He also looks on every tiny detail. He knows my name; He knows my every thought. He knows my needs and my desires; He knows my weaknesses and my unique gifts– gifts He has given! Even if no one else noticed, God would be able to pick out the smallest detail in His amazing creation, and bring it into perfect focus.
It’s the end of October, and tomorrow will be Halloween. Stores and houses around the neighborhood are decorated with frightening figures of skeletons, witches, ghosts, and gravestones. Some of my friends love this time of year, and they look forward to binge-watching movies about zombies or vampires– anything scary, spooky, or terrifying.
I don’t like Halloween. I don’t like scary movies. But I believe in the value of fright. Life is filled with things–natural and supernatural– that fill us with real fear. And that is as it must be in a fallen world. Sin and death, evil and darkness, fires, earthquakes, violence and plague–they are real and should produce both fear and caution. The Bible is not silent or dismissive of such things. God’s laws warn against evil spirits, calling on the dead, consulting with witches, fortune telling, even giving in to anger, envy, and hatred. God’s laws also provide for hygienic practices to ward off disease and plague.
And yet, the Bible also gives hundreds of warnings against giving in to fear and letting it control our lives. We are to be cautious and wise where fear is concerned. Over all, we are to remember that God is bigger and more powerful than our fears. God can calm storms, put out fires, even conquer disease and death! There is no power, no force, no terror, that can overwhelm God, or touch those under His protection.
Terror holds no power in God’s presence. Therefore, if we know God, we can experience no true terror. But where there is no God, terror will reign. It’s like the saying: “No God; No Peace–Know God; Know Peace”. Terror comes with darkness, with chaos, with lawlessness and loneliness.
There is only one other kind of terror– a Holy Terror. We can be terrified by the awesome Holiness of God. It is altogether more powerful and alien than anything we can even imagine. Even for those who know God, there is the knowledge that God is GOD, and we are not worthy to look on His face or enter into His presence on our own. Normally, when we think of terror, we think of things that are very unholy–evil things; supernatural forces of darkness. Yet Holiness can also inspire terror because it causes us to see our own unworthiness; our own sin and failure. I am reminded of the “face-melt” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark– Nazis, who have been fearlessly and relentlessly pursuing the Ark of the Covenant, believing that it holds supernatural powers they can use to gain power over life and death, are suddenly and horrifically destroyed when they gaze inside–as they come in contact with the very Glory of God, their terror is absolute, and they are destroyed by its presence.
This season, may we celebrate that God, in His awesome and mighty power, constantly reminds us that we can “Know” Him without fear; instead of running, cowering, or melting, we can come to Him with confidence and joy! And in doing so, we can face any other terror, knowing that God is with us, and for us, and even filling us with His peace! We need not be filled with Holy Terror– instead, we can be filled with the Holy Spirit!
Jesus was asked many trick questions by people who wanted to discredit him during His ministry. One such query involved all the many commands of the law. “Which is the greatest?” With so many commandments, laws, rituals, and traditions, it would be difficult to pick just one. Which is more evil– lying, stealing, murder, idolatry?
But Jesus didn’t skip a beat. 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 9Matthew 22:37 NIV) Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:5), when God was giving instructions to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land. Of course, Jesus, as part of the Triune Godhead, was actually present for these instructions– in fact, as the WORD of God, He may have been the very one speaking the same words hundreds of years before!
The first three of the Ten Commandments all involve this concept. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”–don’t give your soul (your very essence) to someone or something else ahead of Yahweh. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”–don’t give your heart to worship anyone or anything that is created; instead, worship your Creator. “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain”–don’t use your mind to devalue and defame the Sovereign Lord.
God is Sovereign. He is Supreme. And He IS Love– it is not just something He chooses to do. Love is part of God’s essence, and it cannot live and thrive without Him.
But this brings up two questions: If God IS Love and He created us, why must he “command” us to love Him? This is one of the great arguments people try to use to deny God’s Sovereignty, His Goodness, even His existence. A Good, Wise, Sovereign, All-powerful God should not need to command love and worship from His creatures, should He? And, if He “commands” love and obedience, how can we truly love Him? We can fear Him, obey Him, be ruled by Him, but none of that sounds like Love.
In theory, such questions seem daunting. But we have dozens of real-life examples of how such commands work. Every nation (and principality, and even every household) has rules and laws directing us how to behave and demanding respect for certain values. “Don’t sass your parents.” “Don’t deface or defile sacred spaces.” “Don’t litter!” We find it distinctly unsettling when we see children treating their parents with disrespect, malice, even abuse. Or when we hear of people whose hatred leads them to burn places of worship, or defile gravestones in a cemetery, or commit treasonous acts that lead to the slaughter of hundreds of innocent neighbors or fellow-countrymen. The planet groans under the strain of people who dump their trash in rivers or streets, or wantonly start wildfires or kill helpless animals.
God does not “command” our love out of weakness. He could DEMAND abject obedience–overrule our will; punish without delay or hope of mercy; force us to act as robots or machines–but He desires us to Love Him freely. His command is for OUR good–when we choose to seek Him, follow Him, Love Him in ever greater measure, we grow to be more like Him–Loving Him teaches us what Love is really all about!
The Law itself, the “command,” is NOT what pleases God or makes us Love Him. God’s purpose is not that we become ritualistic, legalistic, or weak-willed. He wants us to be joyful and live abundant and productive lives. But left to our own devices and our own “wisdom,” we will not achieve any of this. In fact, even with the law and commandments, we will still fall short. God’s love is such that He gave us an impossible command– love Him with our entire heart, soul, and mind– and then, He provided the only Way to make it possible.
It IS possible to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. It doesn’t require that we become hermits or ascetics, wasting away in a cave or mountaintop, starving ourselves and crying out day and night. It does require that we recognize that He is God, and we are not. It requires that we accept His mercy for the times we have strayed. It requires that we seek His counsel, and His correction.
We need to love Him with our heart–draw near to Him in worship and thanksgiving.
We need to love Him with our soul–trust Him to direct our lives, now and in the future.
And we need to love Him with our mind–learn to listen to His words, and to meditate on them; to think more about the things of God, and less about the things of trivial and temporary import.
When I was growing up, I knew three important things about my father: I knew he loved me–and the rest of our family–faithfully and truly. I knew he loved God–He was a man of faith, prayer, integrity, and obedience to the Word. I knew he would do anything to protect and provide for our family.
But I also knew that my Daddy wasn’t perfect. He was not the strongest man in the neighborhood; or the fastest, or richest, or most respected. He wasn’t the tallest, or most athletic. He wasn’t a leader in local politics or a chamber group or fraternal organization. He didn’t have a string of degrees, or a fleet of fancy cars. He didn’t even have a lot of hair, or perfect teeth. But he had a gentle laugh, a deep wisdom, and a hug that made me feel safe and precious. He had a enormous heart– one that was easily touched, but firmly committed. He was humble and kind; he was loyal and brave and joyful.
I was blessed to have such a Dad. I know people whose earthly fathers were distant, disapproving, absent, or even abusive. Earthly dads, even one like mine, are still human. They make mistakes and bad choices; they carry baggage from their own childhoods; they carry fears and failures; they fall short of our expectations, and their own hopes and dreams.
God is a different kind of Father. He is eternally sovereign; the King of Kings, and the Creator of the Universe. There is no comparing Him with anyone else’s father– because He is the Ruler and Father of all! Yet, He wants a close loving relationship with each one of us– with me! With you! He is not just committed to doing His best to provide and protect some of us– He is fully capable of providing ALL our needs and protecting us against ALL enemies, including sin and death!
Someone once used the analogy of President John F. Kennedy. As President, JFK was arguably the most powerful man in the world– the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. At his command, soldiers, sailors, pilots, and even nuclear missiles, could be deployed. The stroke of his pen could sign bills into law, grant pardons, and appoint powerful positions. To enter the Oval Office and have an audience with the President was an honor reserved for rulers and generals and authorities– and his children.
There is a picture of JFK, Jr. as a small boy, peeking out of the Resolute Desk, as his father sits behind the desk conducting the business of the nation. The son had complete access to his father’s presence– access to the most powerful man on earth–his Daddy. He may not have fully understood what his father was doing, or even how important his father was– but he knew that he could spend time with his Dad.
Of course, President Kennedy was not God. He was fallible, and terribly mortal, as the nation learned to its grief. But the idea that God is distant and uncaring, or even vindictive and petty, is belied by the many Psalms and hymns and prayers throughout the ages. And the idea that God is just another “pal”, or “the man upstairs”–someone who loves us, but has no real power to command our obedience or rescue us from our enemies–is also belied by the many miracles and examples of His power in nature and in history. And unlike the exclusive nature of the relationship between JFK and his biological children, God invites ANYONE who calls on Him through His Son to be adopted as a son/daughter with the same intimate privilege of total access. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%201:11-13&version=HCSB (John 1:12)
So when I pray today, I’m not praying to my “Daddy” in any earthly sense. I am praying to the King of Kings, who also invites me to call him, “Abba”– “Dad.”
I have to admit, this is not a reaction I enjoy. I want to meet with God in prayer, feeling loved, confident, and joyful. And I know that God is sovereign, awesome, and powerful…but I want to revel in the goodness of redemption and the hope of glory, not tremble in fear or awe.
Yet, we are told to do both throughout scripture. I can’t really have one without the other.
Today, I need to tremble– to see and acknowledge the awful wrath of God, fully and horrifically borne by Jesus on the cross. God did not send His Son to tidy up an uncomfortable or embarrassing “slip” on the part of one man. Jesus bore the weight of the Holocaust and the nightmares of genocide, abortion, plague, and famine throughout the ages. Jesus paid the price of slavery, and sex trafficking, and human sacrifice committed over centuries and millennia of hatred and abuse. Jesus faced the punishment justly deserved by billions of acts of rebellion and rejection by people He had lovingly created. And He did it so that you (and I) could be held guiltless and allowed to enter the courts of praise.
Someday, we will see Him face-to-face. Yes, it will be joyful, and glorious. But it will also be cause for trembling. To see perfection, righteousness, Holiness, and Love, and yet see the One who was “pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities…”
There is little glory in momentary happiness or small victories. But when we stop and tremble at His Majesty, we arise with joy unspeakable, and true worship!
Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I learned this prayer as a child. It seemed very grim, and pessimistic. As a child, I spent very little time (as little as possible) thinking of my own mortality, or the state of my soul after a day of playing with dolls or running around outside. I was blessed with a safe and easy childhood. Of course, I had days of sickness, a bout of chicken pox, the loss of a pet, news of neighbors who had died in war, fallen to cancer, or been killed in accidents–moments that caused me to reflect a bit more. But I didn’t want to think about serious things. I wanted peace and happiness.
As a younger adult, I came to the conclusion that prayers like this were old-fashioned, and designed to scare vulnerable children into a false faith based on fear and gloom. Shouldn’t children learn about the Love of Jesus and the Mercy of the Father, instead of worrying about death and eternal doom of their soul? Prayers like this would be “bad” for young children; traumatic and disturbing. Better to teach them prayers that were sweet and light, and full of only the goodness of God.
Lately, however, I remember things a bit differently. Yes, there is gloom and doom in this old children’s prayer, but there is also comfort, Love, and Mercy. As a child, I could “lay me down” to sleep in peace, knowing that God would, indeed, keep my soul from harm. I didn’t expect to die, but when I woke up dreaming of monsters, or suddenly became aware of mortality, I didn’t have to stay fearful. God is bigger than any monster; bigger then Death. I could not trust anyone better, mightier, or more capable than the Lord to keep my soul, or to “take” it safely to its final destination. I learned about the Goodness of God, but I also learned about stark realities– the persecuted Church, war, famine, injustice–things that God wants me to confront, and endure, and lift to Him in prayer. And for every “gloomy” reality, there are stories of victory and joy, faith and resilience, love and grace– because God is standing by, ready to rescue and reassure and redeem.
I am old enough now that mortality plays a bigger role in my thoughts. I have lost a parent, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. I’ve experienced both great joy and great sorrow. But I need not be afraid of disease, dilemmas, or even death. I need not worry about the state of my soul. I may have griefs, aches and pains, and worries about tomorrow. But I can “lay me down” in peace and patience, knowing I have a Good, Good Father whose love has surrounded me for over half a century. I can “Hush” all my fears, and sleep like a baby, knowing my God is always standing right by my side.