Chariots of Iron

I was reading from the book of Judges today, and a curious phrase jumped out at me. The entire book of Judges is filled with the failure of the people of Israel to fully claim their promised inheritance from God. Generation after generation passes, with a cycle of sin, enslavement, and deliverance as God raises up various judges and heroes, like Gideon, Deborah, or Samson.

Already in chapter one, there is a hint of the trouble to come. The book begins with several successful battles after the death of Joshua. The people of Israel consult the Lord, who fights with them in several key battles. But in verse 19, it says: “The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.”

Say what? The Lord was with the men of Judah– the LORD! They had taken possession of the hill country– rough terrain that would have been filled with natural barriers, rocky fortresses, and literal “uphill battles.” They had destroyed massive cities like Jericho less than a generation before. They had defeated armies far larger and better positioned. They had defeated giants! And now, suddenly, they are “unable” to drive the people from the plains– because the enemy had chariots of iron?

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https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/judges-1-19.html I think this commentary says it well. The chariots of iron became the excuse for the Israelites’ unwillingness to obey; to trust in God’s strength instead of their own. After all, it wasn’t that long before in their history when God had drowned the entire Egyptian army, including all its chariots, in the Red Sea.

I don’t think it was about the chariots of iron. I think it was about the plains. I think sometimes it can be more difficult to fight on “the plains.” When God sends us on an “impossible” mission, we must face our own fears and acknowledge our weaknesses– we KNOW we cannot do it in our own power. But when we face an enemy on “equal footing,” we are tempted to trust in our own resources– the toughness of our armor, the skill of our generals, the speed of our horses, and the superiority of our weapons. We hope and expect God to fight for us where we cannot hope to win alone, but we don’t ask for God’s help or protection in areas where we believe our own strength should be sufficient. Israel had a fine army– seasoned veterans of battle. If they HAD iron chariots of their own, victory might have been expected– with or without God’s divine intervention. But victory eluded them, because they didn’t finish the fight!

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We do the same thing today–we fail to march into battle because the enemy has “chariots of iron.” Maybe they have more social status, more political or economic power then we have. Perhaps we see that they have the means to make our lives painful “on the plains.” We see their arrogance, and their wealth and success, and we let ourselves be intimidated. We know that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us, but He has not given us chariots of iron to match those of the enemy. We don’t pray for the courage to face their chariots, or the wisdom to trust that the battle belongs to the Lord. Instead, we make excuses for not fighting the battle at all.

The rest of the book of Judges is filled with war, slavery, corruption, death, and evil. The very last verse sums it up: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)

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Lord, help me to be courageous, and humble. May I always trust in You above all–especially above chariots of iron, and weapons of mankind.

Out of Time

We’ve said Goodbye to 2020–in another 365 days we will have finished the year 2021. At some point, it will “run out” of its designated time. We live in a world limited by time and space.

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But God lives outside of time and space– He rules them, bends them, and contains them in His sovereignty. I often write about the omnipresence of God– that He is everywhere. In fact, the only place He is NOT is Hell; and He’s even visited there, once… But God is also omnipresent in time. He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– always, and all at once, along with being the God of everyone who has ever called and will ever call upon His name to put their trust in Him. God IS in the past; He is ever present, and He is already in the future, acting and overseeing His plans and purposes.

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With the birth of Jesus Christ, God did not step out of time– instead, He inserted Himself into time and space and obeyed the limits He Himself had placed. He came exactly when He had determined, exactly where, and exactly how He had planned. And the same is true of His death and resurrection. His death on the cross was not a moment too soon, and not a single second overdue. Yet, Jesus was at the mercy of the very time and space He had created. Just like us, He was limited to being in one place at a time, and limited to the circumstances around Him.

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Nothing shows this better than the story of Lazarus (John 11). A close friend of Jesus, Lazarus became mortally ill. Word was sent to Jesus so He could come immediately and heal Lazarus, but He delayed in coming. He delayed for two days, continuing to work where He was before going to help friend. He knew that Lazarus would not survive. By the time He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had not only died, but had been buried. Both of Lazarus’s sisters greeted Jesus with the same rebuke–” If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” The God who is everywhere, always, was limited by His physical form, and had to walk to Bethany. He could not continue to work in one area, and be in Bethany at the same time. Nor could He stop time and space so the Lazarus’s sickness could “wait” for Jesus’s arrival days later. But the Sovereign, Omnipresent God had not “run out of time” to save His friend. Even in His human form, in His “inability” to get to Bethany “in time,” Jesus was acting according to His Sovereign plan. He brought Lazarus out of the grave! He was “there” in all of His power and mercy. And He was precisely where and when He needed to be!

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As we enter a new year, it comes with limitations–12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, and so on–we can’t see what will happen, or where we will be in March or September. It may seem that God is “late,” or “absent” in our circumstances. We may be tempted to stop praying when we don’t see immediate answers. We may, like Mary and Martha, be tempted to scold the very author of Life when we don’t get the answer we want when we want it.

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This year, let us remember that God is beyond time and space. This allows us to trust that He can and will do what is best, when it is best. It also allows us to trust that God can make the most of OUR time as we trust it to Him. We may be limited to 24 hours a day, but we serve a God who can stretch and bend time, and supplement even our smallest efforts and resources with the endless riches of His Grace!

Who’s Your Daddy?

When I was growing up, I knew three important things about my father:
I knew he loved me–and the rest of our family–faithfully and truly.
I knew he loved God–He was a man of faith, prayer, integrity, and obedience to the Word.
I knew he would do anything to protect and provide for our family.

But I also knew that my Daddy wasn’t perfect. He was not the strongest man in the neighborhood; or the fastest, or richest, or most respected. He wasn’t the tallest, or most athletic. He wasn’t a leader in local politics or a chamber group or fraternal organization. He didn’t have a string of degrees, or a fleet of fancy cars. He didn’t even have a lot of hair, or perfect teeth. But he had a gentle laugh, a deep wisdom, and a hug that made me feel safe and precious. He had a enormous heart– one that was easily touched, but firmly committed. He was humble and kind; he was loyal and brave and joyful.

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I was blessed to have such a Dad. I know people whose earthly fathers were distant, disapproving, absent, or even abusive. Earthly dads, even one like mine, are still human. They make mistakes and bad choices; they carry baggage from their own childhoods; they carry fears and failures; they fall short of our expectations, and their own hopes and dreams.

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God is a different kind of Father. He is eternally sovereign; the King of Kings, and the Creator of the Universe. There is no comparing Him with anyone else’s father– because He is the Ruler and Father of all! Yet, He wants a close loving relationship with each one of us– with me! With you! He is not just committed to doing His best to provide and protect some of us– He is fully capable of providing ALL our needs and protecting us against ALL enemies, including sin and death!

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Someone once used the analogy of President John F. Kennedy. As President, JFK was arguably the most powerful man in the world– the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. At his command, soldiers, sailors, pilots, and even nuclear missiles, could be deployed. The stroke of his pen could sign bills into law, grant pardons, and appoint powerful positions. To enter the Oval Office and have an audience with the President was an honor reserved for rulers and generals and authorities– and his children.

There is a picture of JFK, Jr. as a small boy, peeking out of the Resolute Desk, as his father sits behind the desk conducting the business of the nation. The son had complete access to his father’s presence– access to the most powerful man on earth–his Daddy. He may not have fully understood what his father was doing, or even how important his father was– but he knew that he could spend time with his Dad.

Of course, President Kennedy was not God. He was fallible, and terribly mortal, as the nation learned to its grief. But the idea that God is distant and uncaring, or even vindictive and petty, is belied by the many Psalms and hymns and prayers throughout the ages. And the idea that God is just another “pal”, or “the man upstairs”–someone who loves us, but has no real power to command our obedience or rescue us from our enemies–is also belied by the many miracles and examples of His power in nature and in history. And unlike the exclusive nature of the relationship between JFK and his biological children, God invites ANYONE who calls on Him through His Son to be adopted as a son/daughter with the same intimate privilege of total access. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%201:11-13&version=HCSB (John 1:12)

So when I pray today, I’m not praying to my “Daddy” in any earthly sense. I am praying to the King of Kings, who also invites me to call him, “Abba”– “Dad.”

I Surrender All?

I have been revisiting old hymns lately as I write about my pursuit of prayer. This is partly because I believe that prayer is a form of worship, and is closely tied to other forms of worship– meditation, singing, etc.. Sometimes, it can be helpful to pray songs or to sing prayers– look at the entire book of Psalms!

Our church has recently been involved in revival services– two weeks of time set aside to evaluate our daily walk with Christ. We need periods of revival and refreshment, conviction and confession, repentance and reflection. Without them, we will wander; without them we will wither and grow cold, and lose sight of our first love.

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One of the first nights, we explored the idea of surrender. We say that we trust God; that Jesus is Lord, that we are followers of Christ…but do we really demonstrate those truths by the way we live? Have we really surrendered our will, our lives, our futures to God? We claim that He is sovereign over big things– all of creation, world affairs, and such–but is He Lord over the little things? Do I trust Him with my reputation when someone misrepresents me to others? Do I trust Him with my diet when I am tempted to overeat? Do I trust Him with my time when someone asks me to help them on my day off?

One of the keys to this hymn (and to prayer) is in the first verse– “..in His presence daily live.” There are times when I feel the need to surrender; times when I feel wholly surrendered and devoted. But there will be other days when the feeling just isn’t there. My surrender needs to happen daily– in the “good” times and in the “difficult” times. Sometimes, I just need to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and empower me to recognize and surrender those areas that I have tried to “take back” from Him.

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And then, I need to be intentional about letting go–one piece at a time, if necessary–each day saying, “Yes” to God instead of “Yes” to those things that pull me away. It’s not always easy to say, “I surrender all.” It’s even harder to actually follow through. We want to hang on to things that are comfortable, familiar, even “good.” We want to hang on to things that seem to promise safety, success, or fulfillment– even when God offers more.

I’m not writing this because I have mastered the discipline of surrender– I need to learn to let go, to trust God more, to risk what I cannot keep to gain what I cannot lose (paraphrasing from Jim Elliot–https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jim_elliot_189244.
That is my prayer today, for myself, and for others.

Things That Make You Wonder…(Daniel, Chapter 3)

The Biblical book of Daniel can be difficult to read. It contains stories, but they don’t seem to tie together. And sprinkled among the stories are visions, dreams, and prophecies. In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens all the wise men of Babylon in his fear over a disturbing dream. (https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/17/daniel-prayer-under-pressure/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/19/daniel-prayer-under-pressure-part-2/) At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate in awe of the God of Daniel, and rewards Daniel with a high position. He even rewards Daniel’s friends who prayed for him.

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None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).

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The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.

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Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).

Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.

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Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.

  • We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
  • Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
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  • Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
  • Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
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  • Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
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Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.

The Prayers of the Righteous

James 5:16 Modern English Version (MEV)

16 Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much.

 

Romans 3:10-11 Modern English Version (MEV)

10 As it is written:“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 there is no one who understands;there is no one who seeks after God.

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Anyone can pray.  God hears our prayers.  God answers prayer.  But He doesn’t answer all prayers equally.  That doesn’t mean that God is unfair or unjust.  It means that God listens beyond our words and prayers– He knows our thoughts, He perceives our motives and inmost desires.  He also knows the consequences of all that we ask.

James 5:16 (above) is sometimes misused by Christians to boast in their “effectiveness”: in essence, saying “If God answers my prayers for a comfortable lifestyle or good health, it proves that I am righteous.”  But this is putting the cart before the horse.  The last phrase is contingent upon the first– “Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”  It is the effective (prayers designed to effect others), fervent (heart-felt, committed) prayer of a righteous (cleansed, renewed in spirit and mind and heart) man (or woman) that accomplishes much (for the kingdom, for healing, for grace, unity, or renewal).  The effectiveness comes after the confession; after the renewal, and through the Holy Spirit.  If we are boasting about our effectiveness, we’re missing the point.

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It is the humble seeker who prays for and with others, pours herself/himself out for “one another” who accomplishes much.  Such men and women spark movements and revivals, not in their own power or wisdom, but in allowing the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, and in their prayers for others.  Which is more “effective”– getting what I want for myself, or bringing lost souls to new life?

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If your prayers seem to lack power, consider the following:

Who am I praying for today?  What am I praying for myself?  For others?  For the Glory of God?  Am I praying fervently?  Diligently?  Righteously?  In confession and gratitude, as well as supplication?

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Next, consider what it means to be “effective.”  Are you praying for a healing that doesn’t happen immediately or completely?  God may be using your prayers to great effect in ways you do not expect.  God can bring spiritual and emotional healing even in physical suffering.  He can also bring healing to others as they see our faith and hope at work in difficult circumstances.

 

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Finally, ask if there is something else you should be doing in addition to praying about the situation.  Are you ignoring a clear call from God to do something (or stop doing something) in obedience to His Word?  Are you harboring a grudge against someone?  Do you need to make things right with someone?  With God?

The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person WILL accomplish much more than we can imagine.  What would our neighborhood look like if we spent more time on our knees than pointing fingers or shaking fists?

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The Weight of Words

Words have weight– I’m not talking about thousand-page novels or multi-syllable legalese terms– some words simply weigh heavier on the mind and heart than others.  Some everyday words spill out like dust motes carried on a light breeze.  They hang suspended in midair, without any set purpose or destination, and finally settle, forgotten, until someone sweeps them away.  Other words explode, sending shards and pellets at unwary targets.  Some words thunder like falling rocks in an avalanche of guilt or anger or hatred.  And some rare and precious words have the weight of a quilt or a hug, or an arm lifting you up when you are falling.

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One of the amazing things about prayer is that as we pour out our words before the Savior, the weight of our words is lifted off our hearts and minds and given to him to carry– the weight of the guilt, the weight of worry, the weight of grief, the weight of anger, the weight of hurt.  Not only does God take on the weight of our words (and our pain and guilt), but he makes sense of it all– maybe not instantly, or in the way we imagine– but he brings order and goodness out of our chaos and burden.

 

 

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And those everyday words swirling around like dust fall into the light, where they shine like gold dust in His presence.  When we bring everything to God, he transforms it; he transforms us.

 

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Our words have weight in prayer.  And our words to others have weight, as well.  Today, I want to weigh my words carefully.  Are my words burdening others, or helping them lift a load of care?  If I had to carry the weight of my words– my criticisms and clever put-downs, my accusations and angry tantrums, my bragging and comparisons– would I be dragging them behind me with joy and pride?  What if, instead, my words were filled with the weight of shared laughter, encouragement, hope, and compassion?  What if my words held the weight of truth and kindness and peace?pexels-photo-210012.jpeg

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Prayers From the Cockpit

Years ago, a decorated fighter pilot, Robert Scott, wrote a book with the title, “God is My Co-Pilot.”  It was made into a movie, and the title became a  popular phrase for bumper stickers, posters, and more.

Theatrical trailer for “God Is My Co-Pilot” –youtube

More recently, there have been several people who have spoken out against the catch-phrase, by saying something to the effect of ,”If God is your co-pilot, someone is sitting in the wrong seat!”  I mean no disrespect to Mr. Scott, the book, the movie, the bumper stickers or the critics, but I think both sentiments kind of miss the point.

There is a much better analogy in the title of an lesser-known book by another pilot.  Pilot and high school basketball coach Floyd Eby wrote a book called “Calling God’s Tower– Come In, Please.”

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I’m not a pilot or a coach, and I’m not claiming that Scott’s title is bad.  Certainly, when I pray, I believe that God is always right beside me, that he hears me, and that he knows my thoughts and my heart intimately.  I think that is the intent of the co-pilot analogy, and as such, it rings true.  But God is much more than a partner, a co-pilot, or a colleague.  The other danger of this thinking is that we take God for granted.  If God is my co-pilot, I won’t turn to him for help unless something is going wrong and “my way” isn’t working.

So what about “switching seats?”  Shouldn’t God be my pilot?  He is God and I’m not.  It is true that this represents a better view of God’s authority and sovereignty.   It is also true that God is greater, stronger, and wiser than I am.  But I think this view, though more accurate in portraying our position, gives rise to another dangerous idea– that I can sit back and be little more than a passenger, while God does all the flying.  One of the valid criticisms of modern Christianity (especially in America), is that we know about Christ, and talk about Christ, but we don’t always live for Christ.  We see the finished work of Christ as an excuse to sit back, smug and complacent about morality, evangelism, obedience, and good works.  We shout “Jesus Paid it All!” and mumble “All to Him I Owe.”  We want to sit in the cockpit for the pretty view, but we don’t want to learn how to fly the plane.

God has given us the privilege and the responsibility to be the pilots (or drivers, or captains) of our lives–he gives us the free will to make choices and steer our behavior or actions.  We are not helpless passengers on a fatalistic trip through this life.  He has equipped us to know the thrill of soaring and banking and flying through the clouds.  But God doesn’t leave us to fly blindly through the haze and clouds and glare.  He gives us his word, which, like a map, chart, instrument panel, or GPS system, shows us where and how we should go.  And, like the air control tower, he gives extra guidance, listens to our needs, and provides assurance as we stay tuned to him.

God also sees and knows more than we do in our cockpit.  When I call on him, he knows all that goes on above and below, ahead and behind– he knows about the storms in the distance or the other planes scheduled to arrive or take off from the airport.  I can trust his advice, his commands, and his presence more than my own judgment or eyesight.

I want to learn how to fly; I want to soar like an eagle, and I want to come in for a safe landing at the end of my journey.  I need to keep in constant contact with God’s tower and follow his wise flight plan.

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Trust and Obey

It’s a song I sang as a child in Sunday School–

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

It bothered me as a child, the part about “No other way.”  It seemed narrow-minded and harsh.  Surely, I could be happy in Jesus just doing my own good things and singing his praises.  Besides, I did trust him, I followed the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule, and I was a nice person.  So why did I feel that I was missing something?

In all the years I’ve been a follower of Christ, I have learned the importance of trust and obedience.  I can’t truly follow someone I don’t trust.  I can learn from them, admire them, even try to act like them, but eventually, I will try to take the lead, or let go and walk down a different path.  Similarly, I can’t say that I trust someone if I won’t obey them.  If they ask me to do something, and I ignore their request, or re-interpret it, or come up with excuses why I won’t do it, it really boils down to one thing: I don’t trust that their request has any merit.

In a broken world, filled with sin and pride and selfishness, there are many reasons NOT to trust or obey certain people.  Abusers, users, sadists and sociopaths abound.  Such people may suggest that there is “no other way to be happy..” than to trust them and obey them implicitly.  So when God asks us to put our trust in an invisible Godhead, it seems terrible, final, and harsh.  Is God demanding abject humiliation and mindless adherence to his law?  Will we lose ourselves in drudgery and joyless obedience to a harsh taskmaster on the whimsical hope of a happy afterlife?

That is a view that is often peddled, and ridiculed.  But I think a closer look at the Bible gives us a different picture.  Yes, God is harsh and wrathful against sin and sinners–but so am I!   I find myself getting furious over injustices and pain caused by sin in the world–I can only imagine how angry God must be to see the way we lie and cheat and abuse each other, and the untold painful consequences he has witnessed through the years.  The only thing holding him back is the power of his Mercy.  His anger is swallowed up in patient and unfathomable love that is ready to forgive even the worst offenders.   And God’s wrath is pure, unlike mine, which is selective against those who have hurt me, but wants to smooth over my own sins.  His love is even more pure– he loves even the worst sinner, and even the most unloveable people (in my flawed estimation).  He is unwilling that ANYONE stay lost and enslaved by their sinful past.

Think about it– Jesus, who knew God best (being part of the Godhead himself) never painted his Father as a brute who demanded people to become “useful idiots” just to stroke his ego.  He didn’t talk about a harsh and unforgiving God who “hated” sinners.  Instead, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and spoke to sinners and outcasts as though they were more important than the religious elite…because that was his heart!  But more than that, Jesus showed us what it meant to “Trust and Obey”–he didn’t seek fame or fortune for himself, he never owned a home, or sought public office, and he never ran arouns worrying and fretting that God would leave him in the lurch.  Even under the worst circumstances leading up to his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus only spent one hour worrying about what was to come, and in that hour of prayer, he found the peace and strength to say, “not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  In his ministry, he humbly walked the byways and taught those who willingly followed him.  He healed and encouraged and saved those who came to him; those who trusted him as he trusted his Father.  He did not pat on the back those who claimed to follow his Father, but wouldn’t trust him.  Nor did he reward those who claimed to obey God, but hated their neighbors, justified their own self-righteousness, and changed God’s laws to feather their own lifestyles.

Does “Trust and Obey” mean that we might lose our status, our wealth, our comfort, and our lives?  Not necessarily, but there is no promise that we will be richer, or healthier, or more popular for following Jesus.  He didn’t come to make us comfortable or “better than” someone else.  In fact, he warned us that while we are in this world, we will have troubles and sorrows (with or without our faith!)  So how can we be “happy in Jesus” if we end up homeless, hated, or sick?  How can we talk about being happy in Jesus under awful circumstances?  Is this just some brainwashing tactic to make us forget how miserable we are?  What’s the “payoff” of Trust and Obey?

The answer involves a choice–Do I trust Jesus when he says that he came to give us, not just life, not even just eternal life, but abundant life?  If Jesus isn’t trustworthy; if I am not sure that he can or will make my life MORE than I ever dreamed, MORE than I imagine–even in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances–then I will never be happy in Jesus.  But if I DO trust Jesus, then I can be happy, not because of my circumstances, but because I can trust all that he says about them, and that his grace is more than sufficient to see me through.  And I know that whatever trials I may be going through can be turned to good because I trust his power and his goodness.

And true obedience can only follow true trust.  If I say that God’s rules aren’t important, or don’t apply to me, then I’m really saying I don’t trust him to know what’s best, or that I don’t trust that He is really Good.  The temporary happiness that comes from following my way (even if I think I’m doing it for the right reasons) will give way to resentment against God.  How dare he stop me from that one thing that brings me joy– how dare he question my “needs” or call my actions “wrong”.  How dare he suggest that His way could be better or more abundant than what I know–even if I suspect that what I know and experience isn’t always the best it could be.

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No– the longer I follow Jesus, the more that old song rings true, and not harsh or condemning, but full of wisdom and promise.  It is with the faith of a child (not stupid or simplistic, but hopeful and eager), and humble (not abject or reluctant) obedience that we find happiness in Jesus, peace for our souls, and strength to face the trying circumstances of this life.

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Who’s on First?

I love baseball, and I love word-play, so it’s probably no surprise that I really love the Abbot and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” (watch here)

The idea behind the famous routine is that Abbot is trying to explain the positions on the baseball team, but the players’ names lead to all sorts of needless confusion.  You don’t really have to know a lot about baseball to be entertained by the comedy routine, but the more you do know, the funnier it gets.  Baseball depends on coordinated team effort– knowing who is playing where can make the difference between spectacular plays and disasters– both offensively and defensively.  But as much as I would love to talk about both baseball and comedy today, I really want to use baseball as a metaphor for prayer.

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Prayer is very personal, especially confessional prayer (see yesterday’s post), but often it is also communal and a coordinated team effort.  Every player (pray-er) wants to play our best, and we are gifted for certain positions on the “team.”  Some of us are great at pop-ups– catching people “in the moment” and praying with them, sharing their burdens and joys with concise sentence prayers.  Some are sluggers– prayer warriors who “knock it out of the park.”  Some are outfielders, patiently persistent in praying for the lost, and ready to chase down a line drive or jump up to make the save.  Some are basemen– praying to keep the enemy from gaining ground, or catchers, defending home base from all attempts to score.  Some are good at bunting–providing the necessary support and sacrifice so that someone else can advance.   And some are master pitchers–crafting prayers that strike out or even shut-out the enemy.  Our coach, our mascot, our general manager and MVP?  The Almighty, Triune God!   He knows our strengths, weaknesses, and how we can improve our performance and standing.  He also wants to help our team become closer and stronger.  After all, baseball is wonderful, but Christian living is even better– it has eternal consequences!

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When we ask, in relation to prayer, “Who’s on First,” we need to remember a few things:

  • Always listen to the coach!
  • Remember you are not alone.
  • PRAY to win!
  • Look out for and support your teammates.
  • Each inning is a new beginning– don’t live in the last inning.
  • Don’t let the current score determine your play.
  • Don’t let the other team’s players or their fans take you “off your game.”
  • (Spoiler alert)– We are the champions!

Let’s get suited up and ready to take the field for today’s game…after all, you or I may be on first!

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