Archive for the ‘Devotional Thoughts’ Category

Noticing

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

On Sunday, I received a wonderful gift.

I’d had kind of a grumpy week. I was scheduled to work six days in a row. (I’ll get a 3-day weekend this coming week.) I ended up taking one day off because of a light headache I just couldn’t shake. Every day at the library, I asked numerous people to please wear their masks, and I was starting to get angry about it. That persistent headache wasn’t helping, even if I knew it was just a migraine and I didn’t have a fever. On Saturday, I was person-in-charge and two people in a row displayed some aberrant behavior, though I was relieved that they did leave the library soon after.

All that to say, it was a stressful week.

Sunday was my day off. I hadn’t taken a walk by my lake in a week, so this was my opportunity, before online church. The week before I hadn’t even bothered to bring my camera, because I felt like I was taking pictures of the same flowers each time. But sometimes on Sunday mornings, I’d seen deer, so I brought my camera that day.

And my friend the great blue heron was there! Though the heron is a regular, I hadn’t seen much of him since the shelter-in-place order happened. Perhaps it didn’t like how many people walked by the lake.

But today the water was very still, and the bird was very still, and I got a whole sequence of cool mirrored pictures.

It even flew to the nearer side of the lake and I got the picture at the top of this post.

Then walking on. I spotted a butterfly whose wings were different on the inside and the outside. Patiently waiting, I got shots of both.

My walk takes me by the lake, then in a meadowy part with big bushes, then beside some woods. Then I turn around and come back. I hoped to see deer in the woods as I had the week before, but nothing this time. Instead, when I got back to the meadow, there was another butterfly, and this one was posed with the sun shining on its wings. When its wings were together, the sun didn’t shine through, but when it opened its wings, they lit up spectacularly as they were now thin enough to be transparent.

The butterfly was, however, a bit stubborn. I’d wait and wait for it to open it wings, and it wouldn’t do so until I lowered the camera. So catching a few times with the lighting felt like a triumph.

As I walked back toward the lake, in a place where the path is constrained by bushes on one side and the lake on the other — there in the bushes, right next to the path, two fawns were sitting and eating leaves.

What could I do? I stood and took pictures, of course. Eventually a jogger came by and joined me. When she decided to go on, that got one of the fawns to get up and walk out of the bushes.

After that, I was wondering if the heron was still there, lurking behind the tall grasses where I couldn’t see it. As I checked, I heard an enormous splash and saw a bird rising up from the water. It turned out that an osprey was fishing in the lake and continued circling — in a way that tantalized me into trying to get its picture.

By that time, I felt simply overwhelmed with blessings.

Last time I blogged here, I talked about God giving good gifts to His children. This felt like gifts given with good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. My cup overflowed!

I hadn’t done anything to deserve such blessings. I’d been grumpy! But that got swept aside.

Then in the online church service, my pastor Barbara Miner talked about how Jesus notices us. The text was from the story where Jesus is going to heal a synagogue ruler’s daughter who has died, and a woman in the crowd touches the hem of his robe and is healed. Jesus, on an urgent mission, stops and turns and notices the woman. She must have been mortified! She wasn’t trying to be noticed! But Jesus calls her “Daughter.”

Pastor Barbara reminded us that Jesus notices us and challenged us to notice others.

And that got me thinking of my walks by the lake. When I don’t bring my camera, I don’t notice things as small as butterflies. (Okay, I would have noticed those fawns! And probably the great blue heron, too.) I would have marveled at the osprey and then kept walking. But wanting to get pictures made me really look, really notice.

Last year, I got a better camera, with a stronger zoom, and my pictures got dramatically better. Even before that, I noticed that little flowers by the path have a whole new look when you zoom in. Butterflies are just a speck until you zoom in and notice their beauty. And it might take some waiting before they light up for you.

Isn’t that like people? I was reminded of Pastor Tom Berlin’s sermon months ago, where he talked about using Mr. Rogers as an example of paying attention to people.

If I can zoom in and focus on people, it’s so much easier to notice their beauty.

As a kind of icing on the cake, the next morning I worked the late shift and got another walk in, and got to see yet another species, a great egret.

Now, my lofty goal was to start zooming in on people and noticing the beauty of their souls. So far at the library, I confess that most of the zooming in I’m doing is on Nosers who aren’t wearing their masks properly.

But I’m writing this whole post as a reminder to Notice.

When I Notice God’s gifts, I end up feeling overwhelmed with blessings.

And how amazing that Jesus notices me. And I’m going to say He noticed that some blessings would lift my spirits right about now.

And maybe I can pass that on and practice noticing others.

Contentment vs. Asking with Shameless Audacity

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020


(Picture from June 1, 2013.)

I’m on my annual Springtime personal spiritual retreat this week. Monday it began with me thinking about how happy my life is and how fulfilling so many of the activities I make a regular part of my life are, because they express who I am.

This was happening the day after, on Sunday evening, I got a message on an online dating site from a guy who ended up being a scammer. There were three big tip-offs: The first message was generic. (I specifically ask on my profile for non-generic messages.) The messages made it clear he was not a native English speaker. (That’s theoretically okay, but wasn’t obvious from his profile, so he was probably a scammer operating from overseas.) And the big tip-off, which I always always answer with a No was asking to go off the dating site right away. (And my No means they stop sending me messages.)

So Monday I was discouraged with online dating, but very happy with my life as it is. So I began thinking, Maybe I should give up on the whole idea of ever finding another man and getting married again. It would be nice, sure, but my life is good and I for sure don’t want to have someone in my life who doesn’t fit with me, who instead of appreciating the way the things I do express who I am, puts a damper on me doing those things.

In short, I’m content. That’s good. So why even bother with having an online profile? Maybe I should just plan on spending the rest of my life happily single.

The next morning, as part of my spiritual retreat. I looked again at the verse and theme I’d chosen for 2020.

The verse was Luke 11:9 — “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

The theme was “Shameless Audacity” — from Luke 11:8. Jesus has told a parable about someone asking for bread at midnight. “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” And then he launches into verse 9, telling us to ask.

And I’ll be honest: What instantly comes to mind to ask God for is a man who loves me and loves God, a man for me to marry.

So I thought, I will ask again. I won’t completely give up on the idea.

But there was a problem with that. Yesterday I started feeling discontent. I was thinking more about what my life is missing and less about what I have.

This morning, while I went on my walk, I was thinking how to balance Shameless Audacity with Contentment. I don’t want to lose my joy and contentment because I’m asking God for the desires of my heart.

I do think God wants us to ask for the desires of our hearts. There’s this verse, and there are many others.

I think of the quote from C. S. Lewis, “We are far too easily pleased.

But it feels selfish and greedy to ask for something more when my life is already so very good. In fact, wait a minute, it feels like shameless audacity.

And I think maybe that’s the way to pull the two together, to be content while still asking for more — and that’s to acknowledge that it’s shameless audacity by being grateful.

In fact, it goes back to Philippians 4:6 — “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

And rather than feeling discontent from doing that — when I acknowledge the shameless audacity and combine it with gratitude — I feel a whole lot of joy.

Because it reminds me that God the Father loves to give good gifts to His children.

While I was walking, I thought of another, much smaller request, that feels like shameless audacity. I haven’t seen the great blue heron who frequents my lake since the stay at home order happened in March. So, yes, for a few days I’ve been praying that I’d see one.

Well, this morning I acknowledged that the irises I’ve been taking pictures of this week have been amazing and stunning, so it’s shameless audacity for me to ask for something more, but yes, Lord, I’m going to ask to see a great blue heron.

And sure enough, a person walking a dog ahead of me startled a great blue heron, so it flew to the other side of the lake.

And I saw another fly by my window in the afternoon. (This is after not seeing one for more than two months.)

And maybe if God grants that small shamelessly audacious request, maybe He will grant the bigger one.

He doesn’t have to, and I know He doesn’t have to, and I am happy and content and thankful for the life I have and it will not be a tragedy at all if I am single for the rest of my life.

But I’m going to be shamelessly audacious and ask.

Wisdom Psalms

Monday, May 4th, 2020

I’m doing a project where I’m going over different types of Psalms I learned about in Psalms class when I was a student at Biola University more than thirty years ago, and I’m using those Psalms as a pattern for my own prayers. My favorite is the Lament, which is a sort of paint-by-number and walks you through pouring out your heart to God and then remembering that God is good and is with you. But now I’m going through some more challenging forms that I’d never before thought to try myself.

I’d come to Wisdom Psalms, which has lots of examples — some are Psalms 1, 14, 15, 19, 34, 37, 73, 111, 112, and 119. Essentially, these Psalms are about affirming that it’s worth it to follow God, and it’s not a good idea to do wicked things. They often include the phrase, “How blessed are those who… ”

But it feels presumptuous to even try to write a Wisdom Psalm, so I decided to think of them as Pep Talk Psalms. What do I need a pep talk about?

I was still feeling stuck, when this weekend I found I needed a pep talk. I’ve been doing great with the Stay-at-Home order in my state. I’m an introvert, and I have plenty of things I do to keep myself busy and happy. But for some reason on Saturday — I suspect a combination of not getting enough sleep, having a small headache, and not having gone anywhere for more than a week — I slept late and then seriously thought about not getting out of bed at all because what difference would it make?

Well, I did get better when I got up, but I realized I seriously needed to add some sparkles into my life.

Then our pastor’s online sermon Sunday was on gratitude. I remembered the wise words of Christel Nani, a writer I admire, saying that giving thanks puts you in the present moment and helps you escape regret about the past and worry about the future as you think about what you’re thankful for right now.

So with that in mind, I went for a walk by my lake. It was an ordinary day, but so beautiful! The air is pollution-free with so few cars on the roads and recent rain. Everything captivated me, and little birds seemed to pose for me and the neighbors’ azaleas were blooming lavishly and I saw the first iris of the season, and my own balcony flowers were glowing, and looking at the day opening my eyes to all the beauty just filled my heart with so much joy.

So that night, I wrote this Pep Talk Psalm, taking Psalm 112 as a starting point example.

Praise the Lord.
Blessed are those who notice his handiwork,
who open their eyes to the wonders of his creation.
For then a goldfinch is a gift,
and the first iris of the year is a mark of distinction.
The green of Spring leaves amazes them
and the blue of the unpolluted sky astonishes.
With a heart of gratitude,
birdsong trills out beyond any noise
and flowers pop out of camouflage;
petunias glow in the sunlight,
and rhododendrons pose with raindrops.
Blue jays flash the cartoon colors of their wings,
and proud papa birds preen for photos.
Common things become spectacular,
and small things burst with joy
when the Lord opens your eyes
and shows you how richly
he has poured out blessings upon you
and surrounded you with his wonders.
Praise the Lord.

As always, the exercise of writing the Psalm blessed me to pieces. So I offer the exercise to you: Try writing a Pep Talk Psalm. If you have trouble getting started, think about how to finish the sentence, “Blessed are those who….”

Remembering God’s Faithfulness

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

Back in the 1980s when I was a student at Biola University, I took an amazing class on the Psalms taught by Dr. Edward Curtis. He taught us about the many different types of Psalms and opened my eyes to things about them I hadn’t noticed before.

Today I was reading in Psalm 129. The beginning goes like this:

“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth,”
let Israel say;
“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
but they have not gained the victory over me.
Plowmen have plowed my back
and made their furrows long.
But the Lord is righteous;
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.”

That got me thinking about the Salvation History Psalms. Unlike the Lament, Salvation History Psalms are defined more by their content than by their form. They are Psalms where the writer reviews what God has done and what God has brought them through. That’s offered as evidence that God can bring them through the current situation.

Can you see why I got to thinking about them?

On top of that, I was moved by my pastor’s online sermon on Easter Sunday. He said that in the middle of a pandemic, Easter doesn’t feel like Easter. But he reminded us that the first Easter didn’t feel like Easter, either.

Before the first Easter, things were very dark indeed. But the light came. And because of what God brought those first disciples through then, we remember now that God is with us in the darkness.

That’s what Salvation History Psalms were all about. They rehearsed what God had done, bringing His people out from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus, listing out more ways God had delivered them. And because God did that — we know He’s not going to abandon His people now.

Some examples of Salvation History Psalms are Psalm 78, 105, 106, 135, and 136. The theme of these Psalms is: Remember!

These Psalms are long, telling stories, so I won’t write out the whole Psalms. But here are some verses that give the idea.

Psalm 78:4–

We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.

Psalm 105:5-6–

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.

Psalm 106:6–

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.

Psalm 135:3-4–

Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant.
For the Lord has chosen Jacob to be his own,
Israel to be his treasured possession.

Psalm 136:10-12–

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
His love endures forever.
and brought Israel out from among them
His love endures forever.
with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm;
His love endures forever.

Salvation History Psalms are different from Thanksgiving Psalms. Those are more about a specific time when God came through. The Salvation History Psalms tend to be about the history of the people of Israel and how God had a pattern of taking care of them.

How can we use this in our own prayers? Well, you can think through the collective history of the Church. You can also make it personal and recite more of a history of how faithful God has been to you. Beyond any one incident.

With all of these: Because God has been with us in the past, we know He is with us now. Reciting the history of how God has been with us reminds us we don’t need to be afraid.

My plan was to write one and leave it as an example. But it almost feels too personal.

So for now, I’m going to go offline and make myself a list of ways God has worked in my life when I’ve gone through darkness and He has shown that He is there.

Will that help me in the midst of a pandemic? Yes it will. Because whatever happens, I do believe the Lord will walk with me.

As Jesus said to his disciples before his death:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Praying in Crazy Times

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

During this pandemic, I’ve heard people say they don’t even know how to pray.

I’m thinking about the Psalms lately as I think about praying. I do believe there are many ways to pray — but some of those ways are to pray like the psalmists.

I’ve been looking at laments lately. An interesting thing about laments is that in the Psalms, they generally spend a lot more time telling God what the problem is than they do telling him what they want him to do about it. It’s almost like praying is more for our benefit than it is for God’s.

Over the years, I’ve often been told to pray specific prayers, because then you can see when God has answered. I’ve been told to name it and claim it.

And yes, we’re supposed to lay our requests before God with thanksgiving. There’s nothing wrong with telling him what we want to happen. He’s said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

But what is the difference between asking God and telling him what to do?

Take a look at the Psalms. They pour out their hearts to God about the big mess they’re in, and then they ask God to act. They ask God for help. They aren’t usually terribly specific about what form the help needs to take. In fact, it seems like they actually trust God to figure out what should be done.

I think about when my husband left me. For years, I prayed that God would bring him back. It took a long time before I realized that I wasn’t trusting God. I was telling him what I thought needed to happen.

God did answer my prayers for help. He granted me protection and security, a new job, a new home, and a church family that cared about me. He took my relationship with himself to a whole new level.

In fact, he graciously granted me an abundance of blessings I’d never thought to ask for.

There was a key moment for me when I realized that “standing for my marriage” wasn’t actually trusting God. Could I trust God to help me and bless me when I was not deciding what the outcome had to be?

Take a look at some Psalms. You can almost page through and take your pick, but I’ll point out a couple where it’s really striking.

Look at Psalm 44. The psalmist goes on for 22 verses about how bad things have gotten. Then they end with these four verses:

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.

Another good example is Psalm 10. This one is a more complete lament, and it’s got the “Words of Assurance” section after the “Petition.” In fact, out of 18 verses, there is only one where he asks God to do anything, and that verse is short and sweet:

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.

So this is an idea for praying during this pandemic. I’m not saying this is the only way to pray. But as an exercise, try pouring out to God all your worries and all the ways things are not going well.

And then ask him:

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.

It doesn’t hurt, after that, to continue with the form of the lament. Remind yourself that you really do believe that God can handle this. Make some promises about how you’re going to celebrate when God brings you through!

But I for sure don’t know what God should do about this global pandemic. I’m glad that I do trust that he knows, and that he will have mercy.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief.
You consider it to take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.

Walk with us, Lord.

A Psalm from the Scatterbrained

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

I’m feeling scatterbrained this week. I’m trying to focus and failing. Tonight I was trying to get to working on my Psalms book again and just going nowhere.

That’s when I thought: I want more example Psalms. To show that you can use these forms to pray and it really helps, because they direct your thoughts. Why not write a Psalm Prayer about it?

I’ve done Laments. But tonight I tried a Penitential Psalm. Because I’m pretty sure it’s my own fault I’m getting worried and distracted. I’m not trusting God; I’m trying to figure things out myself.

A Penitential Psalm has pretty much the same form as a Lament, but you ask God for mercy in the address to God and the complaint part talks about how bad things have gotten because of what you’ve done, so it’s also confession. (See Psalms 6, 38, and 51.)

Let me review the parts:
1) Address to God
2) Complaint
3) Confession of Trust
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

Okay, I tried not to edit too much and just pray it through, so this doesn’t pretend to be polished. But here goes:

A Psalm from the Scatterbrained

Father, have mercy on me,
according to your unfailing love.
Look on my situation and have compassion;
see my failings and grant me grace.

We’re in a pandemic,
and the world has turned upside-down.
I don’t know what’s normal,
and I don’t know how to plan.
My thoughts are bouncing around my brain
like ping-pong balls.
I’m having trouble focusing,
distracted by each new announcement or speculation.

My work serving the public has come to a halt.
Helping people in person spreads germs.
So now we look for ways to help
while keeping everyone at a distance.
I write reviews;
I read those journals that were stacking up.
Will I learn about customer service
while staying away from customers?

What’s the problem? As an introvert,
being at home should give me focus.
But instead, I’m scatterbrained.

I want to know what to expect,
how to plan,
what date to schedule the make-up programs
and when the books are due.

It’s out of my hands.
It’s out of my hands.
Wash those hands free of germs
and free of holding the world.

Lord, is this what it takes
to show me my plans are butterflies?
Does it take a pandemic
for me to realize I’m not in control?

You do see the future.
You do watch over your children.
If you see a sparrow fall,
then you know today’s death count.
And you are there.
And you gently bear each soul to heaven.

You’ve told us that riches are fleeting.
You’ve told us our life is a breath.
Does it take a pandemic
to make us understand?

Lord, walk with your children.
Forgive us when we run ahead.
Hold our hands through the dark fearful chasm
and carry us safely out of the fire.

Lord, do not forsake us!
Show yourself by our sides.
Come quickly to help us
and grant us peace and strength.

We don’t know how this pandemic will end.
We don’t know what our lives will look like next season.
But we know you will be with us
and show us new joys on the other side.

The day will come
when we again shake hands with new friends
and throw our arms around old friends.

The time will come
when we again meet as a choir
to join our voices in praises to God,
and lift our voices together to our Mighty Fortress.

Do Try This At Home!

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

I got some wonderful responses to yesterday’s Lament for Covid-19. People said it touched them.

But that wasn’t what I was going for. What I wanted was for people to say: I can do that!

I want to motivate people to try this way of praying themselves. I think I’m going to have to post a much shorter example.

But before I do, I want to point out something that blessed me in writing yesterday’s lament. I already knew that what I love about the form of the lament is that Thanksgiving is built in. It automatically includes what Christians are taught in Philippians 4:6-7 – to present your requests before God with thanksgiving.

But I wasn’t prepared for how powerfully the “Vow to Praise” would hit me. You make promises of what you’re going to do when God comes through and answers your prayer. I started imagining all the people I’m going to hug when this Covid-19 crisis is over… and that was more powerful to me than anything else I thought about.

Okay, now let me write a short lament. Here again are the parts:

1) Address to God
2) Complaint
3) Confession of Trust
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

I’m also going to use parallelism, like the Psalms do – which just means saying the same thing in a different way on the next line.

A Shorter Lament for the Sick

Hear my voice, Lord,
I’m calling because you’re the only one who can help.

Thousands are sick across our country,
suffering, alone, scared.
Our hospitals are filling,
and their workers are risking their lives.
Others at home are wondering
at what point do they need to get help?

We trust you, Lord.
We know you see each one of us.
You are with us
and we are never alone.
You are the Great Physician,
and you have the power to heal.
You give wisdom to the healers
and comfort to the sick.

Lord, have mercy.
Grant your help and healing.
Give wisdom to everyone seeking a cure,
stamina to everyone helping the sick,
comfort to everyone ravaged by illness,
and protection to everyone still healthy.

We will get through this.
As a community,
as a country,
and all humanity together.
We will once again create vaccines and treatments.
We will conquer this illness
long before it conquers us.
And that is because of the
wisdom and grace you have granted
to humankind.

Lord, when the church meets again,
we’re going to do lots of touching.
We’ll share communion
and envelop each other in hugs.

When the library reopens,
we’re going to sing “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”
and touch our eyes and ears and mouth and nose
with great excitement.
And then again, faster!

Okay, your turn! Do you have something that needs prayer? Try a Lament. God can take your complaints, and it will do your heart good to plan how you’re going to celebrate when He answers.

A Lament for Covid-19

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

I’ve been thinking for a long time about praying like the Psalmists, using the forms of Hebrew poetry to pray.

The Lament is the most common form in the Psalms, and it’s a wonderful form because you fully complain, but the form brings you back around to remembering that God’s going to take care of this. You even plan how you will rejoice when you get through it. So — I’m going to do a practice Lament about the coronavirus.

This isn’t polished, it’s not pretty. But I want it to be something anyone can do.

I wrote this with two things in mind: I tried to use parallelism, repeating myself. And I tried to use the form of a Lament:

1) Address to God
2) Complaint
3) Confession of Trust
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

So that’s enough. I’ll offer below my lament I wrote for this time.

This is my offering — but I offer it in hopes that you’ll see that you don’t have to be good at this to do it! I hope that you’ll try writing your own Lament and voice your complaint — but remind yourself that you really do believe that God will pull you through.

A Lament for Covid-19

Lord, are you there?
Have you seen the world going crazy?

Your people are falling ill,
young and old are suffering.
This virus is spreading the globe,
people in every country are affected.

We’re afraid to touch each other.
We’ve banned hugs and handshakes.
We stay at home and keep our distance.
Even people I pass on the outdoor path draw back.

Businesses are closing;
hairdressers are afraid.
Librarians are too scared to touch books,
and restaurants have become take-out only.

The economy is crashing.
Friends are getting laid off.
Small businesses are failing,
and classes are switching to online learning.

The scariest part is exponential growth.
Our country went from hundreds
to thousands of cases
in less than a week.

Can our hospitals tend
those who need it?
Will we run out of facemasks?
Will we have enough ventilators?

Lord, the future is unknown
and everything we thought was normal has changed.

I do trust you, Lord.
You’ve seen the world through every disaster.
This seems so big,
but you are always bigger.

Can you save mankind from the consequences of our mistakes?
You can.
Will you have mercy on us?
You will.

You see the individual.
You notice when a sparrow falls.
You see the hourly worker laid off,
And you have compassion for the owner who lost their business.

I wish you were not quite so good
at redeeming bad things,
for then you wouldn’t
let bad things happen.

As it is, we ask for redemption.
We ask for bursts of goodness and grace.
We ask for ingenuity for doctors and scientists,
finding treatment, finding cures,
developing an effective vaccine.

We ask for compassion
in the hearts of caregivers,
that those suffering may know
their pain is seen.

We ask for protection
for those serving on the frontlines,
that the virus will not enter their bodies,
that they will not succumb,
that they will fight on.

We ask for creativity
in the hearts and minds of artists,
that they will lift us above these times,
draw us out from fear.

We ask for community
even as we distance ourselves.
We ask for creative ways
to reach out and tell people we care.

We ask that we will never forget
how richly blessed we are
to have each other,
and what an amazing gift
is the presence of another human being.

Lord, have mercy on this world You’ve created!
Look with compassion on our suffering!
Give humanity the wisdom and resilience
To stop this virus and cut short the harm.

Lord, you’ve said when we walk through the fire,
you will be with us.
We will not be burned,
the flames will not set us ablaze.

When we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
You are with us.
You comfort us
with your rod and your staff, the signs of your presence.

We don’t know what’s coming,
but you do.
Jesus took on our infirmities
and carried our diseases,
and he never stopped
caring for the ills of the world.

Lord, we will sing for joy
when we meet back together again.
Our hugs will be
strong and invigorating.

We will laugh with joy
when we see friends and family
in person again,
when we feel our loved ones in the flesh.

Thank you for the precious gift of community,
and thank you that we’re learning
Love is stronger than any virus
And community transcends physical distance.

Amen, Lord.

God’s Guidance

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

Recently, the pastors at my church did a short sermon series on God’s Will. They made some wonderful points, but didn’t talk much about how these things fit with God’s guidance. This post is going to mull over what I think and believe about God’s guidance.

In the choir on the third week of the series, we sang “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” and “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought” — so I expected that third sermon to touch on God’s guidance and God’s leading. God’s guidance does relate to “God’s plan.”

Now, what the pastor did talk about was very helpful. He mentioned that Time Travel movies have conditioned us to think that every little decision we make can drastically affect our futures. Combine that with talk of “God’s Perfect Plan,” and we put too much pressure on ourselves when we make decisions. He made the strong point that the idea of “God’s Perfect Plan” is not biblical.

God gives us agency! He allows us to make choices. Real choices that affect our lives and the lives of others. He doesn’t have One “Plan” for our lives — one that we can irrevocably mess up.

What we can do is align ourselves with God’s Will. We can make choices that align with loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

I like that message. Though my first thought is along the lines of What happens when other people around you are not aligned with God’s will and your life is affected? Okay, let’s get specific. Suppose your husband has an affair (clearly not aligned with God’s will) and divorces you.

Well, this message brings hope — Since God doesn’t have only One Plan for my life that I have to follow — my ex-husband can’t mess up my destiny. I already have seen that God has redeemed my single state and has filled my life with good things — some of which specifically came from my divorce. I would not have sought full-time work or become a librarian if I were still married, for example. And if I weren’t a librarian, I never would have gotten to serve on the 2019 Newbery Committee or received the 2019 Allie Beth Martin Award from the Public Library Association. Becoming a librarian has been a wonderful thing for me. Even though it wasn’t my personal Plan A for my life.

So let me receive the point loud and clear that someone else’s sin may affect your life dramatically, but it doesn’t pull you out of the possibility of aligning with God’s will. God can redeem the trials, and He promises in Romans 8:28 that He will work all things together for the good of those who love Him. That doesn’t mean that “everything happens for the best.” God doesn’t promise us “the best” at all times, and people sinning against you can indeed do you terrible harm. But I do believe that God can bring good out of anything.

In fact, I believe that if God can’t bring good out of it, He won’t let it happen. Unfortunately, He is very good at bringing good out of bad things! (I personally would prefer it if He would just keep the bad things from happening.)

So, yes, God gives us agency to make choices. And yes, He is with us as we live through the consequences of those choices — our own and others.

But I still believe that God gives guidance when we ask.

I mainly base this on James 1:5:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

In the Bible, wisdom consistently refers to what you do, to making good choices. So if you lack wisdom to know what to do, God encourages you to ask.

The Psalms have several passages where the writer asks God to lead.

Psalm 31:3 — “Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name, lead and guide me.”

Psalm 25:5 — “Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”

Psalm 23:3 — “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

Psalm 119:105 — “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”

Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness because of my oppressors — make straight your way before me.”

Psalm 143:8 — “Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.”

Yes, God gives us agency, but He is happy to help us figure out how to use that agency.

The pastor was urging us not to put so much pressure on our choices. If we have a big decision — whether to take a job in another state, whether to accept a marriage proposal, for example — we can’t mess up God’s will for our lives. Make the best decision we can, and God will be with us.

When faced with a big decision, though, is a good time to ask for wisdom.

One of the big good things that came out of my divorce was that I learned to ask God for wisdom. I was desperate, and I believe He answered.

But how does He answer? How does He give wisdom?

John Eldredge takes on this topic head-on in his book Walking with God. I’m going to copy here the same long quote I posted in my review of the book.

Now, I know, I know — the prevailing belief is that God speaks to his people only through the Bible.  And let me make this clear: he does speak to us first and foremost through the Bible.  That is the basis for our relationship.  The Bible is the eternal and unchanging Word of God to us.  It is such a gift, to have right there in black and white God’s thoughts toward us.  We know right off the bat that any other supposed revelation from God that contradicts the Bible is not to be trusted.  So I am not minimizing in any way the authority of the Scripture or the fact that God speaks to us through the Bible.

However, many Christians believe that God only speaks to us through the Bible.

The irony of that belief is that’s not what the Bible says.

The Bible is filled with stories of God talking to his people.  Abraham, who is called the friend of God, said, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me . . .’ (Genesis 24:7).  God spoke to Moses ‘as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11).  He spoke to Aaron too: ‘Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron about the Israelites’ (Exodus 6:13).  And David: ‘In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord.  “Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?” he asked.  The Lord said, “Go up.”  David asked, “Where shall I go?”  “To Hebron,” the Lord answered’ (2 Samuel 2:1).  The Lord spoke to Noah.  The Lord spoke to Gideon.  The Lord spoke to Samuel.  The list goes on and on.

I can hear the objections even now:  ‘But that was different.  Those were special people called to special tasks.’  And we are not special people called to special tasks?  I refuse to believe that.  And I doubt that you want to believe it either, in your heart of hearts.

But for the sake of argument, notice that God also speaks to ‘less important’ characters in the Bible.  God spoke to Hagar, the servant girl of Sarah, as she was running away. . . .  In the New Testament, God speaks to a man named Ananias who plays a small role in seven verses in Acts 9. . . .

Now, if God doesn’t also speak to us, why would he have given us all these stories of him speaking to others?  ‘Look — here are hundreds of inspiring and hopeful stories about how God spoke to his people in this and that situation.  Isn’t it amazing?  But you can’t have that.  He doesn’t speak like that anymore.’  That makes no sense at all.  Why would God give you a book of exceptions?  This is how I used to relate to my people, but I don’t do that anymore.  What good would a book of exceptions do you?  That’s like giving you the owner’s manual for a Dodge even though you drive a Mitsubishi.  No, the Bible is a book of examples of what it looks like to walk with God.

In my own life, a turning point happened soon after my husband had moved out, very much against my wishes. For months, very helpful books had been landing on my desk at the base library, books that helped me respond to my husband’s anger with compassion and that helped me more calmly work on my own attitude and gave me hope that he would come around.

But the turning point in my attitude came in a pastor’s sermon. He was talking about a very odd miracle that Jesus did in Mark 7, healing a man who was deaf and mute.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

I’ve always thought that story was a little strange. But this pastor pointed out something I’d never noticed but seems absolutely true once you think about it — Jesus was speaking to the man in sign language!

The man could not hear or speak. Jesus took him aside and got his attention. Then he dramatically pantomimed what he was going to do.

The pastor made this powerful point: “God speaks your language!”

It brought me to tears at the time. Because all those helpful books that had been showing up on my desk at just the right time? My language is books, and God was speaking to me that way. My language is also Scripture (I have memorized large portions of the Bible.), and throughout those divorce years, God continued to speak through Scripture as well. More than once, I’d think God was speaking to me through a verse. I’d ask for confirmation, and the next Sunday that verse would be mentioned in the sermon. (These were obscure verses, too.) That was enough for me.

Now, there’s a part of me that feels very presumptuous to think that God would pay enough attention to my life to speak to me. It’s that part that leads me to burst into tears most times when the coincidence is simply too big — I have to believe God is speaking.

Yes, God notices me. Yes, God cares about my life. Yes, God will give me wisdom and guidance. He will give that generously and without finding fault. He won’t be angry when I need confirmation.

So this is the flip side of putting so much pressure on a decision that we’re paralyzed. Yes, God gives us agency. But He’s generous to help us when we don’t know what to do.

And that flip side is what I want to say loud and clear: God loves you enough to be interested in your life and to give you guidance. He pays attention to you, yes, you!

I think a big part of why that hits me so hard is that I’m the third of thirteen children. It feels presumptuous to think that God would be concerned about the details of my life. But God notices even me!

Now, I have to add that as much as I learned to listen to God’s voice, to not be afraid to ask for guidance — all that was cast into doubt when things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would.

For a very long time during my conflict with my ex-husband, I really thought God was telling me that he would come back.

But about five years after he moved out, I did think it was the right thing to file for divorce.

I thought through what I believed God had told me. And the wisdom part, the part about knowing what to do was: “Wait on the Lord.”

And that was indeed wisdom. If I had filed for divorce or given up on my husband at the very beginning — I don’t think I would have believed that he had truly changed. I knew I’d given him ample opportunity to return. I still believe and hope that God was saying that my ex-husband will eventually have a change of heart and come back — to God. But he does not need to come back to me, and I finally figured out that wouldn’t be the best thing, anyway. (In fact, before I signed up for online dating, I made my friends promise to stop me if I was ever tempted to take my ex-husband back.)

So maybe I was wrong about what was going to happen. But I was not wrong about what God was telling me to do: Wait.

And there were other things God told me that turned out to be truly wise: “Do not go down to Egypt for help.” (Do not try to get him in trouble with his first sergeant for having an affair.) “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” (Got me not to send my initial answer to an abusive email.) After the divorce, when I was still obsessing over him: “Ephraim is joined with idols. Leave him alone!”

All of those things — and the many other ways God led me — helped so much!

But now, almost a decade after the divorce was final, it doesn’t seem like God is speaking as much any more. Is that because I don’t need it as much, not being in anywhere near as difficult a situation, or is that only because I’m not asking?

And what does it mean to walk with God, to align yourself with God’s will? I’m going to accept my new pastor’s reminder that we shouldn’t let our desire to follow God’s will be paralyzing.

I also think of a sermon my former pastor preached. He brought a chalkboard into the room and drew a long line that he said represented a continuum. On one end was “letting things happen.” He said that was living life like you’re on a raft, just going where the current takes you. This is often all in the name of “God’s will” and not exercising agency at all.

On the other end was “making things happen.” This is when you try to do everything yourself. It’s all about exercising your own agency to make sure your life goes the way you want it to go. Or trying, anyway. This is like living life on a motorboat, not relying on any power outside yourself.

But he said that where we want to be is somewhere in the middle, on the “Path of Trust.” This is more like living life on a sailboat, turning the sail to catch the wind and move with the power of the wind. It’s not trying to be in total control, but it’s also not just giving up any control at all. Walking on the Path of Trust is trickier than being on either of the ends of the spectrum.

It was when I heard that sermon that I realized that in my prayers, I wasn’t trusting God. I’d been insisting that God bring my then-husband back. I was telling God how things had to turn out. That wasn’t trust. That was me trying to be in control.

Walking with God when I’m not sure what I think God should do? That’s much trickier. To be honest, when I was praying so much, asking God for guidance about my failing marriage, in my heart I was asking God, What should I do to that will help my husband come back? I really thought it must obviously be God’s will for divorce not to happen.

God was faithful. And God answered the question, What should I do to walk with You as I live my life in this difficult space?

Now? I’m not in as difficult a daily space. I’m not asking for guidance out of desperation, but maybe I should still be asking for guidance. Because I do lack wisdom.

And then there’s the matter of what I want to happen in my life: I’d like to get married again. But how to find a man who loves the Lord and loves me?

And that’s where the Path of Trust seems like a good analogy. On the one hand, I could decide the Lord has to do it and not make any effort at all. On the other hand, I could throw myself into online dating and try to get the attention of any and every man I find there.

In practice, I’m tending to wobble between those two approaches, though leaning more toward the no effort extreme. But for the most part, I’m seeing the Path of Trust as having an online presence so that I’m not hiding under a rock, but still being very selective about what messages I answer, and not spending hours of time looking. I’m not sure if this is the best approach, but that’s the thing about the Path of Trust — I do think it can change.

But what if I let go of the outcome? What if I ask God for guidance today, but I don’t try to tell him how my life has to turn out? And what if I’m open to that guidance having nothing to do with finding a man, for example: Today, Sondy, you should try to get a lot more sleep, because you need to get well.

Hmm. The verse that came up in my Bible reading today was Psalm 127:3 —

In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat —
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Now, it may be completely crazy to take that as a message from God to me. Why would God pay that much attention to my life?

Never mind that I’ve been sick for eight weeks and counting and have been asking my friends to pray for me. Never mind that I asked God what I should say Yes to for Lent. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous to take this passage as God speaking to me, giving me wisdom?

And that’s kind of how it works. This verse leaped out at me today. It seems like a wise thing for me to do at this time in my life.

So I’m going to dare to say that God put that verse in my life today. Because He loves me, and does care about my life.

So for Lent, I’m going to try to shut off my computer earlier, not make sure I do all the things I’d like to daily before I go to bed. I’m going to try to go to bed earlier, and say to myself, “Sondy, God’s giving you sleep tonight because He loves you.”

I’d better start now….

Ash Wednesday and Illness

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

It’s Ash Wednesday, and just this morning I was complaining on Facebook.

I’ve been sick for seven-and-a-half weeks with a nasty bug. Yesterday I actually took a sick day, hoping a lot of sleeping would help me shake it off, but this morning, I had a lot of chest pain. The pain itself was fairly mild, but was happening over an extended period of time. (Though after I got to work, I didn’t have very much chest pain the rest of the day.)

I’ve seen doctors at various times over the seven-and-a-half weeks. They’ve told me it’s viral bronchitis and it takes a long time to heal. There’s no sign of a bacterial infection to go with it.

Now the first week was awful — the main symptom being ear congestion and extreme room-spinning dizziness, but I was in California for my mother’s funeral, and my family took care of me. Even when I got home, I didn’t have to go to work right away, and I took it easy. Since then, I haven’t been all that sick — but I’ve been sick for a long time.

But today I felt convicted for complaining.

There’s a balance between acknowledging that I’m going through tough things and complaining — Why should this happen to me? There’s a distinction between facing difficulty and self-pity.

Just a few days ago, I was reading quotes on my Sonderquotes blog and found this one from Fred Luskin’s book Forgive for Good.

Follow the link to read the entire (long) quote, but it’s about telling a story about what happened to you where you’re the hero, not the victim. Talking about what you’ve overcome rather than how you’re being defeated by these big, bad problems.

So instead of feeling sorry for myself about this illness that’s hanging on and on, how can I look at it differently?

And the first thing that comes to mind is this: Maybe I’ll go easy on myself.

The fact is, this illness seems like a physical manifestation of emotional things I’m going through. And those aren’t “cured” in less than seven weeks, either.

I came down with the bug a few hours after my mother’s memorial service. My mother passed away after a very long bout with Alzheimer’s, but my father passed away unexpectedly two months before that. There’s a part of me that thinks I should be “over” my grief after seven weeks, just as I think I should be over that virus. I’m not.

I won’t say much about it, but a couple weeks after that, I became estranged from my oldest child. That is great grief, too. I am not over it.

And a couple weeks after that, my little 3-year-old niece Meredith was diagnosed with leukemia. That’s not exactly grief — but it’s worry and deep sadness that a sweet little girl would go through that. And she’ll be dealing with that for a few years, even if all goes well.

And so, yes, being sick physically almost feels like a reminder to take care of myself. Maybe if I can see and feel that I am not healthy — I will remember to be kind to my emotional self as well.

I’ve been reading and memorizing Isaiah 43 ever since our pastor preached a sermon on it a few weeks ago. The beginning is inspiring —

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you,
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned,
the flames will not set you ablaze.

No, I’m not burned. Yes, being physically ill as well as emotionally wounded helps me stop and quiet down and notice that the Lord is with me.

And another verse in Isaiah 43 seems perfect for Ash Wednesday:

I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more.

Yes, I’ve been complaining. And I’ve sunk into that periodically throughout these two months.

But the Lord doesn’t ask us to wallow. He blots out our transgressions because that’s the kind of God He is.

This illness reminds me of my weaknesses. That there are things I’m not able to handle. God doesn’t reproach me for that. But He reminds me that He is with me. And I need the Lord.

When I sing and pray, Lord, have mercy! I pray it from my heart.

And indeed, even the illness itself is touched with His mercy.