One of the classic comedy routines of the 20th century was a skit by Abbott and Costello, called “Who’s on First?” It’s all about mistaken identities and confusion, when the roster of players on a baseball team contains unusual names and nicknames that sound “question-able”.
I love baseball, and comedy, but the routine should make us do more than laugh. One of the big problems we face is that we often don’t know “who” is on first (or second, or in left field) in the game of life. We tend to become spectators, and fans, but we don’t always know the names of the players, or what position they play. We watch as players–celebrities, government power brokers, athletes, etc.–come and go on the “roster.”
And it can filter into our prayers. While we look at the line-up of human “players” around us, we can forget that God is in charge of the outcome of the “game.” God knows exactly “who’s on first,” and who will be there at the bottom of the fourth. He knows who will strike out in the third, who will hit a grand slam in the fifth, and who will drop the ball in the sixth. While we watch the players and bite our nails when the bases are loaded and there is a full count, God already knows the next pitch.
We may not understand why “Who” is on first, instead of someone else. Sometimes, we see people rise to a position only to abuse their power and oppress others. We may question “Why?” as well as “Who?” Sometimes, we may ask, “How?” “How could God put them in the line-up?” And the only answer I can offer is, “I don’t know.” God’s ways may not make sense to us in the moment. We may never understand the How or Why of our lives or circumstances. But God sees the whole picture, and His ways are not our ways. His understanding is far greater than ours.
Finally, we need to make sure that we are more than just spectators. Watching from the sidelines may seem safer, but we won’t really learn how to pray if we never learn how to “play.” God loves prayer warriors, but He commands us to be “doers of (His) Word.” (James 1:22-25) If we are just listening from the sidelines, we will continue to be confused and frustrated– in our praying and in our living!
We may not always know “Who’s on First.” But we should take comfort in knowing “Who IS First.” No matter who takes their position as shortstop or who is throwing the pitches, God is always sovereign. No matter who seems to be “winning” the game, God has already determined the outcome of the ultimate “World Series.” We can pray with confidence, knowing that, with God as our manager, Christ as the umpire, and the Holy Spirit as coach, we have the winning team!
This weekend, we will celebrate the Fourth of July, or Independence Day, in America. Much will be made of the freedoms we enjoy here. Many are freedoms we take for granted; others are freedoms that have been twisted or abused by out citizens, residents, and visitors.
I am very grateful for the freedoms of America. As a citizen of the U.S., I enjoy Freedom of Speech and Assembly; Freedom of Religious practice; the Right to Bear Arms; the Right to a Jury Trial with representation; the Right to Vote and participate in the democratic process; the freedom to move freely and do business across state lines, and so much more that I take for granted. But I want to be very careful to keep a proper perspective on civil and national freedoms, and citizenship in the United States. My citizenship here comes with many opportunities and freedoms, but it is not perfect. It is also not eternal– my perfect and eternal citizenship is in Heaven.
The founders of the United States, in their Declaration of Independence, listed three “unalienable” rights– “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But they were clear about where those rights come from; not from a government, or a king, but from The Creator. Only God can give “unalienable” rights and freedoms. Governments can topple; Kings can be deposed; Laws and Constitutions can be overturned. The rights and freedoms we will celebrate this weekend were written on parchment, not stone.
When I pray, I don’t pray to a government–even one founded on solid principles and good intentions. And even a corrupt government cannot take away my freedom in Christ to call on My Creator. I cherish the freedom I have to attend worship service, and to pray with my husband in public, or meet with other believers to share prayer requests openly. But even if those freedoms were curtailed by a corrupt government, I could still commune with God– there is no prison, or dark corner, or hospital bed, or place of exile where God cannot meet with me, hear my heart, and answer my requests.
And it is THIS freedom that I fear I take for granted most of all– that I can freely and confidently approach the very Throne of the Almighty, Sovereign God, and expect to be heard and even welcomed. I don’t have to apply for permission from a priest or the angels to pray. I don’t have to bribe someone to allow me to speak to God. I don’t have to fear that my very act of prayer will cause God to cut me off from His blessings or His presence. The Ruler of the Universe, who has the authority over not only my life and death, but my eternal existence, wants me to seek Him and talk to Him. The one who has the authority to force my obedience wants me to choose to listen to Him and follow Him.
This incredible Freedom is available to every person, regardless of their nationality. As an American, I have the freedom to speak and write, and otherwise tell about and show others about this much greater Freedom. Am I using my civil freedom to point others to eternal Freedom? Am I using this incredible Freedom to seek God’s wisdom and grace to follow Him?
Prayer is an exercise in juxtaposition–we seek to have intimate conversation with a mysterious and unknowable God. He INVITES us into this mystery. He pursues us, seeks us out, surrounds us with His Presence, yet He hides His face from us and shrouds Himself in light and cloud.
God is Spirit– He is Eternal, Omnipresent, and Invisible. Yet He chooses to reveal Himself– in the beauty of Nature, in the smile of a stranger, in His revealed Word, and through His Son. Everything we need, we can find in and through Him, yet we cannot say that we comprehend Him, because He is so far above and beyond anything we can imagine.
Prayer is a humbling experience– to approach the Throne of the One who holds the Universe in the palm of His hand; but it is also an intimate and very personal experience– to run into the arms of the One who knit us together and knows the very hairs on our head (or lack thereof!).
After a lifetime of praying and pursuing prayer, I still marvel at the complexity, majesty, mystery, and fragility of prayer. That God should desire to listen to me–whimpering, questioning, confessing, and even offering my best and inadequate praise– it astounds me. And yet it also sustains me, strengthens me, and stimulates me. This same God who holds the stars and planets inhabits the tiniest of atoms in the air I breathe. The same God who ordered the first sunrise, and has watched empires rise and fall, cares when I shed a tear and rejoices when I laugh. God who is perfect, has mercy on me when I confess my pettiness and offers forgiveness when I throw tantrums. The same God who bore the pain and agony of betrayal and crucifixion promises eternal life to those who have rejected Him– if only they will listen, turn, and follow Him.
Today, let the awe of Who God IS– both sovereign, unknowable, and mysterious, AND intimate, loving, and gracious–wash over you as you enter into prayer.
There is no one “right” way to pray–God listens to our heart, whether we are standing, sitting, bowing, lying prostrate, or running! However, kneeling or bowing before God shows our heart attitude. And I think it is important to talk about it a little here.
Bowing or kneeling shows deference. A person bows or kneels before a sovereign or dignitary, someone of rank and importance, or someone in high authority. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 NKJV)
Bowing not only demonstrates God’s superior position, but reminds me of my own position before Him. It is a humbling position to kneel; to bow one’s head; to become smaller and cast one’s eyes down. If there is pride lurking in my heart, bowing may not come easily…
To bow or kneel forces us to stop, and puts us in a position for prayer. It forces us to turn away from distractions and from comfort. I can pray in any position, but I don’t generally kneel to do household tasks, or bow to take a phone call. Even if I am not in a position to physically kneel or bow, I can put aside distractions, and take a heart and mind “stance” of prayer.
Throughout the Bible, we are encouraged to bow or kneel when we pray– it is one among many stances of worship we are to take when approaching God’s throne. (see also Romans 14:11, Isaiah 45:23, Revelation 5:13, and Psalm 95:6-7)
Kneeling or bowing sets us apart. That is not to say that we should make empty postures to make ourselves look virtuous. But neither should we be afraid to bow our heads, or reluctant to kneel, if we feel led to do so. This is especially true when we are at home or in church. It may NOT be appropriate to kneel in the breakroom at work or bow your head while driving– but if bowing or kneeling at church or in your own home makes you feel uncomfortable (other than for physical limitations), because someone “might” see you, there may be another heart issue at stake.
Today, as I come before my creator, I will kneel in reverence, bow in humility, and worship Him in word and action.
In the movie, The Sound of Music, a young woman named Maria is asked to leave her life in a convent to become a governess of seven children belonging to a widowed Navy Captain. After a hectic first day, she settles in for her evening prayers. She lists by name all the people she wants God to bless; but as she goes through the unfamiliar names of the seven children, she realizes she has forgotten the name of the younger, “incorrigible” boy. After a short struggle, she simply asks God to “bless what’s his name.” That evening, a storm comes up and soon three frightened girls come running to Maria’s room, and happen to mention the boy’s name– Kurt. “That’s it. Kurt. God Bless Kurt!” A short time later, Kurt, his brother, Freidrich, and the other girls show up, and they all end up bonding and singing through the storm. It’s a nice movie scene, but it also teaches us a lesson about prayer.
Maria’s lapse reminds us that even when we try to include everyone, we often forget a person’s name, or forget one member of a larger group. Sometimes, we forget that we already mentioned someone else, and count them twice. It happens. When I was a teacher, even with my roll call list, sometimes I would make mistakes as I hurried through the task to get to a lesson. As I get older, I find it’s common for me to see a person’s face, and not be able to remember their name. And, disconcertingly, I often see a name and cannot remember the face! (“God bless Kurt…whoever he is.”)
God knows the weaknesses and limitations of our minds. While it would be irresponsible to pray “God bless what’s his name” every night, and never try to call Kurt by name, it is important to lift up the “what’s his/her names” in our lives, trusting that God knows their names, their needs, their hearts, and their unique place in His plans. The very fact that we remember some essence of their personality or presence is enough to make them worth lifting up to the one who knows them far better. And perhaps someone else, who has forgotten your name, but not your value to the Father, is lifting you up in this very moment!
Maria’s prayer also reminds us that it is important to pray for individuals BY name (when we remember). We can pray for nations, groups, civil and corporate bodies, and churches, but when we pray for individuals, calling them to mind and heart, we are continuing a prayer that stretches through time and around the globe. This prayer– this list of names and remembrance of faces and spirits– began with Jesus and His disciples, and continues unbroken over centuries. It is a single prayer, tying together brothers and sisters in Christ who are otherwise divided by language and distance, time, and tide. Children saying their bedtime prayers; aged saints at their morning devotions; mothers lifting up their precious children; fathers lifting up their neighbors; missionaries lifting up their persecutors–throughout generations–this prayer is a continuous offering, like incense, rising to the throne of grace.
God Bless Kurt. God Bless Gretl, and Fabiani, Yayoi and Bruno. God Bless You. And God Bless “What’s-her-name.”
How many times have you suddenly felt the desire to lift someone up in prayer? You have no idea why or what to pray about, just that you should lift them up– in concern, in gratitude, in remembrance…It might be that someone mentioned their name; or you’ve just seen someone who reminds you of someone you knew long ago; suddenly, they are in your mind–an old neighbor or friend, a classmate or co-worker, maybe even someone who hurt you or betrayed you. But you feel an urge to pray–urgently.
Maybe you’ve been on the other end– you get a sense that someone has been praying for you– something that you were dreading turned out to be less scary that you thought, or you had a “near miss” on the highway.. you don’t know who or where, but you know that someone, somewhere just prayed for you.
God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we ask others to pray for us; sometimes they let us know that they will be praying for us– but other times, we break into spontaneous prayer for someone “God brought to mind.” We may not know the situation; we may not know the particulars. Sometimes, we don’t even know the names or places– we just know we need to pray for a general group– missionaries, police officers, government leaders, teachers, fathers…
Stories abound of people who have obeyed such urgings– praying for people they barely know, or haven’t thought of for years–only to find that in that very moment, those people were in crisis and in need of help. Such stories help us see the heart of God. God is powerful enough to step in and take control of any situation. He doesn’t “need” us to pray for others in such cases. But He wants to include US in His plan! And by “bringing to mind” those who need prayer, and “bringing us to” the minds of others in our time of need, He reminds us of the importance of interconnectedness and dependence on Him.
Of course, we should be looking for opportunities to pray for those around us–faithfully, consistently, earnestly. But we also need to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who works to involve us in His ongoing work. Our hearts and minds may wander or waste time in empty thinking, but the urge to pray is one we should be quick to follow.
During the era of flintlock muskets, gunpowder was ignited by a spark from a flint striking a plate. The gunpowder was held steady in a small “pan”, and the resulting explosion was supposed to propel the lead shot “ball” or bullet to its intended target. But often, the gunpowder would not explode; it would simply burn out in a brief flash of light, failing to result in a shot, and wasting the powder. This was known as a “flash in the pan.” It came to symbolize an impressive display that accomplished little or nothing of use.
Years later, prospectors in the California Gold Rush would see a “flash in the pan” as they looked for gold. They would take a shallow pan, dip it in a river, bring up water and silt, dirt, and rocks, and swirl it around. Sometimes, they would see the “flash” of a gold nugget or gold dust. More often, they would see a glint of something else– pyrite, or “fool’s gold” was more likely than a flash of real gold. And, as the water swirled, the tiny flash of gold could disappear amid the eddy of dirt and other dull rocks– remaining just a “flash in the pan.”
Early photographers, struggling to bring enough light into their studios, experimented with explosive powders, hoping to get a “flash” of light bright enough to create a better negative exposure, so that their subjects would not have to sit so long in the same position in order to get a clear image. They would mix powders, spread some of them on a shallow “pan,” and ignite them to create a brief, but brilliant, flash of light.
Our lives may sometimes seem like “a flash in the pan.” Our days are numbered, and our abilities limited. Even our brightest ideas and most explosive actions seem to be swallowed up in the larger scheme of things; our good deeds and noble intentions disappear in the swirling waters of time and the tides of injustice, disease, and evil around us.
But our lives, while brief, can be more than a “flash in the pan.” We are called to be the follow Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Jesus’s life on earth was brief, even by human life expectancy. But unlike a spark that burned itself out and ended in death and darkness, Jesus brought light and life that continues today. And He calls us to use our lives in ways that light the way for others.
Sometimes, our prayers can also seem like brief flashes, producing little of significance. But God hears each one, and it is in His power that our prayers become part of the larger “picture” of His plan.
I was thinking the other day about the movie, “Forrest Gump.” In it, a bitter, beaten, and angry character begins arguing with God– in the midst of a hurricane!
“Lieutenant Dan” was an able soldier, fighting in Vietnam and in charge of a small unit, which included the simple-minded Forrest Gump. When their unit was ambushed, Dan was badly injured and lost the use of his legs. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump received only a small flesh wound, and managed to save several of his fellow soldiers, receiving a medal for bravery. One of the soldiers rescued by Forrest, Dan resented his situation– disabled and ignored– while Forrest went on to become successful and celebrated.
Worse, in the years after the war, Forrest found Dan, homeless and dejected, and offered him a job and a home– on his shrimping boat. Forrest knew next to nothing about shrimping, and Dan, torn between bitterness and gratitude, gives Forrest a hard time. Dan’s life has gone nowhere, and Forrest seems to dodge every bullet (literally), finding success in spite of his naivete and seemingly stupid choices. When the two men find themselves in the middle of a hurricane, Dan can take it no longer. He lashes out– not at Forrest this time, but at God. How could a loving God allow Dan to go through trial after trial– the loss of his legs and so many of the men under his command, the loss of his dignity and productivity, the loss of his independence, and now, another deadly situation beyond his control. He yells at God–“Come and get me!” He challenges God to just kill him; just finish him off, or leave him alone.
But God is silent– and soon, so is the hurricane. Forrest and Dan have survived. In fact, Forrest’s decision to be out of the harbor means their boat is the only one to survive–suddenly, they can’t catch the shrimp fast enough! Forrest becomes a millionaire and hires a fleet of fishing boats. But what about Dan?
Somewhere in the middle of the storm, Dan’s heart is pierced by a simple and life-changing thought. God has not been the one “ruining” Dan’s life– He is the one who has been preserving it! God brought him through war, disability, injustice, loneliness, frustration, and the raging sea. God was not a cosmic bully. God was not singling out Dan for punishment– after all, thousands of others had been wounded and killed in the war; millions of people knew what it was like to be hungry, homeless, and lonely; and hundreds had been devastated by the hurricane– even while they were safely evacuated or hunkered down on land. Forrest had not dodged every “bullet.” He had lost his best friend in battle; he had been rejected (time after time) by the woman he loved; he had been teased, bullied, and cheated dozens of times, and he had been tossed about by the same waves and winds Dan had survived. Dan ends up leaving Forrest, and setting off on his own, having found a peace that transcends his pain and bitterness. He swims off with a smile, leaving behind the opportunity to remain with Forrest and make millions.
Arguing with the Almighty is very tempting when we face difficult circumstances– and when we focus on our own lot, and not on the bigger picture. God is bigger than any of the troubles we face. And He is not unaware or unconcerned about whatever we are going through. Just as Lieutenant Dan challenged God, the biblical character of Job challenged God to vindicate him as he went through trials and pain. God finally answered, and Job realized that God was far bigger than anything Job had ever known or experienced. And in the end, God restored Job– giving him a new family, and even more material wealth than he had before!
Sometimes, God allows us to go through periods of pain and struggle– not because He is punishing us or because He is a tyrant, but because He is more interested in our ultimate salvation than He is in our immediate comfort. We moan and complain that God “doesn’t want us to be happy,” as if our momentary happiness is more important than our character development, than the happiness of those around us, or than God’s design for the world.
Near the end of the movie, Lieutenant Dan visits Forrest. He is transformed. No longer angry and bitter, he is quiet, self-assured, and standing! He has “new legs” made of titanium, and he has found joy, love, and success of his own.
Of course, many of us, regardless of our situations, have tried arguing with God at certain times of our lives. The loss of a loved one; the breakup of a marriage; a diagnosis of cancer; a miscarriage of justice and the loss of a reputation– it is natural to be angry, hurt, and confused. And God is more than big enough to “take it” when we ask “WHY?!!” But we will never “win” such arguments– not because God is a tyrant who won’t let us have what we want– but because God is GOD, and we are not. He alone knows how our story ends, and what trials– and blessings– await us. He alone knows what is “right” in the scope of eternity– not just for us, but for our loved ones, our neighbors, our nation, and our times. God can see that we get, not just “new legs,” but a new heart, and a new mind!
Hurricanes happen– so do hurts and hurdles. We can choose to see God’s hand–and believe that it is raised in anger, or reaching out to hold us. That choice is yours. That choice is mine. Every day.
It is supposed to be springtime in my neck of the woods. We’ve had two days of snow this week, chilly winds, and frost/freeze warnings. Fruit farmers are worried about losing the fragile blossoms that we need for apples, peaches, and cherries later this year. Many of the spring flowers are also in jeopardy. People are joking that we need to “unplug” springtime and “reboot” it, because it seems not to be working! The seasons seem “out of time.”
Sometimes our lives seem the same. We expect a season of growth or warmth, only to feel the cold winds, or we experience drought when we expected rain. Our prayers will change as the seasons come and go– young parents pray for patience as their days are hectic; aging parents pray for visits from their busy children and grandchildren. We go through seasons of success, seasons of stress, seasons of forced immobility, seasons of grief, and seasons of distracted activity.
Throughout the Psalms, David and the other psalm writers sang of woes and wonders, praises and problems– sometimes within a single Psalm! We have seasons of questioning, and seasons of confidence. Sometimes, we feel close to God; other times, we wonder why He seems so far away. Our “songs” and prayers will change over the course of our lives and according to our moods and circumstances– desperate, worshipful, even indignant. Yet God hears them all– He wants us to pour out our hearts in all seasons!
Our seasons may change, but God is Eternally Loving and Sovereign. Our moods and changing circumstances cannot remove us from His watchful eye or His tender care. Our momentary anger and doubt are not beyond His willingness–even eagerness– to forgive and redeem! God is Lord of all the Seasons– seasons of snow and sunshine; seasons of joy and sorrow. Even when our seasons seem “out of time,” we can lift our voices to a God who never changes.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.