Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King over all the earth. Praise him with a psalm. [Psalm 47:6-7 (NLT)]

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer! Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

ZINNIA“That’s more like it!” I thought as I read Psalm 47; I certainly preferred it to the curses of the previous set of Psalms I’d read. I’m reading the Bible in chronological rather than in canonical order which means that the various books and chapters have been divided and rearranged. As a result, the psalms of lament and complaint were grouped together during David’s trials and the praise psalms were placed after the chapters outlining the duties in the Temple. These psalms of worship, adoration and thanksgiving seem more appropriate for Israel’s book of hymns than the earlier ones about wickedness, treachery, calamity and vengeance.

Although I prefer the joyful psalms, there is a reason Israel’s prayer book has lasted over 3,000 years and continues to be our prayer book today. Rather than a sappy feel-good book of poetry, Psalms reflects the gamut of human experience and emotions. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, I’m surprised He didn’t tell them they already knew and direct them to the Psalms for guidance. The Psalms’ words are intense, raw and honest; they conceal nothing. If the Psalmist is suffering, fearful, angry, depressed, or exhausted, he says so as readily as when he expresses his elation, adoration and thanksgiving. Never pretending that all is well when it isn’t, he fearlessly lays out his emotions before God. Wretchedness and joy, pain and jubilation, wickedness and virtue, despair and hope, grief and thanksgiving, fear and confidence: all are articulated. It is in that depth of personal expression and experience that we find words of consolation, faith, trust, and hope.

When I seriously evaluate my own prayer life, I’m nowhere near as honest and bold as the psalmists. Of course, God knows my personal struggles but, unlike David and the rest of the psalmists, I’m not as willing to lay them so passionately or openly at His feet. When Joseph Scriven wrote the words, “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” he meant all of it, not just the pretty stuff. I’m sure God would prefer honest words of grievance to false words of praise any day.

A human heart is like a ship on a wild sea, driven by the storm-winds from the four quarters of the world. Here it is struck with fear, and worry about coming disaster; there comes grief and sadness because of present evil. Here breathes a breeze of hope and of expectation of happiness to come; there blows security and joy in present blessings. These storm-winds teach us to speak with earnestness, and open the heart, and pour out what lies at the bottom of it. … What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm-winds of every kind? Where does one find such words of joy as in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? … On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? … And, as was said, it is the best thing of all that they speak these words to God and with God. [Martin Luther, Preface to the Psalter]

The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. [Psalm 145:18 (NLT)]

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“For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.” [1 Samuel 1:27-28 (ESV)]

Maligne Lake - CanadaRichard Williams was watching TV when he saw a tennis player awarded a $40,000 check for winning a tournament. He decided then that his as yet unborn children would become tennis stars. Williams wrote a 78-page plan detailing their future, taught himself how to play tennis and, when his girls were four, started teaching them to play the game. Before they were even born, he’d planned the future for tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams.

Hannah did much the same thing for her child Samuel. Heartbroken at her inability to get pregnant, she promised God that, if He gave her a son, she would give him back to God as a Nazirite. Although the Nazirite vow was to be voluntary and temporary, Hannah committed her as yet unconceived child to a lifetime of separating himself from the world, dedicating himself to the Lord, and never cutting his hair, consuming wine (or any grape product), or getting near a dead body. After giving birth to Samuel, she fulfilled her vow; once he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and left him in the care of Eli the priest.

Can you imagine the youngster’s tears as he watched his parents leave? Every year, when his family returned to Shiloh for worship and sacrifice, Hannah brought a new coat for the boy and, every year, Samuel remained in Shiloh while his family went back home with the five siblings that arrived after his birth. Instead of playing whatever little boys played in 1100 BC, Samuel remained as an apprentice to an old priest in the temple. Can you imagine his loneliness and grief? Nevertheless, this is the life Hannah decided he should have.

Perhaps, however, it wasn’t Hannah but rather God who wrote the plan for Samuel. Hannah had no children because “the Lord had closed her womb.” Could He have been waiting to open her womb until she became desperate enough to make such an amazing sacrificial vow?

The priest Eli had two grown sons, Hophni and Phinehas. In spite of being priests, they were wicked worthless men who cheated, seduced women, stole from the people, and were unworthy to carry on Eli’s priestly duties. Could God have arranged circumstances so that someone worthy of the task could grow in godliness while apprenticing to Eli? When Eli and his sons died, it was Samuel who became the priest, prayer warrior, first of the prophets, and last (and most effective) of Israel’s judges. It was Samuel who anointed both Saul and David. It was Samuel, the child given to God before his conception, who was listed by Paul in the Hall of Faith.

At first glance, Hannah seemed a bit like Richard Williams (and a host of stage moms and sport dads) who decide their children’s dreams for them. Looking closer, we see that God mapped out a scenario even more elaborate than Richard William’s 78-page plan. I’m sure it didn’t make much sense to Hannah when she made the vow that took her son from his family and it certainly didn’t make sense to the young Samuel when he watched them wave farewell. In retrospect, however, it makes all the sense in God’s world; He has a way of making sense of it all!

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. [1 Samuel 3:19-20 (ESV)]

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muscovy ducklings - floridaNow they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” [Luke 18:15-16 (ESV)]

In the comic strip Baby Blues, done by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, Daryll and Wanda’s daughter Zoe has been reading Charlotte’s Web. “Think she’ll be traumatized by the ending?” Daryll asks his wife. (Spoiler alert—Charlotte dies.) In comes Zoe who loudly announces, “Today at school we had a shelter-in-place drill, an active shooter drill, and a hazardous materials evacuation drill. It was fun!” When Wanda replies, “I think she’ll be fine,” the stunned Daryll announces, “I’m not!” Not long after seeing that comic, Moderately Confused, drawn by Jeff Stahler, continued the theme. As a mother looks at her son’s schoolwork, he proudly declares, “At least I passed my active shooter lockdown drill.” When shotguns, rifles, pistols, and pipe bombs regularly find their way into our schools and threaten our children, I find no humor in these comics; they are only a sad commentary on the nation in which our children live.

When I sent my children off to school, I thought they were going to a safe place; at that time, they were. They may have returned home with the sniffles, chicken pox, hurt feelings, a skinned knee or even a black eye from a playground scuffle, but they returned home. When a student at the Santa Fe High School in Texas was asked if she was surprised by the violence, her reply was chilling: “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here.” Violence in schools should be the exception rather than the expectation! We’re barely 22 weeks into the year and yet, according to CNN, there have been 23 school (K through university) shootings where someone has been hurt or killed. (That doesn’t include incidents that were resolved without injury.) No wonder our children aren’t surprised by the violence around them.

During last week’s Indiana shooting, a 7th grader texted to his mother: “Mom, there’s an intruder, I just wanted to tell you I love you.” No child should have to be hiding in a classroom behind a door barricaded with chairs and, fearing he has only a few minutes left to live, texting what he thinks are his final words. He should be writing essays not last words and worried about a pop quiz in biology rather than a schoolmate wielding a gun. Middle schoolers should be busy with math drill worksheets rather than active-shooter drills, a diploma should not be accompanied by post-traumatic stress disorder, and, when a child leaves school, it shouldn’t be in an ambulance or a body bag. We are called to care for, nurture and protect the children God has given us—not just those in our homes but also in our communities, nation and throughout the world. Sadly, we’re not doing a very good job of it.

Following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, a cynical meme circulated on the Internet that showed an empty van with the caption: “Excellent news. The first truckload of your thoughts and prayers arrived.” We often say our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of these tragedies but thoughts and prayers are not enough; we must take action. Whether it is gun control legislation, better mental health services, metal detectors, mentoring programs, security cameras, RFD badges, locked doors, armed security guards, or armed teachers—I won’t pretend to know the solution. Nevertheless, I must seek to find it and work to implement it. Let us all prayerfully consider what each one of us can do to give our children a safe and secure future.

Father in heaven, forgive us for our failure to protect the ones you have entrusted to our care. Guide us in our actions so that we protect them not just from illness and injury but also from abuse, neglect, bullying, and violence. Show us what we can do so that they thrive and blossom rather than wither and die.

Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer. … Prayer and action must always be profoundly united. [Pope Francis]

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. [Psalm 82:3-4 (ESV)]

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You learn more at a funeral than at a feast – After all, that’s where we’ll end up. We might discover something from it. [Ecclesiastes 7:2 (MSG)]

black swallowtail - butterflyAt my age, I’ve attended a fair share of funerals and they’ve run the gamut from full-blown productions complete with video presentations and choirs to a few mourners on a windy ski slope with a bag of ashes. Some ministers knew the deceased well and others couldn’t even pronounce the name correctly. There have been inspiring prayers and eulogies and some with no prayer at all. They’ve taken place in jam-packed churches and nearly empty mortuary chapels. Solomon was correct; there is a lot we can learn at funerals.

I’ve learned how much we miss when we don’t take the time to truly know someone. I discovered more about one woman from her obituary and eulogy than I did from 30 years of socializing with her. Her funeral showed me how little we really know about people we call “friends” and how superficial our friendships can be.

I’ve learned how empty some lives have been. When asked to do the eulogy for a distant family member, I was given a list of the five things of which he was most proud, the high point being a 4-H trophy awarded some seventy years earlier. He made no mention of family, friends, faith, or love. As I looked out over the mourners, there were no friends and only a few family members who attended out of a sense of obligation.

As we released butterflies following the joyous and love-filled celebration of life of another family member, I learned about courage and how much faith, love, family and friends can guide someone in life and through the dark valley of death.

I’ve learned how much a parent’s love and guidance can influence his children after hearing a son speak eloquently at his father’s funeral. I was reminded of how fragile life can be and, upon returning home, called every family member just to tell them I loved them.

I’ve learned that communities can come together with offerings of food, comfort and support and that families can be torn apart by resentment, jealousy, and greed. A funeral not only reminds us all of the inevitability of death, it can teach us how to live. If nothing else, we return home appreciating each day just a little more.

Good and brave men buried Stephen, giving him a solemn funeral—not many dry eyes that day! [Acts 8:2 (MSG)]

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Charm is deceptive and beauty disappears, but a woman who honors the Lord should be praised. Give her credit for all she does. She deserves the respect of everyone. [Proverbs 31:30-31 (GNT)]

muscovy - ducklingsMy mother disliked having her picture taken. She didn’t think of herself as attractive and she probably wasn’t pretty in the conventional way. Yet, even with a face covered by freckles, unruly hair, an overbite combined with a toothy smile, thick glasses and a hearing aid, she was the most beautiful woman I’ve known.

It was at my mother’s side that I learned to love the written word. She urged me to read all sorts of books that were probably considered far too adult for my age and we discussed every one of them in detail. She was intelligent and creative and encouraged me in every one of my efforts. She was incredibly open with me about her past, her faith and feelings. Perhaps she knew her time on earth was brief so she had to pack everything a mother wants to teach her daughter into a few short years. It was from my mother that I learned about love and forgiveness. She showed me that true love takes effort and is more a choice than a feeling. She started me on my journey of faith and it was through her that I came to know Jesus.

This shy quiet woman taught me courage: courage in the face of adversity, courage in the face of cancer, courage in the face of death. She taught me how to live and how to die. She was probably the most beautiful when she was the least attractive, just a few days before her death, when I was fifteen. As we were departing her hospital room, my father leaned over, picked up a corner of the oxygen tent, and kissed her. He said, “You look like an angel tonight.” Her response, said with a smile on her radiant face, was, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll be with the angels.” As she passed through the valley of death, she had no fear. She had complete faith in God’s promise. She wasn’t worried; she trusted God that the family she left behind would be just fine and she knew that where she was going would be even better. She may not have been pretty but my mother was the most beautiful woman in my world.

On this special day, Dear Lord, we thank you for our mothers: those beautiful women who gave us life. We also thank you for all of the beautiful women of faith who have blessed our lives with their example and encouragement, enlightenment, love, and guidance. Please reassure them that, in spite of what the mirror and society may tell them, they are truly beautiful both in your eyes and ours!

…Your beauty should consist of your true inner self, the ageless beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of the greatest value in God’s sight. [1 Peter 3:4 (GNT)]

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And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” [Mark 5:34 (RSV)]

Queen butterflyIn Mark 5, we have three miraculous healings: the demoniac in the Gerasenes, the bleeding woman, and the daughter of Jairus. A Gentile, the demoniac didn’t seek out the Lord. What did he do to deserve healing? I have a dear friend, a man of faith, whose wit, intelligence, and joy have been stolen by severe dementia. Countless prayers have been offered on his behalf but he only gets worse. My uncle was a man of faith but he descended into the hell of psychosis from which he couldn’t escape even in his sleep. In spite of prayers for release from his demons, that release only came when he died. Why was the demoniac healed and not them?

The woman with the blood issue had been suffering for twelve years and, after spending all her money to find a cure, she’d only gotten worse. Sure that just touching His robe would heal her, she fought her way through the crowd to Jesus. He told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” What about all of the other people with faith for whom there is no healing? My mother had deep faith and even took part in the healing ritual of the laying on of hands but she died of cancer at forty-seven. Her faith didn’t bring healing and my prayer list is filled with the names of suffering people who, like that woman, have exhausted every possibility searching for a cure. Their faith is as strong as that of this nameless woman and yet they are not healed. Why her and not them?

Then there’s Jairus, the man who fell at the feet of Jesus and begged him to heal his daughter. By the time they arrived at his house, the girl was dead. Jesus held her hand, told her to get up, and she did. What did Jairus or his daughter do to deserve healing? As the local synagogue’s leader, had he been one of those in the synagogue who criticized Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath? He may even have been with the Pharisees when they accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan. Why was his daughter restored and not the little girl for whom I pray every day? Her parents and countless others have knelt before Jesus and begged for healing and it doesn’t come. We’re not even asking Him to raise her from the dead; we just want her to live!

There is no satisfactory answer as to why God restores health to some and not to others. Someday, in heaven, we’ll understand but, for now, we must have faith and trust in God; that’s not always easy. We must never think that healing is deserved. It is neither proof of our faith nor of God’s love for us and we can’t allow bitterness or anger to fill our hearts when healing doesn’t occur.  While there are many instances in Scripture where Jesus links faith and healing, there are many others where the healing seems almost random. Let us remember that Jesus healed only one person of the many who were by the pool in Bethesda. Even for the most faithful, miraculous healings are the exception and not the rule!

Jesus told the bleeding woman her faith made her well and then he told her that she was healed which tells us that being well and healed are not necessarily the same thing. Faith makes us well (or whole) in a way that health can’t. Jesus healed ten lepers but only the one who returned was told that his faith had made him well. He wasn’t made well when his leprosy was cured; he was made well when his gratitude and faith allowed the power of Jesus to enter his heart. Faith in Jesus is what makes us well; while it may or may not restore health, faith will always make us well. Lord Jesus, it is well with my soul.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
[Horatio G. Spafford]

Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” [Luke 17:17-19 (RSV)]

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