Free to Pray

Today, the United States will celebrate our “Independence Day.” Two hundred forty-six years ago, fifty-six men pledged their lives and fortunes by signing a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the rule of its king, George III.

We talk a lot about freedom and independence on this day. For many, it is a bittersweet reminder that not all Americans were “free” during the first decades of our existence as a nation. For others, it serves as a rallying point to urge for further movement toward freedom from tradition and restraint. We talk of freedom and independence as though the terms are interchangeable…as if the only way to understand freedom is in the context of independence from someone or something else. We want to be free from the constraints of tyrants, oppressive bosses, or prudish parents. But freedom from something implies freedom to do or become something else.

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In the case of our fledgling nation, freedom from the British Empire meant the freedom to create a new nation– not just to modify an old national identity, but to create a new identity; to have a new “birth” of freedom. Freedom from oppressive rule does not eliminate the need for restraint and responsibility. Indeed, it creates a great need to define limits and practice self-discipline. Total freedom– without boundaries, rules, or responsibilities– leads to its own destruction.

A few years after the Declaration of Independence, once “freedom” had been won by long years of war and the sacrifice of many soldiers and their families, some of the same men were joined by others to draft a national Constitution. Almost immediately, the Constitution was amended to include a Bill of Rights, outlining certain Freedoms which had been implicit, but were now spelled out for all to uphold. The very first of these rights covered the freedom of expression– both in speech, and in worship.

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Americans have the freedom to speak. We can speak publicly about our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs– without the fear of imprisonment or government retaliation. We can write or post blogs, regardless of whether others agree with us, or like what we have to say. This is an incredible freedom– I can create novels or poetry; I can recite speeches or create persuasive advertising; I can talk for hours about nothing at all! But it also comes with responsibility– I could write falsehoods about my competitors, or speak out disparagingly about a neighbor. I could do great damage with my words. My neighbor or competitor might take me to court and sue me for libel or defamation, but the damage would already be done.

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Americans also have the right to religious expression. Our Supreme Court recently upheld the right of a high school football coach to say a prayer on the football field after a game. Americans can assemble for worship, whether in a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or an open field. We can pray– aloud, in a group, over a loudspeaker, even–and the Government cannot legislate that only “approved” prayers are allowed. This might make a few people squirm– Wiccans, Baptists, Scientologists, Hassidic Jews, Shi’ites, Druids, and Satanists ALL have this right. But each of us has the responsibility to respect the rights of all to pray.

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But that brings me to this point– we have the freedom to pray under the Constitution, but that freedom means nothing to the Christian without the greater Freedom to Pray granted by God Himself. Anyone can offer a prayer to empty air, to a created idol, to a metaphysical “being”–but governments cannot give us the freedom to be HEARD, to be WELCOMED into the presence of the Almighty. Only God gives that freedom– and He gives it to ALL who seek His face! I don’t have to be an American to pray. I don’t have to be given the legal right to pour out my heart to my Heavenly Father– HE invites me to pray. All I need is the belief that God hears and responds to my prayer– even a silent one delivered in peril of Government retaliation. God’s invitation is more powerful than any oppression that seeks to stop me from calling on His Name!

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God took great pains to illustrate this in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. God took a “nation” of slaves out of Egypt, and led them through the wilderness and into their own inheritance in the Promised Land. They had the freedom to pray, and to worship this Great God. But over the years, they lost that freedom, and ended up going into exile, slaves to the pagan nations around them. Yet God remained faithful, hearing their prayers even from the nations where they enslaved. God’s promises and His invitations remain, regardless of the rise and fall of Empires or religious movements.

So today, especially in light of my right as an American to pray freely and publicly, I want to challenge myself, and anyone reading this to spend time today in earnest prayer and thanksgiving. What a privilege to be “Free” to pray!

His Banner Over Me is Love

Tomorrow is Flag Day in the United States– a day in which we honor our nation’s flag and all for which it stands. It is an odd holiday in a sense; most countries have a national day of celebration, but not a whole day just to celebrate their flag. We already have an day to celebrate our Independence, and days to honor the sacrifices of soldiers or the dates of famous military victories in our history. Why should we spend a day honoring our flag. Isn’t that arrogant? Isn’t it taking nationalism a bit too far?

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Flags and banners are important to us. They are a visual representation of an idea or a series of ideas–“America,” perhaps, but also, “Freedom,” “Loyalty,” “Sacrifice,” “Honor,” “Bravery,” etc. We have national flags, state flags, organizational flags, family crests, even sports team flags and mascots. Flags can be used to rally troupes and inspire citizens, signify commitment to a cause or nationality, show pride or loyalty, and represent ideals held by those in a group. Colors, shapes, stripes, animals or plants, stars, shields, letters or single words– all represent something important or noble to those who see them on a flag or banner. And there is no real point to having a flag if you are never going to display it or let it fly high for all to see.

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In the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) the bride tells that her lover has brought her to a house of feasting, and that “his banner over me is love.” (Song of Solomon 2:4) The Song is an allegory that can be seen as Christ and His Church. Christ also has a banner–and it is Love–not the romantic love of the Song, but everlasting and limitless love! His Love rallies us, unites us, inspires us, and leads us. When we look for a symbol of who Christ is (and what the Church should be) we use a flag of white with a cross symbol in red on a blue (or sometimes purple) background for the corner. The white represents Christ’s purity, and the pure white robes that will be given to His saints. The blue/purple represents Christ’s majesty and authority. The red of the cross is a reminder of the blood He shed on Calvary’s cross.

Banners and flags are important. But we don’t need a flag or banner to represent Christ’s love– WE are to be His banner for the world. The world should be able to look at us and see a reflection of the limitless and unconditional Love of Christ in the way we speak and interact with others, and the way we live our lives.

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Today (and tomorrow) when we happen to see a flag, let us remember that we are Christ’s ambassadors– we do more than just absorb God’s love– we are to reflect it, and be living symbols of God’s great love for the World. We should be visible testimonies that God’s love is all-important, and available to all! May that be more than just a prayer– may it be our earnest pursuit every day.

Building Walls

I’ve been reading in the book of Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem may strike a discordant note in today’s Western culture. Back in ancient times, most cities were enclosed with high walls. This kept invaders out, and gave protection and a sense of identity to those who lived within. Today, we have cities spilling into other cities in sprawling metroplexes. We have trains, buses, and airplanes constantly shuttling between cities. Walled cities are not practical. Even the borders between nations have become porous and flexible (except during times of war or distress!) It can be difficult for modern readers to share Nehemiah’s distress at the state of Jerusalem’s wall, or his passion to see the walls rebuilt. After all, Jerusalem was a conquered city, being ruled by foreigners–the invaders had already gotten in! The project seems to us like a waste of time, materials, and energy. Even in his own day, the project seemed problematic, and Nehemiah faced resistance on many fronts.

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Yet God put it upon Nehemiah’s heart to do this; He answered Nehemiah’s plea to soften the King’s heart, and provided Nehemiah with an abundance of materials and even protection for the journey. It seems as though it was important to God that these walls were rebuilt. Why? How does God feel about walls, anyway? Did He not give Joshua great victory by making the walls of Jericho collapse? Does He not command the Israelites to welcome and be kind to foreigners? Did the Apostle Paul not say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Galatians 3:28 ESV)? How do walls fit in with God’s plan for our lives?

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Part of our confusion may lie in our understanding of walls in ancient cities. We know they provided protection from invading armies, but they did much more–and they represent much more in the Bible. Walls not only provided protection to ancient cities– they provided structure and definition. Walls kept strangers out, but they also had a series of gates to let people come and go in an orderly fashion. There were gates used for commerce, gates that served ceremonial functions, gates that smoothed travel through the city, and even gates that were mostly used to transport garbage and dung outside of the city.

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Walls and gates also gave a sense of identity to people in and around the cities– some people lived close to (even in or on) the city walls. All those who lived within the city “belonged” to that city– and those who lived and farmed close by could claim the protection of the city walls in times of danger– whether from siege or natural disasters. They could also expect the city dwellers to be a ready market for their products or services. Travelers and traders could expect to be safe inside the walls of a friendly city– such protection could not be found on the open road, nor in many smaller towns. Cities tended to have more public services, better systems of laws and more stable economies. Walls could help control the flow of commerce, ideas, and loyalties.

Just before the book of Nehemiah is the book of Ezra. Ezra was a priest and historian who also traveled to the fallen city of Jerusalem. His mission was to help rebuild the Temple, and to make sure the priests were purified and re-establishing the Jewish religious practices after years of exile. At the end of the book of Ezra, it is discovered that many of the returning exiles have broken the Jewish laws by intermarrying with foreign women, and “adding” idol worship and pagan practices to their worship of the One True God. The city –and all of its structure and identity–had been destroyed; the Temple and the Walls were gone, and the area was open to all the peoples and practices of the surrounding cultures. Over time, even the priests had become defiled, no longer obeying, or even knowing, their own laws and customs! It is in this context that Nehemiah’s book begins to make more sense.

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God is concerned about the “walls” in our lives– boundaries in our behavior and worship. Some walls may need to crumble and fall like those of Jericho– walls that keep us locked away, smug and proud, defiant and unapproachable. Walls that create barriers without providing protection or shelter. Walls that stand in the way of God’s authority in our lives. Other walls may need to be strengthened and rebuilt– walls pocked with compromises that have eroded our commitments; unguarded gates where lies and confusion have stolen in and weakened our faith; areas where the pressures and stresses of life have chipped away at the building blocks of our Christian walk.

In the very first chapter of Nehemiah’s book, there is a prayer– it is not about rebuilding a wall for power or protection–it doesn’t even mention the wall– rather it is about repentance, restoration, and recommitment:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.  We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.  Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Nehemiah 1: 1b-11 NIV
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May we be willing to pray for the walls in our lives– those that need to come down, and those that need to be rebuilt!

We the People

Yesterday and today mark two important milestones in North America. September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, and September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States. On these days, people in our two countries celebrate some of the great things that can be accomplished by “we the people.” The founders of our nations were not perfect, but they fought and worked and came together to make “a more perfect union,” and a brighter future for their citizens.

All around the world, governments are instituted to protect the rights and lives of people– to protect them from danger, to allow them to interact in peace and safety, and to provide for “the general welfare” of all. But governments– even the best–are run by fallible people.

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The Bible tells a long and complex story of the ancient nation of Israel. Tracing its origins to a single patriarch (Abraham), the family grew to be a powerful nation, ruled first by priests and judges, and then by a series of kings. The nation split into two distinct countries, before being scattered and sent into exile. The story of the nation is chronicled (literally) in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. In the books of the prophets, the same message comes from God again and again–Israel and Judah have both fallen into the same idolatry and corruption that doomed the nations they had conquered in former times. Instead of seeking justice for all the people, and providing order and protection, the leaders had become drunkards, liars, thieves, and murderers. They betrayed their allies, made foolish treaties, oppressed the poor and helpless, and celebrated their own cleverness. “We the People” had devolved into “us versus them.” Worship of God had been replaced by worship of a pantheon of foreign gods–worship that involved ritual prostitution and human sacrifice. Family members and fellow citizens were sold into slavery, robbed and beaten, used and abused, and slaughtered–without remorse or fear of retribution. God’s warnings were followed by His justice and punishment, and the demise of both nations, as well as punishment for their neighbors.

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Israel’s story, while very detailed, isn’t unique in history. Instead, it is a case study of what can happen when the people abandon unity and the rule of law for division and corruption. It is what happens when “who we are” becomes more important than “whose” we are; when “we” are more important than anyone else–even God. Israel and Judah continued to be religious right up to the point where they were dragged off to exile. They brought offerings and sacrifices, sang songs, prayed, and memorized scripture. Their leaders assured them that God would protect them and continue to let them prosper as their enemies marched up to the gates of Jerusalem. They had not abandoned the worship of God– they had just added idolatry to it. They worshipped their own prosperity, they worshipped gods and goddesses of the harvest, of war, of wealth, and wisdom. They still thought God was great– but not necessarily Sovereign.

Who or what are we worshipping today? What “new” and additional principles have we added to our own Constitution? To the laws of the land? To our way of being good citizens in our respective countries? To the eternal Word of God? When we hear the phrase, “We the People,” does it bring to mind people who look and live differently than us? Does it bring thoughts of justice and unity? Does it humble us?

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King David, the second, and one of the greatest of Israel’s kings wrote: “Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100:3 NKJV) “We the People,” by ourselves, will scatter and fall into destruction, like sheep without a shepherd.

Praying for Nebraska

Before I get started, I want to assure anyone reading this that there is no disaster in Nebraska (that I know of). No mass shooting, no tornado touchdown, no flooding or extreme drought…as far as I am aware, Nebraska is as it ever was.

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But yesterday was my “day” to pray for Nebraska. I keep a journal– a home made set of notebooks with pages for each day of the calendar year. Every day, I pray for a geographical region– a city, state, nation, continent, ocean, etc. I also pray for people who are celebrating a birthday or anniversary (among those known to me), and people facing special circumstances (as I am made aware of them–upcoming surgeries, recent losses of family members, unspoken requests..) Throughout the day, there may be other requests, and there are web sites and other prayer opportunities that don’t make it into my journal. And there may be a day this autumn when Nebraska will feature in my prayers because there IS a disaster, or some other concern arises there.

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Keeping a prayer journal doesn’t make me a “better” person. It doesn’t cover every prayer concern, or even every person I know and care for. My mind cannot hold every person, place, and situation that needs prayer on any given day. But a journal is a handy reminder to pray for people and places that are dear to the heart of God– not because they are in crisis (though we should lift up crisis areas, too)–but because He cares for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Keeping a journal doesn’t make me a better person; but it can make me a better pray-er. It reminds me that God is bigger than I can imagine, and His love is more powerful and everlasting than I can comprehend.

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Another benefit of keeping a journal is that I have space to write in answers to prayer, questions, random thoughts– and come back to reminders of God’s faithfulness over the seasons and years. Because I use home made notebooks, I keep them for about three years at a time. This also gives me the opportunity to update and make changes. Last time, I added Catalonia to my list of countries, and I’ve added several new birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve also begun keeping track of deaths, because I can pray for those who may be grieving the anniversary of a loved one’s loss.

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If you would like more information and suggestions on keeping a prayer journal, there are several suggestions, web sites, pre-printed journals for sale, and I have a page here Prayer Journal with some thoughts.

Now, I have to sign off and pray for the Netherlands!

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