Bloom Where You Are Planted

I love living in Southwest Lower Michigan– especially in the spring.  We have blossoms everywhere– apple blossoms, cherry blossoms, dogwood, red buds, tulips and irises, hyacinth and daffodils.  The rich earthy smell of freshly plowed gardens and fields permeates the air, and rides on the breezes coming off Lake Michigan.  Birds, newly returned from their winter wanderings are busily building nests, chirping away, while the sun’s rays chase away the last of the winter chill each morning.  There is color and new life everywhere you turn.

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We have a lot of spring festivals in the area, most of them centered on the blooms and blossoms that fill the countryside.  Gardens, orchards and fields are not just for show around here– they are also important parts of our economy and eco-system.  Without a good spring full of blossoms, buds, and blooms, we may have a disastrous harvest in the fall, and run-off of the soil; bees will die off, wild and domestic animals will have less grass and fewer berries to eat.  A late spring can shorten the growing season and shrink the harvest; an early spring can bring buds out too soon, only to have them lost to a late season frost or to have them mature too early and be burned in a mid-summer drought.

And yet, I have seen crocuses burst through two inches of snow; buds that defy harsh weather and cruel winds.  I have seen daffodils blooming where there once was a house and a yard, but now there are only brambles and foundation stones.  I have seen trees twisted and split by long-ago storms– one side dead and rotting, but with buds and new branches on the other side.

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It is easy to bloom when you are in a lovely flower bed, with tilled earth, fertilizer, gentle rains, just the right amount of sun, and protection from the winds and pests and birds.  But it is more spectacular to bloom in the desert; to defy the odds and stand in stark contrast to brambles, a broken-up sidewalk, or a litter-filled back alley; to bloom in the snow and sleet or weather a flood or a tornado.

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Not always so with prayer.  Sometimes, it is easier to pray when we feel our own needs and shortcomings; when we are driven by our circumstances to call out for help.  When all is well, we may be grateful, but we may also begin to slack off.  We stop asking for wisdom and guidance, coasting in the beauty and ease of a good life, and forgetting that the beauty and the ease– indeed the life itself– is not our right, but a gift.  Amid so many other beautiful prayers, ours seem drab and ordinary, almost unworthy of God’s notice.

But God DOES notice– he has placed each of us where he wants us to bloom and grow– to pray, to fellowship, to walk with other believers and give off the fragrance of His grace as we live our lives in obedience to Him.  Have you been planted in an apartment complex?  Have you been planted as a suddenly single parent of three kids?  Have you been planted on a campus?  In a group of friends that all have Harleys?  Or one block from a rescue mission or homeless shelter?  A classroom full of high-energy first-graders?  A community that has had a lot of crime and blight?

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God has not placed you in circumstances to reward or punish you, but to grow you in the soil that can produce the best harvest.  Is your prayer list filled with needy people who live in turmoil and rebellion?  Bloom where you are planted– you may be the only person praying for your cantankerous neighbor– the only raindrop or fertile soil s/he will ever encounter.  Has God placed you in a family of people who taunt you for your faith?  Bloom where you are planted– pray for strength to stand firm in the beauty of meekness and compassion in the face of their taunts and disdain.  Are you in a greenhouse full of self-righteous orchids making you feel dowdy and wilted by comparison?  Bloom where you are planted– pray for God’s eyes to see the beauty in yourself, as well as those around you, and stop trying to be an orchid where God needs a lily.

Has God planted you in trying circumstances?  Bloom where you are planted– pray for God’s Peace as you face each day:

Matthew 6:25-34 English Standard Version (ESV)

Do Not Be Anxious

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[a] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. * 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.*

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

*Emphasis added

“Hallowed Be Thy Name…”

Christians have a lot of confusing “jargon”.  If you grew up in the church, there are certain words and phrases that are supposed to be intuitively understood.  If you didn’t grew up in the Bible Belt, or in an old-time church, you may feel like you’ve been dropped into a parallel universe where people speak the King’s English– but it’s King James’ English!  Words that would fit neatly into a Shakespearean monologue are flung at you:  “Thou shalt not,” “graven images”, “begat”, “beseecheth”, “whosoever believeth,” “Hallowed be Thy Name.”

As a child, I used to think the phrase was “hollow-ed be thy name”– it was confusing.  Why would God want his name emptied and hollow?  Why would I do that?  Of course, it was explained to me that “hallowed” meant holy, or honored, or revered.  That made more sense, but I think in some ways we have done more “hollow-ing” and less “hallow-ing” of God’s name in our churches lately.

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And it’s not just the argument I hear a lot about actual language usage.  I hear some people complain about those who pray to “Daddy God” or “Papa God” or those who use “OMG” when they text, or “Jeesh!”  To me, these are “splinter” arguments (another Christian jargon term, referring to Jesus’ example of someone trying to pick a splinter out of someone else’s eye when they have a plank in their own!).  The real trend I see is that we are losing our attitude of AWE in God’s presence.  We use words, and carry attitudes that devalue the one who is most worthy of our absolute best.  Or, we try to put ourselves, our own efforts, and our own attitudes in His place.

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God wants a relationship with us; he loves us with an extravagant, boundless, and everlasting love.  He doesn’t want us to run from him in fear or hide from him behind big, empty, but important-sounding words.  In fact, in his time on Earth, Jesus walked side by side with his disciples, he ate with people, embraced his friends and family, danced, burped, wiped his nose,  held children on his lap, laughed, and lived among us.  But he is eternally GOD.  Yahweh– the LORD–I AM.  Almighty, all-powerful, omniscient and completely HOLY.  And his Name is to be revered.

When we say that we follow Christ;  when we call ourselves Christians, we bear that name– we take on that name–we strive to be ambassadors and representatives of that name which is above all names.  This isn’t just about saying his name, “Jesus”, “Father”, “Savior”, “Heavenly Father” in a less-than-honorable fashion.  It’s about how we represent His Name as his ambassadors.

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We’re not perfect; we will not always live up to the Name we carry– that’s part of the Gospel message–Jesus came to show us how we ought to live, and to give us victory over the reality that we can’t do it in our own flawed state.  But in praying “Hallowed be thy Name,” we are not asking for God’s name to become more honorable.  We are asking God to give us the wisdom, the power, and the desire to bring him the honor and worship he so rightly deserves.  And that only happens when we live transparently, humbly, and in a manner worthy of His Name.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…”

Can You Hear Me Now?

We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend.  No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs.  We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal.  And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!

It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster.  I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication.  Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope.  (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)

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Isolation is an earthly concept.  God is eternally Triune.  He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18)  God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.

That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential.  It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

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But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us.  Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face.  Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer.   Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?

I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer.  I don’t know.  I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:

  • what comes easily has less value to us.  Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied.  Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge.  The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt.  Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being.  And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought.  We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.

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  • sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy.  When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
  • sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer.  However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong.  Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed.  Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
  • sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe!  It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith.  Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up.  God DOES hear, he DOES care.  Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!

And what can we do during those times?  Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:

  • Learn to “pray outside the box”–
    • Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
    • Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
    • Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
    • Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up.  Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?

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  • Count your blessings
    • Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
    • Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
    • Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack?  How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
  • Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
    • Search for answers in His word
    • Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
    • Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated

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The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.

 

When Sorrows Like Sea-Billows Roll..

My mother and I shared a wonderful morning shopping and enjoying the spring weather.  We both arrived home, only to be greeted with the news that one of our extended family members had died in an accident.  Just the day before, another member of our family had passed on at age 94.  Both of them left a legacy of faith, hope, joy, and kindness that leaves us grateful, but grieving their loss.

And it is a loss– even though both of them were Christians, even though we have the great hope of being reunited with them in Heaven, even though both of them led full lives–they were unique on this earth, and everything that made them special and irreplaceable to friends and family is now absent; a gaping, aching hole, lined with teasing flashes of memories, echoes of laughter, and unanswered questions.

Some days, the hits just keep coming– an unexpected expense, a misunderstanding at work, a fender-bender during the commute, a plumbing nightmare, a migraine, the phone call with bad news.  Each new pain rolls over us, throwing us off balance, and trying to drag us under.

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“Even so, it is well with my soul.”  The story of this favorite hymn has been told many times, but it bears repeating. ( It Is Will With My Soul. wikipedia.org )  The author of these words had lost everything– his only son had died; shortly afterward, he lost almost all his money and property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  A friend, knowing of his troubles invited him to bring his family to England for an evangelistic campaign.  Mr. Spafford (the above-mentioned author of the hymn) had to stay behind and sent his wife and four daughters ahead.  Their ship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another vessel and sank.  All four of the daughters were drowned, and only his wife survived to send him news of the tragedy.  As he made the heartbreaking voyage to rejoin his wife, he passed the place where his daughters had most likely gone down.  At that moment, Mr. Spafford felt a welling of peace and hope beyond human understanding, which led him to pen the words that have given comfort to so many in the years since:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Nothing can prepare us for the sorrows that sweep over us at unexpected moments.  Nothing can stop them, and though we know they will come, no one knows how high they will rise, or when they will crest and break around us.  No one except the one who set the boundaries of the sea, the one who has walked on its waters, and the one who can calm the storm.

God doesn’t remove the sorrows or tragedies from our life or prevent them from washing around and over us.  But for those who trust in him, there is a promise that we will not be consumed. We may be in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a raging sea, but at our faintest cry, Jesus will walk on choppy waves to be by our side and bring comfort.  He will teach us to be in awe of him as he commands the winds and waves to obey him.  He will teach us to trust him in the good times and the bad.  He will teach us to say, “It is well with my soul!”

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What Did You Say?

Every once in a while, I like to check an app that counts the words I use on Facebook.  The end result is a cloud full of words that people see when they read my posts.  (You can see my most recent one above.)

Sometimes, I like the cloud– I love to see it filled with words like Love, People, God, Prayer, Joy, Peace, Thankful, etc.  I’d like to think that this is how I always look and sound.  Of course it isn’t.  I don’t always speak encouragement and love on people.  Sometimes, I complain and rehearse negative self-talk, or I explode and rant about bad drivers, rude customers, constant bills, and more.  Checking on my word count may not keep me from using negative words altogether, but it does show me patterns I may not be seeing or hearing on my own or from my friends.

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My prayer life acts in this same way–especially as I journal about my prayers.  I can look back through my prayer journal, and see patterns in prayer requests, notes, and even answers to prayer.  Sometimes, I see patterns of struggle–desperation, need, frustration.  Sometimes, the pattern is steady; other times it is a roller coaster of ups and downs.

It’s important to spend a little time periodically getting feedback like this.  Why?  Because what we actually say (and pray) may be very different from what we think we have said.  Jesus was very careful about words:

Matthew 12:35-37 English Standard Version (ESV)

35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Mark 10:17-18 English Standard Version (ESV)

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Paul is also careful to distinguish between words:

Romans 5:7-8 English Standard Version (ESV)

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

I include the last two examples because they both refer to “Good” people.  I want people to see God’s goodness in me.  But idle or careless words and habits can show up in my thought life, my prayer life, my on-line life, and my face-to-face conversations.  In attempting to show how “good” I am (self-righteousness), or how clever I am (even at someone else’s expense), or how__________________________________ (daring, popular, hard-working…you get the idea) I am, it compromises all that I want my life to say about God, and all that He is waiting to say through me.

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Words matter– whether in praying or blogging or commenting on someone else’s post.  I pray that I am making mine count!

Why Ask Why?

I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot lately in regards to this blog.  Why am I spending my time writing about prayer?  Wouldn’t I be better served to spend my time productively– making something useful, keeping the apartment cleaner, going to the gym–even spending more time in prayer instead of dissecting it and babbling on to an invisible audience?

But the truth is that I began writing this blog in response to another question, a more basic question thrown at me (not personally, but thrown out to all who believe in the power of prayer)–  “WHY?”  They weren’t asking the question because they really wanted to know my reasons for praying; instead, they wanted to make me feel ashamed and embarrassed, to doubt God’s goodness and my faith.  In fact, they weren’t asking “WHY” so much as asking “HOW”.  How can you continue to believe in God and continue praying in light of random shootings, manifest injustices, rampant corruption, and senseless tragedies?  How can you say that God is good, when people continue to get away with evil?  If God exists, where is he, and how can you just sit back and trust in him?

The fact that I DO continue to trust God doesn’t mean I don’t have questions and concerns, and even righteous anger about the state of the world and the tragedies that fill it.  The questions come pouring out, sometimes keeping me awake at night, sometimes catching me at a raw moment and they are important questions.  To pretend that I never wrestle or struggle with the questions is to say that good and evil, justice and mercy, that God himself– none of it really matters enough to seek an answer.  God forbid!!

But there is a vast difference in asking “Why?” and asking “How? or How come?”

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Consider a small child who asks, “Why is the sky blue?”  (Don’t you just love the inquisitiveness of small children?)  “Well…” I can explain that the sky itself isn’t really blue…I can go on to talk about scientific principals– the property of light, refraction through water molecules and dust particles, and more..I can point out that the sky doesn’t always appear blue, etc.  At the end of my long and factual discourse (assuming the child hasn’t already interrupted), s/he is likely to simply shake their head and ask, “But, why?”  WHY?  Because I haven’t really answered the heart of the question.  I explained HOW, not WHY.

Now suppose I don’t feel like being pedantic, and I answer “Because.”  You can guess what comes next.  The child will ask, “Because WHY?”  Because “Because” isn’t a sufficiently satisfactory answer.  The child wants more; he/she yearns for more comprehension; more understanding.

As an adult, we find this kind of questioning frustrating and annoying.  I think it is because we have been conditioned to think that questions either have a “How come” explanation that sweeps away much of the wonder and mystery, or a “because” answer that leaves us unsatisfied.

As an adult, I may well ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”  This is an important question; one I should be asking.  Experts can and will give me all kinds of “how” answers– how the brain is wired, how emotions work, how society has failed various groups of people, how political structures create oppression, how religion teaches intolerance, how poor diet or lack of sunny days … there are a million explanation of “how” evil exists or why it persists.  And many of these explanations contradict each other, so they can’t even give a conclusive answer.  But just throwing up my hands, and saying, “just because” does nothing to answer my question OR provide understanding that could help alleviate the effects of evil in the world.  “Because” communicates my powerlessness to comprehend.

BUT

Something amazing happens when I stop merely asking people for answers to these questions and start asking God.  I don’t get a magical, comprehensive, incontrovertible answer to life’s thorny questions.  God doesn’t send me a “cheat sheet” with all the “right” answers.  I’m not suddenly an expert on good and evil or what should be done to eliminate crime and disease and poverty.  I still have to wade through the “how come” explanations and use my limited judgment to decide what course of action I can take to try to make a positive difference.  And I will make some mistakes along the way.  But when GOD says, “Because”, there is an authority, a majesty, and a wisdom that can never be present in my answer.  I say “because,” because I have no more to say; no better answer.  God says, “Because,” because HE IS the cause!  And he gives explanations in his word for many of my questions– even if I don’t like the answers!  He doesn’t explain “how come” the sky is blue– he causes it to be blue.  “Why is the sky blue?”  God says so.  “But why?”  Because He is God and I am not.  God explains “how come” there is evil in the world– it’s called SIN–but he doesn’t leave it there.  “Why?”  Because we have the free will to choose good or evil.  “Why?”  Because God wants willing obedience and loving companionship with us.  “Why?” Because God is love!  “So why does he allow evil to continue?”  Because he has a plan that involves redemption and restoration and renewal.  He is the cause of this plan, it’s author and finisher.  Moreover, he is the cause of my desire to ask “why?”, to seek for a more fulfilling answer, to yearn for a solution to the very evil that prompts my questions.

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I won’t stop asking “why.”  Not because I don’t have any answer, or because I don’t know the answer.  It’s just that the answer is so much bigger, so much better, so much MORE than I can handle in the shortness of this lifetime.  And it’s important that I not only keep asking the question, but that I keep defending the answer.

 

1 Peter 3:14-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

 

Great Expectations

Earlier this week, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (otherwise known as Prince William  and Kate Middleton), welcomed their third child.  As with most royal births, there was a lot of fanfare and speculation well in advance of the actual delivery.  Early tabloid reports hinted at twins; bookmakers were figuring odds for delivery dates, names– even what the Duchess would be wearing as she brought the newborn outside for his first “sighting”.  As of the writing of this blog, the name has yet to be announced, which is cause for more speculation and anticipation.

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Preparing for a newborn is exciting, and filled with certain expectations.   We imagine what the baby will look like, what kind of personality s/he will have, all the wonderful discoveries to be made. But we need to be careful not to let our expectations become idols.  There’s nothing wrong with hoping for good outcomes, but it can be dangerous to get locked into a particular expected outcome.  Children surprise us (in good ways and other ways) be being themselves, and not who or what we expect them to be.

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When we pray, we sometimes come with certain expectations–that God will answer in a certain way or on a certain timeline.  This is not the same as having faith.  Faith says that God will hear our prayer; that he knows best, and that he will act in accordance with his own love and mercy.  It doesn’t mean that he will give us what we want when we want it, or that he will give us what makes us comfortable and happy.  His answers may seem difficult or even painful to accept– certainly not what we were expecting.  When he chooses to answer in ways that don’t meet our expectations, we wonder why.  When he chooses to say “wait,” or even, “no,” we may feel cheated and even resentful, instead of thankful that our prayers are heard by a loving God.  Often, we have built up such expectations of what “the best” should look like that we miss the real miracle God is giving us instead.

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Worse, there are times when our expectations reveal a lack of faith or a lack of understanding of God’s ways.  We pray for peace, but what we really want is ease and comfort.  Peace– real peace– is often revealed in times of stress, hardship and loss!  We don’t want stress; we don’t pray for stress, but stress and hardship are going to come into our lives at some point.  Praying for peace won’t bring stress, any more than not praying will keep it away!  We expect the peace to come without the battle; we expect the growth to come without the growth pains; we expect to win the race without having to run!

Sometimes we won’t even pray for what we really want or need because we expect that God will “test” us or give us difficult circumstances if we ask for certain things (like patience or peace).  We see God as some sort of cosmic con artist, who teases us with the promise of good things, only to laugh as we suffer.  But this is a wrong view of God.  God doesn’t play games or “trick” us by giving us hardship when we ask for healing, though it may feel like it at the time. Suffering and hardship are not the gifts of God– his amazing gift is the ability to redeem even the worst of circumstances and bring joy and rest and peace that passes any expectation, any dread, or any understanding we have.  Often, our very desire for extra patience, peace, and joy are opportunities for us to learn more about God’s grace–and more about ourselves.

Life seldom meets our expectations–God is waiting to exceed even our wildest dreams!  Don’t just pray expecting something good might happen.  Pray expecting God to SHOW UP!

 

Looking Back

In my pursuit of prayer, I have found it helpful to keep a Prayer Journal.  One of the reasons is that I can look back and see what prayer concerns and issues I prayed for weeks, months, or even years ago.  I also save space in my journal to go back and fill in how God answered those requests, or what the progress has been in those areas of concern.  see also: Proactive Prayer Points

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The Bible warns us to be very careful about looking back…the most famous example is the tragedy of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19).  In looking back, she lost her chance to rebuild a life after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and was turned into a pillar of salt.  In the book of Exodus, the newly freed Israelites grumbled about their circumstances and looked back with fondness on their lives in Egypt, forgetting their oppression in their homesickness for certain foods (Exodus 16).  Spending too much time and energy on the past leaves us with little motivation and energy for the present or future.  The past should never become more important to us than moving forward.  If we long for the past, if we romanticize it or cling to it, fearing the changes and opportunities to come, we can stagnate, and miss the blessings playing out right before our eyes.

But we should take some time periodically to look back in order to gain perspective.  The same Children of Israel who grumbled about leaving Egypt, once they arrived in the Promised Land, were commanded to remember their wandering in the wilderness, and told to teach their children about the past (Deuteronomy 8).  Holidays and religious rites were instituted as reminders of the past.  But this kind of looking back gives us renewed encouragement, incentive, and momentum to keep going by showing us how far we’ve come, and reminding us of God’s faithfulness.

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I am especially encouraged when I see how God has answered prayer–so often, I’ve forgotten about trials and struggles that have come my way–issues that seemed huge in the moment, but in hindsight look insignificant.  Sometimes, God’s answers were immediate and breath-taking.  Sometimes, they were subtle and were revealed in several stages.  Sometimes, the answers revealed how God was working beyond anything I imagined!  Often, the requests reveal how I have grown (or not!) to trust him more or to listen better to those around me.

And, just like that, I have material to add to today’s prayers– gratitude for prayers answered, hope for new growth, praise for God’s faithfulness, and confession for times I have doubted or looked back in envy or regret.

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An Encouraging Word

It can be a dog-eat-dog kind of world out there.  Every day, I hear of people who are facing difficult and trying circumstances– health issues, loss of a job or home, loss of a family member or close friend, depression, oppression, harassment, rebellious or estranged children, abuse, academic failures, exhaustion from being provider, caregiver, etc.– even just daily stress.  It can really take a toll.  But it becomes even more difficult when we isolate ourselves.

When I get stressed, I tend to withdraw.  I don’t want others to think of me as a failure, or to think less of me in my struggles.  But this is one of the worst things I can do.  First, it means more worry and stress because I’m bearing the burden alone!  Second, it forces me to cover up my level of anxiety or depression be pretending that things are fine then they aren’t.  That would all be bad enough, but it gets worse.  Isolating means my focus turns inward– my problems become bigger, not smaller;  I’m so close to the problem, I’m not able to “look outside the box” for solutions, because my box keeps closing in on me.  I can’t see beyond my circumstances to understand if they are temporary, or if they necessitate some life changes on the other side of whatever crisis I’m dealing with.  And, worst of all, the only voice I listen to is my own, rehearsing and reminding me of the difficulties or failures I’m facing.

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We all need an encouraging word now and then; a voice telling us that we are not alone; that all is not lost; that there is hope.  I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who are great about encouraging me, even when I try to shut them out or pretend that everything is grand.  Sometimes that encouragement comes through conversation; sometimes a card or text message or a shared piece of scripture; sometimes it comes through prayer.  I may not even know who prayed, or what words they used until days or weeks later, but their faithfulness in praying has become a lifeline when I feel isolated and overwhelmed.

This does not negate my need to pray and ask God for wisdom, healing, or strength for myself, nor does it suggest that God doesn’t answer my prayers.  Instead, it shows a pattern– God often answers our prayers by incorporating and using those around us.  God’s goodness and his love are shown best in teamwork.  We run the race to win, but we race together as teammates, not competitors.  We share sorrows, struggles, and joys. We come alongside; we lift others up, and they lift us up in return.

Encouragement does so much, we sometimes underestimate its power.  In a world of sniping, criticism, name-calling, and finger-pointing, encouragement does the following:

  • It lets someone know that they are seen and heard– that they are being noticed, thought of, and valued.  This shouldn’t be uncommon, but in a world where we are connected to so many be technology, and to so few face-to-face, it is HUGE!
  • It give us perspective to realize that we are not alone in our problems and not unique in facing difficulties.
  • It reminds us that hope and help are gifts to be shared, not something we must earn.
  • It gives us a purpose and a mission to be part of God’s redemptive work– Jesus gave encouragement and hope to those who needed it most, not to those who “deserved” it.

It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there, but we are not dogs.  We are children of the King.  Let’s send out some encouraging words today!

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11 (ESV)

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Also see James 5:13-16 on praying for one another.

Trust and Obey

It’s a song I sang as a child in Sunday School–

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

It bothered me as a child, the part about “No other way.”  It seemed narrow-minded and harsh.  Surely, I could be happy in Jesus just doing my own good things and singing his praises.  Besides, I did trust him, I followed the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule, and I was a nice person.  So why did I feel that I was missing something?

In all the years I’ve been a follower of Christ, I have learned the importance of trust and obedience.  I can’t truly follow someone I don’t trust.  I can learn from them, admire them, even try to act like them, but eventually, I will try to take the lead, or let go and walk down a different path.  Similarly, I can’t say that I trust someone if I won’t obey them.  If they ask me to do something, and I ignore their request, or re-interpret it, or come up with excuses why I won’t do it, it really boils down to one thing: I don’t trust that their request has any merit.

In a broken world, filled with sin and pride and selfishness, there are many reasons NOT to trust or obey certain people.  Abusers, users, sadists and sociopaths abound.  Such people may suggest that there is “no other way to be happy..” than to trust them and obey them implicitly.  So when God asks us to put our trust in an invisible Godhead, it seems terrible, final, and harsh.  Is God demanding abject humiliation and mindless adherence to his law?  Will we lose ourselves in drudgery and joyless obedience to a harsh taskmaster on the whimsical hope of a happy afterlife?

That is a view that is often peddled, and ridiculed.  But I think a closer look at the Bible gives us a different picture.  Yes, God is harsh and wrathful against sin and sinners–but so am I!   I find myself getting furious over injustices and pain caused by sin in the world–I can only imagine how angry God must be to see the way we lie and cheat and abuse each other, and the untold painful consequences he has witnessed through the years.  The only thing holding him back is the power of his Mercy.  His anger is swallowed up in patient and unfathomable love that is ready to forgive even the worst offenders.   And God’s wrath is pure, unlike mine, which is selective against those who have hurt me, but wants to smooth over my own sins.  His love is even more pure– he loves even the worst sinner, and even the most unloveable people (in my flawed estimation).  He is unwilling that ANYONE stay lost and enslaved by their sinful past.

Think about it– Jesus, who knew God best (being part of the Godhead himself) never painted his Father as a brute who demanded people to become “useful idiots” just to stroke his ego.  He didn’t talk about a harsh and unforgiving God who “hated” sinners.  Instead, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and spoke to sinners and outcasts as though they were more important than the religious elite…because that was his heart!  But more than that, Jesus showed us what it meant to “Trust and Obey”–he didn’t seek fame or fortune for himself, he never owned a home, or sought public office, and he never ran arouns worrying and fretting that God would leave him in the lurch.  Even under the worst circumstances leading up to his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus only spent one hour worrying about what was to come, and in that hour of prayer, he found the peace and strength to say, “not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  In his ministry, he humbly walked the byways and taught those who willingly followed him.  He healed and encouraged and saved those who came to him; those who trusted him as he trusted his Father.  He did not pat on the back those who claimed to follow his Father, but wouldn’t trust him.  Nor did he reward those who claimed to obey God, but hated their neighbors, justified their own self-righteousness, and changed God’s laws to feather their own lifestyles.

Does “Trust and Obey” mean that we might lose our status, our wealth, our comfort, and our lives?  Not necessarily, but there is no promise that we will be richer, or healthier, or more popular for following Jesus.  He didn’t come to make us comfortable or “better than” someone else.  In fact, he warned us that while we are in this world, we will have troubles and sorrows (with or without our faith!)  So how can we be “happy in Jesus” if we end up homeless, hated, or sick?  How can we talk about being happy in Jesus under awful circumstances?  Is this just some brainwashing tactic to make us forget how miserable we are?  What’s the “payoff” of Trust and Obey?

The answer involves a choice–Do I trust Jesus when he says that he came to give us, not just life, not even just eternal life, but abundant life?  If Jesus isn’t trustworthy; if I am not sure that he can or will make my life MORE than I ever dreamed, MORE than I imagine–even in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances–then I will never be happy in Jesus.  But if I DO trust Jesus, then I can be happy, not because of my circumstances, but because I can trust all that he says about them, and that his grace is more than sufficient to see me through.  And I know that whatever trials I may be going through can be turned to good because I trust his power and his goodness.

And true obedience can only follow true trust.  If I say that God’s rules aren’t important, or don’t apply to me, then I’m really saying I don’t trust him to know what’s best, or that I don’t trust that He is really Good.  The temporary happiness that comes from following my way (even if I think I’m doing it for the right reasons) will give way to resentment against God.  How dare he stop me from that one thing that brings me joy– how dare he question my “needs” or call my actions “wrong”.  How dare he suggest that His way could be better or more abundant than what I know–even if I suspect that what I know and experience isn’t always the best it could be.

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No– the longer I follow Jesus, the more that old song rings true, and not harsh or condemning, but full of wisdom and promise.  It is with the faith of a child (not stupid or simplistic, but hopeful and eager), and humble (not abject or reluctant) obedience that we find happiness in Jesus, peace for our souls, and strength to face the trying circumstances of this life.

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