In My Distress…

This has been a week full of distress.. My husband and I got our second COVID vaccine (even though we recovered from the virus earlier this year), and spent a day bedridden with fever, chills, and body aches. But we recovered. I got word that my great-nephew broke his arm. Someone I know had to take her daughter to the emergency room–Again–with a serious infection. Another couple delivered a stillborn son. Yet another delivered a tiny, premature little girl. Another woman is back in the hospital, and another friend is off work with a lingering illness that remains undiagnosed. And that is just a list of health issues!

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It has been said that when we are in distress– especially with bedridden illness– we are forced to look up. And this gives us the impetus to call out to God. Not everyone will do so. And some will call out in anger or bitterness. But the Psalmist David used his distress to call out to God for help. In Psalm 18:6 he says: “In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.”(ESV via bibleref.com) David’s distress was not from illness, but from being hemmed in by King Saul, who had closed in and had David trapped and seemingly helpless–first in a walled city, then twice in the wilderness. (1 Samuel 23) Three times, David’s situation seemed hopeless, and three times, he was rescued from capture and death.

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It is tempting to look out at our circumstances, and lose hope. Even when we know that God hears us and loves us, sometimes his answers are not what we expect. David called out to God, yet he had to face his enemy three times before Saul abandoned his hunt (temporarily!) My husband and I recovered quickly from our reaction earlier this week, but we faced the pain and symptoms three times– during the actual illness, and, less severely with each dose of the vaccine. My nephew will have to be in a cast most of the summer. The tiny baby will be in the neonatal ICU for several weeks, if she survives. Her family will be waiting and worrying and praying. Yet, God DID deliver David in a miraculous way; He brought my husband through a severe case of COVID that involved a stay in the hospital and a related case of pneumonia; He gave life to this precious little baby; He is bringing peace to the family that lost their precious little boy. His timing may not be ours; His ways are not our ways. But God’s ears are always open, and His ways are always good, and His wisdom is perfect.

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Distress can make us impatient and cause us to doubt Our Father’s care. But when we remember God’s faithfulness in the past– both toward us and those we love–we can find the strength to wait and even praise God in the struggle.

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Praying for Happiness

A while ago, I was following a thread on Facebook. It was about good parenting, and the idea being discussed was about what a good parent would do to ensure their child’s happiness. Several of the people on the thread agreed that happiness was the highest priority, and that they would do anything to ensure that their child was happy.

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I disagreed, but I felt it was better not to argue as part of the thread. I never raised any children of my own, and threads on social media tend to pull out our gut reactions, rather than our studied ones. At first glance, it seems natural and good to want the people we love to be happy. I certainly don’t want my family and loved ones to be miserable! But is happiness the very best I can wish for– pray for? So often in life, true and lasting happiness is a process that involves going through struggles and periods of frustration and even failure. I don’t enjoy seeing loved ones struggling, but I want them to learn the life lessons that will help them become all they were designed to be.

I think of the life of Samson (Judges 13-16). Samson was set apart from birth to be a Nazarite. During his childhood, his parents followed the rules set aside for such a designation. The Biblical account makes much of the rule about never cutting his hair, but there were other rules his parents likely followed as he was growing up, such as keeping him away from grapes, wine, wine vinegar, or any other fermented drink, and keeping him away from defilement by dead bodies. It’s never easy to be “different” when you’re growing up. I’m sure Samson had many questions, and moments of unhappiness as a child. But somewhere along the way, his parents seem to have made Samson’s happiness more important than his character development.

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Samson grew to be petulant and spoiled. He seemed to think he was entitled to whatever whim took his fancy. Now the Bible is clear that some of Samson’s desires were part of God’s plan to confront the Philistines, but Samson’s parents put up only a token resistance when he told them he wanted to marry a Philistine woman. At the wedding feast, Samson posed a riddle which exposed his lack of respect for his Nazarite vows. Not only had Samson killed a lion; he had come back later and eaten honey taken from the lion’s carcass– a defilement that broke his vow. Later, of course, he would use the unclean jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines in a single incident. Samson could have made an offering and renewed his vow, but we have no record that he ever did.

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The most famous story of Samson is his infamous liaison with a prostitute named Delilah. Though she does little to hide her intention to learn the secret of his strength and betray him to his enemies, Samson toys with her, lies to her, and finally reveals his sacred secret. Once his hair is cut, Samson loses his great strength and is captured by the Philistines and tortured. Only when he is blind, imprisoned, and shamed does Samson seek the Lord and ask for God’s blessing.

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Samson pursued a life of pleasure, and gave full vent to his lust, anger, and other strong emotions. I’m sure there were many moments of happiness in his life, but there were also moments of pain, tragedy, betrayal, and shame.

I think the story of Samson is full of lessons for us today. One of those lessons is that even when we are not faithful, God can still use us for His good purposes. God used Samson to judge the nation of Israel, and to bring punishment on the Philistines for their cruelty toward them. God could have disqualified Samson for having broken his vows time and time again, but God used even Samson’s weakness to highlight His strength.

But another lesson, I think is that God showcased exactly what can happen when we place happiness, pleasure, and ease ahead of everything else. Samson caused his own unhappiness and torture. There is no record of Samson bringing happiness to anyone else– only shame, tears, violence, and retribution. God caused Samson to be a model of all that the book of Judges is about– at the end of the book, there is a significant verse, “In those days, Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.”

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I don’t want my family and friends to be “happy” at the expense of their character, or at the expense of others. I pray that they develop Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control (Galatians 5:22-23). In the end, this will bring them a level of happiness that surpasses anything the world can offer.

Chariots of Iron

I was reading from the book of Judges today, and a curious phrase jumped out at me. The entire book of Judges is filled with the failure of the people of Israel to fully claim their promised inheritance from God. Generation after generation passes, with a cycle of sin, enslavement, and deliverance as God raises up various judges and heroes, like Gideon, Deborah, or Samson.

Already in chapter one, there is a hint of the trouble to come. The book begins with several successful battles after the death of Joshua. The people of Israel consult the Lord, who fights with them in several key battles. But in verse 19, it says: “The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.”

Say what? The Lord was with the men of Judah– the LORD! They had taken possession of the hill country– rough terrain that would have been filled with natural barriers, rocky fortresses, and literal “uphill battles.” They had destroyed massive cities like Jericho less than a generation before. They had defeated armies far larger and better positioned. They had defeated giants! And now, suddenly, they are “unable” to drive the people from the plains– because the enemy had chariots of iron?

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https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/judges-1-19.html I think this commentary says it well. The chariots of iron became the excuse for the Israelites’ unwillingness to obey; to trust in God’s strength instead of their own. After all, it wasn’t that long before in their history when God had drowned the entire Egyptian army, including all its chariots, in the Red Sea.

I don’t think it was about the chariots of iron. I think it was about the plains. I think sometimes it can be more difficult to fight on “the plains.” When God sends us on an “impossible” mission, we must face our own fears and acknowledge our weaknesses– we KNOW we cannot do it in our own power. But when we face an enemy on “equal footing,” we are tempted to trust in our own resources– the toughness of our armor, the skill of our generals, the speed of our horses, and the superiority of our weapons. We hope and expect God to fight for us where we cannot hope to win alone, but we don’t ask for God’s help or protection in areas where we believe our own strength should be sufficient. Israel had a fine army– seasoned veterans of battle. If they HAD iron chariots of their own, victory might have been expected– with or without God’s divine intervention. But victory eluded them, because they didn’t finish the fight!

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We do the same thing today–we fail to march into battle because the enemy has “chariots of iron.” Maybe they have more social status, more political or economic power then we have. Perhaps we see that they have the means to make our lives painful “on the plains.” We see their arrogance, and their wealth and success, and we let ourselves be intimidated. We know that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us, but He has not given us chariots of iron to match those of the enemy. We don’t pray for the courage to face their chariots, or the wisdom to trust that the battle belongs to the Lord. Instead, we make excuses for not fighting the battle at all.

The rest of the book of Judges is filled with war, slavery, corruption, death, and evil. The very last verse sums it up: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)

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Lord, help me to be courageous, and humble. May I always trust in You above all–especially above chariots of iron, and weapons of mankind.

Heroes of the Faith

When I was just a girl, many of my cousins and playmates were fans of comic-book heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, X-Men, Spiderman, and many others. In fact, in second grade, we had a “superhero” club that met at recess and played out scenarios. Most of us got to be heroes; a few had to take turns being villains. We ran as fast as we could; we pretended to fly; we pretended to save the world!

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Each super hero has a special super power (or several super powers), and each one has a “fatal flaw”– some weakness that could keep him (or her) from easy victory over a villain. Superman can fly; but he cannot overcome the effects of Krypton. Batman has a seemingly endless array of cool gadgets, but they are not always enough to counter the cool gadgets of his foes. Spider-man can spin webs, but being a superhero doesn’t pay his bills. Wonder Woman has a lasso of truth and an invisible airplane, but she must struggle between promoting peace and fighting to stop violence and war.

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I was reminded recently that we often confuse Biblical characters with comic-book superheroes. Abraham had extraordinary faith. Moses had his staff. Samson had great strength. David wrote poetry and killed giants…and so on. And each “hero” of the faith seemed to have a “fatal flaw”– Abraham did not wait for God’s promise of Isaac. Moses had a temper. Samson was arrogant and forgot the source of his strength. David was tempted by lust, which led him to commit adultery and murder!

There is nothing wrong with honoring men and women of faith and courage and obedience. The entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews is devoted to “heroes” of the faith, and the faith of Godly heroes.

But we can turn heroes into idols, and that leads us to false thinking. We falsely believe that God only calls those who are already heroic and strong. We sometimes feel that God cannot use us unless we first show that we have some super power. We also carry a false guilt about our “fatal flaws,” feeling that we have somehow ruined God’s plans or let the enemy “win” whenever we stumble. Finally, we fail to see that our ordinary obedience–even our shaky and stumbling faith– IS heroic.

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Superheroes are not Biblical, and Biblical characters were never “super” heroes. Most of them spent their lives doing mostly ordinary things– farming, fishing, carpentry, tax collecting, herding sheep! There is only one “superhero” in the Bible– God himself–and He has no fatal flaw. Instead, He chooses flawed and ordinary people to obey Him as HE does extraordinary things through them.

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One consistent thing about the people we celebrate as “heroes” in the Bible– they all prayed! They all knew that real power (and wisdom and help) comes from God alone. Prayer and obedience are not guaranteed to make us famous or heroic. But God can use the simplest acts and the smallest measure of true faith to do great things in, and around, and through ordinary people just like us!

What a Wonderful World

Years ago, Louis Armstrong recorded a song, called “What a Wonderful World.”  Video and lyrics here.  It’s a pleasant song, pointing out all the wonderful things to see and hear in the world around us…people sharing greetings, day and night, rainbows, children…but it is also a wistful song.  Armstrong sings it as an observer, more than a participant.  He sees all the wonder of the world around him, and he sees hope for the future.  The flowers and rainbows are there for all to see; but the greetings are not for him; the children are not his and will surpass him in knowledge and opportunity.

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I could name a dozen other songs or poems with similarly ambivalent messages; songs about smiling, hiding one’s tears, hoping for tomorrow and happy days returning.  Such songs acknowledge that our world is filled with wonder, beauty, and joy; they also acknowledge that sprinkled amid the wonder there is heartache and disappointment.

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It is tempting in times of hardship to focus on the negative and miss the wonder that still exists around us.  It can also be tempting to resent the joy others experience as they soak in the wonder that seems to taunt us.

Some people ask, “How can you believe in God when you see all the pain and suffering and evil in the world?”  And others answer, almost flippantly, “How can you doubt God when you see all the beauty and grandeur in the world?”  To someone who is in pain, this is the kind of answer that rubs salt in open wounds.  It’s not that the answer lacks logic or merit, but it is devoid of compassion.

The truth is, that even in the midst of extreme suffering, we DO live in a wonderful world.  The sun still shines, there are still rainbows, and happy children, and, most of all, HOPE.

The Bible speaks of hope as one of the “remaining” virtues– Faith, Hope, and Charity (or Love).  We hear this, and study it, and recite it, but do we really appreciate it for the wonder it is?  Hope may fade in the midst of chaos, but it is not easily suppressed or smothered.  Hope gives us strength when we are struggling; it gives us a reason to look up from the ashes and see the sun.  Hope gives us the motivation to work and build after a disaster; to risk new adventures; to plan for a future.

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Our world needs hope–we need encouragement to reach out; to build and rebuild our communities; to look forward with vision, and set goals to reach that vision.  And we need hope to turn our eyes to the source of that hope– for we do not hope in vain!

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Even in our fallen world, God is wooing us with wonder, beauty, joy, and HOPE.  What we will find in the redeemed world is beyond our wildest imagination

Arise, Go Forth, and Conquer!

I love quirky motivational posters.  A friend of mine once had a poster with an awkward looking duckling– wide-eyed and still fuzzy–with the caption,

“Arise, Go Forth, and Conquer!”

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The phrase comes from Tennyson in Idylls of the King, but it is reminiscent of phrases given to Joshua as he prepared to lead the Israelites across the Jordan and into the promised land.

Joshua 1:2-3 (NKJV)   “Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them—the children of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you, as I said to Moses.

God tells him several times to “Be strong and courageous..” (Joshua 1:6), “Be strong and very courageous.” (Joshua 1:7),  “…be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

When I think of being strong and courageous, I don’t usually think of ducklings!  I think of hero bodybuilders or armored knights of old…people who are prepared to crush and conquer and face an army.  Yet God repeats the phrase to Joshua, including at last the command to “not be terrified; do not be discouraged..”, which indicates that Joshua was close to terror and despair, rather than filled with hope and adrenaline.

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And little wonder.  Joshua had to be experiencing a slight sense of Déjà vu.  About forty years earlier, he had been part of the group of spies sent to scout out the promised land…spies who had come back terrified and discouraged.  The entire nation was ready to rebel against Moses and even God.  Now, forty years later, Joshua was to try again– this time as Moses’ replacement, a new leader for a new generation already prone to complain and rebel.

Some days I feel a little like Joshua– facing walled cities, giants, and feeling totally inadequate to the task.  Some days it even feels like a struggle to “arise”, let alone going forth to conquer.

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And then God reminds me…”Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you, as I said to Moses.”  It’s not that God is literally leading me into the promised land as I go to the grocery store or face a difficult customer at work or walk around the neighborhood.   But, figuratively, He is helping me win battles against temptation, discouragement, anger, and bitterness.  He IS with me wherever I go, and He wants me to trust HIS strength and wisdom to triumph.  I become “more than a conquerer” (Romans 8:37) when I stop trying to fight in my own strenth and rely on His.  My strength may be minimal, my motivation questionable, and my wisdom lacking, but I can waddle confidently into battle, knowing that the victory is certain!

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This is also true for my pursuit of prayer– My prayers are often flighty, inadequate, sporadic, and even grudging.  I keep a prayer journal, and that can help with motivation, discipline, and even praise, but it doesn’t guarantee that I will draw perfectly near to God or follow Him with total faithfulness.  The more I rely on MY efforts, the more I am fighting to replace God’s strength and wisdom with my own.  God doesn’t want me on the sidelines, or sleeping in– He wants me in the game.  But the outcome doesn’t depend on my ability or my performance (or my lack of feathers!)

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