A Prayer about Racial Issues (Or, A Prayer That’s Scary to Pray)

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors in my local church. He asked if I could lead a prayer at our upcoming evening worship and prayer service. (We have one of these every month.) The area he asked me to pray for is one I’m passionate about: the racial issues in our country. I was honored to be asked. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I responded with my “yes” was fear and dread. Our church is predominantly white; the demographics of our congregation reflects the demographics of our city (which is statistically one of the whitest cities in America). Let me be clear: I LOVE my church! It’s a great church with wonderful people. But what was being asked of me was still terrifying. I voiced my fears to my husband:

  • “How on earth am I supposed to lead a congregation to pray as one about something in which we’re so divided?”
  • “How do I—a woman of color in a predominantly white space—lead a prayer about racial issues in a way that won’t get labeled ‘divisive,’ but is still honest and genuine?”
  • “What happens if this doesn’t go well?” (This was my biggest question/worry. Did I mention that my husband’s on pastoral staff at this church?)

I labored over the words I’d pray, crafting the words while whispering again and again, “God, I can’t do this. Please help me!” He gave me words. And I prayed them on my own each day leading up to the service. Alone in my living room, I felt the weight of the words. This is not a safe prayer, I thought. I felt something else, too. Something beautiful was happening.

Last night, as I walked up the steps of the platform to lead our congregation in prayer, my heart raced and I unsuccessfully fought to stop shaking. In my fear—yes, I did it scared!—I kept my head down and my eyes on my iPad. As I prayed, I heard something I hoped for but didn’t expect: voices rising in agreement. There were only a couple times when I felt the crowd get quiet. My husband prepared me for this: “There will be moments when they’ll get quiet because they don’t know yet how to pray about some of these things. They’ll get quiet so they can listen and learn. It’s a good thing. Just keep going.” I remembered his words and kept going all the way to the “amen.” Something indeed happened last night. It felt as though something hard that needed to be broken was beginning to break. This is just a beginning. I wrote in my journal after I got home, “I feel it—really feel it. Hope.”

After the service, a number of people asked if I could send them a copy of what I prayed. This morning, I got more messages with the same request. So here it is. What follows are the words I spoke and prayed (including a couple notes to myself to breathe) at Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of Sunday, February 6, 2022. May we continue to pray these words. And as we do, may we learn to live them.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We’re going to pray about the racial issues in our country. [Take a breath.] And I know that as soon as I said those words, every single one of us felt something and our minds got loud with ideas and beliefs. And the range of thoughts is so wide that it can seem too insurmountable for us to be able to pray as one.

So here’s what we’re going to do:

  • Everyone, hold out your hands in front of you, and clench your fists. (No hitting! We’re not about to fight each other!) Prayerfully imagine that in your fists are all the things you think and feel when you hear the words, “racial issues”…because we’re not going to be able to pray as a unified voice until we deal with what we’re holding in our fists. 
  • As I begin, I want you to pray, “God, here’s all my stuff. I want to give You access to all of it.”  And when You’re ready, I invite you to open your hands in surrender to Jesus. If you need more time before you’re ready, that’s okay. The important thing is that we all move a little closer to God in this moment.

Let’s pray:

God, we’re symbolically holding in our fists 

  • ways we believe we’re right and others are wrong,
  • ways we’ve allowed ideologies to hinder us from loving well,
  • maybe feelings of apathy or annoyance, 
  • or a desire for things to be better and exhaustion by the weight of it all,
  • maybe disillusionment, anger, or disappointment in our brothers and sisters in Christ, 
  • maybe pain or even trauma. 

Some of the things we’re holding are right in Your eyes and some are not. For most, what we’re holding is complicated. And all of it needs to be surrendered to You—whether for repentance, or so You can sanctify it to be used for Your glory, or so You can do Your miraculous healing work. 

So God, here’s all our stuff. Help us surrender it all to You.

If you feel ready, go ahead and open your hands and pray with me:

Jesus, we surrender it all to You. We give You access to all of it. Align our hearts to Yours and let Your will be done in and through us.

So now we lift up our church, our community, and our nation.

God, we lift up the Black community.

We lift up the Native American community.

We lift up the Latino community.

We lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

We lift up everyone who’s part of the majority culture.

The needs are many.

We pray for demonic strongholds to be destroyed. Break the strongholds of racism and white supremacy in our country and even our churches. Disturb what needs to be disturbed and change hearts. 

We pray for repentance to continue and to be thorough. We’ve come a long way, but still have far to go. Help us to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As Daniel, Nehemiah, and others repented for the communal sins of Israel, we repent of our nation’s sins as well as our own.

  • In commenting on MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Mrs. Coretta King said: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” God, there was a moment when it felt like we were on the brink of racial healing, but it only lasted for a moment, and too many returned to business as usual. 
  • We repent of our prejudices, the ways we’ve wrongly judged, painted groups of people with broad strokes, or turned people into demeaning caricatures. We repent of the actions and inaction that flowed from these ways of thinking. 
  • We repent of disobeying your command to care for the foreigner and the ways we’ve treated ethnic minorities like they are “other” and do not belong.
  • We repent of the ways we’ve upheld or been complicit with unjust systems.
  • We repent of choosing to be colorblind when the dream of Your Kingdom is not one of ethnic erasure but one that envisions every nation, tribe, and language worshiping together before Your throne. Give us eyes to be color brave, to see the beauty of our ethnicities and the ways they reflect the image of God.
  • We repent of choosing comfort over bravery. 
  • We repent of participating in racial jokes or degrading comments, whether we were the one speaking the words or were complicit with our laughter or silence.
  • We repent of being silent when we should have spoken up in either correction or encouragement. 
  • We repent of getting so caught up in ideologies and partisan talking points that we’ve allowed ourselves to treat people—fellow bearers of the image of God—as though they’re the enemy.
  • We repent of getting so caught up in debate that we fail to listen, show empathy, compassion, and love.
  • We repent of treating racial issues as though they’re problems “out there” and neglecting to care for those among us who are hurting.
  • We repent of the times we’ve prayed without action and the times we’ve acted without prayer. 

I pray for us to not settle for superficial peace, but to be agents of healing and justice. 

  • Give our lawmakers the wisdom to correct unjust laws and systems.
  • Raise up more Christians like Bryan Stevenson to advocate for the victims of our unjust laws and systems and work towards equity.
  • I pray for the violence against Black and brown bodies to stop. Oh, God, we denounce violence in all its forms. We denounce violence that’s inflicted on anyone. This week, with the start of Black History Month, at least 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities were forced to close due to bomb threats. Oh God, we cry out for true peace in our land. As we often pray for a shield of protection when we travel, we pray for a shield of protection around ethnic minorities.
  • In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King lamented, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Oh God, may we be a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice! Give Your Church—here at Central and throughout our country—the wisdom and anointing to be brave in calling out unjust attitudes and systems, to be brave in doing the work of racial reconciliation, and to be brave in praying for and working towards shalom in our land. Holy Spirit, lead us and help us lead the way. 

[Take a breath.]

Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a drastic rise in Anti-Asian violence. Asian Americans have been bombarded with videos of people who look like us and our parents being attacked and murdered. A couple months ago, there was news of an Asian man who was shot multiple times. He was about my father’s age and was killed in Chicago’s Chinatown, a place my father frequents. So when I saw the news headline, without thinking, I instinctually looked up the details of the story to make sure it wasn’t my father. This is a glimpse of what racial trauma looks like.

Jesus, we lift up those who are hurting and suffering racial trauma. 

  • We’re hurting. And sometimes the pain is too heavy and hope feels impossible. Oh Jesus, You understand wounds. So we welcome You into our pain and we bring You our lament. We bring You all our anger and frustration, all our why-s and how longs. 
  • We pray for every BIPOC person who is carrying trauma in their bodies and their spirit. God of all comfort, I beg You to heal us. 
  • Help us as we absorb yet another insensitive comment, dirty look, or hurtful action. Keep our hearts soft and our armors strong. May we forgive and, at the same time, not internalize the racism we experience.
  • Help us when the news of another assault or murder triggers our trauma and fear. 

Our Father, there’s so much brokenness. But You are the Lord of righteousness and justice, God of miracles and infinite possibility. Heal our land. Amen.

Our Essence: The Imago Dei

On September 10, 2021, I spoke at an event at Central Assembly in Springfield, MO. These are the words I shared that day.

I’m going talk to you about something that’s a lot bigger than what I can give you in 10 minutes. So I want to whet your appetite and stir in you a holy curiosity that I pray will shift the way you read the Bible and interact with God, the way you see yourselves, and the way you love others.

Sometime ago, I was watching a Netflix documentary about American Christianity. In it, someone said, “In our essence, we are sinful.” That sounds spiritual, but is it true? Is our essence, who we are at our core, our sinfulness? Is that how God sees us? And as Christians, is that how God wants us to see ourselves and others? 

To answer that, let’s go to the Bible. And let’s start at the beginning. 

Genesis 1:1, the opening line of Scripture, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Right away, we meet the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story: God. And this chapter proceeds to tell us how God created everything in the cosmos. Light, land and sky, day and night, sun and moon, seasons and years, the plant and animal kingdoms—He spoke it all into being. And as He created, He declared His creation good.

And in Genesis 1:26-27, we meet more characters:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ 

So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.”

With these verses, we read the beginning of our story. And the very first thing that’s said about humanity is that we’re created in the image of God. God didn’t speak humanity into being. He formed the first human from dust and breathed life into Him. 

If you ask a lot of Christians about their theology, what they believe, many would begin in chapter 3 with the fall of man. This is how many of us were taught to share the Gospel. But when we do this, we miss out on the theological richness in the first two chapters of Genesis where we’re introduced to threads that are woven throughout the entire Bible, threads that are important for understanding who God is and who we are. And one of those threads is the idea of the imago Dei, the image of God. 


What is the imago Dei? What does it mean to be “created in the image of God”?  

When we read the story of creation, God creates a lot of amazing, awe-inspiring things that reflect God’s glory. But not everything is created in God’s likeness. God chose humankind to be the bearers of His image.

The idea of the imago Dei flies in the face of a culture that gives people worth based on things like appearance, platform, productivity, and status. Dr. Jemar Tisby wrote, “…the Christian doctrine of the image of God teaches that all people have inherent worth and dignity simply because they are God’s creation.” 

So what are ways we see the image of God in us? 

We see it in our capacity… 

  • to think and reason,
  • to forge relationships and emotionally connect with God and others,
  • to have authority and responsibility over the earth through our vocation, care for our health and wellness, and stewardship of our resources,
  • to become more and more like Jesus until we meet Him face to face. (from Christian Spiritual Formation, by Diane Chandler)

Every single one of us is a bearer of the imago Dei, created in the image of God. THAT is our essence. We reflect God’s image in the ways we’re similar and also in the ways we’re different. Our different stories and backgrounds, the different generations we were born to be part of, our different gifts and passions, even our different races, ethnicities, and nationalities—they all come together to make a beautiful mosaic that reflects God.

At this point, you may be thinking, But what about original sin? In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world. Did that change our essence? Did sin erase the image of God in us?

Well, what does the Bible have to say about the imago Dei after the fall?

Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them.

When talking about why murder is wrong, in Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.

In the New Testament, when talking about how difficult it is to control the tongue, James 3:9 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

Sin fractured our identities, marred the imago Dei in us, but it did not erase it. Even in our brokenness, we still bear the image of God!

This is the tension we live with: In our essence, we are bearers of the image of God. And at the same time, we live in a fallen world, impacted by sin. And because of that, Romans 3:23 says “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” We don’t live up to our potential as image bearers. 

But God has not given up on us. He invites us to follow Him and partner with the Holy Spirit in His transformative work in our lives.

And like a masterpiece painting that has become cracked, weathered, and faded, we’re still a masterpiece. And God, the master Creator and artist who loves His creation deeply, can restore what has been marred to once again look like the image He created us to bear. 


Before I continue, I’d like to speak from my heart. The past 18 months have been difficult for all of us. In many ways we deeply feel the pain of living in a fallen world. One way is in the racial divisions that have been brought into the light. Some of you in this room may feel like your dignity and worth or the dignity and worth of your children have been torn down. Maybe you’re carrying the wounds of trauma and you feel emotionally exhausted this evening. If that’s you, I invite you to find me later—or message me—and I’d like to personally take the time to give space for what you’re experiencing. 

And for all of us in this room—or everyone reading this blog—I exhort you: Let us practice and model to a hurting and broken world what it looks like to see and value the imago Dei in ourselves and in others.


Now, let’s talk about Jesus.

There is only one person in all the world and history who has ever completely and perfectly borne the image of God. His name is Jesus. 

Colossians 1:15 (CSB) says,

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn over all creation.

I love how plainly The Kingdom New Testament Translation, by N. T. Wright, says it:

“He is the image of God…”

Diane Chandler wrote, “…Jesus is the perfect image that humankind lost during the fall but through whom humankind now is alive with potential for restoration through redemption and is capable of holistic growth into the image of Christ.” (from Christian Spiritual Formation)

Romans 8:29 talks about how we’re to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son.”

And 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…”

In other words, what’s the goal? To look more and more like Jesus!

And how do we do that? Through Jesus!

Let’s take this one step further: On this road of spiritual formation, we need Jesus…and we need each other. 

God’s character and nature, His personality, His passions, the way He expresses Himself and interacts with His creation and with us—He’s so much bigger than what any one of us can reflect. So it’s vital that on the road of spiritual formation, we not try to do it all on our own, but that we do it together in community. And that means it might get a little messy because people are messy. But even in the messiness, and many times, through the messiness, God’s transformative work happens and we begin to look more like Jesus and better reflect the imago Dei, both individually and corporately.

So let’s do this! And let’s do this together!

Another pic from that night. This is me and Amelia Umbenhower—one of the leaders in our college ministry. I’m super blessed to get to know her and all the ways God is mighty in her! We’re two women with different backgrounds, stories, and giftings. And we’re both bearers of the image of God!

My Favorite Bible Study Tools

There are SO MANY Bible study tools available. And among them are a lot of great resources as well as a lot of…um…not so great ones. So if you don’t know what you’re looking for (or maybe even if you do), navigating the sea of accessible Bible study tools can be overwhelming. So I thought I’d let you see some of my go-tos. Please note that even though I tried to keep this list short and simple, it can still seem like a lot if you’re just getting started. So after getting a Bible, if you want to start with just one thing, skip to the very end!

My Go-To Bibles:

First things first. The most important tool when you’re studying the Bible is…a Bible.

She Reads Truth Bible – There are a lot of Bibles in my home in a vast array of translations, languages, and editions. But when I’m sitting down to spend time with Jesus, this is the first one I grab. It has helpful resources in it (devotionals, charts, timelines, etc.) but not so much that I get bogged down in overthinking mode. In other words, it has a clean design and doesn’t look like a textbook. It also has wide margins, so it’s a great journaling Bible. (Random fun fact: one of the devotional writers is Jill McDaniel. Who’s Jill McDaniel? She goes to my church and she’s my friend. Also, she’s awesome.)

He Reads Truth Bible – I love my SRT Bible so much that I bought my husband the HRT Bible when it came out. Unlike the SRT Bible, the HRT Bible doesn’t have any devotionals in it. BUT, it does contain more resources (charts and such) that they developed after making the She Reads Truth Bible. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for me to borrow my husband’s Bible.

ESV Study Bible – This is pretty much the gold standard of study Bibles! It’s what I go to when I want to get into the nitty gritty. Its pages contain a wealth of diagrams, charts, notes, and a whole lot more. (Something to keep in consideration is that many of the notes in this study Bible are written from a more Reformed perspective. If that’s a turnoff for you, I list another great study Bible below.)

Digital Bibles:

Bible.com – This is a free digital Bible website and app. I mostly use this when I’m on the go or when I’m looking up passages in multiple versions. (I also link to Bible.com whenever I quote passages in my blog. 😉 ) The She Reads Truth app and He Reads Truth app are also great digital Bible options.

Since words—especially words in the Bible—don’t always mean what we think they mean, here are a couple websites where you can click/tap on a word in a passage and find out what it means: NetBible.org and BibleWebApp.com.

Bible Background Resources:

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – I didn’t list this under the “My Go-To Bibles” category because I only have this Bible in Kindle format, so I mostly use it for the articles. If you don’t already have a study Bible, I highly recommend this one! (I link the NIV below, but it also comes in NKJV and NRSV.)

To be honest, I don’t use the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible as much because the following two books are my go-to for historical and cultural background deep dives.

John Walton and Craig Keener, the writers for the notes in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, are the same people who wrote these commentaries. When I read these commentaries, I often find myself exclaiming out loud, “What?! This passage makes so much more sense now!”

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

A note about commentaries for Biblical studies and ministerial students: I use a lot more commentaries than what I list here. I’m not going to list any of them here, because the point of this post is to give people who are beginning to study the Bible a starting point. Which commentaries are best? It depends on which book of the Bible you’re studying and what you’re looking for in a commentary. So when you’re picking commentaries, do your research and use more than one source when you can (libraries can help!).

If I Had to Pick Just One to Get Started:

BibleProject.com – From the BibleProject website: “BibleProject is a nonprofit animation studio that produces short-form, fully animated Bible videos and other Bible resources to make the biblical story accessible to everyone, everywhere. We create 100% free Bible videospodcasts, and Bible resources to help people experience the story of the Bible.”

I love BibleProject so much that I got their ginormous coffee table book that has all the diagrams and summaries from the videos for each book of the Bible.

Honestly, I could spend hours just sitting and watching BibleProject videos. They have so much to explore! But when it comes to my regular Bible study, what do I do with these BibleProject resources? Before I begin reading a book of the Bible, I like to watch the corresponding video that “outlines its structure and design and how it fits into the entire biblical story.” And then I like to keep the coffee table book open close by so that if I feel like I’ve lost where I am in the larger story—especially when I’m reading a particularly lengthy book—I can glance up and get my bearings.


Okay, so I told you some of my go-tos. What are some of yours?

When the Way is through the Sea

beach clouds dark dark clouds
Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.

I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, and he will hear me.

In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted.

When I remember God, I moan;

when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

You hold my eyelids open;

I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

I consider the days of old,

the years long ago.

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search:

“Will the Lord spurn me forever,

and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah

(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)

These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song.  These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.

God, where are You?

Can You hear me? 

Have You forgotten me?

Did You stop loving me?

Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?

Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search…

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old.

I will ponder all you work,

and meditate on your mighty deeds.

(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)

When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.

Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

Your road led through the sea,

your pathway through the mighty waters—

a pathway no one knew was there!

(Psalm 77:19, NLT)

“Yet your footprints were unseen.”

“A pathway no one knew was there.”

Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.

So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.

Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.

Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,

when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,

help me to diligently seek You.

And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,

help me follow Your lead.

Amen. 

Advent

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Advent is a time of expectation and hope, but the beauty of this season gets overshadowed by busyness, rush, and consumerism. Art has a way of quieting the noise and helping us be attentive to the profound things of life.

May this piece of poetry open for you a small space when the noise of your life gets a little softer and the whisper of God gets a little louder.

 

Listen

 

I groan

—a prayer too deep for words—

as I fight to hope and believe

I will hear Your voice again.

 

The Lord hears

—the Word becomes flesh—

four hundred years of silence

broken by a Baby’s first cry.

 

Words We Sing on Monday

Update (December 17, 2019): It has been one year since I wrote this blog post. It has also been one year since my last cortisone injections! Hallelujah! (Insert shouting and happy dancing here.) As I look back and read the words I typed a year ago, a different set of challenges weighs on my heart. But these words are still true: “God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yesterday in church, I found myself swept away by a song that spoke of the God’s goodness and repeatedly declared,

“You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.”

I wasn’t just singing words. I was remembering times when I desperately cried out to God in my pain and He flooded me with His comfort. I was worshipping the God I know, the God I’ve experienced.

I didn’t know that I was preaching truths into my soul I would need to hold onto the next day.

People ask me, “How are your hands?” more often than, “How are you?” Lupus has been unkind to my joints, adding difficulty to my life as a pianist. Every few months, I get multiple cortisone injections in order to continue to use my hands and play the piano. For those of you who are wondering, yes, the injections hurt. But the relief they bring and the music they allow me to produce are enough to keep me coming back for more.

Today, I visited the hand surgeon for my routine injections—one in each thumb and index finger. Four in total. “Do you think they’re working?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “Well, of course they’re working. You wouldn’t be back here to subject yourself to this if they weren’t working.”

And then he spoke of the best way to proceed, expressing concern about the danger of repeated injections for so long. I told him, “The rheumatologist doubled my dosage of Plaquenil last Friday, and hopefully that’ll help me to not need shots as frequently.”

“Then, let’s see,” he replied. “Let’s see how things go with the new dose of Plaquenil, and then when”—not if—“you come back, let’s do an MRI and consider surgery.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed surgery. In past visits I’ve barraged the poor doctor with a multitude of questions:

  • Will surgery affect my piano playing? (Possibly.)
  • If I get surgery, is it possible I will need surgery again? (Yes.)
  • What is the likelihood that surgery will be effective in my case? (It’s hard to say.)

The prospect of surgery has never sounded attractive to me. But as the doctor spoke today, the prospect of continuing as I have been looked equally unattractive. No option comes with a guarantee; and no option is without dangerous risks.

This is where I’m at. A place where I have no idea what the best way to move forward is. A place of unknown. A place where the mind easily imagines worst case scenarios.

So today I’m facing my worry with quiet trust. I’ve prayed short prayers—anything longer than a few words will bring me to tears. It’s not that I’m afraid of tears and emotion. I’m sure I’ll be ready to cry ugly tears tomorrow. But today, I want to process. To let the words of the doctor sink in. More importantly, to let the words I sang yesterday sink in.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down…

After all, what’s the point of singing words like this on Sunday if I can’t continue to sing them as I face the darkness on Monday?

I’m not praising God out of naiveté. I can sing to God, “You’re never gonna let me down,” because I’ve been through the unknown and darkness so many times already and He’s never stopped being good or left me to fend for myself. He’s always been with me. He’s always brought me through.

God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.

“‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us).”
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Prayers We Stopped Praying

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In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

Luke 1:5-7, ESV

“Why is this happening? How have I sinned? What’s wrong with me?” Years of living for God and doing everything right, and still she was barren.

“Lord, please give me a child.”

How many times did this prayer escape her quivering lips? How many times did she allow her heart to hope, only to be disappointed? And with each passing year, her window of possibility got smaller and her wounds grew deeper.

She was barren, marked with shame. And her years of hoping were over.

She knew the story, the one that happened millennia ago. Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, was 90 years old when she conceived. “But God has been silent for centuries. Could God still do things like that today? And if He could, would He?”

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.'”

Luke 1:8-17, ESV

He was chosen by lot. What appeared to be the luck of the draw, something completely random, was divine. God was in the randomness. And as he performed his duties, something miraculous happened. Prayers he had stopped praying years ago were extravagantly answered. He was finally going to be a father.

How do I know Zechariah had stopped praying for a child? Because what he said in response were not the words of a man who still prayed to have a child, but the words of a man who had given up:

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.'”

Luke 1:18, ESV

He had just heard the most wonderful news of his life, but He couldn’t praise or give thanks. How many times had he prayed for a child? How many times had he consoled his crying wife? How many times did he mask his shame as other men in the community beamed with pride because of their growing families? How many years had God disappointed him before he stopped praying that one, painful prayer?

And after all those years, when his peers were enjoying the births of their grandchildren, was God really going to finally give him a son? Maybe he was numb. Maybe he still felt the sting of old wounds. Either way, the idea that God would bless him now in this way was preposterous.

But this man who had dedicated his life to God’s service had more to learn about God and His ways. Zechariah’s age, circumstances, and limitations were no match for what God could do. God could do anything. But after everything Zechariah had been through, could he believe this—really believe in a personal, non-theoretical, hope-risking kind of way?

And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.

Luke 1:19-22, ESV

I used to think that Zechariah was being punished for his unbelief, but now I’m not so sure. Because he was suddenly unable to speak:

  • he could no longer speak words of doubt
  • other people were able to see he had a divine encounter, so they became part of the story and Zechariah wouldn’t/couldn’t walk this journey alone
  • he was constantly reminded of what God had done
  • he could spend more time listening, remembering, and reflecting on what God had done.

(How often do I think God is punishing me when really He’s blessing me and preparing me for something beautiful?)

Sometimes when God answers prayers we’ve abandoned or forgotten, He needs to break through the walls we’ve raised to protect our hearts and get our attention so we don’t miss what He’s doing. For Zechariah, he was speechless. Not in a metaphorical way, but in a literal, inconvenient, and disruptive kind of way. For nine months.

Nine months to let this glorious miracle sink in. These nine months would transform Zechariah to his core and make him the kind of father that his son would need him to be: a father who wholeheartedly believed in the God who can do anything, who hears our prayers, and who keeps His word.

When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. How kind the Lord is!’ she exclaimed. ‘He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.’”

Luke 1:23-25, NLT

No one could look down on Elizabeth any longer. Not only did God make Zechariah and Elizabeth a father and mother; He made them a father and mother like Abraham and Sarah. How kind the Lord is!

And this child would have a special place in history. He would be the one who would prepare the way for the Lord, the one who would baptize the long-awaited Messiah, the one of whom Jesus would one day say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

God knew what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story would be all along, writing their story so much more beautifully than they possibly could. However, I’m sure it didn’t feel beautiful to Zechariah and Elizabeth as they navigated the many chapters of barrenness and abandoned prayers. But God didn’t stop writing their story when others declared it to be written. When the plot seemed to be at a standstill, everything changed. Their future would not be the quiet they anticipated and their past now had purpose they had never been able to see before. For them, it was as though God rewrote the story they thought they knew.

And for us…

God remembers the prayers we prayed long ago, the ones we gave up on and stopped praying, the ones that became too difficult to pray as the years went on and left us wounded. He remembers and does something more wonderful with them than we can imagine. 

God is kind even when prayers go unanswered, even when He delays, and even when His ways make no sense.

And God writes beautiful stories. If you feel like your story isn’t beautiful, just wait; God’s not done writing yet.

Gazing Upon the Wonderfulness of God

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wonderful

ADJECTIVE

Inspiring delight, pleasure, or admiration; extremely good; marvelous.

(from en.oxforddictionaries.com)

“One thing have I asked of the Lord,

that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord

and to inquire in his temple.”

Psalm 27:4, ESV

 I’m going to be completely honest: I ask God for a lot, but one thing I don’t find myself asking Him for is to dwell in His house all the days of my life. There’s something strange about that request for us simply because we’re temples of the Holy Spirit—we don’t have to ask to dwell in the house of the Lord because the Lord dwells in us. But still, my longing for God is nowhere near that of the psalmist’s, and it’s far too easy for me to take the presence of God for granted.

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