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.
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.
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?
My husband and I own a small shop. It’s actually a two-part shop, with used items, antiques and collectibles in the front, and amateur radio gear in the back. We have a few “new” radios, books, and other items, but most of our items are second-hand. This sometimes creates a problem in pricing.
New items usually come with a manufacturer’s recommended price, based on what the item costs from the factory or warehouse. Sometimes, price is based on what we pay at a wholesaler. But used items aren’t coming from a wholesaler or a factory warehouse. Often, we pick up pieces from an estate sale or another shop like ours. Sometimes, we are selling items that were salvaged or even donated.
So how do we determine a price on a used item? For that matter, how are prices determined for some of the new items that we sell? Of course there are a few guidelines:
Basic costs– what did it cost to produce the item (or procure the item)? How much for the materials? Labor? Shipping? Packaging? Also, what are the basic costs of running the store– will the sales of these items be enough to cover expenses like the light bill and rent and miscellaneous supplies as well as covering the cost to replace them?
Supply and Demand– how rare is this item? How easily can someone find a similar item at a similar price? How easily can we find more of this item (or something similar)? Do we have “too many” of the same item? Which items are selling “too fast” at a lower price?
Quality– some items involve more craftsmanship. Some contain sturdier or more expensive materials–real copper wiring, metal gears instead of plastic, silver v. silver-plate, hand-carved instead of mass-produced, etc.
“Aesthetics”–Antiques are often valued for their condition. But it varies from one piece or type of piece to another. Glass and ceramics are more valuable if they are unchipped. Old magazine ads carefully cut out and attractively framed can be more valuable than the entire magazine from which they came. Certain colors of glass are worth more than others. Wooden items that have been repainted, repaired, or refinished can actually lose value over those left in their original condition. Some items sell better with a “patina,” while others do better if they are polished and clean.
Ultimately, however, the items in our store are “worth” only what we decide, and what our customers are willing to pay for them. If we are “wrong” about the worth of an item, it may sit on the shelf collecting dust– either because we have priced it too high, or because the price is so low that a customer mistrusts our judgement about the quality of the product.
Why am I writing about this on a blog about prayer?
We have a tendency to place values on people and situations, as well as items. Sometimes, we think it “isn’t worth it” to pray about a minor problem that we face, or someone we don’t know very well, or don’t think of very highly. Perhaps we think that our requests are too ordinary, or too small, or too chronic to bring before God. Lost keys; that lingering pain in the elbow; the barking dog that keeps us up at night; the sibling that hasn’t spoken to us in 15 years–we wonder if they are worth making the effort (or continuing to make the effort).
But, in God’s economy, every person–and each moment in each person’s day–is of enormous value! God uses the small things of life to make a big impact. Every prayer that is lifted to God from a sincere heart and with even the tiniest grain of faith can have unbelievable consequences. There are hundreds of examples throughout the Bible, and hundreds of thousands of other testimonies to illustrate this truth The same is true for “big” prayers– the impossible situations– that plague us. War, famine, disease, corruption and injustice are NOT too big for God to handle. Just because they are too big for us to solve (or even understand) does not make them too big for us to pray about, or our prayers too little to make a difference.
I was reading in 2 Samuel 16 the other day. King David faced betrayal– from his son, Absolem, and also from one of his counselors, Ahitophel. David prayed– almost as an afterthought– that Ahitophel would give Absolem bad advice. And he did! But God also prompted David to send another counselor, Hushai, as a secret agent. At first, Absolem followed the advice of Ahitophel without question, and it seemed to work in his favor. But at a crucial moment, Absolem hesitated and asked for a second opinion. Ahitophel’s advice, according to the writer of 2 Samuel, was actually the better advice. But Absolem chose to follow the clever but ineffective advice of Hushai instead! David’s prayer was answered, and even when it seemed that David’s prayer “wasn’t enough,” God protected David, frustrated Ahitophel, and brought judgment and punishment to Absolem, ending in his death. There is no record of either Absolem or Ahitophel praying at all during the rebellion.
God won’t judge the quantity or quality of what we pray for, or who we pray for, or how we pray– He values it all. Prayer is truly “priceless!”
It’s growing and harvesting season in our area for many vegetables. Gardens have been spilling over with zucchini, cabbages, carrots, summer squash, onions, green beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, and much more. Similarly, the flower gardens are blooming with every color and variety imaginable– bright yellow sunflowers, tiny blue and white blossoms, and red cardinal flowers. I’m amazed at the variety of wonderful things God designed for us.
Did you know there are dozens of different varieties of just carrots?! Orange, yellow, purple, red, white, long and skinny, or short and fat, rounded ends or tapered…and that doesn’t begin to cover varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc. Not to mention fruits, nuts, grains, herbs, flowers, fungi, and bark that are edible. Plants of every size, color, shape, taste, and texture. And many plants have other uses– medicine, fibers for clothing and rope, dyes, wood for building or burning as fuel, oils, and so much more.
And that’s just the plant world. There are millions of different varieties of insects in the world, and animals ranging from bats to butterflies, pandas to pigs, geese to giraffes, wolves to whales, ocelots to octopuses, and ponies to platypuses.
God could have provided only grass or leaves for us to eat, instead of giving us such a variety of tastes and textures for our nourishment. He could have made all trees look alike with the same texture of leaves/needles, and wood. He could have made just one kind of fish to swim the lakes and oceans. In the same way, God could have created us to act and look just the same. But God loves variety. He loves for us to discover and celebrate all the uniqueness of His creation– including our neighbors and family and friends.
We have a tendency to look down on or make fun of differences– we say that some people are a little “corny,” while others are just plain “nuts,” or go “against the grain.” But the truth is, God designed each of us to reflect His nature in all Its infinite, glorious variety. We shouldn’t try to be someone else, or belittle someone else for not being just like us. Instead, we should reach out and celebrate those fellow “human beans” who carry a unique imprint of God’s image.
We had an unexpected visitor to our store the other day…a sparrow somehow managed to get inside our store over the weekend, after we closed on Saturday. We assume it found its way in through a small vent, in an attempt to get out of the heavy rain, and couldn’t find its way back out. We don’t know how long it was trapped inside, but by the time my husband found him, its leg was caught, and it was unable to fly away. It was scared, dehydrated, and weak. My husband gently and carefully extracted its leg, and I got a small dish of water. The sparrow was listless, and its breathing was shallow. We feared the worst. Putting small drops of water on his fingertips and holding it up to the bird’s beak, David finally got it to drink some water. After several attempts, the bird started perking up, and finally flapped its wings and flew off!
I was reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 10: 29-31–Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
Sometimes, we pray for guidance, or protection, or safety when we know we will be facing certain trials or long journeys. And we should acknowledge known dangers and our continual dependence on God. But how many times does God guide and protect us without our awareness!? How many times do we, like this little sparrow, find ourselves in an unfamiliar or dangerous situation and wonder whether anyone even knows where we are? We struggle, only to find ourselves caught– helpless and without much hope. God’s eyes are always on us– wherever we are, whatever our circumstances. His love is unchanging and sure. And sometimes, He sends help in the most unlikely ways and times. Sometimes, He chooses to work through US to help the most unlikely candidates– even a sparrow!
God gave us the opportunity to save this little sparrow– and He gives us opportunities throughout each day to help those around us– to encourage, give, protect, defend, support, and even “save” them as the arms, hands, feet, and voice of God in the world. Similarly, He sends others to cheer us, to warn us, to come alongside us, and to “save” us when it seems like all hope is lost.
Lord, for today, I pray that you will open my eyes to the “sparrow” moments– whether I am the one offering help, or the one who needs to accept it. May I see my worth, not in my circumstances, but in my relationship to you. May I see others as precious and worthy of care, respect, and love. Thank you for sending a little sparrow to remind me how much you love us all.
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV via biblegateway.com)
The persistent theme of Ecclesiastes is that everything done “under the sun” is meaningless–wisdom, riches, hard work, morality, pleasure–it all ends in death and futility. In the end, the author (presumed to be Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived) concludes that the whole “duty” or purpose of mankind is to fear God and keep His commandments, because God will judge every deed and hidden thought.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to pray when life seems “meaningless.” I was reminded recently of a time when my life seemed pointless and pathetic. I was nearing 40, single and childless. I had a good job, and enough to live comfortably, but I wasn’t a “success” by many people’s standards. I owned a car, but it was getting old. I did not own a home, and I hadn’t taken a vacation in years (although I had traveled for work, and counted that as something). I had a cat. I was a single, frumpy, middle-aged cat lady. And when I prayed, I often asked, “Why, God?” And when I read Ecclesiastes, I got depressed.
But Solomon is writing about life from a distinctive point of view. He sets out to find a purpose for life “under the sun.” When I was looking at my life from that perspective, everything DID seem meaningless. It was meaningless for me to save up for a house if I had no one to leave it to; meaningless to pursue higher career goals or travel, when I had no one to share it with.
A very wise co-worker noticed my depression and dissatisfaction. She pointed out that purpose, happiness, and satisfaction came from God, but that I had to choose my perspective. God had given me life, and purpose– a job, shelter, comfort, family and friends. I could grump and grouse about what I didn’t have, or the meaning I couldn’t find– OR I could trust that God would reveal meaning and purpose as I kept pursuing Him.
Instead of asking, “Why, God?”, I began asking other questions. “What do You want me to continue doing?” “How can I serve You right where I am?” “Who can I bless and encourage, today?” And even, “How can I use these experiences and feelings to honor You?”
God stepped in and offered me the opportunity to change my circumstances–I became a wife, a step-mother, a grandmother. I left my job–now I make even less money, and I’ve had to learn new skills and deal with new challenges, but I have also learned more trust in God’s wisdom and timing. But it didn’t happen right away. What DID happen was that I gained a renewed sense of purpose and a new focus. I wasn’t doing things “under the sun,” but “under the Son!” Somehow, I had forgotten to look for my meaning and purpose in being a child of God, and had turned my eyes inward.
It seems like a bone-headed mistake in retrospect, but, then again, even Solomon wasted some of his life looking for meaning and purpose in all the wrong places! And those years were not meaningless or wasted. I learned patience, perspective, compassion, and wisdom to pass on to others who may be in similar circumstances.
“Father, today, may I focus on the meaning and purpose that can only come from seeking You. You are the author of purpose, of wisdom, and of wholeness. And as You reveal Yourself to me, help me to reflect and share Your wisdom and character to others. Amen”
Jesus was born in obscurity– yet he was also born during a Census year…
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:1-7 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
This is a Census year in the U.S. (something that has largely been forgotten in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) I actually worked for the Census Bureau for a few weeks this year, doing follow-up interviews for addresses which had not responded for various reasons. Census taking is much different now than it was in Jesus’ day. I had a script, and a smart phone, and several different forms to fill out or hand out to explain what we were doing–one form contained information in at least 14 different languages, and all of them had phone numbers and web addresses where people could “respond” electronically without ever leaving the comfort of their living room, let alone traveling over dangerous hills and trying to find room at crowded inns. I was the one who had to travel– mostly around my small town and within a 20-mile radius. One interview required me to travel 100 miles; another required me to utilize my ability to speak and understand Spanish. Otherwise, the interviews were simple and straightforward. Except when they weren’t.
“Everyone Counts,” the Census Bureau told us, and I did my best to get names and ages for everyone at every address I visited. But many of the addresses were abandoned buildings– even demolished. Others were summer homes or vacation rentals–I had to be careful not to count the same people twice! Often, I could tell that people were living at the residence, but either they weren’t home at that time or they would not come to the door. Some houses required several attempts before I got any response, and it wasn’t always positive or cooperative.
I imagine the scene in Bethlehem, though lacking the technology and ease of travel of our modern age, wasn’t so very different. There were people who wanted to do their civic duty; those who were annoyed at the inconvenience and general bureaucratic chaos; those who hated the Roman Government and everything it represented; and some who just wanted to get it all over with and go back to “normal life.”
We know that Joseph was called up to go to Bethlehem because is was his ancestral home. And we know that Joseph would have been counted as the head of the household. But is it possible that Jesus was counted in that census? That he was numbered among his people and with his family? That the God of all creation became a simple hash mark among thousands of others that year? “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” “Infant son.” “Male child.” Jesus was counted. But He was also lost in the shuffle; discounted and ignored.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
John 1:10-11 (KJV via biblegateway.com)
This season, it’s easy to feel left out, discounted, passed over. This year, especially, it can be lonely and discouraging as we look out on the world from lockdown, or look at faces covered by masks, unknown or unrecognizable. It’s easy to feel that no one sees us. Rest assured, Jesus knows what it is like to get lost in the numbers. He knows what it is to be discounted and misunderstood, rejected, and scorned.
And He knows exactly who you are and who I am– better than we know ourselves! We count! Not because of who we are, but because He is the creator and author of all life. No matter where you are, no matter who has rejected you in the past, no matter how dark and grim things look– God sees you; God loves you; God has taken you into His count. He doesn’t need a census count to find you, and you can’t get “lost” or hide in the crowd.
Have you ever had one of those days…the kind where you wondered if anything you did was important, or acknowledged, or valued?
My father worked for almost 30 years in a factory. His job (for many of those years) was to stand at the same spot for hours a day. He would fit a large bag over an opening, pull a lever, and guide the bag as it filled with several pounds of anhydrous citric acid– a caustic powder that, in small amounts, is used in everything from cleaning products to soft drinks. When the bag was filled, he had to take it down and move it to another station, where the bag was sealed. Finally, he had to take the sealed bag and hoist it onto a conveyor. It was hot, heavy work. It was lonely, noisy, dusty, and monotonous. He worked a swing shift– sometimes twelve or sixteen hours at a time, often overnight. He often had to work on weekends and holidays. And my father was grateful.
When Dad had a day “off,” he could often be found visiting some of the older members of our community– helping them by mowing their lawns or helping with chores, or just visiting and listening to their worries, memories, and dreams. Dad knew the value of his work, and he knew that his work was not in vain. His work fed and clothed our family. It allowed us to give gifts to family, donate to charities, give to the church, and enjoy vacations and outings with friends. His work helped send my sister and I to college, and pay off the mortgage. But more importantly, my father’s unusual schedule allowed him to come to school programs in the middle of the day; it allowed him to go on day trips with my mother or my grandparents; it made him more aware of the value of time. Dad filled thousands of bags of citric acid– and he never knew where it ended up or how it was used, except in a very general way. But God knew. He saw every grain of acid in every bag. He knew where it would go and what good it could do. And he watched my father’s efforts every day.
57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Today, we are celebrating “Labor Day” in my country– a day to celebrate the contributions of working men and women throughout the year. And many people will have time today to enjoy a trip to the beach or a cookout, or an extra-long camping weekend or late-summer vacation. But some will have to work today– clerks at the local store or gas station, police officers, nurses, factory workers, and others. Their labor today will ensure that others are kept healthy, safe, and supplied. We should not forget them.
And we should not forget to take a moment to remember that our labor– whether glamorous, mundane, urgent, physically intense, or mentally stressful–is noticed and valued by our Father in Heaven. Whatever we do, if we are doing it for God’s glory, we will see fruit from our labors. Maybe not today or even in our lifetime. But our efforts– and our words and interactions– matter! Those prayers that we lift up in a quick moment; those simple gestures and hugs; that small favor or gift; each one is noted and celebrated by none other than the Ruler of all Creation.