TGIF

Ahhh…Friday. End of the work week, beginning of the weekend. Payday, too, for some. For many people, their goal is just to get through Friday at work, and spend time doing whatever they want until they have to return to work on Monday. Of course, some people have to work weekends, and others don’t have a job at all. Some have other responsibilities on the weekends– caring for aging parents, or shuttling kids to ball games; volunteer projects, working on home improvement tasks, or mowing the lawn. But Friday has become such a special day in our culture that we even have a phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday” (TGIF for short). And we have special Fridays–Good Friday (the day of Christ’s crucifixion), and “Black” Friday (the huge shopping day after Thanksgiving). And several movies about Fridays– Freaky Friday, His Girl Friday, Friday Night Lights, and a string of Friday the 13th horror flicks. And most of the associations with Friday are positive, even festive. For some people, Friday is the high point of their week!

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But what about the other days of the week? Do we thank God for Tuesdays, or Saturdays, or Sundays? Shouldn’t we be grateful every day? God gave us seven days each week, and He even sanctioned one of those days each week for rest and reflection. When Jesus spoke of the concept of a “sabbath,” He made clear that a weekly day of rest was God’s gift to US (Mark 2:27 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+2%3A27-28&version=ESV) But every day is a gift– filled with God’s presence and promises, even when it may seem like an endless series of chores, mishaps, and personal failures.

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God gives us each day, and whether it is payday, Monday, a “bad-hair” day, or a holiday, every day is an opportunity to live, love, and learn. And every day, we have the privilege and the opportunity to spend time in prayer with our Loving Heavenly Father.

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So, yes, Thank God that it’s Friday today. And use this day (and every day) to honor Him, obey Him, and walk in joy with Him. Tomorrow, Thank God it’s Saturday!

Seasonal Prayers

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It is supposed to be springtime in my neck of the woods. We’ve had two days of snow this week, chilly winds, and frost/freeze warnings. Fruit farmers are worried about losing the fragile blossoms that we need for apples, peaches, and cherries later this year. Many of the spring flowers are also in jeopardy. People are joking that we need to “unplug” springtime and “reboot” it, because it seems not to be working! The seasons seem “out of time.”

Sometimes our lives seem the same. We expect a season of growth or warmth, only to feel the cold winds, or we experience drought when we expected rain. Our prayers will change as the seasons come and go– young parents pray for patience as their days are hectic; aging parents pray for visits from their busy children and grandchildren. We go through seasons of success, seasons of stress, seasons of forced immobility, seasons of grief, and seasons of distracted activity.

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Throughout the Psalms, David and the other psalm writers sang of woes and wonders, praises and problems– sometimes within a single Psalm! We have seasons of questioning, and seasons of confidence. Sometimes, we feel close to God; other times, we wonder why He seems so far away. Our “songs” and prayers will change over the course of our lives and according to our moods and circumstances– desperate, worshipful, even indignant. Yet God hears them all– He wants us to pour out our hearts in all seasons!

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Our seasons may change, but God is Eternally Loving and Sovereign. Our moods and changing circumstances cannot remove us from His watchful eye or His tender care. Our momentary anger and doubt are not beyond His willingness–even eagerness– to forgive and redeem! God is Lord of all the Seasons– seasons of snow and sunshine; seasons of joy and sorrow. Even when our seasons seem “out of time,” we can lift our voices to a God who never changes.

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Where Two or Three Are Gathered…

Something curious has been happening to “The Church” in the age of COVID. In many areas, public gatherings have been limited or even prohibited, leaving local churches scrambling to re-invent their worship services and other programs. For a few weeks last summer, my local church was “closed” to the public, but sermons and worship songs were filmed and sent out as podcasts. Families could stay at home and still “come to church.” Since our congregation is made up of many large families and many elderly couples who are at high risk for getting or spreading COVID, this seemed like a safe alternative. However, for those who are single or just a couple living alone, we were encouraged to find another couple or family and “do church together.” (My husband and I watched the podcasts, but we didn’t gather with any other couples.) I knew of several small churches that continued to have “regular” live services– with congregations of fewer than 50, and plenty of space, they could meet the state guidelines. Others had “Zoom” services, or live streaming services for their sermons and a small praise team. David and I visited a couple of small churches, and, as our church opened up for limited seating, we happily attended in person. The larger the congregation, the more difficult it has been to have “live” church. Many are still struggling to find a “safe” alternative for congregational worship.

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Most of the churches in my area are currently open and trying to “get back to normal.” But something is still different. My husband and I went to Easter Service this year, and it felt really good to worship with familiar faces, even if they were still behind masks. There weren’t as many hugs or handshakes, and not as much “fellowship” before or after the service. The Joy of Easter was mingled with caution; the joy of seeing others was mixed with the fear that some familiar faces were still “missing.” We waved at familiar faces, and we sang familiar songs. But for me, at least, it seemed that we were still isolated from others. We “showed up” for church; we didn’t really “gather together.” I don’t know that anyone else felt what I did– and I don’t think this was any “lack” in our local congregation. But I think it will take some time and effort to reclaim “togetherness” in the sense that we used to take for granted at church.

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As I reflect on all this, I feel a sense of sadness and loss. And yet, I also sense a wonderful opportunity to rebuild and redefine our church community; one that remains close, not based on familiarity or shared worship style or similarity of situation or culture, but IN CHRIST! “Where two or three are gathered”…(see Matthew 18:20) We often use this verse as a promise of God’s presence whenever we have a service or a fellowship meeting. But the verse reads, “For where two or three are GATHERED IN MY NAME, there am I among them.”(ESV– emphasis added). This seems obvious, but I think we have a great opportunity to reflect and re-think what it means to “gather” in Christ’s name.

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We have amazing opportunities to “gather” via social media, live streaming, digital sharing, etc., with brothers and sisters around the world. We have the opportunity to develop friendships and relationships around the world, and worship with thousands of others simultaneously. And that’s wonderful. But Jesus’s promise is not made to mega-gatherings of believers “showing up” for a worship “experience.” Jesus promised to be where “two or three” are gathered in His name. And that doesn’t just mean that we need to get involved in a small group Bible study or “plug in” to a small fellowship group– though both are great opportunities.

But what happens when Jesus shows up at the grocery store when you run into your neighbor and share a prayer request, or at the restaurant, when your family says grace, inspiring others to do the same? What happens when “IN MY NAME” becomes a bigger part of our everyday life? What happens when that friend on social media becomes a prayer partner, instead of someone who just “likes” our jokes and photos? What happens when we make an effort to gather with a few neighbors for Bible study– even if we all go to different churches for worship?

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Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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I confess that COVID has shown me how much I’ve been living life and pursuing prayer in a bubble. I need to “gather” and interact one-on-one and in small groups with other believers. How much of Christ’s presence have I halved by hoarding it to myself or searching for Him in the church pews–how much more I can pursue relationships that include and invite Jesus to be “among” us, rather than just “with me.”

Fast Forward

I’ve written dozens of blog posts about prayer, and very little about fasting. Fasting is a practice that is often coupled with prayer, but fasting rarely appears in my blog.

There are several reasons for this. I don’t make a practice of dedicated fasting, so I don’t feel comfortable writing about something I don’t know well. or practice often. I also don’t want to give fasting equal time or importance, because I feel it can become a substitute or even an obstacle to prayer if done for the wrong reasons.

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The Lenten season is fast approaching, and it is a time when many people choose to fast, so I am stepping out of my comfort zone a little to give more time and effort to fasting (and discussing it here). Here are a few things I have found:

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  • While we often think of fasting as going without food or water (or both), there are actually many kinds of fasting. Fasting simply means that we do without or set aside something as an act of obedience, reverence, contrition, or worship. Fasting should be done with the goal of getting closer to God, increasing our focus and our dependence on Him. When we fast, we are creating a “space” of dependence– separating ourselves from one thing to be available for another thing– namely prayer and worship. It isn’t about not eating, so much as not allowing food and drink (or other things) to call us away from time with God.
  • Fasting is Biblical. It was practiced by Biblical figures from Moses to King David, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, and the entire nation of Israel! Jesus fasted and members of the early church practiced fasting as well. Fasting is encouraged, but not required. It is never prohibited, but there are several biblical warnings about improper fasting (see below).
  • For an excellent discussion (by people who have studied longer and know far more than I do), see: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/what-exactly-is-fasting-all-about.html or any number of other excellent blogs and websites, many of which are linked in the site I’ve listed.
  • Fasting is NOT meant to be an end in itself. There are many people who use fasting as a diet plan, or as an exercise in self-control. This is NOT biblical fasting. Whatever you are “setting aside” in your fast should be “filled” with prayer, meditation, and worship, and that should always be your focus. If you have health issues, a history of eating disorders or obsessive behavior, you should be very careful about fasting. Consider seeking advice or an accountability partner to help you remained focused on the real goals.
  • Fasting will not make you more righteous, or better than someone else who does not practice fasting. In fact, Jesus warned that when we fast, we should not do anything to call attention to the fact– no moaning or sighing, etc. Fasting isn’t about impressing others with our religious devotion. God knows our actions, but He also knows our heart.
  • Fasting is a commitment, and should not be taken lightly. If you decide to do a fast, and you’ve never done one, it’s best to start small and complete it, than to jump in headfirst and fail to keep your commitment. Not because God will be angry or disgusted– remember that God LOVES you and wants you to desire a closer relationship. But God wants each of us to grow to maturity. God will give us grace to do what He asks us to do; but He won’t honor our efforts to “outdo” Him.
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In taking a closer look at fasting, I am encouraged to do it more often. I have done short fasts, food fasts, and fasting from activities, and I can say that such practices often have surprising results. If you are planning to do any kind of fast for Lent, I pray that you will find it brings you closer to God and helps you in your own pursuit of prayer.

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Chasing Epiphany

Today marks Epiphany– the day traditionally celebrating the arrival of the Magi to see the Baby Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-12) The Bible does not give us many details about the Wise Men. We don’t know if there were three or thirty. We don’t know if they all came from the same region, or if they came from many different nations and regions and met up along the journey. We only know that they had studied the skies; having seen a new and very bright star (or comet or conjunction of stars), they plotted its course across the sky and “followed” it to Israel– first to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. They brought gifts fit for the king they expected to meet.

What a surprise it must have been for them to reach Jerusalem. After many days (weeks? months?) of travel, they arrived, only to be met with shock and confusion by the leaders and wise men of Israel. Hundreds of prophesies pointed to the birth of Messiah, yet the Jewish leaders were oblivious to His arrival, almost under their very noses! They were not ignorant of the prophesies– they “knew” that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Yet, they showed no interest in traveling with the other wise men to meet their own redeemer. Instead, they sent the foreigners to pay homage, while they plotted in Jerusalem to help Herod kill hundreds of innocent infants. These are the same priests, prophets, and wise men who had been studying, praying for, and waiting for the arrival of Messiah for hundreds of years. How could they have missed it?!

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Epiphany is not just the name for this day of the Kings with their three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh– it is a word that tells of a sudden realization or understanding of the essence of a truth. But how often do we chase an epiphany–pray for answers, or memorize scripture–only to miss the point? How often are we focused on the pages of history, or our computer screens, only to miss the wondrous star in the sky? Are we, like the Jewish leaders of their age, missing the Epiphany?

God is ready to show us the miracle of His Mercy, the sufficiency of His Grace, and the depths of His great Love– are we chasing an Epiphany that is right under our noses? Let’s be ready to look up, to follow the star, and to be amazed!

Let No Tongue On Earth Be Silent..

“O ye heights of Heav’n, adore Him,
Angel hosts His praises sing.
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him,
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring,
Evermore and Evermore!”

“Silent night, Holy night…” Tradition has it that Christ was born on a cold and silent night. The Bible doesn’t exactly say when he was born. It does say that the angels appeared to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night; and that the wise men of the East followed a star to find the newborn King. But the Bible doesn’t talk about the night being unnaturally silent or cold– these are details we’ve added to the story that may or may not be accurate.

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But one thing is certain– whatever silence may have settled over Bethlehem near the time of Christ’s arrival; whatever lull in the hustle and bustle of the busy city’s streets–there was no silence among those who heard the good news of His birth. From the singing hosts of Heaven’s angels, to the excited voices of the shepherds, the inquiring whispers among the wise men, and the nervous recitations of the prophecies among Herod’s advisors, Christ’s birth was met with a symphony of reaction.

And so it continues–as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, hymns will be sung, rich with words like “Hallelujah,” “Joy, ” “Blessed,” “Adore,” “Savior,” “Lord,” “Wonder,” “Glory,” “In Excelsis Deo,” “Redeemer,” “King,” and “Emmanuel!” From every nation, and in every language, praise and worship will erupt from homes and churches. And this is in addition to prayer and worship that rises in an unbroken stream around the globe each day, every day.

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It fills me with wonder to think that at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is praying and praising our Wonderful God. But millions of tongues are silent– even on Christmas–in response to God’s Everlasting Love and Grace. There are millions, even billions of tongues that will greet Christmas Day without wonder, without hope, without joy. Billions who will grumble about the weather, or the outcome of a sporting match, or their family relationships.

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Someday, “no tongue on earth” will be able to keep silent in response to the Messiah. “Every knee shall bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10b-11 NIV)

Can you imagine a choir made up of every single human being–“every voice in concert”– declaring the worth and majesty of God’s Holy Lamb?! This babe born to be the Prince of Peace; this Only Begotten of the Father; our Emmanuel– He is worthy of such a concert! Let NO TONGUE on Earth be silent! Let us Extol Him! How Great Our Joy!!

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The Lord Has Taken Away…

20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:20-21 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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The book of Job presents us with a startling picture. Job is a godly man; a righteous man; a man of faith and good works. And yet, God allows him to experience loss upon loss– Job loses everything, short of his life and his nagging, bitter wife. His first response is praise and worship! But as the losses sink in; as the pain and agony and grief continue, Job questions God’s justice and wisdom. Job, like us, wants answers that make sense. He is willing to suffer– even greatly–IF he can see the purpose of his suffering, and justify it to himself.

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We are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S.– a day when we celebrate what God has given us. We normally celebrate family, health, good food, material blessings, etc. We celebrate abundance and comfort; peace and plenty; family and freedom. But his year, our celebration will be quite different. The Lord has taken away…

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Some of us have lost jobs, or we’ve lost our good health to COVID or related factors, or we’ve lost loved ones, often without the chance to say our final “goodbyes”. Millions of us have lost the ability to move about freely and conduct “normal” errands and activities. Schools and businesses are closed or operating from a distance. Families and friends have been kept apart. Much that gave us comfort and happiness has been “taken away” this year. And God has allowed it all to unfold. He has not “taken away” this disease or its consequences. He has not “taken away” floods, or fires, or hurricanes. He has not given us answers or explanations.

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Job’s initial praise turns to questioning. While he does not “curse God and die,” as his wife suggests, Job spends his time wondering, “Why me?” His friends try to find answers– “you must have done something to deserve this, Job.” Because God does not “punish” the righteous. It isn’t logical; it isn’t fair; it isn’t just.

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Except that God laid on His own Son– on Himself– the guilt and punishment for all those who are unrighteous. What Job went through–unknown and unseen to him and his friends–was a glimpse into what God Himself would suffer. Christ lost everything–INCLUDING his life– in order to bring salvation to all those who are willing to believe and receive it. Christ was willing to give away His dignity, His power, His friends and family, and His life. And the Lord allowed it all to be taken.

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Many people read the story of Job– his loss and all his questions and complaints–and conclude that God is not fair or just. They find Him to be capricious and unwilling to ease Job’s suffering or answer his questions. They conclude that God is wicked and unworthy of Job’s praise or trust.

But to do so is to ignore the end of the story– God DOES “answer” Job; He gives Job a chance to justify himself and bring his case. And more than that– He gives Job more than he had before. Job ends up with more children to love, renewed health, and even more wealth than he lost. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+42&version=CSB And the same is true of Jesus Christ. Because of His “loss,” the world has gained the priceless gift of Salvation by Grace. Christ has become the first of millions to taste victory over death and enter into eternal life. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+15%3A20-23&version=NIV

Loss and grief still exist in this world; disease and suffering and hardship still plague us this year. But we have SO much to celebrate at Thanksgiving. When the Lord “takes away,” it is not because He is capricious, or jealous of our wealth or happiness. It is not because He is unkind or uncaring. At just the right time, and forever more, the Lord will Give without end– lavishly, extravagantly, abundantly. Nothing He takes away in this life– even a cherished love one–is beyond all hope of comfort, redemption, or restoration. Our losses cannot compare to the riches of His Grace and Love. This is a great mystery, but as Job discovered, God WILL DO IT!

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Blessed be the name of the Lord! Let us Thank and Praise His Holy Name!

My Father’s World

As I look outside, there are bare branches on the trees, and the grass is covered in fallen leaves. The beauty of early autumn has almost gone, and winter is coming. The air is brittle and chilly, but not as cold as it will be in another month.

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Yet, this is My Father’s world. I trust that winter will come, and pass. Spring will follow, and the trees will once again be covered in leaves and filled with birdsong and new life.

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As I listen to the news, I hear of COVID deaths and hospitals filled with the sick and suffering. I hear of political unrest, and people spewing hatred, anger, and fear for the future. There is chaos and uncertainty, injustice, and pain. There are hurricanes and fires, floods, and earthquakes.

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Yet, this is My Father’s world. He sends rain on the just and the unjust; He brings healing and hope, even in the darkest hours. This world does not belong to any one nation, or political party, or natural disaster, or epidemic. Such circumstances have the power to cause destruction and fear, but they do not have power over the Creator of all things. Their reign is temporary and limited. And ” ‘tho the wrong seems oft so strong,” God is eternally sovereign– nothing that happens today can either take God by surprise, or cause Him to quake.

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I meet with people who are discouraged, angry, bitter, and scared. And I cannot “fix” the world around me with good intentions, or hard work. I cannot give assurance based on my own efforts or my own wisdom. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t have the solutions. I will make mistakes. I will say things that cause confusion, or even offense.

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But this is not my world; and it isn’t the world of those who try to discourage me, judge me, take advantage of me, or manipulate me. This is My Father’s world. And in this moment, I will choose to look for His hand and listen for His voice.

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AMEN!

Sacred Spaces

I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.

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But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.

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Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!

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Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?

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Praying in Perspective

Have you ever seen a photo collage–a large picture made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny photos? If you stand back, you can see a large picture– a face, or a landscape, perhaps–but when you get closer, you can see the many smaller photos that make up the details.

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Prayer is like that. Each of us is a tiny details in the grander scope of the world’s population. Millions of people are praying at any given time on any given day. And we don’t see all of the others– sometimes we don’t see or hear or think of anyone else as we pray. But God sees and hears them all–moreover, God weaves and blends our prayers into something amazingly more than meets our awareness. Prayers of thanksgiving add a dash of bright color; prayers of anguish sound a minor tone; prayers of confession rise like incense, and prayers of worship wrap around all the colors and sounds and scents.

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Yesterday, I was feeling very depressed and small. It was difficult to pray. My perspective was off, and I could only see my own problems and emotions. Prayer helped change my perspective. As I spoke to God; as I thought about His power and omniscience, I began to see that I WAS small–but my God is enormous! And while He sees the entire picture– all places and times and peoples–He also looks on every tiny detail. He knows my name; He knows my every thought. He knows my needs and my desires; He knows my weaknesses and my unique gifts– gifts He has given! Even if no one else noticed, God would be able to pick out the smallest detail in His amazing creation, and bring it into perfect focus.

See Isaiah 55

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