Honest to God Praying

One of the most wonderful things we can do on a daily basis is talk to God. We call it praying, but I like to refer to it as simply “talking to God” because sometimes the idea of “praying” can psyche us out – it sounds so religious, so spiritual, so theological. In reality praying, talking to God, is not all that different from talking to a friend or loved one. The difference is that it’s vertical communication instead of horizontal, and we’re taking advantage of the privilege of talking to the most important One in the whole universe.

I know, praying often seems hard to do. One problem is that our mind can tend to wander. Ever wonder why our mind wanders? I’ve learned over the years to see my wandering mind as a positive in praying instead of a negative.

C. S. Lewis, a great Christian thinker and writer, wrote in his book, The Screwtape Letters, that it was better to accept “the distraction as [our] present problem and [lay] that before [God] and make it the main theme of [our] prayers.” (Quote from Our Daily Bread devotional, “Being Real with God” September 8, 2018)

Obviously what my mind wanders to while I’m trying to sound so religious before God in my praying is what’s really on my mind; worry, troubles, an exciting opportunity, or even a tempting or sinful thought. Yes, I’ll admit that sometimes my worst thoughts come to me while I’m trying to pray! My wandering mind takes me to the place where I really am!

What makes talking to God more real and relevant is to go with the flow and talk with God about what is really on our mind. God knows everything, including what we’re really thinking about so we might as well be honest with Him. Once we deal with the wandering thoughts we just might be in a better place to talk to Him about some other subjects that should be brought before Him.

Praying, talking to God, doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t be boring or a drudgery. It can be a delight, a natural and meaningful part of our day or night, as long as we make it honest to God praying!

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it completely.” Psalm 139:1-4

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The Unknown Future

The scrawled note was from Jacqueline Kennedy to her personal assistant. The date on the note was November 22. It gave the schedule for the day…

8:45 Breakfast

10:45 leave for airport

11:35 arrive Dallas

Motorcade

Lunch

2:00 Leave Lunch

The luncheon and the leaving of the luncheon never happened. Jackie’s plans and those of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, were tragically changed by the assassination of the president that day.

One of the simple but all-important truths we need to accept of life is that it’s unpredictable. As the famous line from Robert Burns’ poem of 1786, To a Mouse, states, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

Someone was once asked that if he could have one wish what would it be. He replied, “To know the place where I’m going to die.” He was asked why. He said, “So I can stay away from there.” His wish will never be granted. The future is not ours to plan, at least not definitively, that’s God’s domain.

The great theologian Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” My mother would often conclude her description of any plans she had with the line, “The Lord willing.” I find myself doing the same.

The future, including our efforts to plan for it, is just another facet of life where we’re to have faith and trust in God, exhibiting a willingness to yield to His will and purposes, however different they might be from our own. There is one aspect of the future that we do have control over and that is the guarantee of having God with us and for us in our future, if we so decide. I’ve always taken comfort in the old saying, “We can’t know what the future holds, but we can know the One who holds the future.”

Certainly God wants us to plan ahead, we’d be irresponsible not to do so. It’s just that we should do so by adding the footnote “subject to change.”

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

Doing Little Good

My ears perked up when I heard a song on the radio that proclaimed, “Dream small.” Dream small? We’re always being told to dream big. I listened carefully to the lyrics as they unfolded. The song, by Josh Wilson, referred to a pastor who had served a church for 40 years, “Forty years of loving on the broken and the hurt. These simple moments change the world. Dream small.” I served Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo, Ohio, retiring in my 40th year, so the song really got my attention!

The song then declares, “Don’t buy the lie you’ve gotta do it all. Just let Jesus use you where you are. One day at a time. Live well. Loving God and others as yourself. Find little ways where only you can help with His great love.”

Self-help books and graduation speeches tell us to dream big. Maybe it’s time we spend some time dreaming small! Fred Rogers, friend to millions of children through his television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, spent an entire week on the theme of “Little and Big” and emphasized how little things can be done with great care.

Most of every day is made up of little things, seemingly inconsequential at the time. The big things, the great opportunities, come infrequently. Because a majority of the building blocks of life are the little things it’s best to do them well, for they are at hand, rather than waiting for the big moment, the big opportunity, that has not yet materialized.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, stated, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Mother Teresa said, “The Lord likes small things best, especially those done with love.”

Good relationships and success at any task aren’t achieved so much by taking advantage of the rare big moments but by doing the common little things with great care. Every day is packed full of little things. It’s the small things that are a big deal. So, dream small!

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Jesus in Matthew 13:31-32)

Lessons from an Estate Sale

“Estate Sale” the sign stated. We followed the directions on the sign and pulled up to the house. Walking through the front door my wife and I found everything laid out for sale, everything. It seemed that all of the couple’s material existence was there, including partly used containers of shampoo and conditioner displayed for sale in the bathroom.

It felt awkward joining a parade of strangers strolling among the artifacts of a couple’s lives. We had never met the former inhabitants of the house, but their possessions told us a lot about them, their taste in furniture, wall art, and reading material. Hints of their hobbies were scattered about. Their preferences for personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies, and cooking spices were apparent. By the time we made a tour of all the rooms with all the items on display, we felt we knew a fair amount about the former occupants of the house. Everything was there except for the couple to whom it had all belonged!

It was a reminder that all the possessions which we have collected around us, so familiar and so valued to us, will one day no longer be ours. An estate sale, a giant garage sale, a fire, a tornado, or some other manifestation of the unstoppable movement of time will separate us from it all.

I’m not trying to be depressing, though it certainly could be taken that way! I think I’m just being realistic and also attempting to provide a helpful perspective on how to view our possessions.

For a few years (and it is only a few years in the grand scheme of things) we live on earth and in this material world where we need food, clothing, a roof over our heads, a car, a television, a computer…. okay, I’m moving from needs to wants.

A hundred years from now none of what I now own will mean a thing to me. I’ll be in the astonishing presence of God dwelling in His amazing heaven. But in the meantime, while living this life here on earth, I want to enjoy the material things with which God has blessed me, being thankful for it all and being a good steward of it all. I also want to hold on to all of it loosely, so that I possess my possessions but that they don’t possess me!

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21

Life Outside the Garden of Eden

Taking my daily walk near our home in Florida, I stroll by an undeveloped area about a square block in size. The rumors are that some kind of housing is going to be built on the location. For now, however, its boundary is defined by chain link fencing with an occasional “No Trespassing” sign attached to the fencing. Within the boundary of the fence grow countless palm trees and other greenery.

Walking the street that borders this natural beauty I’m reminded of the Garden of Eden that our most distant ancestors, Adam and Eve, inhabited before they rebelled against God. They had a perfect place to live with everything they needed, an ideal relationship with each other, a personal relationship with God, and meaningful work without frustration in tending the Garden of Eden.

After disobeying God, our Grandpa and Grandma of hundreds of generations ago were expelled from the garden and had to live in a fallen world, as have all of their descendents up until the present, including you and me. I think about this as I walk along the street gazing upon the beautiful scene inside the chain link fence of a golden morning sun streaking through the palm trees and other lush growth. Every day I enjoy this beautiful scene, but always from the outside looking in.

Living daily in a far from perfect world with broken relationships, illness and disease, people harming people, natural disasters, and frustrated work, we have an instinctive sense that this is not the way it should be! The desire for the Garden of Eden is in our DNA.

The good news is that what we yearn for, a perfect world, is what God has planned for the future! I know, it’s hard to imagine and even harder to believe, but God has made it clear in His revealed Word, the Bible, that there’s going to be a major change coming. Not only is there the perfect heaven to look forward to, but also a new earth, a new cosmos. God’s also made it clear that when we accept His overture of forgiveness and love we’re going to be a part of this amazing future!

It’s this hope for God’s better future that can help us cope with the far from perfect present. We humans have an amazing capacity to put up with and get through tough times when we know better times are coming. It’s been said that some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good, but it’s really the opposite. We can be of earthly good, doing the best with the less than best and helping others do so, when we know something perfectly wonderful is in our future!

We’re currently living life outside the Garden of Eden. We can have the hope, however, that some day we’ll be living life even better than life in the Garden of Eden!

“But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:13

The Requirement for Rest

Cat Nap

Most of us have a battle with sleep in one way or another. Some of us suffer from insomnia, wrestling with falling asleep or staying asleep, tossing and turning on the wrestling mat of our mattress with the opponent named Insomnia, who often wins.

Others of us resist sleeping, like a little child fighting bedtime. We’ve bought into the culture’s belief that there is too much to do and that we’re too important to waste much time in the unproductive state of sleep.

We even feel guilty taking a nap. A friend of mine put a poster on Facebook stating, “Daniel slept in a lion’s den. Peter slept in a prison. Jesus slept in a storm. No matter your circumstances, you can take a nap!”

It’s time for a fresh look at the value of rest and sleep! The truth of the matter is that God designed us to rest and sleep. In God’s description of His creating the universe in the book of Genesis He includes the interesting detail that at the end of the creative process He “rested” from His work. It’s not that God needed to recuperate but that He wanted to give us an example to follow.

One of the Ten Commandments is a command from God for us to take one day off each week to rest. Resting must be really important to make it into the top ten commands from God! Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:8-10a) Yes, we’re commanded to rest!

A personal testimony here: My father, an Iowa farmer, never worked his fields on Sunday. He had to feed and water the farm animals and milk the cows on Sunday, but He never ever worked the fields. I learned from his example. I find it very liberating to rest and take it easy after church on Sunday, even taking a nap, being guilt-free for not mowing the lawn or tackling a home improvement project. Rather than seeing it as a legalistic law I find it freeing!

I think one reason God designed us to need rest and sleep is that it’s humbling. By stopping our work or by lying down to temporarily go unconscious with a nap or a night’s sleep we’re reminding ourselves that the world can get along just fine without us, at least for a little while. It’s an opportunity to put our trust in God, in essence saying to Him, “God, I know you don’t need to slumber or sleep so I’m putting everything in your hands while I do so.”

Resting and sleeping is a way to express our faith and trust in God. It’s also a confession of our limits.

One way we can embrace the fullness of life is to find value and delight in rest and sleep! Trust Him, He will stay awake and take care of things. Sweet dreams!

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8

Would a Palm Tree Grow Here?

Would a palm tree grow at 7,500 feet. That was the question. The high altitude means our home at Refuge Ranch in Mexico has nights that are cool, around 50 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the daytime temp never gets much above 70 degrees. I decided to buy a small palm tree, about three feet in height, and give it a try. Now, some 12 years later, it towers as high as the two story house along which it was planted. I recently trimmed off the lower 23 palm fronds (that were dead or dying) to keep it looking nice! I’m glad I took the step of faith and bought the tree, planted it, and tended it for these past dozen years!

Very little in life comes with guaranteed results. There’s almost always the risk that things may not turn out the way we want, and many times they don’t! This is true with relationships, business endeavors, volunteering, starting a project, or whatever.

Taking risks and stepping out in faith goes against our nature, at least that part of our nature that wants security and guarantees! We’ve all had our risk taking and steps of faith end badly, and we’d rather not repeat the performance! Sure, sometimes it’s turned out well, but for most of us we tend to remember the times it didn’t go the way we wanted rather than the times it did.

I often remind myself that Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times trying to invent a reliable light bulb. He said, “I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If we aren’t sure something will work out the way we want we’ll never know for sure unless we try! Trying and failing is never as bad as failing to try.

God’s calling on our lives is almost always a call to move beyond our comfort zone which means courage must trump comfort! This can, and should, play out in countless ways. God may be calling us to establish, repair or re-establish a relationship when we’re not certain the other person will be open to the idea. The Lord may be calling us to try something new, and we’re not sure we can succeed at it. He may be asking us to give up something, and that can be risky too!

I stood resting, surrounded by the 23 palm fronds I had trimmed from my thriving palm tree. In my resting I reflected on how I had wondered 12 years earlier whether the small palm tree would survive at 7,500 feet. Now I knew! It was a reminder that taking a risk is often the best way to go!

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” Hebrews 11:8

Making a Friend of Man’s Best Friend

I came around the bend on the path that ran along the stone fence in Mexico, up the mountain from where we live part of the year. A dog started barking; I spotted him, about a hundred feet from me, then he started to run toward me, barking all the way. I wasn’t overly alarmed, his demeanor was different than on previous encounters.

Weeks earlier I had met his master, a local Mexican farmer tilling his field, the field on the other side of the low stone fence. I knew he was at work someplace in the field, for I had seen his horse tied up to a tree, his mode of transportation for his commute from his house in the nearby town. The horse was munching contentedly on some corn stalks.

The farmer had brought his dog to work as well, who I apparently startled when greeting his master with “Buenos días” which is Spanish for “Good morning.” The man’s reply was less enthusiastic than the dog’s response to a stranger’s presence. The farmer had no sooner mumbled a greeting, when his dog charged at me with ferocious barking that promised to be followed by a bite. I responded by holding my ground, never breaking eye contact, and shouting something at the dog in English (which, of course, he wouldn’t understand). I barely escaped a tooth-to-flesh encounter.

The next time I encountered the Mexican mongrel I was prepared. As he approached me with barking and exposed teeth I tossed some dry dog food on the ground between us. He was immediately distracted and voraciously consumed the nuggets.

Dogs have good memories and this dog was no exception. On this most recent encounter he had me pretty well figured for being a dispenser of delectable treats, and he was not disappointed. I have a feeling our future encounters will be peaceable as well, as long as I carry a zip lock bag of dog food treats on my walks!

The canine encounters on the rural Mexican path provided me a choice as to how I could respond. I could have continued an aggressive and antagonistic attack, or switch, as I decided to do, to a kinder, gentler approach.

The choice between an aggressive, antagonistic attack or a kinder, gentler approach is available to us every day. Perhaps a server in a restaurant is not as friendly and attentive as we would expect. We can complain to management or treat the server like a human being and ask how the day is going. A co-worker or friend may have been too busy to do us a favor last week, but how will we react when that person asks a favor from us this week?

I can decide how to handle less than ideal encounters with people just like I did with the dog. I don’t need doggy treats to do it either, just the determination to take the kinder, gentler approach!

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” Romans 12:1

Stephen Hawking’s Hope for Extraterrestrial Life

Stephen Hawking was a brilliant theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who died in 2018. Since 1963 he courageously battled ALS, spending many of those years in a wheelchair and using a computer voice synthesizer to speak. He was, and remains, one of the most famous and admired scientists of our time.

Dr. Hawking believed that the universe exists on its own, that there is no need to believe in a creator/sustainer. Most of what he said and wrote indicates he was an atheist. He believed that the universe came into being on its own, that it created itself and that the law of gravity made this possible. Hence, no need to postulate the existence of God. It’s interesting that centuries ago Newton discovered the law of gravity and, unlike Hawking, believed in God!

Not all great scientists and thinkers agree with Dr. Hawking that there is no God, such as Dr. John Lennox who was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge and is Emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford. He observes that “statements by scientists are not always statements of science.” So true. Stephen Hawking’s comments about God are outside his area of expertise, science, and are only about his own religious beliefs. Hawking stated, “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.” Hawking was right, this was his opinion.

Hawking saw a belief in God as being in conflict with science. However, people who believe in God see no conflict and see science as revealing astonishing things about the universe God created! For many, it makes more sense to believe that God, who exists apart from and outside of space and time, created the cosmos rather than to believe the universe came into being on its own. Dr. Lennox says the idea of the universe creating itself, as Hawking proposes, is nonsense. His words: “Nonsense remains nonsense even if scientists are talking it.”

Dr. Hawking was intrigued with the question as to whether there is other intelligent life in the universe. He said, “It is important to know if we are alone in the dark.” Dr. Hawking wanted to believe that there is extraterrestrial life and was open to the possibility, but was unwilling to hypothesize (take a step of faith) that there might be an ultimate extraterrestrial being who exists outside time and space, who made it all and sustains it all, and who is God!

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

Chickenphobia

I know someone who’s afraid of chickens. I guess you could say she’s chickenphobic. Actually, the proper word for this phobia is alektorophobia, but I’m never going to be able to remember this. The fear of birds in general is ornithophobia, which also isn’t easy to remember. I’ll stick with chickenphobia. I find chickenphobia difficult to understand. I’ve raised chickens as a hobby for over 40 years, even hatching them in an incubator. I don’t find chickens very intimidating, except maybe for a few roosters I’ve had over the years. Generally chickens are, well, chicken!

In talking with this friend who’s fearful of fowl I found out that when she was a little girl her brothers would terrorize her by catching chickens and throwing them at her. These feathered, flapping, brother-tossed ballistic missiles gave her a life-long fear of anything feathered.

Knowing of her childhood trauma keeps me from poking fun at her phobia or judging her for having what strikes me as an irrational fear, which is, as it turns out, very rational! In fact, she’s a very smart person, is an RN, and can handle bloody situations that would make me turn green and faint. So, I’ll be a gentleman (unlike her brothers), and not toss one of my pet chickens into her lap for her to pet if she comes to visit us.

My friend’s understandable chickenphobia is a reminder that the less we know about a person the easier it is to be condescending, judging, or to give unsolicited advice. Most of us have trouble figuring ourselves out, so why do we think we can easily and accurately judge someone else?

Even if the other person’s situation seems similar to ours, it’s not; there are all kinds of factors that are different. For us to say, “I know how you feel,” or “Been there, done that,” is insensitive, ignoring the fact that every person is different. We all have a different past and we have different personalities. Two people’s experiences may be similar, but they’re not the same!

People need less judgment and advice from us and more of a listening ear and a compassionate heart. I was reminded of this when my chickenphobic friend shared her fowl past.

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Colossians 3:12