Writing the Next Chapter

Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!

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It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?

Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.

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I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!

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God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.

My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!

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Have You Any Room?

I had no idea what to write tonight, so I started thumbing through an old hymnal. A song title caught my eye– just a glance, and I turned the page, but it wouldn’t leave my mind. “Have You Any Room for Jesus?” it read. It’s an old hymn; one I don’t know, and have never sung. But there it was, and I had to turn back through the pages and look again. It’s not the sort of song we sing in our modern worship services– it’s an invitational hymn, meant for evangelistic meetings– it has little appeal to those who already consider themselves “saved”, and little appeal to those who see worship as a constant celebration, without any “awkward” conviction, confession, or heart-prodding that might make us sober and thoughtful.

And as I read it, I was struck by the absence. The words are “old-fashioned,” “melodramatic,” “quaint.” They are plaintive and urgent, and they are foreign to our modern churches.

Have you any room for Jesus,
He who bore your load of sin?
As He knocks and asks admission,
Sinner, will you let Him in?

Room for pleasure, room for business–
But for Christ, the Crucified,
Not a place that He can enter
In the heart for which He died?

Room for Jesus, King of Glory!
Hasten now; His Word obey.
Swing the heart’s door widely open;
Bid Him enter while you may
.

Sing to the Lord Hymnal– publisher and copyright unknown

We tend to be very critical of such sentiments–we don’t want to be addressed as “Sinner.” We shy away from the image of Christ knocking at the door, waiting for us to invite Him in. We want the aftermath– Jesus sitting with us in the “room” HE has prepared for us in Heaven. Without the knocking, and the waiting, and the mundane obedience. I say this critically (and after my last post, too!), but I say it with conviction of my own shortcomings in this area.

When I was a young girl, our family had a print hanging on the wall in our house. It was a common sight in many homes, as I recall, the image of Jesus standing at the door of a small house or cottage, and lifting His hand to the knocker. But that print has been criticized– the “Jesus” is “too white.” The door is not “consistent with doors Jesus would have seen in his earthly life.” The entire scenario is inconsistent with the image of Jesus that modern culture presents– Jesus “hanging out” with rough and tumble commoners at the park or marketplace, or marching in the streets seeking justice for the poor and marginalized, or “Super” Jesus riding on the clouds coming to reward the faithful and punish the wicked.

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We don’t preach a gentle Jesus who knocks at the door and “asks admission.” We don’t give altar calls and urge people to “bid Him enter while you may.” We wear Jesus jewelry, and play contemporary Christian music as we drive around in cars with “Christian” messages stuck to the bumper, and boast about all the “amazing” things God has done for US. Jesus is “cool”– He doesn’t have to knock on our door and ask for admission.

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But this is exactly how He came when He was here for His earthly mission. He was born in a stable because there “was no room” (Luke 2:7) in any of the inns at Bethlehem. He had no home of his own; “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He asked for water from the woman at the well (John 4), and He invited Himself to the home of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10). And it is Jesus himself who offers the invitation in Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock..” (Revelation 3:20).

Why, then, have so many of us stopped singing songs like this? When did we stop recognizing ourselves and those around us as “sinners” who need to “swing the heart’s door widely open”? And not just once; we should be heeding the call to make “room” in our hearts and lives daily to meet with the One who bore our “load of sin.”

Lord Jesus, may I answer Your gentle knock– may I clear out the boxes of business and packages of pleasures that clutter my daily life and crowd out my time with You. May I invite You in–to talk with You, listen to You, learn from You, and enjoy Your presence every day! And help me make room to invite others to know the peace, fellowship, and salvation that You offer.

More Important

Everything I thought I wanted
Was more important than
Spending time in prayer that day.

The noise of the radio in the background;
The daydreams and worries in my head-
Drowned out
That still small voice.

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As the day passed by
My thoughts and actions
Turned…
Your presence
Nowhere to be found.
My worries and fears
Cancelling out
Faith.
UNTIL– I saw Your power in someone else’s life, giving ever increasing
Faith;
Cancelling out
My worries and fears–
(Nowhere to be found).
Your presence
Turned
My thoughts and actions
As the day passed by.

That still small voice
Drowned out
The daydreams and worries in my head;
The noise of the radio in the background.

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Spending time in prayer that day
Was more important than
Everything I thought I wanted.

Just a Second…

A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog entry called Just a Minute… , which spoke of an effort to get everyone to spend one minute each day praying for their country.  I think this is a good idea, and I hope many people are doing it.

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While corporate prayer is a valuable exercise, and setting aside a particular time to pray with others (whether in person or in spirit) is also a great idea, the thought of a short, minute-long prayer seems inadequate, sometimes.  I suppose (indeed I hope) that most people spend more than a minute in prayer if they take this challenge.  It’s easy to do– there are a LOT of things to pray for!

But it struck me as I reviewed this earlier post that God is above, and beyond, time.  A single minute can be as rich and telling of our relationship with him as an entire hour.  And scheduling a particular time to pray is beneficial to us, but it is immaterial to our Father.  He doesn’t keep “office hours.”  There is no need for an “open” sign at the throne of grace– it never closes.  God is never unavailable, or “more” available.  It only takes a split second for us to recognize his omnipresence, and connect to it.

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There is no need for us to wait for Sunday, or a High Holy Day, or a certain hour to pray.  And our prayers may only last a few seconds or a minute– “God, I need help!”  “Thank you, Jesus!”  “God, please help my neighbor today.”  There is no need to wait until a crisis or miracle, either.  We can pray about things that may seem insignificant to others, but God is honored when we share our thoughts with him first, and throughout the day.

It is wonderful to spend long hours alone with God– when we have the opportunity, and when we have made time to honor him above all.  But he is always present.  Even in chaos and crisis, we can take a split second to remember the one who calms the storms.

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Just a Minute…

I stumbled upon a site that promotes a concerted minute of prayer for our nation.  In the light of upcoming mid-term elections, recent violent outbreaks in some of our cities, and other urgent issues, there are movements afoot to unite American Christians in our prayer efforts.

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National Minute of Prayer Home

The National Minute of Prayer is based on an effort carried out in England during World War II.  I want to be careful in promoting this idea– I DO NOT believe that God is swayed solely by people praying to Him in large numbers or at certain times– God sees our hearts and knows our minds.  He wants hearts that are sincere, humble, and attuned to His will, and He will act, not on our desires, but on His own knowledge of what is truly best for our individual lives, for our nation(s), and for our world.

Still, I think this is a good idea, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas and aspects of the blog.  I don’t believe there is anything magical or super spiritual about any given minute or hour of the day, so if the chosen hour of 9 p.m. (ET/8 p.m.CT, etc.) doesn’t work for you, or you can’t commit to a single minute during the day, just commit to pray for a solid minute at least once each day.  I think the value of a project like this is in the commitment and the community–even as individuals search for a closet or a quiet corner to seek God’s face, the knowledge that others are doing the same adds to our commitment and our courage.

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There are dozens of websites, blogs, and videos with similar programs and suggestions.  Find one and consider following or joining!

And this doesn’t just apply to a particular nation facing a particular time of crisis.  Christians living in Australia, Bolivia, Cambodia, Djibouti, Estonia, Fiji, Greenland, Haiti… you get the idea– can set aside one minute every day to pray for their nation and its leaders.

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Think what it would mean to the heart of God to hear His children praying in unison for healing and justice to be done around the world in our home nations!  Think what would happen if we set aside just one more minute to pray for the Church universal!

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Full Disclosure

I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts.  I want answers.  So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions.  Why is this person suffering?  When will their suffering end, and how?  Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?

God stays silent.

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I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust.  That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing.  It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that).  God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion.  Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming.  Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming.  Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold.  There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.

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The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.  This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons.  But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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God loves us with a perfect love.  Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning.  So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing.  Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.

God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.

Where Your Treasure Is…

Our church held a hymn-sing and ice cream social last Sunday.  It was an informal evening service, but we heard testimony of the power of hymns to shape our worship, and to help us remember scripture’s promises.  We also had the chance to just “call out” a favorite hymn to sing together.  We probably sang 15 or 20 hymns that night, and each one had special meaning to many in the congregation.  We treasure certain songs, certain verses, certain stories– they feed our soul, encourage our heart, steel our thoughts, and pour balm on our wounds.

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One hymn we didn’t sing the other night, though it is a favorite of many, was “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”  Sweet Hour of Prayer– lyrics and much more here  In getting ready to post for today, I thought about this hymn.  We treasure the thought of prayer being sweet and bringing relief, but do we treasure prayer enough to spend an hour or more at it?  If I add up the time spent in morning prayers of devotion, grace at mealtime, evening prayers, and “quick thoughts to heaven” throughout the day, it probably adds up to an hour…but I spend more time writing about prayer each day than I actually spend practicing it.  And when was the last time I got so caught up in prayer that I lost track of time and spent over an hour at it in one sitting?

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In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21 KJV)  This is true of our material treasures, but also our spiritual treasures, our thought treasures, and our time.  When I hear “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” one of my first thoughts is always, “That would be nice, but I don’t have an hour to spend praying– I’d never get anything done!”  But would I have said that about watching my favorite TV show?  Spending an hour on Facebook or shopping at my favorite store?

God is beyond time– he’s not counting the hours, minutes or moments we spend with Him.  But he feels our absence and our distraction just the same.  He isn’t trying to pull us away from important things to waste our time– he wants to pull us away from the things that weigh us down, worry us, haunt us, and eat up the precious time He has given us.

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I have found that when I feel “too busy” to spend time with Jesus, it’s a good time to pause and make time for prayer.  When I do (and it’s not as often as I should), three things happen:

  • I want more!  That time refreshes me, calms my spirit, and removes the burden of  worries, failures, and frustrations.
  • I accomplish more–maybe it’s a case of God re-ordering my other priorities; maybe he just gives me the power to work more efficiently; maybe it’s a miracle–but I find that the “time crunch” I worried about seems to melt away.
  • Jesus becomes “more” to me– I grow closer to Him, and closer to the person He created me to be.

That Voice in Your Head

Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.

Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will?  While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.

Isaiah 55:8-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper

It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible.  God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable.  God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will.  It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.”  But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either.  God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.

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So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers?  Here are a few guiding principles:

  • God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
    • God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal.  He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
    • Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK.  If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
    • God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer.  Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone.  I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
  • God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer.  But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons.  That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM!  Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!

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  • God may use time to answer your prayer.  I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46.  Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you!  There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
    • Don’t give up!  God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway.  Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along.  In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband.  Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God.  That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
    • Do the next right thing.  Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere.  Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere.  God wants our trust and our obedience.  As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do.  This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn.  So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad).  I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian.  I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people.  I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home).  I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it.  I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along.  I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
  • Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us.  In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God.  I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one.  I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider.  I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things.  Yet I felt compelled to leave.  I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan.  There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling.  But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me.  I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
  • Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said.  But this is another caveat (see above).  We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit.  In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will.  In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life.  God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed.  God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap.  That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts.  He WILL direct our paths when we do that.

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  • Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing!  Won’t God DO IT!

 

Puzzling Prayers

Have you ever had one of those days where things just don’t seem to make sense?  It doesn’t have to be a “bad” day, necessarily–just a day when things don’t seem to “fit.”  I had one of those days yesterday.

I journal my prayer life– I have notebooks with names and places for each day of the year.  Yesterday, my notebook included the city where my daughter lives and the names of three people celebrating birthdays, among other needs.  One of the names was a complete mystery to me.  I couldn’t remember who this person was, or how I knew either her or her name…I was drawing a blank and didn’t know how I should pray for her.  Was she a former classmate? Was she a daughter or mother or sister of someone I knew better?  I ended up praying a very general prayer– for her health, her family, etc., but it bothered me.

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Hours later, speaking with someone on the phone, another name came up, along with a prayer request– a man suffering with an illness who happened to have the same surname.  Coincidence?  Possibly, but the name stood out, and I prayed again– for both.  Now I was really curious.  I did some digging.  The first person WAS the sister of someone I knew, and their father is the one suffering from an illness.

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God is amazing, and one way is how he gives us the opportunity for “a-ha!” moments like the one I had yesterday.  I have spoken to several Christians who are sometimes separated by several time zones from those they normally call on for help or advice.  In crisis moments, they have cried out to God.  Thousands of miles away, someone will be awakened from a sound sleep with a sudden urge to pray for their distant friend, or another will be stopped in their tracks and send up a random prayer as their mind wanders.  Often, this will be in the exact moment of the crisis, and God will intervene with a miraculous healing or rescue or provision.  Days later, the two parties will connect and be astonished at the timing.

What used to puzzle me about such prayers was this– if God already knows the need, and plans to act, why involve the second (or third) party?  Because stories like this, while impressive and inspiring for those who believe, rarely cause a skeptic to come to faith, and aren’t necessary for those who already believe.

I think God has many answers, and I know I don’t have all of them, but here are three things I believe God is doing through such puzzling circumstances and outcomes:

  • While it doesn’t turn a skeptic into a believer, it DOES give the skeptic something to explain away– one such instance might be ignored as coincidence, but five?  two hundred?  And we have a Biblical precedent in the book of Acts, chapter 12, when Peter is rescued from prison and shows up at the very house where believers are praying for his release!  Even they didn’t believe at first, and left Peter out in the cold!
  • It IS an inspiration and an encouragement as a follower of Christ to know that he not only hears our prayers, but he recruits others to think about us, bear our burdens, and share in our trials.
  • Last (on my short list; I’m sure God has many other wonderful answers I haven’t imagined yet), I believe that God’s purpose for us involves communion– eternally living, sharing, and loving together with Him and with each other.  It is one of the highest honors and greatest privileges to be involved in God’s work through prayer…it is something we all can do, anywhere, anytime, but it requires being humble and willing to stop what we’re doing, commit our moments and our hearts in prayer for others (sometimes without knowing why!), and trust God to do all that we cannot.

Prayer sometimes seems puzzling, but that’s because we don’t see all the answers– yet.  Someday, what a marvelous and miraculous picture will unfold– and we have the opportunity to fill in the gap; to be the answer to 34-down; to be the missing piece of the pine tree in the upper right corner– to answer the call and finish the puzzle!

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