Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep..

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Amen!

It’s the last word in the Bible. It’s normally the last word of our prayers. It is frequently used by the congregation during a particularly inspiring part of a sermon.

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But what does it mean to say, “Amen!”? The original Hebrew word means, “so be it,” or “let it be so.” It is spoken to express confirmation, solemn ratification, or agreement. Saying, “Amen!” is saying that we agree with the words the pastor has spoken, or the words that someone else has just prayed. But, ultimately, it is confirmation that we agree with what God will choose to do, and how He will choose to answer the prayer or speak to us.

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When we say, “Amen,” we are letting go of our will and trusting our prayers, our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires to God’s hands. God is sovereign. He can do anything He wants, regardless of our desires or plans; regardless of our feelings or our actions. He can thwart our plans, upset our circumstances, and set His face against us. But that’s not HIS desire. He wants our willing cooperation and approval. He doesn’t need it, but He desires it. He wants to hear us echo His heart, and respond to His loving care with a hearty “Amen!” Not because He needs it– but because WE need it. We need to rest in His sovereign power instead of trying to fight blindly against our circumstances. We need to wake up and act in accordance with His design, instead of wasting time in apathy and disdain.

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But “Amen!,” like any other word, shouldn’t be used lightly. “Can I get an Amen?” “In Jesus’ name, Amen” These are solemn oaths. “Amen” isn’t just a word of cheer or enthusiasm. It is an acknowledgement of God’s right to rule our lives. Even when it brings testing; even when it involves struggle and pain. All the time, God is in charge, and His ways can be trusted. “AMEN!”

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.

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But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.

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Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.

There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:

  • God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
  • Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
  • There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
  • Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
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I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.

God’s Mysterious Ways

I write about prayer as a pursuit. Prayer is, at once, both simple and mysteriously complex.

It is a simple thing to pray–to direct one’s thoughts and words toward God. It is no more difficult than having a conversation with another person.

And yet it is not the same as talking to another person. God’s ways are not our ways. He is Holy, Sovereign, and Almighty. We come to God in need, but God has no “needs.” He has no need to confide in us, or ask for our help, or plead with us. Instead, He chooses to share with us His promises and His plans. He allows us to be part of His great work, and asks us to be His hands and feet and voice in this world. He pleads with us to come and spend time with Him and walk in relationship with Him.

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I spent some time recently reviewing the life of George Muller. https://www.georgemuller.org/ George Muller was born over 200 years ago. He was, by his own admission, a liar and a thief in his early years. But when we came to Christ, his life changed dramatically. His life was a series of miracles that attested to his great faith and active practice of prayer. Muller founded several orphanages in England, and he did all of it through prayer. He never did traditional fund-raising: he never asked anyone for money or donations, he didn’t take out loans, he didn’t find “partners” or “sponsors” to pay for any of the needs. He simply prayed. He prayed for money to buy buildings. He prayed that God would send workers. He prayed for food and clothing and furniture that the children would need. And he vowed to take in any (and as many) children who came.

The stories of George Muller’s faith are legendary. He prayed for money to start one orphanage– he ended up with enough for several! He prayed for supplies– people came and gave furniture. Milk wagons broke down and the milk was donated to the orphanage. One story states that there was no food one morning. Muller prayed. Shortly afterward, he went to the door, and there, on the doorstep, lay a 50-lb. bag of rice. No one knows who left it or how it got there. God showed up in miracle after miracle in Muller’s life. And that doesn’t mean that his life was without struggle or heartache. He agonized over friends who were unsaved; he prayed for them over a period of years. One close friend remained unsaved until after Muller’s death. He experienced the heartbreak of losing his wife. But he was consistent in his witness about the power of prayer.

Muller prayed about everything– as we all should, all the time. (Philippians 4:6, 1Thessalonians 5:17) Little, seemingly unimportant things; huge, seemingly impossible things. God cares about them all. He is the Almighty– there is nothing so big (or so tiny) that He cannot do it! There is no heartache or struggle that He doesn’t want to hear about! Nothing can separate us from His Love (Romans 8:38). No matter what we’re going through, we can bring it to God.

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But God’s ways– powerful, compassionate, miraculous– remain mysterious. We can trust that God will hear our prayers. But we cannot predict how, or when, or if He will let us see the answers we seek. Nor can we predict how God will use our simple prayers to impact the world around us! George Muller’s orphanages helped more than 2,000 homeless children survive, grow, and in many cases thrive and contribute to the lives of countless others. And the stories of his faith and the hundreds of small but significant miracles he experienced have inspired generations of people for more than a century and a half! And his story is not unique–we have an amazing “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) throughout history testifying to the power of God to hear and answer prayer in mysterious, miraculous, even mischievous ways! From finding lost keys to feeding multitudes; from protecting kittens to rescuing captives; from stretching budgets to saving souls– God’s ways are mysterious, Holy, and wholly good.

Prayer can be such a simple thing– and it can have eternal impact!

Prayers That God Will Not Hear

We like to point out scripture that assures us that God will hear (and answer) our prayers. We like to remember God’s promises of blessing and peace and grace. And we tend to ignore or forget that there are some prayers that God has said He will not hear or answer.

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God will not answer prayers that are selfish, or hypocritical. He will not answer prayers offered in pride, self-righteousness, or unbelief (see Luke 18:9-14, and Hebrews 11:6). He will not listen to prayers offered by those who oppress the poor, those who worship idols, or those who practice violence. And He will not listen to the prayers of those who reject Him, and remain in sin. https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA160/does-god-answer-the-prayers-of-unbelievers (Please note: I don’t totally agree with the general conclusion here, but there are several great references for the individual points..)

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Please note that God does not say that He will not answer prayer based on WHO a person is–God does not refuse to answer prayers based on a person’s age, nationality, gender, physical health, mental health, height, weight, social status, or any other label, including their past religious affiliation! This means that a sincere prayer of a person who is seeking God may be heard ahead of (or instead of) a prideful prayer of someone who claims to be a Christ-follower.

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God is sovereign and omniscient– He knows what is in each heart, and He answers, not according to who we are, but according to who HE is. And just as He can separate our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and “remember (our) sins no more”(Hebrews 8:12), He can choose not to hear prayers that are offered with wrong motives or offered in defiance of His sovereignty and holiness.

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None of this takes away from the fact that God DOES hear and answer prayer…God LOVES to hear from anyone and everyone who seeks His face. Nothing external can separate you from His love. Come with your anger, questions, sorrows, pains, gratitude, hope; bring your failures, your fears, and your triumphs. But God, like a wise father, doesn’t suffer fools and fakers. Even if you can fool your neighbors, friends, family, or yourself, you cannot fool God. He doesn’t want a false narrative– He wants you as you really are. And He will listen with an everlasting love and compassion to all such prayers!

At the Impulse of Thy Love

Sometimes, I am impulsive. I blurt out my thoughts and emotions; I end up buying a candy bar as I finish checking out my groceries; I decide to turn left at the intersection instead of going straight. Generally, impulsive actions are frowned upon. They can be foolish, wasteful, even dangerous. God does not call on us to be foolish or thoughtless, but there are times when He wants us to act on HIS impulse– to obey without stopping to weigh the pros and cons, without stopping to consider how we will appear to others or how obedience might “mess up” our carefully planned day.

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Have you ever felt the “impulse” of God’s love moving you to an unexpected action? Maybe you had a sudden urge to speak to a stranger on a train, or get in touch with an old friend. Maybe you felt compelled to give a gift to someone or stop and offer to help carry a load for them. Maybe you saw a news story and it caused you to pray– and to remember someone’s need and pray some more!

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Our own selfish impulses can get us into a lot of trouble. But God’s impulses can lead to blessing beyond our understanding. Just remember:

  • God’s impulses will never cause you to act contrary to His word. Buying things you know you can’t afford (especially for yourself!), or blurting out judgmental and hurtful comments– such impulses are NOT Godly. “Speaking the truth in Love” is not the same as spewing finger-pointing condemnation and self-righteous justification. Trusting that “God will provide” is not the same as assuming He wants you to have everything you desire.
  • Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience. God’s impulses are meant to be spontaneous moments of joyful service– not grudging acceptance of an imposition. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a split second to discern God’s voice (see above) and respond appropriately. But God wants our “moments” as well as our “days”–He knows our plans. But He also knows His plans are better. If we are not willing for our plans to be redirected, then God is not really our Lord.
  • God’s impulses almost always involve others. God is LOVE. His impulses, therefore, are all about showing love–HIS LOVE–giving, serving, listening, helping, sharing, encouraging! God’s impulses will be directed outward, either toward others or toward God on the behalf of others. Amazingly, in God’s economy, we often reap a residual reward when we put aside our own plans. Sometimes the reward is not immediate or obvious–we may seem to meet with rejection, or even failure at first. Our actions may be misunderstood; our offers to help may fall flat; our prayers may seem to go unheard. But the love we show is not empty or worthless. We may never see the fruit of our actions or prayers, but we can still plant the seeds and water them!
  • God is a God of Grace and Mercy. Did you fail to act on a Godly impulse today? Stop. Take a moment to repent. Learn from today. Ask for wisdom to do better at the next opportunity!
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I’m always amazed at the miraculous opportunities God has given me to bless others, and to learn more about His amazing Love. From unexpected encounters in faraway places, to reminders and prayer requests on Facebook or local news stories, to a sudden urge to do a random act of kindness– God’s impulses give us the opportunity to participate in His miracles!

10,000!

A few years ago, singer and songwriter Matt Redman came out with a worship tune that has become a favorite for many. It’s called “10,000 Reasons.” But, while the song is recent, the idea and sentiment is not. In fact, it reminds me of at least two older hymns I remember from my childhood.

There is nothing particularly “magical” or spiritually significant about the number 10,000–it appears several times throughout the Bible, and usually signifies a large number or amount–it’s a number big enough to be impressive; it is difficult for most of us to imagine having 10,000 cattle on a farm, or 10,000 trees in an orchard, or 10,000 children to feed and clothe and house! It would be difficult to remember 10,000 names or 10,000 different passwords, or phone numbers– we can write them down or store them, but to remember them all on our own? Nearly impossible. And try to sit down and write out the titles of 10,000 books or movies of songs–or 10,000 people you have met in your lifetime. It might take days (unless you cheat and use a database), and even then, you probably would end up listing items that wouldn’t “count”– people you had not actually met or titles that were unfamiliar to you.

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We live in a world of huge numbers– millions and billions and trillions– numbers so huge that they don’t really seem “real.” The Bible doesn’t use a lot of these numbers; instead, God uses pictures and metaphors, like “stars in the sky” or “grains of sand on the seashore:” objects beyond counting and beyond comprehension. Yet there are large numbers in the Bible– specific numbers of warriors, priests, and people in the nation of Israel at various times in their history; large amounts of money owed or gifts given; large distances…and God is a God of them all. God knows the exact number of hairs on each head (sometimes many thousands, and sometimes just a handful!); He knows the number of grains of sand on the ocean, and the amount of water in each lake and pond and sea. He knows the name and size and position of every star and every planet and all their satellites.

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If we were to list all the many reasons that God is great, and good; kind and loving; powerful and majestic and holy– if we found one new reason every day, it would take more than 27 years to find 10,000 reasons! And we would only be getting started!

But here’s the catch: we will never find 10,000 reasons if we never begin to search for them. God will still be the “fairest of 10,000;” He will still be majestic and faithful; sovereign and glorious– but we can miss it all, and waste our life on 10,000 trivialities, or 10,000 complaints, or 100,000 lesser things.

God doesn’t publish a list of 10,000 (or 100,000 or a million) reasons to worship Him– but He gives us the opportunity to discover new reasons each and every day. And He invites us– all of us– to come and discover “10,000 charms” in the loving embrace of His Son! We are never more than a prayer away from another reason to sing His praises!

I Don’t Know Why…

I don’t know why…
God didn’t stop the bullet that took the life of a seven-year-old girl in Chicago last weekend;
God allowed for miraculous births in the same weekend in multiple hospitals around the world.

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I don’t know why…
Hundreds of people flocked to my hometown to defy social distancing measures and put others at risk of COVID-19 so they could drink and splash around in the shallows of a small lake. I don’t know why they left garbage and excrement in the lake and in people’s yards and in the high school parking lot.
Thousands of men and women risked their lives to maintain order and serve the public–donning their uniforms and braving the heat and the chaos to serve people who despise them, spit on them, defame them, and vilify them.

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I don’t know why…
God made snakes. And mosquitoes. And moles. And giraffes.

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I don’t know why…
On some days God feels so distant and silent; and other times He seems to be surrounding me and permeating me and holding me tight. I don’t know how His word can sometimes feel stale and sometimes cut right through me. I can’t fathom how God can be everywhere—every-when! That He knew me before all the history books and ancient empires and cities and shipwrecks and wars and all the stories I take for granted were even imagined…that He knows me now– every thought; every cell; every hair, every breath…that He knows me a million years from now. I don’t know why He chose to make me, and preserve my life, and bless me with days and hours, with friends and family, and teachers and tasks, challenges and changes.

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I don’t know why.
I don’t know how.

But praise God, I know WHO.
I know who made me. I know who holds me. I know who has the power to make good come from even the worst circumstances. I know who wins the ultimate victory over death and sin and disease and destruction.

And He walks with me and He talks with me—And He tells me I am His own!

A Legacy of Faith

Psalm 112 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Righteous Will Never Be Moved

112  Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
    who greatly delights in his commandments!
His offspring will be mighty in the land;
    the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in his house,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
    he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
    who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
    he will be remembered forever.
He is not afraid of bad news;
    his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.
His heart is steady; he will not be afraid,
    until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.
He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever;
    his horn is exalted in honor.
10 The wicked man sees it and is angry;
    he gnashes his teeth and melts away;
    the desire of the wicked will perish!

My grandmother would have celebrated her 108th birthday today. I’m confident that she IS celebrating today– but she no longer has to count birthdays, or worry that this one might be her “last.” She passed into eternity more than 25 years ago. But she and my grandfather left a legacy of faith, hope, integrity, and prayer that lives on. It is a quiet legacy– my grandparents were not “important” people–they worked hard, lived a simple lifestyle, and never made a showy practice of their faith. But they lived it in such a way as to leave others with a glimpse of what steadfast faith looks like.

Grandma was born just a few short weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. She lived through two World Wars (one of which kept her separated from her husband, working in a factory, and raising two young girls). She lived through times of war, times of riots and uncertainty, and times of disease and pain. She knew what it was to struggle and lose. She was born before women could vote. She and my grandfather lived through the “Great Depression,” picking up whatever odd jobs they could, and sometimes not having enough for rent or food. But she also knew incredible joy and satisfaction. She knew what it was to be loved and to give love. She knew the joy of seeing a job to completion, and of using her talents and skills to help others. Most of all, she and grandad shared an incredible faith– one that had been tested many times– in God’s goodness, His provision, and His faithful protection. They lived in circumstances that would cause many to fear. But I never remember Gram being frightened–she wasn’t oblivious to bad news and difficult circumstances–but she faced them with confidence and resolve, the kind that gave hope and courage to everyone around.

My grandparents moved a lot. I mean, A LOT! They probably moved 50 times (at least) during their 62 years of marriage. Sometimes, they moved because Grandad had “itchy feet.” He liked change; he liked to have new projects to tackle; he liked to feel “free.” He loved moving into a “fixer-upper,” or renting a place with a run-down yard. But sometimes, they moved because they had to. They moved a lot– but they were never “moved” from each other, from their family, or their faith. They didn’t lose hope; they didn’t shift opinions based on their circumstances; they didn’t break promises or end friendships.

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Psalm 112 gives a wonderful description of a “righteous” person. Not a self-righteous person, and not a perfect person (as none of us are perfect). But it is a great picture of the kind of legacy my grandparents left behind. They were generous– not just with money, but with gifts, work, time, hospitality, and words of encouragement and hope. They were rock-solid in their integrity– they went above and beyond not to cheat or lie or complain or shirk duties. In all their struggles (and in their good times) they never lost sight of God’s Goodness and Sovereignty.

My prayer today is that I would pass along such a legacy; such a witness. God is faithful, He is good, loving, and kind. He is never far from those who call on His Name, and He is able to deliver us from all our struggles. I am so grateful that, in addition to all the other blessings I take for granted, God gave me amazing grandparents. I hope He brings such people into your life today, and equips you to be such a legacy-builder, as well!

Aromatic Prayer

We have a tiny herb garden. It’s just a couple of plants each of a few different herbs– basil, rosemary, parsley, chives, etc., in small planters on our back stoop. Just enough to have fresh herbs for cooking. They smell really good when I go out to water them, or clip some to add to chicken stew or spaghetti sauce or noodles and butter.

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They add flavor and color, too, but it is the smell that grabs the attention and brings immediate joy.

Our prayers are supposed to be like that, too. The Bible compares our prayers to incense with a pleasing aroma. God delights in the fragrance of our prayers.

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That seems reasonable for prayers of praise, but what about prayers of pain? How can such prayers bring joy to God?

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When I water my herbs, they give off a pleasing aroma. But when I chop and crush the herbs to use them, the scent is stronger, the flavor richer, as the plants give all they have to the dish. Left in their planters, they will grow tall, but they will not be useful. They will smell good, but they won’t fulfill their greater purpose.

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God wants our praise– certainly. And He is worthy of it–completely. But God also wants our chopped, crushed, bruised, torn, and painful prayers of need and brokenness. He wants us to trust Him to make even our groans and cries for help into fragrant offerings.

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