“Wait For It…”

Movies and television shows are breeding grounds for popular phrases that enter the culture and resonate with millions of people.  Just utter the phrase, and nearly everyone in the group “gets” the reference.  A recent American sitcom has made the phrase “Wait for it..” an iconic reference to comedic timing.  It’s often the anticipation of a punchline, a pratfall, an ironic twist, that makes it memorable or noteworthy, and a clever person will use the timing to maximize the humor in a joke or prank.

We have an innate desire to see “what happens” next in life– “Where will I be in five years?”  “Will I get the job?”  “When will the baby come?” “Will she say ‘Yes’?” “Will the tests come back negative?”  The last thing we want at such times is a clever, smug comedian sitting back and using our anticipation for his own entertainment.

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Often, the wait is exciting, short-lived, and rewarded with relief in the form of a pleasant outcome–She does say, “Yes!”; or the medical test comes back with good news. Sometimes, the anticipation of the “punch line” produces shared laughter. But sometimes, it seems that the “joke” is on us– the wait never seems to end, or the punch line comes with a gut-wrenching punch–we didn’t get the job; the baby comes too early; the plans and the hard work end in disaster and shame.

Some people imagine God sitting in Heaven, smug and distant, pointing at us and laughing, “Wait for it..”  Every time they face disappointment, frustration, oppression, they raise their fists to Heaven and blame their creator for everything they haven’t gotten, every missed opportunity, every setback, every heartache.  “If God really loved me, he would not let me be hurt/sad/poor…”

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But, when God says “Wait for it…”, he’s not talking about a punchline or an ironic twist of fate.  He knows that bad things will happen, but he’s not asking us to wait for those things.  And he certainly isn’t sitting back laughing at our pain and disappointment.  He’s asking us to wait for something better.  Something we cannot even begin to imagine.  A restoration of all things– the dead brought back to life, the sick completely healed, the love we long for lavishly poured out in its fullness.

Anticipation is not part of a joke; hope is not corny or naive– it is built into the very soul of each person.  We long for what we have never experienced, but what we know is “out there”.  In this world, we will be left anticipating, because NOTHING can measure up to what God has in store.  Even the best of relationships, the best of comforts, the best of experiences, will leave us wanting something more.  And this is a gift, even though it can leave us disappointed, restless, and even hurt.  In light of what’s coming, there is no loss or setback so great as to cancel out the hope and the promise that stirs within.

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It’s because of this that we can pray with confidence in the midst of our struggles, and with abandon in times of frustration and pain.  We live in the finished work of the cross, but the unfinished and ongoing work of renewal and restoration.

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Wait for it..

A Hope That Does Not Disappoint

Have you ever had your hopes dashed? Have you even been disappointed in something that (or someone who) seemed to promise such hope?

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In Romans 5:5, the Apostle Paul speaks of a “hope that does not disappoint” us– the hope that comes through the Love of God as poured out by the Holy Spirit. Yet, we still have times of disappointment, dashed dreams, and painful grieving. So what is Paul talking about?

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Well, in context, he is speaking about the hope of our eternal salvation– we can have complete confidence in Christ’s finished work in obtaining our salvation and peace with God. While we may have doubts about many things in life, we need never doubt God’s promised salvation. But that does not mean that God has promised us an earthly life without disappointments, struggles, grief, or pain.

Sometimes, when we pray, we bring certain expectations– “hopes”– that God will act in the way we desire. We pray for miraculous healings, or an end to financial struggles, or finding the “perfect” spouse. God never promises any of these things. In fact, Jesus promised His disciples that “in this world, you will have trouble” (John 16:33)! But He goes on to say, “take heart, for I have overcome the world.” When our prayers seem to go unanswered, or God seems deaf to our desires, we can feel disappointed, even resentful. Our loved one dies. Our marriage falls apart. We lose our job, or our home.

It can be difficult in the moment, but we need to take stock of what it means to “hope.” If we put our hope in earthly things– even wonderful things–we WILL be disappointed at some point. People get sick and die. They make mistakes. Houses crumble, or face destruction by fire or storm. Relationships –no matter how much we may work at them–can fall apart. Our own bodies and our own wisdom can betray us. Circumstances cannot provide a secure base for our hopes. That doesn’t mean that we can’t cherish dreams and aspirations, but Hope must be based on something sure and eternal.

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When we pray, we can bring all or our expectations, aspirations, dreams, and more– but our Hope must not be anchored in the circumstantial answers we want. We will face bitterness in our disappointment. But when our Hope is rooted in the God who keeps His promises, we will see beyond the temporary disappointments in our circumstances, and find that Hope will endure and sustain us THROUGH them.

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People will disappoint; circumstances will let us down; expectations will deceive us. But Hope remains and sustains. We can pray, not with fear or doubt, but with confidence that God will hear us, and give us what we need most to face even our worst disappointments. After all, He promises that they are temporary in light of His eternal Love and Care.

And what a wonderful Hope on which to anchor!

A Prayer for the “Slurpee” Babies

Today is July 11. In certain parts of America, it is known as “Slurpee” Day. “Slurpee” is a brand name for a slushy drink sold at 7-Eleven convenience stores around the country. And since we write our dates with the month, followed by the day, today is “7/11.” Many 7-Eleven stores will be offering specials on their “Slurpee” drinks all day. And on a hot July day, that’s a great deal!

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But today is also the birthday of a very special person in my life. I can still remember the day she was born, and seeing her for the first time. She was beautiful (and still is). She had a full head of thick auburn hair, and seemed delighted to be alive and in the world– and we were all delighted to greet her! I remember commenting that she was a “Slurpee” baby– being born on “Slurpee” day. But shortly after she was born, it became clear that all was not “right” for “Chelsea” (not her real name). Chelsea did not respond to sights and sounds like other babies. And she started having violent seizures. Doctors soon determined that Chelsea had experienced several small strokes when she was in the womb. They also determined that such strokes would continue, and her chances of survival were slim. Immediate brain surgery would be necessary. At one point, the prognosis was very grim– even with surgery, she might be blind, deaf, and unable to control the movement in her limbs–essentially, she would be a vegetable if she survived at all. The first year of her life was a roller-coaster of surgeries and hospital stays, followed by extensive therapy and treatment that continues to this day. But she survived!

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So today, and every July 11, Chelsea, and her friends and family, celebrate her life– her survival, her triumph, and her continuing struggle. Chelsea will be 15 this year! She cannot walk, and she has trouble talking and using one arm. But she excels at school–she loves reading and music (Yes, she can see and hear!) and she loves anything having to do with animals, especially dogs and horses! She loves jokes and riddles, and loves to listen to her Daddy play the guitar, or spend time with her many friends. She even loves cool treats– not necessarily “Slurpees,” but sweet drinks and yogurt parfaits! Her life is not easy. Her parents still have to help her dress and eat, even though she is almost fully grown. She has to use adaptive technology to write and do her schoolwork (and what an incredible blessing that it exists!) She spends most of her days in a motorized chair. And, like most teenagers, she has “moody” days and gets frustrated–her physical limitations add to that frustration. But she loves life, and she inspires those around her to embrace the positive.

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I am writing about “Chelsea” today, because I love her– she is my grand-niece, and my favorite “Slurpee” kid! But I’m also writing because there are many other “Slurpee” children like her who are not alive today, or who are made to feel unwanted and “less than” other children. Chelsea’s health issues were not detected until after she was born. Had they “discovered” the damage she sustained in the womb, chances are very great that her mother would have been encouraged to have an abortion. The early prognosis was so horrific, and the struggle so difficult, that it would have been seen as the “most humane” option. Her “quality of life” would have been weighed in the balance, and her right to experience life– even at it’s most difficult moments– would have been invalidated by those who claimed to “have her best interests at heart.” Her parents could have made the choice to put her in an institution, or give up on her chances to live a purposeful and fulfilling life. Instead, they made numerous personal sacrifices, and have advocated for Chelsea’s well-being. And, if you ask them, it was worth it all!

I’m not here to judge those parents who have had to face this horrible choice, or those who have determined that they could not provide the care needed to raise a child with “special needs.” The needs are very real, very difficult, very expensive, and sometimes heart-rending. Most people I know have never had to face such challenges. And even my nephew and his wife were not called on to decide on Chelsea’s fate until after they had grown to love her for the baby she was. And there are days when they feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to care for a child beyond what they had ever planned. But I have also known Chelsea, and other wonderful children with extreme needs, who make the world a better, richer, more empathetic, and more joyful place– not because they are “special needs”, but because they are uniquely SPECIAL individuals! I also know of parents who have opened their homes and arms to foster and adopt children with special needs. Their courage, love, and sacrifice have made it possible for thousands of lives to reach their incredible potential.

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My prayer today is that Chelsea, and all children who are marginalized because their lives are somehow deemed “less” than someone else’s, will find strength, hope, laughter, and respect. And that those of us who have had a “normal” childhood and family experience would embrace the joy that comes from LIFE itself, and praise the one who gives it– precious, abundant, and eternal life!

The Lifter of My Head…

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I’ve been reading in the Psalms lately, and one that has really spoken to me this week has been Psalm 3

Psalm 3 English Standard Version (ESV)

Save Me, O My God

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

Lord, how many are my foes!
    Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
    “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah[a]

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
    my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the Lord,
    and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;
    I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
    who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O Lord!
    Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
    you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the Lord;
    your blessing be on your people! Selah

Footnotes:
  1. Psalm 3:2 The meaning of the Hebrew word Selah, used frequently in the Psalms, is uncertain. It may be a musical or liturgical direction

Everyone has foes– no matter how hard we try to get along with everyone or do right by everyone.  And if those foes are people who should be or used to be close to you, it hurts deeper and more profoundly.  King David’s own son tried to take the throne and have him murdered.  David, who had slain Goliath, feigned madness to escape from his own father-in-law’s murderous plots, and united a kingdom, still fled in terror from his arrogant and foolish son.  Even when God rescued him from this foe, David wept and mourned for his rebellious son– to the point of discouraging the very men who had come to his aid!

But, as David did so well and so often, in the midst of his trouble, he turned first to the Lord who ruled his heart.  I love the names he gives God in this Psalm—You (Thou), O Lord are a Shield about me, My Glory, and the Lifter of My Head (v. 3– emphasis mine).

David’s God is powerful, majestic, awesome– but He is not distant or unfeeling.  Thou (used in the King James and other older English translations) is a term unfamiliar to many modern speakers of English, but it is the familiar form of the second person singular.  Many other languages still use this form.  It connotes an intimate relationship, such as a family member or beloved friend.  David knew his God better than he knew his own son.  He loved God whole-heartedly, devotedly, and without reservation.

Lord recognizes God’s position of authority and omnipotence.  As close as David was to God, he never lost the awe and wonder of God’s holiness, His majesty, His power, and His wisdom.  God raised David from shepherd boy to king.  David wasn’t perfect in his obedience, but he was quick repent of his failures, and quick to give God the credit for his successes.

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A Shield— God fights alongside David, protecting him, not patronizing him or removing him from the struggle.  God doesn’t remove us from our battles; but neither does He leave us alone and unprotected, waiting on the sidelines for us to be slaughtered.*  Yesterday, I felt clobbered by circumstances.  I felt crushed and battered emotionally, and I wanted a couch, far from the noise of battle.  But God knows that no one wins a battle from the couch; no one grows stronger, learns to persevere, builds character, or gains compassion from a couch.  God didn’t take me out of the battle, but He was (and continues to be) a shield, protecting me from the real arrows of the enemy– despair, rage, isolation, arrogance, self-destruction–I still feel the force of the blows, and sometimes, I get wounded, but I’m still in the fight, and He’s there with me.  *(One caveat– God is a shield to those who trust in Him.  He does not promise that we won’t be hurt, won’t fail sometimes, or won’t face death because of our faith.  However, He promises a comforter and counselor–the Holy Spirit.  There are many who lead so-called “charmed” lives– lives untouched by trials or spiritual battles…Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the same thing as being “shielded”– shields are meant for battle– charms are meant to bring luck)

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My Glory— I get chills trying to wrap myself around that thought.  That God, the almighty, the all-glorious light of a million galaxies worth of stars, would notice me– let alone that He would number the hairs on my head, provide for my needs, heed my call for help, and fight alongside me–would create me in His image, so that I am an exact reflection of even the teeniest part of His Glory…that He invites me to know Him in all His Glory after all my failures, and broken promises, and shortcomings, and bad moods, and thoughtless words and actions, my bad hair days and dandruff days and runny nose days, and other inglorious ugliness that I cannot hide… But the best of all, I think is the last…

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The Lifter of My Head–What a picture of God’s compassion!  Think of picking up a newborn baby; how carefully we lift up and support that tiny head– how longingly we cup and shield that fragile face.  That’s our God!  Imagine on the battlefield, a soldier, wounded, parched, having his head lifted gently by a comrade who comes to tend to his wounds and share a drink of water.  Or the prodigal son, who cannot meet his father’s eyes, but finds his chin gently tilted to meet undeserved but merciful smile of his loving Dad.  God lifts our head so that we can see beyond the battle; beyond the pain; beyond the grief, and gaze at the Glory only He can share.

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If you don’t know this God–He is only a prayer away.  If you feel distant from God– call out and ask Him to lift up your head.  If you are struggling (as I have been lately), let this be a reminder to seek God by all His glorious names— He will reveal Himself to you for who He is as you call out to Him.

When You Get What You Pray For…

We’ve all heard stories of people who wish for something, only to get a very different result… One story goes like this: An older man, recently retired, grew bored with his new life, particularly as he now spent all day with his aging wife, who complained about her arthritis and all the extra housework. He wanted to be spontaneous and enjoy his new-found freedom, but she never wanted to go anywhere. One day, a genie offered him one wish– anything he wanted! So the man wished for a wife who was 30 years younger than him. The next day, he awoke to find the same aging wife asleep by his side. Discouraged, because he thought his wish had not been granted, he got up to use the bathroom. As he entered the bathroom and saw his reflection in the mirror, he was shocked to notice that he had aged 30 years overnight!

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Many people are convinced that God is like the genie in that story. We pray for something good, and God will send us something unpleasant, instead. We say that God is good, but often, it seems like He delights in sending us obstacles, struggles, and even grief. Why would He do such a thing? Of course, the man in the story was not asking for something noble or righteous, but we feel that God will somehow “twist our words” and give us something “less” than the good that we pray for. We want complete and rapid healing, not a lengthy struggle or a slow degeneration. We want “that” dream job, not being stuck with a dead-end job (or waiting for any job to come along). We want justice and an end to oppression–now– not waiting in silence for God to act.

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Habakkuk struggled with just such a situation. His nation was in decline. Justice was being perverted and denied, people were suffering in the midst of violence and wickedness, and God seemed to be ignoring it all. He had prayed for God to restore justice and rescue his people from wicked leaders. But God’s answer, when it finally came, was stunning. God was raising up another nation– one known for its incredible power and cruelty–to conquer the land of Judah and execute harsh justice. There would be no easy escape. Judah would be invaded and conquered. But God’s shocking answer also contained promises. First, “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (or “the just shall live by faith” Habakkuk 2:4) a promise echoed by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of Romans. In other words, even in times of incredible injustice and trouble, God will take care of those who are faithful. Even when He seems silent, God is watching over those who put their trust in Him. He has not forgotten the innocent or the oppressed. They can trust Him even in the worst of circumstances. Secondly, God promises that the arrogant and wicked will be punished– including the invaders who are coming to conquer Judah.

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God is sovereign and all-powerful. We are not. God is not a genie in a bottle–obligated to grant our every wish. Even when we pray sincerely for good things, God does not always answer in our time frame or in the way we imagine He will. But God is faithful and good. He does not pull a “bait and switch”– listening to our prayers and giving us something harmful or shabby in place of something better. God’s best for us may not look easy or pleasant from this side of things. But God can be trusted to see us through to the other side– where we can see the wisdom and glory of His plan. In the meantime, our choice is the same as Habakkuk’s– we can continue to complain, or we can wait and watch to see God’s solution unfolding.

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I needed to review Habakkuk’s story this week. It seems as though wicked forces have the upper hand in our world today. Whether it’s the lingering effects of COVID, or the wars raging in various parts of the world, high inflation and skyrocketing prices, or corruption in high places, things look pretty grim. It is tempting to complain, or to let anger and frustration cloud my thinking, or push me into inappropriate actions. There ARE things I should be doing–praying (!), helping others, and living a life of integrity and courage. But most of all, I need to trust God to be sovereign and good– through the easy times, and through the trying times.

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I will never wake up to find that I have aged 30 years overnight (though it may feel that way some mornings!). And I will never wake up to a world where God is not in control, or where justice and mercy are no more! I can pray with confidence that God will answer, and that His answer is better and wiser than what I can imagine. And that is a very encouraging thought for today. So my prayer is that I would have the courage to stand at the watchtower, anticipating and expecting God’s movement– even if…

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

Habakkuk 3:17-19a (NIV)

The Same Music

There is a story of a man who played his violin in the subway. He played a classical piece; and then another. He played for 45 minutes. Trains came and went. People rushed by. A few paused for a moment– some dropped a dollar or two in his open violin case.

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The same man played his violin later that evening in a grand concert hall. He was the featured soloist in a symphony orchestra. People dressed in gowns and suits paid a couple hundred dollars each for tickets to hear him play. They sat spellbound as his music filled the air. This was the same music, played by the same man, on the same violin as before. The only difference was how people listened.

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When we pray, we’re not praying to an audience of rapt listeners. We’re pouring out our heart to our Heavenly Father. And it is music to His ears! Whether we are praying through our tears in a lonely jail cell or a war-torn shelter, or praying in a grand cathedral, or on a yacht in the Mediterranean; whether we are praying in broken phrases punctuated by heartbreak, or singing praises– it is the same music to Our Father’s ears.

Others may judge our words or our lives to be worthless. Others may not bother to listen to us; they may even try to silence us or drown us out. But God is ready to listen even to our weakest whimper, or our loudest scream.

God sends us music in return– the smile of a neighbor; the sunlight breaking through clouds; that unexpected sense of His presence in the middle of the darkest night.

Are we listening? Or are we rushing to catch the next train?

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St. Francis Visits a Contemporary University…

St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:

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Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
And where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console; 
To be understood, as to understand; 
To be loved, as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive, 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. 
Amen.

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Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.

He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.

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The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”

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Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”

“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”

“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”

“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”

“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”

“Why do you keep watching her?”

“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”

“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”

“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”

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The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.

“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”

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Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”

Be Careful What You Pray For…

When I was a young woman, I prayed for patience. Several well-meaning friends and family tried to tell me that this was a mistake. “Be careful what you pray for,” they said. It was their belief that, if I prayed for patience, God would send situations into my life that would force me to be patient. God doesn’t “give” patience, they warned–He merely teaches us to be patient.

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I wanted more patience, in preparation for marriage and children; I wanted to be a patient wife and mother. But I was unprepared for this reaction of others. DON’T ask God for something good? Isn’t patience (long-suffering) one of the attributes listed as the “Fruit of the Spirit?”(Galatians 5:23-24) Why should I hesitate, or fear to ask God for something that will help me serve Him better?

Looking back, I suppose some of those same friends and family might say, “I told you so!” I’m sure they wanted a happy and easy future for me– one that didn’t include some of the challenges that I have had to face. And in their eyes, I was “tempting fate” to draw attention to my lack of patience. On the surface, it probably looks like that’s exactly what happened. I never had any children; I didn’t marry until I was in my mid-40s, and I have learned patience in many areas through many challenges.

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But that’s just one perspective. What if I hadn’t prayed that prayer? Would God have let me drift through life without “needing” more patience? Would I have “avoided” the years of loneliness and lack of children? Would I have married and had a family and lived happily ever after without having to learn patience? Would my life have been totally different? Or would my circumstances have been the same, except that I never would have learned patience–never sought to become more patient during the same trials and challenges? What kind of life might I have had WITHOUT patience?

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During the years that I was single, I worked full-time in youth-oriented jobs– teaching and serving in the youth department at a library. I learned patience by disciplining teenagers, cleaning up after toddlers, answering the same questions twenty times a day, and dealing with obstinate parents! I suffered with my students when one of their classmates died; and when it happened again the next year. I agonized with my student who chose to keep her baby after those close to her wanted her to have an abortion. And I rejoiced with her when she brought her son to visit me a year later. I suffered the frustration of parents whose children were rebellious, or had learning issues, or had been diagnosed with autism or ADHD. But I also endured the long nights when I had no little ones to tuck in or talk to (and learned to be thankful for the nights I didn’t have to deal with fever and sickness, or arguing–again– about the rules of the house!) But in the course of my work, I connected with hundreds of children and teens. They were never “mine” to hold or scold or say, “I love you”, but they touched my life, and I hope that I touched theirs as well. I didn’t choose my career path knowing that I would never become a “mom.” But I needed (and learned) patience in the process. I learned patience in the years I spent single–and I learned to appreciate my husband in ways I wouldn’t have as a young woman.

Story hour at the library c. 2009.

There IS some truth to the phrase, “Be careful what you pray for.” When we pray, we should pray for things that align with His will– like wisdom, patience, courage, or peace. We should not pray for things that contradict His will– instant popularity, wealth without work, or relationships or circumstances that dishonor Him. We should also be prepared for God to answer in the way He deems best–which may not look or feel like what we desired. It was His best for me not to marry young or have children of my own. He has since blessed me with a wonderful husband and step-children and grandchildren. But He might have chosen not to. And I would still thank Him for the life I have led. It’s been fantastic. I’ve met amazing people, had amazing opportunities, and traveled to wonderful places. I don’t feel like God ever “punished” me for asking for patience– instead, I feel that He has more than answered my prayer. That doesn’t mean that I have learned to be perfectly patient in every situation (just ask my husband!) But God is eternally good and faithful to give us what is in our best interest– if we ask, AND if we trust His answer more than our expectation. (see Hebrews 11:6; John 17; 1 Peter 5:7)

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Don’t be too afraid or too proud to ask God for any good thing. God will not only give you what you need, He will be with you every step of the way as you learn and grow, and develop into the person He wants you to be!

When God Sends Clarence

I’m a huge fan of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It tells the story of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) who considers committing suicide on Christmas Eve. His uncle and business partner has lost $8,000– enough to ruin their business. His rival has called for him to arrested, after George has begged him for help. He had nowhere left to turn. In desperation, he leaves his family, goes to a bar, has a drink, and finally, broken and crying, he prays a simple prayer. Almost immediately, an angry man slugs him in the jaw, and both men are thrown out into the cold. George runs his car into a tree, and proceeds on foot to a bridge, where he plans to jump to his death before he can be arrested and sent to prison. Not a feel-good holiday movie, right?

However, that simple prayer has been heard in Heaven. George thinks that the “answer” to his prayer was being punched, but God has other plans, which include sending a “guardian angel” to help George change his mind. But God doesn’t send a mighty angel to prevent George from jumping off the bridge. He doesn’t send a glorious angel of light to amaze and instruct George. He doesn’t send a warrior angel to protect him from his rival or the consequences of his uncle’s mistake. Instead, He sends Clarence.

Now, I have to pause a moment to say that I disagree with the film in its depiction of angels. I believe angels are spiritual beings who serve the Lord of Heaven, but I don’t believe that humans “become” angels after they die, nor do I believe that they must “earn their wings.” In fact, this flies in the face of the Gospel, that we are justified by faith in the saving work of Christ on the Cross.

But I mention Clarence, because, in the film, he is precisely the sort of “help” we do not expect of God– someone who is earnest, but inept and uninformed. Clarence has almost no clue how to keep George from throwing away his life. He tries to reason with George, but to no avail. He tries to cheer him up, encourage him, and befriend him, even explaining that if George would just let him help, Clarence would earn his wings. George is still determined that his life has been in vain. Finally, he tells Clarence to go away, and claims it would have just been better if he (George) had never been born.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who has never seen it, but the story reaffirms the value and the joy of life, even as it faces the very real darkness of depression and despair. George finally realizes that his life is really far more wonderful than his circumstances– and very much worth living!

We live in a desperate and dark world– many people are discouraged and facing dark days. Debt, sickness, grief, homelessness, betrayal, alcoholism and addiction, prison, abuse–they are all very real and overwhelmingly oppressive. Sometimes those who face such circumstances cry out in desperation, only to have an experience similar to George Bailey’s– they end up getting punched in the jaw! But this is NOT the answer from God– this is the world’s “solution.” Anger, despair, chaos, violence and abuse come when we try to run away from problems or solve them in our own powerlessness. God’s answers often come in unexpected packages. An unexpected encounter with a stranger; an overheard conversation on a bus or train; even an ad on TV or a song on the radio. God doesn’t usually send an angel– He often “sends” ordinary people in ordinary ways to do His extraordinary work.

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But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

1 Corinthians 1:27 (KJV)

God delights in using the “simple” things and ordinary people. (See a much fuller exposition here:) https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_corinthians/1-27.htm#:~:text=To%20confound%20the%20wise%20%E2%80%94%20To%20shame%20those,he%20does%20it%20in%20irony%2C%20he%20aggrandizes%20them. George Bailey is a simple man who stays true (often in spite of himself) to what he knows is right. Even as he despises his life, it has produced dozens of small miracles. But it requires a change of perspective to see them. “Clever” people; “powerful” people, and “successful” people have surrounded, and even “surpassed” George, but it takes a “Clarence” to make him see the eternal value of a life well-lived. George’s life is worth far more than money; far more than worldly success; far more than power and greed. George is truly “the richest man in town” in all the things that most matter.

It’s a Wonderful Life– George with his family

If God has blessed you by sending a “Clarence,” take a moment to thank Him. If God is calling you to be a “Clarence” in someone’s life today, take a moment to thank Him for that, too! You may not earn a pair of wings, but I guarantee you will be blessed.

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Always Remember, Pray, Give Thanks

The Apostle Paul is consistent in opening most of his letters with a phrase that uses the same four key words– Always, Remember, Prayers, and Thank. The order of the words may change, but the idea stays the same. Paul is always remembering others, always praying for them, and always thankful to God for them.

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Paul uses similar phrasing whether addressing individuals, like Timothy or Philemon, or church groups, like the Ephesians or Philippians. But the message is always very personal. He is not saying a general “Thank You” to God for people “like” Philemon, or “like” the church in Ephesus. He is remembering shared burdens, shared laughter, shared experiences, and thanking God for those deeply held memories. He is lifting up individual burdens, such as the on-going disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Philippians 4:2), or Timothy’s stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23).

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It is easy, and costs nothing, to pray generic prayers for a large, faceless mass of strangers. It is easy to love humanity from afar. It is another thing to enter into another person’s “messiness” and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); to remember struggles and sacrifices made on behalf of others (or to remember being the one in great need of another’s sacrifices). Life– abundant, vibrant, and glorious–calls us to get involved. Not just from the sidelines, not just when it’s convenient, but “always.”

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Prayer calls us to be involved. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray “general” prayers– for peace in foreign lands, or and end to drought or hunger, etc. But we must not neglect “wrestling” prayers–prayers for our unsaved loved ones, prayers for persecuted believers (whether next door or around the world), prayers for our community workers, and prayers for those who are in need. Nor should we neglect prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving for those who have come into our lives. Finally, we need to be willing to let individuals KNOW that they are being remembered, prayed for, and appreciated.

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One of the greatest blessings I know is remembering all the special people who have crossed paths, shared the journey, and borne shared burdens with me, and knowing that each person, each memory, each moment, is eternally and infinitely precious to God! What a privilege it is to share good times and even “battle scars” with so many amazing, unique, beloved people! What a privilege to lift them up before the throne of grace!

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