Why pray? Um …

When atheists try to argue against Christians or anyone of faith, the common tactic is to refer to praying as “talking to your imaginary friend in the sky”. It’s their way of ridiculing us lower-caste beings, who obviously don’t have the necessary life skills to survive on our own.

That would be all very well, except for one thing: praying works.

Praying to that “imaginary Friend” has worked for thousands upon thousands of years. It motivated Abraham to pack up and move to a new location, it carried the Hebrews through 400 years of slavery in Egypt, until eventually they were rescued through Divine works. People have been healed of all diseases through prayer; insights and correct directions have come through prayer; lives have been changed through prayer — either for the person praying or the one receiving the prayer.

PRAYER QUOTE

And yet, for thousands upon thousands of years, there have been non-believers who want to deny that. They might even point to times when it’s looked as though prayer hasn’t worked — that is, the times when someone prays for something specific and it hasn’t been granted. Then they laugh uproariously when someone suggests that this was a case of God saying “no,” “not yet,” or “why?”; or that people tied God’s hands by being overly specific.

(I like to recall the time, a dozen years ago, when I was working two part-time jobs — which added up to 1.5 full-time jobs — in order to meet my obligations. I was burning out. One day, I asked the Lord why other guys my age and younger were working less and making more and not living in a rooming house. He replied almost immediately: “What did you pray for?” I realized I had prayed for more work, because I felt I needed to justify my request. “And that’s what you got. Change your prayer and see what happens.” So I prayed for more income. And within a couple of months, He had moved me, rather forcibly, out of those two jobs and into one that came from a most unexpected source, that was a much better position, financially, and — as I liked to joke — helped support my “ministry habit”. As soon as I released God’s hands, He was able to do what He intended to do.)

So it works. You probably have a testimony of that in your own life, and no one can gainsay that. No one can deny your personal experience, and even if they try to dismiss it as “luck”, that’s your opportunity to praise God even more forcefully.

“Nope. That was God at work.”

“Ha. Why would He answer you?

“Because I asked.” mike drop 1

Probably all of us have heard the definition, attributed to Albert Einstein, of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, hoping to achieve a different result.

Denying God and denigrating those who pray to Him flies in the face of the truth. The God-deniers act like turning to the Lord is a fairly new thing, when all the evidence says differently. So maybe that definition of “insanity” applies — and not to you.

So keep praying and praising … because it works — and God loves it!

A crutch? Dang straight!

I started re-reading Deuteronomy last week, and I’m still only on Chapter 3 — I’m a slow reader, since my lips get tired easily.

(Pause for rimshot.)

But some points have leapt out at me through the reading — both of which I’ve written about: the fact that the “promised land” God has for each of us is “personalized” and that we’re not to “meddle” with anybody else’s, and the understanding that when He calls us to “kill” someone as punishment for their sins, He’s really talking to us: we are to kill “the old man (person)”, crucifying him with Christ so we can move forward in our lives.

And another point worth noting: we’re not expected to kill the “old person” with our own strength.

“And I [Moses] commanded Joshua at that time, saying, ‘Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so will the Lord do to all the kingdoms through which you pass.

“‘You must not fear them, for the Lord your God Himself fights for you.'”

— Deuteronomy 3:21-22

As we keep pressing forward in our lives, new temptations will present themselves. Earlier in that chapter, Moses refers to other kingdoms as “coming out to fight” with the Israelites. Repeatedly, the Israelites didn’t pick fights with them, and in fact tried to deal civilly with them — like asking to buy food and water from them. Some nations agreed; others refused. But the temptation is to deal with these temptations ourselves.

We can’t. It’s God who fights for us, because He wants us to win and He knows we can’t do it on our own strength. It’s His “outstretched hand and mighty arm” that carry the day. By asking Him for wisdom, we know how much we can do and how much we can say, “Jesus — You’ve got to do this for me.”

In North America, we’re in the midst of a drug crisis, with people dying of overdoses and taking “bad stuff” (indeed, any amount is an overdose), and through all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about the situation, it’s rare to hear anyone talk about turning to Jesus for help. Yet that’s a prime example of God fighting for us when this enemy comes out to meet us.

Of course, there are people who say that that sort of faith is a “crutch”, as if you lean on it because you’re weak. They’re absolutely right, and the smart person knows that there’s a crutch available. The implication is that there are two distinct “classes” of people: those who need God to get through life, and some sort of super-human class of people who are strong enough, smart enough, good enough, to do it on their own.

(Many of the people who would say that also argue for an “egalitarian” society, while at the same time, denying the ultimate egalitarianist (is that a word?). Go figure.)

We need to remember that Jesus is The Great Equalizer. In Him, we are all equally strong and able to overcome the enemy.

Something worth considering: when Moses describes the battles with the various kingdoms along the way, he describes how all the people were killed, but the Israelites took the spoil — the livestock and treasuries. In our own battles, it’s important to keep an eye out for the ways we benefit from the experience, such as the lessons learned and wisdom gained.

So let’s use that “crutch”. Let’s remember that it was given to us free-for-the-asking, and paid for with a price none of us could afford.

“Thou shalt not kill …” — except …???

A week ago, we were talking about our breakthroughs, and how we need to be careful not to usurp or appropriate someone else’s breakthrough as ours. The blessing someone else receives from God may look really good, and we might be tempted either to take it for ourselves or try to ride on its coat-tails, as it were, and catch some of the “spill” as the other person’s “cup runneth over”.

But just as the Israelites were warned not to “meddle” with the descendants of Esau and of Lot by trying to take their land — because God had made a promise to them, as well — we have to keep our eyes on our own blessing and breakthrough. Whatever God has for us is exactly what we need — and therefore should be exactly what we want.

But in their journey toward the Promised Land, the Israelites come across other nations and peoples that God instructed them to destroy — every man, woman, child, animal: everyone. In some cases, these nations had crossed God’s people; in others, they worshipped strange gods and idols.

People among the Israelites were marked for death, too: thieves, for example, or murderers, or witches. So does that mean we’re supposed to kill such people today, too?

Of course not. Not physically, anyway.

I believe that what needs to be killed is ourselves: that is, our selves. We kill the “old person” in us that worshipped wrong things, including money, our own flesh, things of the world.

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin

— Romans 6:5-7

In some of the cases, we kill them ourselves — which works as long as you let Jesus keep them buried: beware that, in your pride at having “conquered” the enemy, it’s tempting to think that the job is done and you can “take it from here”. That’s exactly when the enemy can slope back in and get you to take one more shot.

It’s more effective to let the things of the world die a natural death as we draw closer to God through Jesus. Those things get starved of the spiritual “nutrition” that we’d been feeding them in our pre-Christ days and drop off like a dead branch.

And what about the sins we see in others — the things God told Moses would be punishable by death? In the new covenant, sin is still sin, but our job is not to judge and condemn people — as I’ve said before, if Jesus didn’t do it, we certainly can’t; our job is to point people towards Christ, to tell them about the best way — the only way.

Witches, thieves, murderers … they, too, are children of God, and the only difference between them and us is, they haven’t met Jesus yet. We get to make the introduction. And in so doing, we “kill” the things God calls on His people to kill.

The ultimate anti-discriminator!

The post I wrote on Tuesday last reminded me of another aspect of God’s blessings, provision and promise. He’ll bless anybody. 

To recap: when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, preparing to claim the Promised Land as theirs, they were warned not to “meddle with” the descendants of Lot or the descendants of Esau (Deuteronomy 2). God had promised particular land and blessing to them, and the Israelites were instructed to focus on their own promise, and that alone.

And they’re not the only non-Israelites that God promises to bless.

“And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”

— Genesis 17:20

Yes, Ishmael: the one God also declared would be constantly at war with other nations (Genesis 16:12), from whom today’s Muslims have come. God may have established His covenant with Isaac — who was born to Abraham and his wife, Sarah — but that’s not the limit of His promise and provision.

God doesn’t discriminate — as Peter found out, He is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) — and will show Himself to anyone, anywhere, using whatever means possible. (Have a listen to this sermon, where we see how God uses any means necessary — including sending messages via a “forbidden channel” — to get His message out.)

That’s why it’s all the more important to focus on the blessing and promise God has for us, individually, and not meddle with someone else and their promise. That includes, don’t meddle with the Muslims and their promise. If we do that, we’re interfering with The Big Sir, and that never ends well.

And, for good measure, since the other sets of descendants — from Lot and Esau — have dispersed and intermarried and are spread all over the world, best not to meddle with anybody else, either. Love them and be welcoming, pray for and with them: try to interfere with their blessing from God — no.

We don’t know all of what God has in mind for us, except that, if we believe what He told Jeremiah (“I know the thoughts I have for you … thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope”), it’s going to be GOOD. And since God is no respecter of persons, that same promise can apply to others, regardless of whether we agree with them, or particularly like them.

When in doubt, love.

Thankfulness with a quarter-full glass

After yesterday’s post (see yesterday’s post), one word has kept coming back to me.

Thanks.

Thankfulness is the thing that stood out for John after Jesus fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fish: he wrote later about “the place where they ate bread after the Lord had given thanks” (John 6:23) — note: not “the place where Jesus performed a miracle”.

Thanking God is the trigger that allows Him to do what He intends to do. It’s not a sarcastic, “Thanks for nothing, pal” crack: it’s an acknowledgement that He has something big going down and ultimately, we’ll see what it is and that it is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). When we do that, we get on His side, thereby ensuring that we get to experience that “very good” for ourselves. When we look at what we lack, rather than what we have, we take our eyes off God and we wind up getting exactly what we can see — and no more.

Think of it not as the “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” concept … more like looking at a glass that’s three-quarters empty and declaring it one-quarter full, with lots of room for more.

“I say the glass ain’t big enough!”

— Jesse Duplantis

Thanking God acknowledges that what we have in front of us is a mere fraction of what He can do for us, and in doing so, we place “the rest of it” in His hands. We acknowledge that we can only do so much, and we have to rely on Him to carry us through.

Thanking God acknowledges that His will is greater than our world.

Yesterday, we talked about counting our blessings — all the ways God has come through for us, even when we haven’t realized He was the one doing it. Part and parcel of that is thanking Him for those blessings.

It’s a supreme gesture of faith to thank God before the fact.

But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

— Hebrews 11:6

As it’s written often, it’s easy to thank God for things He’s done that we can already see: thanking Him for His works that we haven’t seen yet? Not so much. But stick with it. Look at what you have and can see as a “down payment” from God on what He plans to do, thank Him for what He’s about to do, and give Him the glory when you can finally see it — whatever it is.

Your blessings count! So …

Count your blessings / Name them one by one,

Count your blessings / See what God has done

— old Gospel favorite

“Count your blessings.”

That can sound so dismissive, don’t you think? You’re going through a rough patch the size of the Bonneville salt flats, you try to tell someone about it, and they tell you, “Count your blessings.”

Translation: “sucks to be you; think of all the people who are in worse shape than you are and don’t bother me.”

But when you’re going through a tough time, counting your blessings is the best antidote. See, the devil wants you to focus on how bad things are, and besides, it can be soothing to wallow in your own mud for a while and have someone say, “You poor thing”. But that can become a habit, a perverse kind of pleasure. For a while. Then nobody wants you around, and somebody will invariably blow you off by saying, “Agh – count yer blessings!”

But counting your blessings does two things. One, it tells the devil you’re not going to play his game. Two, it reminds you that God has had your back so far, and He’s not stopping now. The Book of Deuteronomy is a great example of counting your blessings, as Moses re-capped the forty-year trek through the wilderness and the way God led them and provided for them every step of the way.

The Apostle Stephen, making his case before the religious leaders — and before they stoned him to death — recapped Jewish history and the ways that God provided for His people and prophesied the coming of Christ: he was counting everyone’s blessings at that point.

Indeed, it’s written that Stephen fell asleep as the crowd rushed him (Acts 7:60), so he didn’t feel the pain of the stoning. That’s an extreme, but not unattainable, effect of looking at what God has done when circumstances try to break you.

Counting your blessings — dwelling on God’s goodness towards you, personally — is the equivalent of Daniel’s faith, sitting in the den of lions. It’s Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, threatened with the fiery furnace, standing up to Nebuchadnezzar and saying, “But if not … we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:18)

Can you count your blessings? Are you breathing? That’s one. Is your heart beating? That’s two. Look at all the times a situation broke “your” way; or better yet, when the situation didn’t go your way, but you learned from it – or discovered later that it could have been a lot worse if it had.

Counting your blessings means you know that God loves you so much, He won’t hang you out to dry.

Counting your blessings means you’re willing to look beyond your current situation and look for what God’s up to.

“Count your blessings.” It can sound dismissive, yes, but it’s exactly the tonic we need.

Your blessings count – so count ’em!

Messages from the Lord

solar-eclipse-august-2017It got a little freaky, Monday morning, here on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. We’re 300 miles north of the path of totality, and I understand we got 90% of the solar eclipse. Things darkened to the point where I nearly had to turn on the light indoors, but you could still see blue sky and sunshine. What was really freaky was that all the birds fell silent. Ordinarily, this place is, to paraphrase Yeats, “bird-loud”, but for about twenty minutes, everything was still. In fact, one of the cues that the eclipse was over was that the birds started chirping again.

Many people look at phenomena like eclipses in a supernatural light, and the one that occurred as Jesus died on the Cross was Just Too Coincidental. One radio host suggested* that Monday’s eclipse was a message from God, representative of the hold Satan has on the earth.

He then springboarded from that thought into some thoughts on darkness and evil in the world. But if you want to look for a message from God in the eclipse, I think there is one to be found. It goes like this:

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King Canute’s claim that he could command the waves didn’t hold water — and in fact, neither could he.

In the midst of all our intellectual gymnastics, trying to create our own reality, from sexuality to the time and manner in which we die, God reminds us that we can’t control everything — and when we get right down to it, the only things we can control are our own choices. We couldn’t control the orbits of the moon and the sun any more than King Canute could order the tide to behave itself.**

That’s not as harsh a message as that might sound. Think of it as a reminder – a gentle nudge. After all, astronomers were able to predict when the eclipse would happen and where the path of totality would run. God doesn’t do anything without informing us, one way or another. Think of it as a kind reminder that He’s told us about all sorts of things to come, and if we draw near to Him, we’ll find out what else to expect and be protected from any ill effects.

IMG_20170822_070836_hdrIt’s another message from the Lord in the same manner as this gentle reminder from our garden. The flowers are blooming, the bees are buzzing, birds are procreating, fruits and vegetables are growing magnificently, in spite of the craziness going on in our society.

And God said, “I’m still here!”

Which is a pretty darn nice message from The Big Sir, dontcha think?

One more thing: maybe there is an allegory in the eclipse, at that. The moon crossed in front of the sun and turned daytime into night. But then it moved on. And the sun kept shining. Darkness is a passing thing, and cannot overpower the light.

 


*Just because I include a link to another viewpoint doesn’t necessarily mean I endorse it. Just sayin’.

**Fun fact: the jury appears to be out as to what Canute was playing at. One group of historians says it was a case of regal hubris gone bad — that Canute was trying to prove he was mightier than God; but another group cites a 12th-Century work to say that because he wasn’t able to hold back the tide, he refused to wear his crown from then on, saying he wasn’t worthy of it. Instead, he placed it on an icon of Jesus — the true King of Kings.

Your own breakthrough

Coming to Christ, finding redemption, renewal and new life in Him, is our own personal journey to the Promised Land. We go through our “Egypt”, experience darkness and a sense of frustration and unfairness; then we wander in the wilderness for what seems like ages, taking wrong turns, trying to stay with God; and then at last, we reach that time of breakthrough that God promises us.

One thing to bear in mind, though: make sure it’s your breakthrough. As Moses bids farewell to the Israelites — he knows his time is drawing near and he won’t be going with them into the land God promised them — he tells them this:

“And the Lord spoke to me, saying: ‘You have skirted this mountain long enough; turn northward. And command the people, saying, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.”‘”

— Deuteronomy 2:2-5

[Moses continues,] “‘And when you come near the people of Ammon, do not harass them or meddle with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot as a possession.'”

— Deuteronomy 2:19

When we run into trouble in our world — ordinary, everyday trouble, like your car has thrown a piston or you’ve fallen into a well — and someone helps you, we humans have a tendency to say, “Thanks – I’ll take it from here”, when we reach a point where we figure we know how to finish the job. It can be that way, too, when God rescues us from a bad situation, including our entire life. Whether we figure we’ve “got it” and can handle things ourselves, or we “don’t want to bother God any more,” we often want to say, “I’ll take it from here”.

We can, for example, stop our salvation journey at a point where we think God wants us to be — but it’s really not where He wants us, and, worse, it’s something He’s promised to someone else.

Here’s something to consider: the peoples to whom God had promised those other lands are peoples who one might not think “deserved” favor from God. Mount Seir was given to the descendants of Esau, and didn’t God say, “Esau I have hated”? (I’m given to understand that “hate”, in this context, has a connotation of “reject” rather than “loathe” or “intensely dislike”.) After all, Esau “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34) when he sold it to his brother, Jacob, for a bowl of stew; he also lacked the wisdom and guile to guard against Jacob usurping their father’s blessing (Genesis 29-30).

As for Lot’s descendants, they were born out of incest, when, after Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed and Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, Lot’s two daughters conspired to “preserve their father’s seed” by getting pregnant by him (Genesis 19:31-36).

But God provided for them, even to the extent that the Israelites were to buy food and water from Esau’s people. So you will see that others have reached a Promised Land of their own. It looks really good and you could be tempted to think that’s what God has in mind for you, too, at which point you might be tempted to say, “Thanks, God – I’ll take it from here.” That’s when you draw closer to Him and remember that He has your own special Promised Land that’s yours and yours alone: specially made and set aside for the person He means you to be.

As we continue our walk with Jesus and we grow in the Lord, let’s remember that there is no point at which we can stop, until and unless God tells us to. I can tell you from experience that there were a number of times when I thought I’d landed where He wanted me to be, only to be picked up and moved out and put someplace else — a place where I was supposed to be.

It can seem confusing, but since God is not the author of confusion but of peace, confusion can give way to fascination, as you discover where He’s going to lead you next.

Following the follower

Now there was a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called benefactors. 

“But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.

— Luke 22:24-27

The next time you vote in an election, you might want to ask yourself this: which of the candidates is a servant? Which ones show up at community meetings and listen, then act on what they have heard? Which ones walk in an attitude of love towards others — even their opponents? Which are willing to “wash the feet” of the people?

And which ones simply push their own platform and “say what it takes” to crush their opponent and get a majority on their side?

Jesus calls on us to re-think our attitude towards leadership. He notes that leaders in “the world” — the Gentiles — are out to control people; then they act as if they’re doing everyone a favor. But in Jesus’ plan, the leaders are the ones who make the people they lead to be greater than they are.

This doesn’t mean that a leader shouldn’t have goals and a vision for whatever he or she is leading — Jesus had a goal and a vision, Himself, but His way of achieving it was different from leaders in “the world”. (I was blessed to have worked for two managers who had servants’ hearts. Alas, these were followed by two straight managers who were nightmarish control freaks. The department — and the organization — thrived under the first two; under the next pair, not so much.)

And there’s more to it than that.

But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

— Luke 22:28-30

That last bit was directed specifically to His disciples — the Apostles — but the rest of it can apply to us. Those who follow Jesus — continuing in His trials, albeit by proxy — have a leadership opportunity that carries a reward far greater than anything the world has to offer.

Keep this in mind. One of the twelve He was speaking to did not get his throne. He decided that the Kingdom was highly overrated. And look what happened to him.

Take a look around: what leaders do you see, whose words and deeds are exhibiting servant’s heart? The servant’s heart may not be obvious in campaign rhetoric or platforms or policy papers, but you can tell from their attitude or the things they say and do when the microphones are off and the cameras are turned away. It’s something to hold in your heart, whenever you go into the polling booth. It’s also something to consider when you apply for a job, or when you consider a leadership position, yourself.

Most importantly, an awareness of the servant’s heart is another “tool in the toolbox” for you as you pray for situations around the world and in your own backyard, as well as for “kings and all who are in authority” (1 Timothy 2:2) — regardless of that leader’s politics, or where their heart really is.

The God-given task – a matter of timing

Another aspect of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner is that, while he pays workers the same amount at the end of the day regardless of when he hired them, he also has spent the day going out and hiring more workers. He hires them at 9am, noon, 3 and 5pm.

How many workers does he need?

That’s the thing about the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s economy: God needs as many workers as He can get. As Jesus says, “the harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2).

But while the 7am hires — the ones who complained that the 5pm guys were getting the same compensation as they were — looked at when the others started to work, it’s the vineyard owner who called them at certain times.

That’s how God looks at us. He calls us at particular times in our individual lives, corresponding to our experience, our abilities and our willingness to work. It’s not about when we decide to get in line: it’s about when we’re called.

I believe that doesn’t just apply to the time that we’re called in our lives: I believe that also applies to the time that we’re called in history. 

Look at the weirdness around us: people trying to create their own reality (do you blame them?), people dying from drug use, deep social divisions that have gone beyond “celebrate diversity” and into violent battles.

And this is the time that you were born into. No matter your age, background, social stratum, place of residence or work, God has put you into this time. He has called you at this hour of His “day” and you get to work in His vineyard.

I’ve heard some people calling for a return to “the early Church”, but could we really handle that? Could we handle the physical persecution — the stonings, beheadings, crucifixions — that Paul, Peter, James and John endured? Conversely, I’m willing to bet that they couldn’t have faced today’s weirdness.

People are called by God at certain times in their lives and at certain times in history because that’s when God needs them to step up to the plate. He has given us the gifts and the determination that we need; He supplies the strength, the words and the opportunity. Paul was called when it was his time; St Francis of Assisi was called at his time; so were Martin Luther, the Wesley brothers, AB Simpson, Aimee Semple McPherson, Corrie ten Boom, Martin Luther King … your own Pastor …

You.

Our job is to spread the Gospel. Shine light on people’s lives and introduce them to Jesus Christ. Love people. Reach out, regardless of whether we agree with their lifestyle, politics or current choice of religion.

non-believer

And above all, give God the glory in all things. Credit Him for the good stuff in your life and let people see that when things go wrong, you still turn to Him and worship Him.

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

— Matthew 5:16