Pray. And Go.

This blog was originally posted in November 2014 on Inspire a Fire, a blog site for inspirational Christian messages. Visit the original post at www.inspireafire.com/pray-go/.

Sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers.

There is a scene in the third installment of the Harry Potter series that I love. Harry and his friends are attacked by foul creatures known as dementors and are losing the fight. Suddenly, in the hazy distance, Harry sees a figure that looks like his father raise a wand and scatter the dementors. Saved – but how is that possible? Harry’s father is dead.

Fast forward a few chapters, and in that intrepid J.K. Rowling fashion, Harry and his friends have travelled back in time and are watching these same events unfold. They are standing just a few feet from where their rescuer appeared. Even as Harry watches their earlier selves succumb to the fight, he is watching and waiting for their rescuer to appear. Harry knows it will happen because it has already happened. But where is he?

Photo courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net & Salvatore Vuono

Photo courtesy http://www.freedigitalphotos.net & Salvatore Vuono

Then suddenly Harry realizes: it was him that rescued their earlier selves! It was him he saw from a distance and mistook for his father. And leaping to his feet, he draws his wand and shoots the powerful rays that scatter the dementors. All along he had been waiting, but it was him that had to do it.

Yes, sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers.

I don’t think this principal is accidental. In fact, we see it modelled in Jesus’ work with His disciples. Jesus told his followers to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest field. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” He said (Matthew 9:37). Jesus saw the rampant needs of the people He encountered. He knew additional help was needed to share the message of salvation and bring physical healing to the sick.

But Jesus did not stop with merely instructing his listeners to pray. Both times when this quote appears in the Gospels, it is followed by incredible action. In Matthew 9-10, Jesus instructed His disciples to pray, and then He sent them out to be the very workers they were praying for. In Luke 10, Jesus similarly instructed His listeners to pray, and then He sent out the seventy-two. “Go!” He declared. “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons…” (Matthew 10:7)

Jesus told His listeners what to pray for, and then He answered their prayer by sending… them!

Field at Sunset

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. (Photo by Janet Beagle)

Be careful what you ask for, I have heard. Because you just might get it. Be careful what you pray for, I might add. Because you just might become it.

God already knows who He wants us to become. He knows what task he has for us to do. Like the twelve disciples and the seventy-two, God wants to send us into the harvest field. God is looking for us to cry out like Isaiah: Here I am, Lord. Send me. Send me! This cry may look different for each one of us. Some may be called to far-away mission fields. Some may be called to a backyard harvest. Either way, the process is the same. The first step is to pray. Then we must go.

Like Harry looking back on his earlier self, we can rest in the assurance that our Savior will come to save us, because He already has. Our God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross and thus pay in full the debt of our sin. But also like Harry, this assurance does not prevent us from doing the task that is at hand. In addition to assuring us of our salvation, our God has also given us a job to do. As Jesus’ followers, we too are called to pray for more workers in the harvest. And then we, too, are called to go.

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Quotes for the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I have been thinking about this pair of quotes from a sermon I attended last weekend, and they seem like a great way to start the new year.

1) “We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we know Who holds tomorrow.”

The start of a new year always bring the promise of new beginnings, but it also brings a promise of new challenges. Isn’t it interesting that we celebrate the birth of our Savior right before the start of the new year? Let that be reminder to all of us. We do not enter into the new year alone; we are accompanied by the greatest gift ever given to mankind. Immanuel. God-with-us.

2) “I am not as smart as God.”

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of this, because the way my brain gets to churning some days I could accidentally conclude that I was single-handedly solving the entire universe of problems. (Anyone else sometimes find themselves in this situation?) There are days I have a lot of questions for God. Why is a big one. So is how. It is a comfort, at the end of the day, to know that even when I cannot reason something through to my own satisfaction, there is Someone else who can. There are some things I will never understand. And that is okay. We have a God who knows all things, and is working all things together for the good of those who love Him.

Whatever the New Year may bring, we can rest in the assurance that we are infinitely cared for. The days of our lives are held – perfectly, protectively – in the very palm of His hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. (Isaiah 41:13).

I Love Winter

No, I’m not being facetious.

After this winter, I won’t be sorry to see spring come (although I’m beginning to suspect that spring this year means small flocks of robins chirping happily in the midst of a light snow shower. I’ve never heard birdsong in the midst of a snow storm before this morning, have you?)

But let’s face it, for anyone who loves winter, this was a year to remember. And I am one of those rare (crazy?) individuals who love it.  I love walking outside into air that makes my face hurt. I love when little vapor clouds completely shroud my vision. Some days I even love the quiet that comes with early darkness, trudging along next to the glow of my dog’s red-lighted collar. (I do not love spending 30 minutes chipping ridiculously hard frost off my windshield every morning, but really, that is a small price to pay.)

Of course, if it’s going to be cold, I want snow. And this year we had plenty of that too. Our first major snow storm hit in December and I didn’t see bare ground again until March – very unusual for this part of the country.  It was so cold one week that snow I tracked into my car stayed there, unmelted, for 4 days, even though I was driving with the heat on.

That’s just cool.

There was one very important observation I made this year, however. And it’s this:

Clothing matters.

Now this may seem like an obvious observation, but in practice, it’s not so easy.  It’s very tempting to run the garbage out with just a hastily thrown on coat.  Or to take a quick walk with the dog without taking the time to put on a complete second layer. But on those really cold days, it didn’t matter if it was just a short jaunt outside, I needed boots, ski pants, jacket, hat (and hood if the wind was really whipping), scarf, gloves… in other words, I needed to be prepared for what I was getting into.  And when I prepared properly, I could spend hours in the snow outside – even the coldest temperatures felt like any other day.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we’ve been told before about the importance of dressing properly.  “Put on the full armor of God,” Paul admonished “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…” (Ephesians 6:13)

It’s not enough to run out the door just as we are. We need to put forth the time and the effort to prepare for whatever storm outside – physical or spiritual – awaits us. It may be tempting to run out quickly, but just as severe winter storms can be deadly for the unprepared, so too can life’s storms sweep over us unexpectedly.

Do not wait until you are in life’s gale to reach for your armor.  Take the time now – everyday – to sharpen your sword in God’s word, to strengthen the shield of your faith, and to envelope yourself in the protection of God’s truth, righteousness, peace, and salvation. Yes, it takes time to layer on those winter clothes, and yes, it takes time to develop your spiritual armor. But when we are properly attired, even the worst storms will leave us still standing safe and secure.

Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).

Journey Home

One of the best parts of any journey is returning home.

There are a few exceptions.  When I’m travelling with family and friends, I sometimes wish the trip would never end – or at least not yet.  But more often than not, by the time my plane, train, or automobile is pointed home, I am ready. I am ready to pet my dog, stand in my own shower, sleep in my own bed, be surrounded by things that are known and comfortable.

Most of my trips these days are solo sojourns.  If you’ve never travelled by yourself, let me tell you what it’s like.  It’s stressful.  And the stress is compounded if you’re travelling someplace where you don’t speak the language.  You are wholly dependent upon strangers.  (Very patient strangers!)  You have only yourself and your instincts to know which way to turn, how to find your way out, and how to find your way back.

But the curse of solo travelling is also its blessing.  You experience everything around you more deeply.  You pay attention more wholly and you interact with people you never would have interacted with.  I have had some of the most amazing personal encounters when travelling alone. I have banded together with people who, for a few intense hours or days, became my companions or my guides.

When it comes right down to it, we are all travelling alone. The Bible tells us we are like travelers in a foreign land; our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We band together through different seasons of life, but we are all trying to make our way home. There are moments when we wish the journey would never end – or at least not yet.  And there are other times when we cannot wait to have the worries of this journey behind us, and to breathe a sigh of relief to at last be surrounded by things that are known and comfortable.

True, our Father did not send us on this Journey entirely alone.  Jesus promised that when He ascended into heaven He would send the Holy Spirit to be our companion and our guide.  It’s not just our instincts that prompt our next steps, but the loving presence of God prodding our conscience, clearing our path, and always watching over us.  The strangers we meet along the way are never accidents.  They may be strangers to us, but no one is a stranger to God.  The Lord watches over the sojourners (Psalm 146:9a).

Where are you on your journey through life?  Are you experiencing the thrill of something new?  Grasp onto it with both hands.  Are you clawing through turmoil, exhaustion, or fear?  Keep pushing.  Are you pausing, reflecting back or planning forward? Take three breaths in, my friend, and go.  This journey isn’t over yet.  God has got a thing or two for you to do along the way.  Trust in Him.  Isn’t that what He told us?  “Therefore do not be anxious saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:31-33).

God’s blessings on the new year, as you continue your journey home.

 

And [Jesus] said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics…” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere (Luke 9:3,6).

A Tale of Two Mountains

In 2010, I made my first trip to Alaska. More than six years in the planning, it was more than a vacation.  It was a celebration with two friends to culminate the end of my Ph.D. program.

Needless to say, by the time I finally arrived in Alaska I was nearly uncontainable with excitement.  With 20+ hours of daylight to burn, we’d tour an area during the day and drive most of the night to our next destination.  “This is so cool,” I would say.  And two minutes later: “This is so cool.”

We had planned our trip so the final few days held the thing I was most looking forward to: Denali.  At 20,320 feet, Denali (or Mt. McKinley) is the largest mountain in North America.  In the years leading up to our adventure, Denali had taken on near-metaphysical proportions in my mind.  I knew only 1/3 of the visitors to Denali actually got to see the mountain.  Denali is known for creating its own weather pattern and hiding itself in broad daylight behind a screen of clouds.  But I didn’t care.  I wanted to stand in the presence of the mountain even if I couldn’t see it.   I was so excited that just the thought would set my heart to thumping.

It was nearing midnight when we finally pulled onto the Talkeetna Spur Road towards our campground.  Just ahead of us, someplace, was Denali.  I will never forget driving down that road, straining to look ahead.  It was dusk and the clouds were glowing.  Off on the horizon it was nearly impossible to tell: was that a cloud?  Or a mountain?  Mountain?  Cloud?

And then we came around a corner and it was THERE, hovering above the clouds like a mystical floating island.  After six years, I was staring into the face of my mountain.

My Mountain 2010

 

This past fall, I had the opportunity to travel back to Alaska for work.  I added a vacation day onto my trip and headed north from Anchorage along the now familiar route.  I was going to visit my mountain!  It was crystal clear and cold and the moment I turned onto the spur road, Denali was visible.  Its massive white face loomed shining against the dry blue sky.  That was too easy, I thought.  Where was the mystery, the anticipation, the straining to see it?

I stopped the car and got out to marvel at it.  And then a horrible thought suddenly occurred to me: that is not the mountain I have hanging on my wall. 

Wait…

Denali

I scanned the horizon.  Surely not!  Had I really taken a picture of a different mountain on my first trip?  That mountain that had burned itself indelibly into my memory – was that not even Denali??

When I got home I compared photos, and sure enough “My Mountain” was not Denali.  As near as I can tell, it is actually Mount Hunter, the next tallest mountain to Denali’s south.  Denali, on that first night, must have been hiding in the clouds.

You know, there are times when God hides mountains in the clouds.  Sometimes physically.  Sometimes metaphorically.  This is probably good.  If I knew the size of every mountain looming in the mist I’d probably never set foot outside my bedroom door.  Instead, God has a way of showing us just the path ahead, just the mountain we need to contend with right now.  When we peak one, no matter how tall, there is always another.  Even among the tallest mountains in the world, climbers will argue which one is the toughest, which route is the most technical, which face is the hardest. There is always bigger.  There is always tougher.

Hunter vs Denali

 

Sometimes what we think is the highest mountain we’ve ever seen is really just a foothill to something more.  Praise God we do not have to climb it alone.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalms 121:1-2).

Laptop Lessons

Someone once said you never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.  I tested this theory recently during a business trip to Moscow.   When I stepped off the plane, I was dragging my suitcase in one hand and clutching the business card of someone I had never met in the other.  I couldn’t speak a single word of Russian or read a single Cyrillic letter.  I just kept thinking: it’s just me, and God, and the Russian Federation. 

Then on day 5, I almost had my laptop stolen.  I was headed into a metro station on my way back from a presentation.  They had my bag unzipped and their hand in the bag.  Of course, I felt absolutely nothing.  Luckily, one of the Russian co-presenters was with me and saw it.  She physically shoved them away along with a barrage of Russian I probably don’t want to know the translation of.  Thank God she was with me.  If she hadn’t seen them, I never would have known it happened until I looked down and realized my laptop was gone.

Shortly after it happened, I kicked myself for not paying more attention. I always carry that bag to my front in the city, but I had let it slide down to my side.  I was busy talking to the ones I was travelling with, and not paying enough attention to everyone else around us.  We were speaking English, so we looked like easy targets.  I should have been more careful.

The incident was a good reminder, and I was more conscious of how I carried that bag for the rest of the trip.  But, the experience also left me with another realization.  No matter how much you try to keep your guard up, there will always be those few seconds that you slip.  You release your hold, you glance away, you listen to something else…. We are not omniscient beings.  Studies of the human brain have shown that it is not physically possible for us to focus on more than one thing at a time.  Even when we think we are multitasking, we are not.  It takes us fractions of a second to move from one stimulus to another.  As much as we try to look out for ourselves, there are moments when we fail.  Fortunately for me that day, I had someone else looking where I was not.

That night in my hotel room I received an email from a friend reminding me that people were praying for my safe trip.  I read the words of the short prayer, and the last line nearly took my breath away: “Let her know that You are the one protecting her for Your glory!  Amen.”

It was as though God were sending me a reminder, in case I had missed the point earlier.  He was there, watching out for me, even in moments when I was not able to watch out for myself.  Indeed, as David wrote in Psalm 138:7, though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.  God knew where I was, even half a world away, and He sent me a friend when I needed the help – someone who I had never met before but to whom I now owe a debt of gratitude.

I am returning from my travels at the start of the Advent season, and I am thankful for so many things: the experience, the prayers, the strangers who became my friends in just a few short days.  And the lesson of the nearly-stolen laptop, that I think is perhaps quite appropriate for the start of the holiday season.  This is a busy time of year – as busy as a Moscow metro station – and there are many different things vying for our attention.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot truly pay attention to everything. We cannot do it all, be it all, see it all, have it all.  We are designed to focus on only one thing at a time.

But when we focus on the right thing, One is all we need. 

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

Our Exoskeleton

Spring is here!  I love the smell of freshly churned dirt still cool from its winter sleep, just waiting to burst forth with new growth.  And of course, it’s always nice to see the gardener’s friend, a true sign of quality soil: the earthworm.

Earthworms are fascinating.  Unlike most other similarly squishy creatures, earthworms have no exoskeleton.  They can’t tuck into a shell like a snail or a turtle.  They can’t seal themselves up like a clam.  They can’t lash out with armored pinchers like a lobster.  They don’t even have tough enough skin to protect them from the sun.  An hour on the beach and they wouldn’t just be sunburned, they’d be desiccated.  Earthworms are essentially long strings of moving squishiness.  How on earth do earthworms survive??

The answer, of course, is that God has given earthworms a different kind of exoskeleton.  Earthworms don’t cart around a shell, because God has given the earthworm a vast “exoskeleton” of moist, cool earth.  Within this protective environment, the earthworm works at the soil, digesting and depositing nutrients and aerating it with his squirming tunnels. 

Unlike the earthworm, we have a skeleton.  But the fact is, our outsides are still pretty squishy.  We, too, cannot crawl into a shell or wield scaly armor to protect ourselves.  Unfortunately, this is as true spiritually as it is physically.  Fortunately, God has specifically prepared an environmental exoskeleton for us, just like he did for the earthworm.  Paul writes of this exoskeleton when he urges us to: Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11). 

You see, God provides for the earthworm, and he provides for us too.  By ourselves, we are not much stronger than a squishy earthworm, but we are not by ourselves!  God has given us “full armor.”  And not just any armor; it is His armor: the “full armor of God.”

Paul explains further what this armor looks like in Ephesians 6:14-17.  It is truth buckled around our waist.  It is righteousness fastened over our chest.  It is peace and readiness fitted to our feet.  It is faith as our shield, which will extinguish every flaming arrow hurled at us by the devil.  It is salvation secured to our head like a helmet.  It is the very Spirit of God in the form of His word, the Bible, which can be used like a sword against any harmful thing that comes against us.  This is no turtle shell; this is the armor of God!

But just as the earthworm has to work at his environment by churning through the soil, so we have to work at our environment.  We need to continually develop our understanding of God’s truth, righteousness, peace, and salvation.  We need to practice our faith so it develops and we need to endure its testing so that it is strengthened (remember our “faith immune system?”)  We need to read God’s Word so that we can hold it at the ready, as one would hold a sword.  We wouldn’t pick up a sword for the first time and go into battle, and neither should we wait until a time of need to first pick up the Bible.  We need to take care of our exoskeleton now.

As we care for the exoskeleton God has provided us, we also need to keep in mind one of Paul’s final exhortations on the matter: Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.  With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints (Ephesians 6:18).   In other words, we need to talk to God.  Often.  And we need to lift ourselves and each other up in prayer.  Though we may be squishy, God has given us the greatest exoskeleton of all: His armor.

 Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge (Psalm 16:1).