Commissioned Prayer

Have you ever been part of something– some project or task– SO monumental and far-reaching that you wonder whether your efforts made any difference? Did you end up with “grunt” work– a seemingly insignificant part of the larger project that left you with lots of questions and very few (or no) answers? Something so tiny that most people would never even know if you did it?

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A couple of years ago, I took a temporary job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. I was part of a vast team of workers who conducted “follow-up” visits, mostly to addresses that had not responded by April 1. I was excited, and a bit apprehensive; after all, the Census is a pretty big deal. These names and numbers will be part of our nation’s collective history. As someone who loves doing genealogy, the Census is invaluable for discovering information about my family history– names, ages, locations, occupations, origins and ethnicities, and so much more can be learned from Census records.

However, I soon discovered that most of my job consisted of traveling to out-of-the-way locations, and knocking on the doors of empty houses, or trying to find addresses that no longer existed. “Non-response follow-up” usually involves checking on rentals, second homes, vacation homes, and homes that have been vacated, condemned, or even demolished in the years since the previous census. It is a lonely and often frustrating exercise in trying to find what “isn’t,” rather than counting what “is.” Each day, I was given a new list of locations (including some I had already visited without success). But I was commissioned by the U.S. Government to trace each address on that list to the best of my ability, and, wherever possible, to get information about anyone who might have been in residence at that location on April 1.

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Sometimes, I was able to get an interview, and document names and ages, or correct information that had been collected earlier. But much of what I did will never be included in the final Census report for 2020. My name will not appear and I will receive no recognition for my efforts(unless as a footnote with the thousands of others who did the same thing). I did get paid for my work, for the time I spent traveling and knocking on doors. And some interviews were not just fruitless, but bordered on abusive. Homeowners were annoyed, or even outraged when I showed up. They had sent in their Census form– for their primary address! Worse yet, there were some times when I showed up after ANOTHER enumerator had come– I had been sent to follow-up on the follow-up! But I was under strict orders about where to go, when to go, what to say (or not say), how to report on each interview (or non-interview). I was under a commission. I took an oath, and I followed orders, just like being commissioned in the military. Looking back, I feel good about the experience. I served my country, and I learned a great deal about the local geography, AND about human nature. For every cranky homeowner, there were others who were friendly and helpful. At the time, though, I often felt drained and dazed at the end of a shift.

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As Christians, we are also commissioned. We are to go into all the world and preach the gospel, making disciples of every nation, teaching and baptizing, and being witnesses for Christ. (Matthew 28:16-20/Mark 16:15-18, etc.) Our commission is not to force everyone around us to become Christians, or to demand that they respect us or our message (that is the work of the Holy Spirit– our job is to go and to be witnesses, disciple-makers, teachers, encouragers, and helpers). And part of our commission is to pray–fervently and consistently– to pray for our nation and its government officials (1 Timothy 2: 1-2); to pray for believers around the world, especially for those under persecution (Hebrews 13:3), to pray for those who persecute, ridicule, or despise us (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44), to pray for, and interact with grace toward, those who have rejected Christ (Colossians 4:5-6), to pray for the healing and restoration of others (James 5:13-20).

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At times, we may not feel like praying for certain people or situations. We may not understand why God allows for corruption in our government or for neighbors to mock our faith or treat us unfairly. We may not understand why some of our prayers seem to be more about what “isn’t” that about what is. We may not understand why God sends us, where God sends us, or when God sends us to go, to act, and to pray. But God IS listening. He knows our every thought, and He sees every need– not just our needs, but the broader needs of our community and our world. May we be faithful with the commission we have been given. It’s a much bigger deal than any Census!

If You Only Knew…

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)
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The Pharisees in the New Testament seem to spend a lot of time judging and criticizing everyone. They rail at Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, they grumble about His disciples not following the ritual hand-washing customs, and they are constantly critical of Jesus for “hanging out” with sinners and undesirables. We shake our heads and lament how narrow-minded they were. But I have to wonder what would happen in today’s world if Jesus were walking among us today. Would He “hang out” at our churches? Would He praise those who spend their time pointing out the hypocrisy of others? Would He be a “social justice” warrior?

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Many of Jesus’s miracles were done quietly and without pretense. No one criticized “what” Jesus was doing. No one said, “you shouldn’t be healing people,” or, “how dare you turn water into wine.” Instead, they criticized “how” Jesus did His miracles and what He said about Himself, others, and God. In the book of Luke, we have a story that doesn’t even involve a miracle. Jesus was invited to be the guest of a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t turn down the invitation. He didn’t start out criticizing the host or the food. But when a woman crashed the party– a woman known all around town for her sinful ways–and made a scene, Jesus didn’t recoil in horror, order her to leave, or stop her from making a fool of herself. The Pharisee, believing that he had “unmasked” Jesus as a charlatan, concluded that Jesus didn’t “know” what sort of woman she was. But Jesus, breaking His silence, ended up “unmasking” the Pharisee, instead.

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Jesus “knew” what sort of woman made such a spectacle of herself–one who needed compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew exactly “who” and “what” she was. But He also knew who created her, loved her, and wanted to redeem her to become someone better. Moreover, He knew what kind of man Simon (the Pharisee) was. He started out with a parable about cancelled debt and a question. Simon answered the question correctly, but he had missed the point. Simon “knew” the woman was a sinner; he didn’t recognize that he was a sinner, too! Simon thought he was smarter and holier than Jesus. He didn’t know himself, and he didn’t recognize Jesus as God in the Flesh.

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How often I make the same mistake! I think I “know” who God wants me to love and honor– those who say all the right words and wear the right clothes and belong to the right church. But if I want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I will have compassion on the people who most need it; I will be ready to forgive those who owe me the most; I will spare judgment where I do not “know” all that God knows about someone else.

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It is easy to lift up in prayer those I admire; those to whom I am already close. It is more difficult to pray for those who persecute me, or taunt me about my belief in Christ. It is difficult to withhold judgment about why they may dislike me or why they distrust Christians in general. It is tempting to pray for their “exposure” or punishment, rather than their well-being. It may be unpleasant to spend time with them or take them seriously. But it is essential that I do, with God’s help, what I would not do in my own pride and limited knowledge. Otherwise, like Simon, I am showing only how little I love the one who died for me– and the person I choose to hold in judgment and contempt.

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I have a lot of work to do in this area. Just today, I read a news snippet about a political office-holder; one with whom I heartily disagree. My first instinct was to pray that she be ousted from office in the next election, and publicly scorned. And perhaps that will happen. But my first priority should be to pray that she would be protected in her current role as public servant, and that God would give her wisdom and discernment in the months ahead. Not because she is a “better” person; but because Jesus died for her. If she were the woman in this story, would I be another Simon the Pharisee? I pray not.

Fitting In

(Today, I am republishing a post from last year. I will be back with a fresh post on Monday.)

Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV via biblegateway.com):

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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No one likes to feel “left out.” We have a deep desire to be accepted, liked, loved, respected, and needed. We want to “fit in.” But sometimes, acceptance and inclusion are not possible. Sometimes, they are offered, but at a price too steep. Sometimes, we make unhealthy compromises in our efforts to avoid conflict or to win respect.

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us at least seven principles/actions that will bring us blessing. But they are in opposition to human nature– NOT designed to help us “fit in” with most of society. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told to stand apart from what others are doing or saying. God wants people who will follow HIM, not the world.

  • People who are poor in spirit— this can be taken at least two ways: those who consider themselves poor in a material sense, and hold their money and possessions lightly; or those who are aware of their spiritual poverty, knowing that they need guidance and wisdom from above. Such people will “possess” the kingdom of heaven– not by fighting and straining and striving and grasping for sole ownership–it is God’s gracious gift to be shared by all who are poor in spirit.
  • People who mourn–not people who are eternally gloomy and depressed, but those who mourn the loss of innocence, the injustices of the world, the suffering and grief of others. Such people also rejoice at the sight of a glorious sunrise, or laugh to see children playing– but they do not deny or circumvent the realities of a fallen world. Such people will be comforted, even in the midst of mourning, by God’s sovereignty and righteousness.
  • People who are meek (humble)–there is a difference between being meek and lacking confidence or being a stooge or a fool. Meek people still have boundaries– and they respect the boundaries of others. They stand up for what is right, but they don’t insist on always being “right.” Such people will not stake a claim on the earth or try to grab their “fair share.” Instead, they will inherit all that God has in store for them!
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  • People who hunger and thirst for righteousness–hunger and thirst are natural and ongoing processes. There are people who want “justice” or “righteousness.” They want it NOW. They want it to be retroactive. They want it to be a foregone conclusion. And they want it to be eternal. But they don’t long for personal righteousness, and they don’t want to feel hunger or thirst for it. They don’t want to seek after true righteousness; they just want the results. They just want the world to spin righteously all around them. But for those who hunger and thirst– Jesus is both the Living Water and the Bread of Life. He brings a daily portion of all-sufficient Grace, wisdom, and forgiveness to keep us filled.
  • People who are merciful–I was struck as I read this again by the term merciful. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about God’s Grace– the fact that God gives us untold blessings that we don’t deserve. But here, Jesus is talking about the merciful– not giving others the condemnation or punishment they deserve. I find it much easier to be Graceful than to be Merciful. It is easy to bless others; to be charitable, or charming, encouraging, or bountiful. It is much more difficult to bite back an insulting or critical retort, to forgive a debt, to let go of a grudge, or keep from passing on a juicy morsel of gossip. It is easier to focus on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, than to Love your enemies. Jesus asked us to do both– but the blessing here is for those who show Mercy!
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  • People who are pure in heart–not just shiny on the surface. I can say all manner of spiritual-sounding things; I can do all kinds of good deeds; I can even write blog entries on scriptural truths– but God looks on my heart, to see if it is pure. And if I haven’t covered my heart in posturing and false rituals, justifications and excuses, denials and rebellion, I should be able to “see” God– to have a clearer picture of who He is, what He is doing in the world around me, what He wants me to do and say and become…
  • People who are peacemakers–not just people who “go along to get along,” but people who are willing to help bring about peace, and who will create an atmosphere of unity and respect–at home, in the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. When we bring peace to a chaotic relationship, or create a peaceful atmosphere, we are doing the work of reconciliation, and we are showing others the nature of our Father.
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  • When we cultivate (or allow God’s Spirit to cultivate) these characteristics in our lives, we will not “fit it” with the world around us. We will stand out and stand apart. And that will make us targets for persecution, abuse, misunderstanding, insults, and false accusations. But we can be encouraged, not only because of the blessings Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, but in the reminder that we stand in very good company. We may not fit in at the office; we may be ostracized by our family; we may be targeted in our community– but we fit in with a host of prophets, apostles, saints, and with Christ Himself!

Influence…


This is how the Lord responds: “If you return to me, I will restore you so you can continue to serve me. If you speak good words rather than worthless ones, you will be my spokesman. You must influence them; do not let them influence you!

Jeremiah 15:19 (NLT via biblegateway.com)

I’ve been reading in Jeremiah for the past week. Jeremiah was given a thankless task of delivering a prophecy of doom for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. God, in His righteous anger even told Jeremiah that he should no longer pray for his own people. Their doom was inevitable, brought about by their continuous idolatry and arrogant disobedience. As Jeremiah received the visions, he grew discouraged. Why should he continue to preach to those who were never going to listen? Why face the ridicule, the persecution, and the death threats? Why bother?

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But the Lord responded with a rebuke to Jeremiah–“Don’t give up! Don’t walk away from your mission! Don’t let them influence you–You must influence them!” Those are difficult words to read. And even more difficult ones to put into practice. It is very easy to feel discouraged when it seems that you are alone in your beliefs; alone in your commitment; alone in your grief and distress. Jeremiah was torn and broken by his mission–no one wanted to hear his message. No one responded to his calls for repentance or his warnings of God’s judgment. In fact, his complaint was that other “prophets” were saying the opposite– that God would rescue Judah from her enemies; that all would be well. How could Jeremiah stand firm in the face of such opposition?

God’s answer may seem a bit harsh on the surface–“Stop whining! You WILL be my spokesman, and you must influence them and not let them influence you.” But look closer, and you will see an amazing and hopeful message in God’s rebuke. God has not set Jeremiah up for failure and discouragement. God’s promise is to strengthen and protect Jeremiah in spite of the opposition– if he will stay the course. Against the worst odds, against the threats of his enemies, God will be with Jeremiah as he speaks the truth–no matter how difficult; no matter how grievous; no matter how unpopular. Moreover, God will give Jeremiah the power to influence his enemies– not just with his words, but in spite of them–by his faithful, courageous commitment to the truth.

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We live in a world where people make a career out of “influencing” others– advertising, advocating, lobbying, arguing on social media, creating memes and soundbites and slogans. We are surrounded by voices and billboards and pop-ups demanding our attention and invading our thoughts. And it can be very easy to be swayed by the overwhelming noise and distraction offered up all around us. Just like Jeremiah, we can be discouraged, and even silenced, by the crowds of others, speaking fear, doubt, anger, and lies. And, in our own voices, we cannot drown out their “influence.”

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God does not call us to shout louder, or change our message to be more “palatable” to the masses. God does not call us to “win” every argument or convert all of our neighbors. But God does call us to be faithful in speaking the truth– more, He calls us to live out the truth in obedience and humility. It may seem thankless at times, but living with integrity and solid faith influences others in ways only God can know. We need to continue to speak truth. “Worthless words” may rule the airwaves, or glut our newsfeeds. But truth whispers in consistent, loving action, and humble service. May we be known for our prayers and our steady confidence than for our persuasive tongues and arrogant arguments.

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How Can You?!

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14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV) via biblegateway.com
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I was approached years ago by an angry non-believer, who asked me in disdainful tones how I could possibly believe in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and other Biblical tenets. At the time, I was taken aback by the vehemence and anger. I stammered an answer, heart-felt and, I hoped, theologically “correct”–I think I quoted scripture and gave a short version of my personal testimony. The other person was not impressed or convinced. I felt like I had failed. The other person sneered at my belief–and at God!

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I spent weeks going over in my mind what else I might have said. I came up with clever arguments, gripping counter-questions, self-deprecating “homey” zingers, I read books on apologetics, and studied the words of great thinkers…I would be ready next time. I would not be left looking or sounding naive and unprepared. I would have the tools to “win” the argument, and God would be proud of me.

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But in the years since, I have done more thinking (and reading, and praying!) And this past month, as I’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophets, I have found a new perspective. Prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos, and Malachi spoke the very words of God to people around them. They spoke to ordinary people, and to the religious and political leaders of their day. And almost none of them listened! In fact, the prophets were hated, sneered at, smeared, imprisoned– some of them were even killed.

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These prophets were prepared. They were not being ambushed with “gotcha” questions, because they were the ones presenting and challenging people with the truth. The truths they spoke were often harsh and offensive. They were truths about coming judgment and destruction, followed by restoration and revival. There was nothing “welcoming” or attractive about their message. But the people remained stubborn, sinful, and unimpressed.

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We live in the post-Resurrection age. Our message contains warnings about judgment and destruction– but unlike the prophets of old, we have a message of immediate and eternal Hope and Salvation. We have centuries of prophecies that have been fulfilled; of testimonies to the power of a risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet even Jesus warned us that “..in the world (you) will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b ESV)

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We often feel that if we cannot “win over” those who challenge us–if we cannot prove to their satisfaction that we are “right” in our beliefs–that we have failed. Yet we have so many examples of faithful witnesses who suffered and died without seeing the results of their faithfulness. God does not ask us to “win” every battle in convincing and decisive fashion. That’s HIS job! What He does ask is that we should be prepared to give an answer– and that we do it with gentleness and respect.

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I don’t have to silence the critics. I don’t have to have “mic-drop” moments. I don’t have to “win” every debate. God calls me to be faithful, honest, and humble. My words may not change someone else’s mind. But my changed life and God-honoring attitude may plant a seed that someone else’s words and life, and the power of the Holy Spirit will cause to grow into faith– even if I never live to see it!

In answer to the question, “How can you believe?” The answer often lies, not only in what we say about our belief, but how we live it out!

These Three Remain–Love!

I’ve been exploring the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; specifically chapter 13, verse 13. Paul states that there are three virtues that remain, after all else has passed away or been lost: Faith, Hope, and Love. And, while the other two are great and necessary, the greatest is Love.

So much has been written about Love– poets and prophets, songwriters and storytellers. most would agree that Love is the greatest virtue. But they wouldn’t all agree on what “Love” is. The Greeks have three different words for love– in fact most languages have more than one word– English has dozens of synonyms: Love, adore, desire, passion, enamored, infatuated, devoted…you get the idea. Except there are several ideas, so how do we know which kind of love remains? What kind of love endures beyond life and time and against every obstacle?

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Human love is fallible; it is temporal (and sometimes even temporary). It doesn’t last forever– in spite of poetic promises and sacred vows. People “fall in love” and they fall out of love. Human love grows deeper; but it can also grow cold. It can be conditional, and manipulative; selfish, and shallow. Human love is often based on feelings that change with the seasons. We “love the whole world” when we are feeling good–we love mankind, but can’t stand our next door neighbor!

God’s love is eternal and unconditional. It never depends on His “mood.” It never depends on who we are or what we have done. God loves because it is His nature. He IS Love. He is the definition of enduring, everlasting, boundless, endless LOVE. This is the Love that endures. It is the Love that changes us from the inside out, and changes the world around us.

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We are living through chaotic times, filled with raw and dangerous emotions– anger, hatred, pride, despair, resentment, greed, grief, and fear. God’s love is more than just another emotion. I cannot love my enemy with human emotion– nor does God ask me to. God loves through us– it is His Love that we need to access and carry with us into the darkness. I want to bring Love into the world– and I want to be seen as a Loving person. But God asks me to Love even when it is rejected; even when I am seen as the enemy; even when I get hurt in the process. That doesn’t mean that I invite or tolerate abuse because I think it makes me more virtuous or because I think I somehow deserve it. But it does mean that I continue to pray, I continue to have Faith and Hope that God will turn even the smallest acts of Love into seeds that will return a harvest in His time and in His way.

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When I look at the life of Jesus Christ, that is just what He did. He had the power to destroy the corrupt Temple system– He demonstrated just a particle of His passion when He drove the money changers out of the Temple courtyard (Matthew 21:12-13). He could have led a rebellion against the oppressive Roman Empire. (In fact, that is one reason He was rejected as the Messiah. He chose not to use His power for political or economic gain– even for the benefit of His own people.) He had the power to wipe out leprosy, or blindness, or demon possession– He could have been the most powerful man on Earth, and single-handedly put an end to poverty, injustice, and so much more. If solving those issues for His people in His lifetime would have been the most loving thing– He would have done it. But He spent His time speaking to those in need– those who had lost hope, those who needed healing, those who were carrying guilt and doubt and grief. He spent His time, not talking about Love, but demonstrating Love– personal, unconditional, life-giving Love. Jesus spoke to crowds, yes, but most of His time was spent in small groups or one-on-one– teaching, eating, listening, caring–Loving.

Loving this way takes time– it takes effort, and it comes with risk. Jesus, loving in just this way, was misunderstood, rejected, hated, even killed. But His Love conquered death, and brought life and victory. I may not be asked to become a martyr– but will I seek to Love like Jesus? Will I pray for people I don’t know; or people who have opposed me, or rejected me? Will I reach out in Love to people who are in rebellion against God? People who mock Him, cry out against Christians, persecute us–even kill us? Will I pray for and support those who are in danger because they are showing God’s Love in this way? Because whether I do or not– Love Remains. Will I be Faithful? Will I reach out in Hope? Will I risk Loving as Christ Loves?

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