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Before a Word is on my Tongue

Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
Isaiah 65:24

A text interrupted Carrie mid-sentence.

You won’t believe this-that was from Tina. Her dad’s insurance just approved their request. The IV drip will be allowed at home.  

Seconds before the text, Cathy had shared a request from Tina. Tina’s father was medically fragile. He’d been diagnosed with pneumonia. Again. Him so weak, it likely meant another dreaded hospital stay.

So Tina asked us to pray. For her dad’s healing, yes, but more that insurance would approve IV antibiotics at home. Tina feared what long hospitalization might mean for his physical and spiritual health.

There it was. Just like that. 

Still. We were just at the pre-prayer share stage. Carrie was mid-stream in her request. We hadn’t even made it all the way around the circle yet.

Would insurance have approved the IV anywayDoes prayer work? Does God grant our requests because we ask?  And isn’t God’s will already determined? 

That little incident drew me back to C.S. Lewis’ essay, “The Efficacy Of Prayer.” You can read the full essay online here. All ten pages are pithy.

Lewis begins with this little illustration:

Some years ago I got up in the morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London.  So I decided to put the haircut off too.  But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help.  The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.  

It awed me; it awes me still. (p. 3) 

Lewis quickly concludes that there is no scientific way to tabulate the success rate of prayer.

But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayer and my visit…

Then he backtracks. The very question, “Does prayer work?” is framed all wrong, he says. As if prayer were magic or machine.

Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. In it God shows Himself to us. 

Petitionary prayer is, nonetheless, both allowed and commanded to us: “Give us our daily bread.” And no doubt it raises a theoretical problem. Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men?  For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents…

He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will. They have not advised or changed God’s mind–that is his over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures. (p. 9)

How unfathomable his ways; his purposes beyond searching out! A God who at once knows what you need before you ask, and at the same time tells us to ask. But, don’t tie the bow yet.

On Thursday morning we prayed another prayer. 

In one form or another, it’s a prayer we’ve been praying for years. We pray for pregnancies. For God to be pleased to open long-barren wombs. For Addy it’s been six years, Breanna; four. For Hope; two.

Lewis ends the essay with precious words for us whose requests are refused. While Tina’s request was granted-almost before it was off her tongue- ours is rejected. Are Tina, her dad, some of God’s favorites? Do they court more favor, have more influence at the Throne?

To that, Lewis answers,

The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But…as the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.” 

Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need…Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated.  (p. 10-11)

God grants our requests. Sometimes, while we are yet speaking. Sometimes He refuses. Breanna, Ally and Hope- each given one fruit of the womb, no more. That, after repeated prayers.

But the question triggered by Tina’s text- about the efficacy of prayer- what about that? Can we prove a thing would- or wouldn’t- have happened apart from our prayers?

We can’t. And it’s just as well.

For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course he will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them.  (p. 3)

Rest assured-in granting and refusing our prayers-He’ll withhold no good thing

Infinite goodness and infinite wisdom need no urging.

Still, He listens. 

But surely God has listened; 

He has attended to the voice of my prayer. 

Psalm 66:19

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Maui Surf & Draw-Near Fear

Oh, how abundant is your goodness,
which you have stored up for those who fear you
and worked for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of the children of mankind!

Psalm 31:19

There’s fear and then there’s fear.

Mom learned to swim when I did. She was in her thirty-one. I was six. Great was my puzzlement when I spotted my strong, capable mom clinging to the edge of the pool, face hovering over the surface of the shallow. Oh sure, I had butterflies when I first flopped off the high dive. But Mom–she was afraid to splash her face.

I learned more about the irrational fear since our mother-daughter lessons at the YWCA. Like how her own mother was terrified by water. Grandma wouldn’t even take her shoes off at the beach, if she’d even consent to go. Mom described how fear nearly came between her and Dad. Early in their courting, Dad took her to Mill Pond. It was all she could do to wade in to her ankles.

A little boogie boarding incident in Maui comes to mind, too. We’re not thrill seekers, not daredevils, Jim and I. We couldn’t surf to save our lives. But the allure of a white sand beach on a sunny Saturday morning is stronger than a Siren’s song.

Maui’s Ho’okipa Beach Park is world renown for surfing. We’d stowed the boogie boards from our condo closets and voila! It just so happened that some family friends were picnicking on the white sand beach. And that’s how we Wisconsinites got a free surfing lesson in the mighty Pacific.

So, tether your strap to your wrist first. Then lie down with your belly on the board and then paddle out where the waves are breaking. Once you find the wave you want to ride, kick and paddle hard ahead of it, until you catch the wave!  

Oh, and if you get stuck under one, don’t panic. Just hold your breath and you’ll come out of it. Just keep your wrist strap on, whatever happens. 

Fear of wave power had us tethered up before we were off the beach. Then we flopped ourselves down on the squat, foam boards and paddled out. With fearful trembling, and joyful hope, behind our surfer-dude guide.

Here are four key questions and answers about draw-near fear: 

1. What is the right fear of God?

A loving, drawing reverence you feel in the presence of great power. Right fear draws us near God. Wrong fear drives us from Him. It’s plunging into the Maui’s north shore well-instructed, tethered to your board. It’s not a paralyzing dread that keeps your face out of the YWCA pool.

It’s walking near the big loping dog that’s running at you, barking. It’s not high-tailing it away from the beast, chirping, Go home, go home, go home. I know. I tried it and the German Shepherd had my hamstring for lunch. I was afraid to get close.

Now I’m afraid not to. I don’t run from big dogs anymore. I still fear them running at me. But my fear holds me fast;  it doesn’t scare me away.

John Piper explains how this right fear of God draws us near Him:

If you are running from God because you are afraid of him, then you are not yet as afraid as you ought to be. In fact, your very flight is a mockery of God, presuming to think that you could outrun this German shepherd. If you really fear him and love your own life, stop running, turn around, and hug his neck for dear life, and he will lick your face. 

The fear of the Lord is fear of fleeing out of his fellowship into the way of sin. Therefore the fear of the Lord is full of peace and security and hope. It keeps us near to the merciful heart of God, our fortress, our refuge, our sanctuary, our shield, our sun. Isaiah 8:13 says, “The Lord of Hosts, . . . let him be your fear, and let him be your dread, and he will become a sanctuary.A proper fear of the Lord keeps us under the shadow of his wings where we need not be afraid.

It’s true for big dogs and big waves.  How much more with Almighty God!


2. What benefits come to those who fear the LORD?

Big, bountiful blessings.  Here are ten to whet your appetite for this blessed fear:

  1. God will confide in him. The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them. Ps. 25:14
  2. God will instruct him. Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose. Ps. 25:12
  3. God will watch over him. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Ps. 34:7
  4. God will have compassion on him. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; Ps. 103:1
  5. God will give him wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Prov. 1:7, Prov. 10:27, 14:25
  6. God will keep him safe from snares.  The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death. Prov. 14:27
  7. God will grant him prosperity. Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life. Prov. 22:4
  8. God will endorse her praise. Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fearthe Lord is to be praised. Prov. 31:30
  9. God will hear him. Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. Mal. 3:16
  10. God will be his sure foundation. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. Is 33:6

3. Can this draw-near fear be learned?

Yes.

4. How?

By knowing God better. By reading his Word. And obeying.
Deuteronomy 4:10 says,

Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days they live on the earth and that they may teach their children so.

And Deuteronomy 17:19 says,

And [the king] shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and doing them.

Jim chuckles, shakes his head whenever he recounts our Maui adventure.

Barnies on foamies were we. He-atop the Pipeline; I-beneath-inside the monster wave

Inside I held my breath, lungs beginning the burn; the strap still secure around my wrist. Finally, I burst into glorious light. And then my eyes set on Jim; gripping his board, and craning. What a grin, then, when our eyes met.

And we coasted in together onto white sand beach.

Such abundant goodness.


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Invisible Threads

A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.  

Proverbs 16:9  
Sometimes the clouds are rolled back.  Sometimes they descend. Hidden purposes are exposed. Like the webs I spotted on a foggy morning jog.  Unseen becomes seen. 

Sometimes we get to see invisible threads that lead. One thing to another. And when I am granted a glimpse, I worship. 

I caught a glimpse last Thursday night. 

It was already dark when we got home, parent-teacher conferences in the bag. My eyes lighted on a white envelope just inside the front door. 

THIS LETTER HAS BEEN 
MAILED FROM A 
WISCONSIN PRISON SYSTEM
JCI-HU STAFF

Who could this possibly be from? I wondered, lifting the envelope from the carpet.

A red rubber-stamp announced the mail was from Jackson Correctional Institute. Never heard of it. The handwritten name above the stamp was equally new. I wouldn’t know this man from Adam. 

 These girls were dropped in my lap. 

That’s exactly what I had told my girlfriends. 

A name dropped by one son led to “cold” call to Emily’s mom, which led to her and her sister, and her friend and her sister. Invisible threads. They’re not our neighbors. Honestly, they’re not really the boys’ friends. One had been a classmate. Somehow, Sam sensed she might make a good “Red Jewel 1” AWANA friend. 

She did. One year later, caravan’s full to capacity. 

I’d long dreamt, sometimes idolized, the quiver-full family. To need a van, or even a Suburban to pack all the kids in. My womb God had left empty-save one glorious nine months. But how He was filling my van. Invisible threads. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour, the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower. 

So with full heart, I’ve been carting the girls beside Sam and Gabe each week. To AWANA on Wednesday nights, then to Sunday school. Dropped in my lap by invisible threads. 

Now with a card from a convict, the clouds rolled. And God’s hidden purposes, invisible threads were exposed:

To Mrs. Wallace,

Thanks a million for going out of your way to take my precious grand-daughters to church for Sunday school and activities. 

Those girls have suffered a great deal of grief in the past few years. In 20–, their beloved uncle died unexpectedly. And in December of 20– I was sent to jail, and I may not be released for several years, and I maintain contact with __ and __ through phone calls and letters. They are sad that I am incarcerated because I helped raise them and they love me. 

This past J— my brother who was very close to __ and __ was tragically killed in a car crash on his way to visit them.  My whole family was shocked by the news of _’s death.

You have been a real blessing to my grand-daughters and __ during our time of grief. For whatever it’s worth, I really appreciate it immensely. 

God Bless You All 

That card is a precious gift. In it, God made His invisible threads visible. To see how my son’s hunch that-of all the kids in his class-“Emily might want to come to AWANA,” was connected to my out of the blue call to her mother and her friend’s father and all connected to a caring grandpa in jail.

Amazing how these connected threads lead; all sight unseen.  Until that card.

The card was a backstage glimpse. I cherish it as testimony to my loving, sovereign Lord. The Christ who made the blind to see, the deaf to hear is still working. He blesses the barren with a van-full and answer’s the prisoner’s prayer.

And I, too, am astonished beyond measure. With the crowds who saw him heal, I join and say, “He has done all things well.”

 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! 
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Romans 11:33