No Particular Place to Go..

Back in 1964, singer Chuck Berry released a song called “No Particular Place to Go.” It was a catchy tune about a couple driving along on a date and having trouble with a new feature in the car– the safety belt– which ends up ruining their plans for a romantic stroll.

This may seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with prayer or Christian living, but stick with me…

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The writer of Proverbs includes a unique chapter https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+9&version=NIV in which Wisdom and Folly–both women–call out to passersby inviting them to visit. Both say the same thing: “Let all who are simple come to my house.” But Wisdom has built her house, prepared the food and wine, and even sent out servants to help. Folly lounges outside her door, offering “stolen” water and “food eaten in secret–though she has done nothing to prepare for visitors, and so has nothing real to offer.

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Both women call out, both women extend an invitation–the people are not looking for them; they are just passing by. And most of them have “no particular place to go.” And isn’t that the way with us sometimes? We don’t intend to fall into foolish habits, or get caught up in addictions. Nor do we look for wisdom in our fellowship over a meal, or in spending time at someone’s house. We can be very intentional in our actions, but fall victim to our interactions.

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Spending time with people of wisdom– people who will pray with us and for us–is so important. Preparing our hearts for fellowship with others, and for time spent with God is not something we should leave for chance. Just as we take time to “map out” our goals for work or health or finances, we should take care to map out our relationships.

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That doesn’t mean we avoid reaching out to others, and inviting them to enjoy fellowship, or that we must turn down all invitations from others. But we must be careful not to be drawn into folly. Jesus ate with sinners– but He didn’t carouse with them. He spent most of His time with those who wanted to share His love for the Father, and those who wanted to learn wisdom.

Folly never has a “particular place to go.” She wanders aimlessly. She doesn’t see the danger ahead, and she doesn’t look for a better road. Folly drives off recklessly without fastening her safety belt. Folly scrolls through lies and ads and half-truths on the internet. She gets pulled into relationships that are unhealthy and activities that are unproductive. And she wakes up dazed and confused and unfulfilled.

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Wisdom walks in the way of insight– well-marked paths that lead to a clear destination. Wisdom seeks traveling companions who share the same destination. Wisdom pursues the truth, in person and on-line. Wisdom drives defensively and wears a safety belt (and knows how to operate it!) Wisdom seeks shelter that is safe, where she can be well-fed and find rest. She wakes up refreshed and ready to continue the journey.

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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
 For through wisdom your days will be many,
    and years will be added to your life.
 If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you;
    if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.

Proverbs 9:10-12 (NIV)

Shibboleth

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15 KJV)
Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent (harmless, guileless, and without falsity) as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 NKJV)

(All Bible references, including emphases, via biblegateway.com)

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Hucksters, charlatans, con-artists, false prophets– we’ve all seen or heard them. Some are easy to spot; while others seem sincere. They “talk the talk”–they “Praise the Lord,” they pray, they quote scripture. How can we tell if they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”

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In the Old Testament book of Judges, two tribal groups had a battle. Afterwards, the victors set up a “test” for soldiers trying to cross the Jordan River. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not contain the “sh” sound. When asked to say the word, Shibboleth, they could not pronounce it correctly, and so were unable to hide their identity as enemy soldiers, even though they looked just like the others waiting to cross.

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There is an old Irish prayer that says, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” God doesn’t always “turn their ankles,” but He will give us the wisdom to discern false prophets– If we ask and listen. Even those who “talk the talk” will speak with a worldly “accent” that gives them away. They will fail the test of “Shibboleth.” Their talk will be filled with spiritual-sounding words and phrases, but it will deflect honor away from the only One truly worthy of our worship. Their teaching is described in 2 Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV) Beware of teaching that proclaims the power of the Human Spirit over that of God’s Spirit; or speaks of God’s power being demonstrated only in terms of worldly success. They may not “limp,” but they will “lisp.”

When the Gileadites used the “Shibboleth” test, they were looking for a specific mistake in pronunciation to identify their enemies. When we are testing Christian teachers, we should also look for specific “mis-pronouncements.” And just as important, we should look for words that don’t match actions and attitudes. For example, anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian or Christ-follower, but won’t proclaim Jesus Christ– His ministry, life, death, and resurrection– should be suspect. Many people want to proclaim a Jesus who will appeal to the masses– a Jesus who will be your pal, your guru, your cheerleader, or your “life coach,” but NOT your Lord. Others will present Him as a Savior who is distant, whose love is conditional on abject obedience and blind trust. Neither of these are accurate pictures of the biblical Jesus Christ. We must also beware the teachers who present a Jesus whose lifestyle is nothing like the one they practice. None of us is perfect, but we should be living a life that testifies to God’s faithfulness, not our own popularity or power or purse.

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The best way to learn to detect imposters and false teachers is to spend time each day with “the real thing.” When I spend time reading scripture each day, it become easier for me to detect a “lisp” when someone misquotes it or takes it out of context. When I spend time asking God to reveal more of his character, I will learn to spot His character (or absence!) in those around me.

Father, may I have ears to discern Your voice and Your power today. May I be wise as I listen to those who speak of You. And may I not say, do, or write anything that doesn’t reflect Your Truth and Your Glory. Thank You for Your wise counsel, Your examples throughout Scripture and in those who desire to follow You faithfully, and for Your Spirit, who reveals Truth.

Meaningless?

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

    I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor,

    and this was the reward for all my toil.

 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

    and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

    nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV via biblegateway.com)
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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”

I Will Arise and Go To Jesus

Prayer is a pursuit. It is a lifestyle. It is a practice. But it is, sadly, a last resort for some people. And for others, it is a habit, but one among several others.

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What happens when we substitute other habits for prayer? When we turn to other sources first for our comfort or answers?

I know something of this from a brief but bitter experience– as a medium.

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It started out as a bit of fun. I never planned to dabble in the occult. In fact, I was repulsed by Ouija boards and Tarot cards and Palmistry. But the mother of a friend of mine taught some of us a “party trick.” Using an ordinary deck of playing cards, she showed us how we could “tell fortunes.” And it wasn’t full of “spiritual” or “mystic” symbolism at all. It was like making up a story. Certain cards would “represent” certain things– face cards represented men or women; a certain number card might represent communications, another finances, and another travel. The other person did all the “work”– they cut the cards, picked one pile, cut again, chose another pile (until it was small enough to tell a story without too many elements); they even laid the cards out in a random pattern, face up. All I did was the initial shuffle, and the “fortune telling/storytelling” at the end.

I had almost forgotten about this “trick.” I hadn’t seen it done in years. But when I was in college, and we were bored one night, I told my friends, and they wanted to try it. I never took it seriously; I never depended on cards to shape my own future, and I never thought of it as being any kind of substitute for prayer or trust in God. But it was “fun” to see what stories I could make from the cards. “You will soon receive a phone call from an old friend. They will invite you to take a short trip/run some errands with them. It will be costly.” All the details very vague– no names or dates, no specific locations or consequences–and I didn’t advise anyone what to do. My friends got in on the act, suggesting possible “stories” from the cards and their arrangements. Most were silly and had a positive tone.

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But then, something changed. A friend of a friend stopped by as we were “telling fortunes.” I explained that it wasn’t “real,” and she seemed to understand. But she went and got some more “friends.” And one of her “friends” took it very seriously. He wanted to know what he “should do” about an upcoming event…could I tell him whether he should go or not? Could I help him find out if his girlfriend was “the right one?” I explained that I couldn’t tell him anything like that, and nor could the playing cards– all I did was make up stories for fun. He pushed for awhile, and I refused to do another “reading” for him. He was disappointed and confused. Why wouldn’t I tell him what he needed to know? Why didn’t I help him?” I was a little angry at his insistence and I made an excuse to ask everyone to leave for the night– I had to study for a test; it was getting late–I just wanted it to end.

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But after he left, I began to shudder. This young man wanted ME to tell him what to do about situations about which I knew nothing. He was willing to place his hope and his future in the turn of a few ordinary playing cards and MY made-up story. I had never met him, but he assumed that I had knowledge about his future and the wisdom to guide him through it. And all I had offered him was a parlor trick. I hadn’t talked to him about his worries or offered to pray for him, or even asked if I could pray. I have no idea what his spiritual condition was, but he was eager to find easy answers from a stranger. And what if I had “made up” more stories for him? What if he acted on them? What harm might have come from a “harmless” parlor trick?

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I have never done the “fortune telling trick” since that night. But I often think about all the many “games” I see that offer to “tell” me about my past, or my inner self, or my future. How often have I been tempted to “play?” How often have I, even in “fun,” allowed a stranger or an algorithm to “reveal” secrets or predict outcomes? And how often have I failed to bring my thoughts, questions, worries, or attitudes to the One who knows everything? How often have I neglected to put my whole trust in Him?

I know people may say it is “harmless” to consult a Horoscope, or play games involving the future, but it is not wise. There are dozens of Biblical warnings against such activities. We are to seek God first and foremost, and trust His will for our lives.

Praying From the Ash Heap

Last week about this time, I was miserable. Feverish, achy, somewhat nauseous, and doubting my own sanity. I had chosen, along with my husband, to get the COVID vaccine– even though we already had the disease earlier this year! We should have a built-up immunity, and medically, there is no compelling reason to get the vaccine and take the risk of suffering all the symptoms I suffered last week.

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Fever and pain have a way of making people cranky, impatient, and rebellious. Especially when they come as a result of trying to do “the right thing.” I was reminded of the Biblical character of Job, who suffered intense pain and suffering through no fault of his own. While my suffering was nothing compared to his– or to many of those who have suffered worse from COVID than I did– it brought some of the same thoughts and complaints. “What did I do to deserve this?” “Why me?” “Don’t you care about my suffering?” “How much longer must I be in pain?” “Wouldn’t it be better if I could just escape this fever and achiness?”

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Most of us are not “good patients.” No one likes to suffer, even for a short while. And it can be easy to let our pain determine our prayer life. Our focus narrows to our own circumstances, and how we wish them to change. We tend to go to God with indignation–how could He let us suffer like this?! And yet, even in his indignation and self-centered moaning, Job never lost sight of God’s essential goodness and justice.

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Job’s friends started out with a sincere desire to offer help and comfort. They heard of his sufferings, left their homes and traveled to visit and comfort their friend. When they arrived, they wept, tore their clothes, and sat, silent and supportive, for seven whole days! (Job 2:11-13) This is in contrast to Job’s embittered wife, who told him to “curse God, and die!” There is no other mention of her throughout all of Job’s suffering–which may have been one of the unheralded mercies of God!

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Job’s conversation with his friends may not sound much like prayer, but we see into Job’s heart and mind through these conversations. As his friends remind Job that God is Just, and that He punishes those who are wicked and rebellious, Job defends himself. But he also defends God–God IS Just; but He is also merciful and loving. What is happening to Job is not consistent with all that Job has experienced of God. In fact, it seems capricious and unfair. Job’s confusion and his questioning are not only coming from his pain and suffering, but from his surprise at God’s silence and seeming absence. Job’s friends see Job’s circumstances as confirmation of his sin. But though Job is confused by sudden change of circumstances, he is convinced that God will continue to be Just– that He will hear Job’s complaint, even if He has decided against Job for reasons Job may never understand. In fact, Job is still convinced of God’s goodness, declaring that “I know my redeemer lives…I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me..” (Job 19:25-27), and that “the fear of the Lord–that is wisdom”(Job 28:28)

When we face the “ash heap” of despair, pain, grief, and doubt, whether we are isolated or surrounded by well-meaning friends, we have a choice in our response. We can praise God from the ashes, we can bring Him our doubts and questions. Or we can “curse God and die”– choosing to see only our circumstances and losing sight of who God is (and always has been).

The same God who brought David and I through our bout with COVID brought us through last week’s reaction to the vaccine. He is the same God who has comforted families who lost loved ones to this disease, and who has kept still others healthy throughout this crisis. I don’t know why or how we got sick back in February; I don’t know why I had such a bad reaction last week. I don’t know what the future holds, or what other pains and struggles we may face in the weeks and months ahead. The same God who finally appeared to Job–even though He never answered Job’s questions!–is the same God who holds the universe in His hand. He is the same God who never lost sight of Job. He is the same God who parted the Red Sea, healed lepers and kings, raised the dead, and promises everlasting life with Him.

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So I may not know what troubles I will face tomorrow, and I may not have the answers to all my questions. But, like Job, I know that my redeemer lives! I know that whatever happens, God will remain Faithful, Good, Just, and Holy. And one day, “I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me”!

Risky Prayers

When I was a teenager, I read about Solomon and how he prayed for wisdom. God granted his request, and made Solomon the wisest ruler in Israel’s history. He also blessed Solomon with riches and fame, peace, and power. (see 1 Kings, chapter 3) I thought about what I should pray for in my own life– what attribute would I need as I became an adult, a wife, a parent, etc. I prayed for patience.

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When I said that I wanted to pray for patience, several wise and respected adults cautioned me NOT to pray such a prayer! “You know what will happen…God won’t “give” you patience…He’ll bring all kinds of things into you life to “teach” you patience. You never pray for such things. It’s like asking for trouble. Be careful what you pray for.”

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Looking back almost 40 years later, I would have to say that God answered my prayer. And, as I was warned, He allowed things to come into my life to try my patience and develop my patience. I remained unmarried until I was 46. I never had children of my own. Perhaps some people would wag their finger and say, “See, I told you so.” But I would not change my prayer or change my life’s circumstances. God’s answers were not what I expected, but His ways were better than my expectations. I wanted patience so that I could better handle life’s little ups and downs– so I could be the kind of wife and mother who was always composed; always at peace. Instead, I worked with teenagers and toddlers– many of whom knew very little peace at home. I wasn’t perfectly composed. Sometimes, I yelled at my class, or lost my temper with colleagues. Sometimes, I had to deal with crises–students who died in tragic accidents or by suicide; toddlers at story time whose parents were going through divorce or facing cancer. And all the while, I waited for the husband and family of my hopes and expectations.

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I had prayed for patience– and I found it ONLY when I depended on God. All those years I was single and working with “other people’s” children, I learned to lean on God’s timing and wisdom. Even through the pain and tears, and wondering why God seemed silent and my dreams seemed to be out of reach, God was there, listening to my cries, giving me strength to keep going. And He is still doing the same for me now. My circumstances and expectations didn’t change who God was. But they helped shape who I was becoming, and who I am today.

During this time, I also watched peers who seemed to “have it all.” They had beautiful families, beautiful houses, handsome husbands, and fast-track jobs. But underneath, they were lonely and unfulfilled. Many of them ended up divorced, disillusioned, or burned-out. Some of them have turned (or returned) to God; others still struggle, trying to do everything their own way, and trying to juggle too much alone.

God doesn’t demand that we pray “risky” prayers. But when we choose to follow Him, we will have to take some risky steps. We may have to let go of our expectations; we may have to go through rejection and hardship. But what God has in store for us is worth the risk.

I’m not wealthy or famous. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone pray for patience, or wisdom, or some other virtue, thinking that God will make life easier or richer. (I think that’s what worried some of the people who “warned me off” praying this way.) But if you want to know God in a richer, deeper way, it will require a leap of faith.

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What “risky prayer” have you been putting off? Today is a perfect day to take that next step. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Arguing With the Almighty

I was thinking the other day about the movie, “Forrest Gump.” In it, a bitter, beaten, and angry character begins arguing with God– in the midst of a hurricane!

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“Lieutenant Dan” was an able soldier, fighting in Vietnam and in charge of a small unit, which included the simple-minded Forrest Gump. When their unit was ambushed, Dan was badly injured and lost the use of his legs. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump received only a small flesh wound, and managed to save several of his fellow soldiers, receiving a medal for bravery. One of the soldiers rescued by Forrest, Dan resented his situation– disabled and ignored– while Forrest went on to become successful and celebrated.

Worse, in the years after the war, Forrest found Dan, homeless and dejected, and offered him a job and a home– on his shrimping boat. Forrest knew next to nothing about shrimping, and Dan, torn between bitterness and gratitude, gives Forrest a hard time. Dan’s life has gone nowhere, and Forrest seems to dodge every bullet (literally), finding success in spite of his naivete and seemingly stupid choices. When the two men find themselves in the middle of a hurricane, Dan can take it no longer. He lashes out– not at Forrest this time, but at God. How could a loving God allow Dan to go through trial after trial– the loss of his legs and so many of the men under his command, the loss of his dignity and productivity, the loss of his independence, and now, another deadly situation beyond his control. He yells at God–“Come and get me!” He challenges God to just kill him; just finish him off, or leave him alone.

(Please excuse the foul language in the clip.)
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But God is silent– and soon, so is the hurricane. Forrest and Dan have survived. In fact, Forrest’s decision to be out of the harbor means their boat is the only one to survive–suddenly, they can’t catch the shrimp fast enough! Forrest becomes a millionaire and hires a fleet of fishing boats. But what about Dan?

Somewhere in the middle of the storm, Dan’s heart is pierced by a simple and life-changing thought. God has not been the one “ruining” Dan’s life– He is the one who has been preserving it! God brought him through war, disability, injustice, loneliness, frustration, and the raging sea. God was not a cosmic bully. God was not singling out Dan for punishment– after all, thousands of others had been wounded and killed in the war; millions of people knew what it was like to be hungry, homeless, and lonely; and hundreds had been devastated by the hurricane– even while they were safely evacuated or hunkered down on land. Forrest had not dodged every “bullet.” He had lost his best friend in battle; he had been rejected (time after time) by the woman he loved; he had been teased, bullied, and cheated dozens of times, and he had been tossed about by the same waves and winds Dan had survived. Dan ends up leaving Forrest, and setting off on his own, having found a peace that transcends his pain and bitterness. He swims off with a smile, leaving behind the opportunity to remain with Forrest and make millions.

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Arguing with the Almighty is very tempting when we face difficult circumstances– and when we focus on our own lot, and not on the bigger picture. God is bigger than any of the troubles we face. And He is not unaware or unconcerned about whatever we are going through. Just as Lieutenant Dan challenged God, the biblical character of Job challenged God to vindicate him as he went through trials and pain. God finally answered, and Job realized that God was far bigger than anything Job had ever known or experienced. And in the end, God restored Job– giving him a new family, and even more material wealth than he had before!

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Sometimes, God allows us to go through periods of pain and struggle– not because He is punishing us or because He is a tyrant, but because He is more interested in our ultimate salvation than He is in our immediate comfort. We moan and complain that God “doesn’t want us to be happy,” as if our momentary happiness is more important than our character development, than the happiness of those around us, or than God’s design for the world.

Near the end of the movie, Lieutenant Dan visits Forrest. He is transformed. No longer angry and bitter, he is quiet, self-assured, and standing! He has “new legs” made of titanium, and he has found joy, love, and success of his own.

Of course, many of us, regardless of our situations, have tried arguing with God at certain times of our lives. The loss of a loved one; the breakup of a marriage; a diagnosis of cancer; a miscarriage of justice and the loss of a reputation– it is natural to be angry, hurt, and confused. And God is more than big enough to “take it” when we ask “WHY?!!” But we will never “win” such arguments– not because God is a tyrant who won’t let us have what we want– but because God is GOD, and we are not. He alone knows how our story ends, and what trials– and blessings– await us. He alone knows what is “right” in the scope of eternity– not just for us, but for our loved ones, our neighbors, our nation, and our times. God can see that we get, not just “new legs,” but a new heart, and a new mind!

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Hurricanes happen– so do hurts and hurdles. We can choose to see God’s hand–and believe that it is raised in anger, or reaching out to hold us. That choice is yours. That choice is mine. Every day.

Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

Praying in Perspective

I love optical illusions and “trompe l’oeil” drawings and paintings– artwork that either forces the eye to see things as though they are three-dimensional, or fools the eye into seeing something completely different if you look at it from a different angle or perspective. A duck turns into a rabbit, or a hairy face turns into an ape, or a vase turns into two faces…it is not enough to take a quick glance– you are “drawn” into looking deeper, and studying the art from many angles.

What if we approached prayer this way? Sometimes, I pray from a very fixed perspective– my own desires or in my own wisdom– instead of giving my thoughts and worries entirely over to an all-knowing and all-wise God. What if God wants me to see the situation from a different perspective– HIS?!

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Instead of instant healing from an injury, what if God wants me to work harder to maintain my overall health as I recover? Instead of mission work in East Asia, maybe God needs me to work in East L.A. (or vice versa). Instead of my child having the “perfect” job, what if God’s plan is for her to be challenged and unsettled for years before finding the most fulfilling career?

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Jesus gave us excellent examples of praying with the proper perspective. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:10-12) “..yet not my will, but Thine be done.” (Luke 22:42).

I tend to pray “two-dimensional” prayers. Lord, help me to pray with Your eternal perspective!

Chariots of Iron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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