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Two Hands Upwards

P1000477You know the one about the widow who kept going to the king for help? The Bible records that Jesus tells this parable to illustrate to his disciples that they must pray continually and not give up (Luke 18:1-8). I have heard sermons and taught Sunday School classes using this story as a way to communicate our need to be praying often and persistently. The story is even labelled “The Persistent Widow”, and it is that word “persistent” that bothers me. It makes it sound like God will answer our prayers just to shut us up. Not a very flattering picture of God or of us. It makes me think of a maddeningly persistentchild. I can remember those days when my children were little and I would have to scatter some M&M’s on their lunch plate between the grilled cheese sandwich and the apple slices just to get a little peace. I don’t view this as a particularly shining maternal moment; just a tired mom giving in to a persistent child.

I’m having trouble with the word persistent. These days I have come to view that parable from a slightly different angle. I’m sure that the king was hoping to quiet the woman, but was he responding to her persistence or the reason for her persistence? You see, this widow was aware that whatever her problem was, only the king could help her. He was the only person who had the ability, the authority and the right to dispense the justice that she needed. She petitioned him regularly because she knew that there was nowhere else to go. She had complete trust that the king would help her.

This , then is how we must pray. We can be persistent with God because we really have nowhere else to turn and we are truly in desperate need. So we cry out to the only one who can help us. God responds not to the volume or quantity of our prayers, but to the sincerity in our hearts and our trust of his ability and authority to help us.

It took so long for me to learn this. As a teenager, I had a hard time (well, who didn’t?). I started with a Christian base to answer my many questions but wasn’t satisfied with the few answers I was finding. At this point, I should have found a mature Christian to serve as a mentor, but being a headstrong, know-it-all teen (remember those “got-the-tiger-by-the-tail” days?), I decided to head out on my own. Since Christianity had disappointed me, I looked into Buddhism, HInduism, Islam, Transcendental Meditation, New Age and the writings of the great philosophers of the past. It would take twenty years before I would return to my Christian roots with that “tiger tail” between my legs.

My long journey wasn’t in vain. I have actually learned a few things. For example, I am starting to understand the mistaken perceptions fo my youth and it is this simple – I didn’t trust God. The secret of the widow’s persistence and the receipt of the king’s justice lies in her trust of him. But I didn’t trust God. I would pray for help with only one hand held out while the other grasped desperately at earthly straws. Now, God wants to answer our prayers. He longs to be gracious to us (Isaiah 30:18). But if we only put out one hand, He will only fill up one hand. If we don’t let HIm fill both hands, we end up feeling only half-filled and therefore unsatisfied. David sang that God satisfied him completely (Psalm 63) but that was only because he was so open to God. When we approach God still withholding parts of ourselves from Him, He cannot love us as completely as He wants to. This is not God withholding love from us. It is us not being open to God. When we approach God while still trying to keep secret our deepest, darkest thoughts (which He already knows anyway), He cannot love us as completely as He wants to. We are not allowing ourselves to be open to receive all that He has for us. And then we have the nerve to say that God isn’t answering our prayers!

Persistent prayers, in and of themselves, won’t touch God’s heart, Anyone can chant a mantra over and over again, that won’t make it true. Even repetition of the Lord’s Prayer won’t cause God to bend down (although it will help to soften your own knees). I think that God waits for words that pour forth from a trusting heart and listens for those words that leap from a loving tongue. God must look for those two hands opened humbly and trustingly upwards towards Him, so that He can fill them to overflowing with His graciousness. I’m learning Lord, it’s hard but I am learning.


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We Don’t Always Get to Teach the Lesson We Planned, Do We?

100_4574Saturday afternoon it was snowing and the report for Sunday called for bitter cold and high winds. Even though I was safe and warm inside, i was not happy about this storm. It had been a long winter already and this wasn’t going to make spring come any faster. On top of that, I had a great lesson, complete with cool object lessons, lined up for my Sunday school class the next day and was excited to present it to the kids.  Now i couldn’t be sure if any kids would even show up. As i fell asleep that night, I prayed that God would either bring the families to church or give me an alternate plan for the few stragglers that would brave the elements the next morning. I didn’t get much sleep as the predicted winds blew around the house all night. There was only a few inches of accumulated snow but the drifts and ice patches were still a problem. So I prayed, “Lord, these are your kids. What would you like me to do with them in church today?” As I bowed my head, wisps of verses dealing with wind started to flit through my mind. “Of course”, I thought, “talk about what’s going on. Talk about the wind.”

And that’s what happened. I scrapped my carefully planned lesson, and started searching out the verses that mentioned wind to see where it would lead me. I found that in the Old Testament, God used wind alot as a symbol for not just His power, but also to show how He protects and helps us. In Genesis 8:1, wind made the waters recede so that Noah and his family could leave the ark. In Exodus 10:19, wind brought a plague of locusts in Egypt. It was a wind that blew all night which caused the Red Sea to split so the Isrealites could escape Pharoah. When they were hungry in the desert, God caused a wind to blow quail off course and straight into the cooking fires of the Israelites in Numbers 11:31. The references to wind went on and on. In each case, it showed God’s strength, power and might as He protected His people. All except for one curious passage.

In 1 Kings 19:9-13, The prophet Elijah is running for his life. Jezebel has demanded his life and Elijah’s only recourse was to hide in the desert. God has sent his angels to watch over him and lead him to a safe place to rest. While hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, God speaks to him. God directs Elijah to “go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about the pass by.” A wind so powerful it tears the mountains apart roars by, but God is not present in that wind. An earthquake shakes the mountain, but God is not there. A fire came, yet still, God is not there. Finally, a gentle whisper and God speaks. The class and I looked at these verses and wondered why God used the might of nature to show Himself earlier, yet here makes a point out of not being in the impressive storm, quake or fire. While theologians with much more knowledge than I have written of Elijah’s mountaintop experience, I purposely kept things simple and told the class that one of the things that God was doing was to give a foreshadowing of Jesus. Yes, He certainly can use the power of the natural world to get our attention, but I really do think that here, He is letting us see that the time is coming when He will change the relationship with mankind and we will be able to have a personal relationship in which communication will include a quiet vioce speaking into our souls. Prayer will become a conduit of that voice and a two -way conversation with the LORD that did not normally happen in Elijah’s time.

With the exception of Elijah’s story, God has used wind in the Old Testament as a symbol of his power and for the defense of his people. I didn’t bring it up in class as we were running out of time, but there are also numerous verses that speak of wind separating wheat from chaff. This is used as a picture of how God will cause the enemies of Israel to be scattered before them. There are other references to wind as something to be feared but those references were outnumbered by the verses in which God uses the imagery of wind for His glory.

Next we turned to the New Testament. I settled on only two references in the New Testament though there were many to choose from. We looked at Mark 4:39 where Jesus stilled the wind and waves for his frightened disciples. This wind has caused dangerous conditions for the men as they sailed but Jesus calms their fears as he stops the waves. This and other wind references in the New Testament, use wind as a danger to be protected from and which Jesus is able to control.  God is still using wind to show his power but in a different way. Here He is controlling dangerous situations to protect his people.

Lastly we read James 1:6 which uses wind as a metaphor to show how doubts can cause you to be tossed about as a man with no stable base for his life, a dangerous situation indeed. This led to discussion of what winds are blowing today that may cause the base of your life to be unstable. What problems might you be dealing with? What doubts might you have, often caused by the shifting winds of our present culture. Look at any magazine cover, newspaper, movies or TV shows and you will see that what is considered PG today was not just a few years ago. And this slippery slope of morality continues to erode away under us. That is the wind that we are battling today and my students are right in the thick of that battle. The class and I were able to engage in some great discussions and they were asking thoughtful questions.

I had one more story for the class, a personal one. Most of my students were born just after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attack on our country. I shared with them my memories of the day and how it changed our country’s perception of safety and taught us fear. But I remember vividly what happened one year later. There was much concern as the one year anniversary approached that there might be another attack. That morning as my kids and I stood at the end of the driveway waiting for the school bus we were buffeted by a crazy wind that was the result of a low pressure system meeting a storm to the south of us. Not a drop of rain – but we had bright blue skies with incredibly high winds that had my young children holding on for dear life as we waited for that bus. As I stood there, trying to help them stand up under their backpacks, I couldn’t help but think that God was sending us a message. It seemed to say, “Don’t worry. Though you are scared, I am still in control. Just see how mighty my wind can be.” It was strangely comforting. Later that morning, several other moms called me and we all were amazed that we had gotten the same thought as we were standing in that whirlwind of a bustop with our kids. “Don’t worry, I am still here. I will protect my children”. Whether He is showing us His mighty arm or quieting us to hear his words, He is God and windy days are times to think on Him who holds the winds at the four corners of the earth. Think of his might, his protection, his quiet voice. Remember that he is still here. From Elijah’s whirlwind to the storms of the Galilean seas to the wind patterns tracked by the Weather Channel today, He is still here, controlling everything from a spring breeze to hurricane’s howl. He is here. Emmanuel.


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My Dad’s Messy Workroom (Hey, dad, I get it now!)

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My father was a tool and die maker by trade but a carpenter by choice.He made all sorts of stuff in his workshop from common household items to sweet children’s toys for his grandchildren. That’s how I remember him most, that and the smells of the workshop. Sawdust has a sweet, dry scent but also paint and turpentine (not so sweet). He had many hobbies beside woodworking. He discovered an artistic talent late in life which turned his bedroom into an artist’s studio. The man had the greenest thumb in the neighborhood and always grew the tallest sunflowers and tastiest tomatoes. I remember marigold flowers that he would save each year to dry and use the seeds in the spring. To this day, when I plant marigolds their pungent scent sends me back to my childhood. He was always working on several things at once which kept him very busy. It was always fun to watch him unveil each new project, many of which are still in use in my own home today. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that his workshop was a cluttered mess. and I was never allowed to straighten anything up as he might never find it again. But that was alright, because so much beauty came out of that workshop. That room was meant to be used, and the floor was meant to be covered in sawdust and his clothing was meant to be stained with oil paint while a constant smell of turpentine hung in the air because he lived and laughed and enjoyed himself when he was working on one of his creations. Had all his tools, paintbrushes and gardening trowels stayed clean, housework would have been a breeze but my life would have been so flat and colorless.

“Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strentgh of the ox, comes an abundant harvest.”

Proverbs 14:4 NIV

Um, Yeah. that’s not really making much sense. And that’s a shame because it’s a great verse. Here it is again in the New LIving Translation.

“Without the oxen the stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.” Proverbs 14:4 NLT

Toys are meant to be played with. Your good jewelry is meant to be worn. Sunsets are meant to be enjoyed. Dogs are meant to have thier bellies rubbed. This might all seem rather obvious but here’s one that trips alot of people up: life is meant to be lived. I know, you probably seen it on a hundred bumper stickers and Hallmark cards but it’s a pretty rough one when you think about it. If you are hurt in some way, you may not be so fast to get up again. When a relationship crumbles, you will think twice before jumping back on that particular horse. Sure, your stable will stay clean but there will be no harvest for you. Life gets messy. Relationships can be painful. There have been times when I blocked myself off from the world because things were just getting too crazy. It gave me a much needed chance to catch up, rest up and clean up. But once the reconstructive work is done – then what? That’s when i would realize that i needed to reconnect with a friend or reach out to a family member and start to live again.

Letting someone get past the guarded walls of your heart is a difficult, painful task. It takes time and patience on both sides to build trust. There will be misunderstanding and sometimes downright selfish behaviour. It will hurt. And that’s when you are just dealing with people. When you let Jesus start to have control of your life, things really get rocking. Someone told me once that “Jesus had really messed thier life up.” I was a new Christian at the time and thought that it was a horrible thing to say. But now, a lifetime later, it’s starting to make sense. Jesus takes us to places that we never would have dreamed of going and never thought we wanted to go to. He places us in situations that didn’t seem possible only a few short months earlier. He will orchestrate the ebb and flow of the people that you will associate with and it might not always turn out the way you think it should. He will surprise you with invitations to parties that don’t seem to be your cup of tea. He will ruin you for the casualness of this world as He focuses your mind on the things above. He will mess up your life and you will find that it’s not such a bad thing.

When the ox is running around the stable, things will not be clean and tidy. But the clean, sterile stable is a cold place.  Give me the dirty straw and mud of a working barn. Let my heart shows scars from mishandling and mistrusts. And let Christ “shine his light in our heart” (2 Corn. 4:6), that same misshapen and scarred heart, because His is the light which will show the beauty born forth from a life lived in a messy stable.


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Taking Things Personally

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Now when he saw the crowds, He went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him.

Matthew 5:1

I’m not quite sure how i missed this before. Maybe it’s because when you watch movies and biblical documentaries they always portray Jesus as walking among the crowds as he taught. But it says right there that He “sat down…His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” It is recorded that “large crowds…followed him” just prior to the sit-down lessons. Scripture continues that “the crowds were amazed at his teaching” so we can assume that there was a large crowd of people listening. Yet I’ve come to think that the passage, which we have come to know as “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), was an extended teaching session for his disciples (however many that may have been) with a whole lot of others sitting around listening in.

I’m not saying that this is what happened. I just like the picture of HIm talking directly to his closest followers and then letting others relate his words as he spoke to those sitting further away. And it’s still happening today. I read the scriptures for my Sunday School lesson and then go into the classroom on Sunday morning and relate what i have learned to the kids. He speaks to me, I pass it on to the class, or a friend or my children or…you get the picture.

His words were stunning. radical and confusing then and now. He was sharing indepth spiritual truths wrapped around practical advice for everyday living. Had I been in that crowd, I think my head would have been spinning after his opening blessings (verses 1-12). I would have had trouble focusing on anything else after that which explains why I find myself reading passages like this over and over. In time, the words from the page become personal as they make  thier way from my brain and into my heart.

This pattern of internalizing in order to externalize is one that we still use. I like to take the printed words of scripture and make them personal to myself. Then turn around and see who God has put in my path for me to pass it on to. And I keep it personal, both to myself and the one I am speaking with, otherwise I am just making noise as 1Corinthians 13:1 tells us. Large teachings, as we see in Sunday morning worship sessions, are a great example. I listen and take notes. Over the next week the conversation continues with others as I process what I have learned. What were formally mere words can now begin to take root. Then we can take what we learned in a larger setting and continue it in a more intimate conversation with a friend. This why as much as I love teaching a sunday school class, I find it to be much more fulfilling to exchange just a few word with one student rather than lecture for the whole hour of the class. What has become personal to me can now be transferred to another and the teaching becomes personal to them. In turn, they can pass it on to those that they will connect with.

The Bible can easily become a book to be revered and it should be, but don’t admire it from afar. Never forget the personal aspect of it. God spoke to prophets long ago and they spoke to the people. Then He spoke through the person of His Son who taught others to pass on His direct words. Today, He speaks through those same words as recorded through the pages of Scripture but if it ends there, then we are truly lost. Read it, take it personally, and pass it on.