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!

The Now and the “Not Yet.”

As followers of Christ and believers in an Eternal God, we live in the “here and now,” but we also live in something called the “not yet.” Our life here is finite, but our life in the “not yet” is eternal.

Most of what we pray for belongs in the “here and now.” We pray about what we see and know. We may pray for an upcoming surgery, or a looming job loss, or give thanks for something that happened in the recent past, but most of our prayers do not venture into the eternal future.

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Yet, God speaks to us of things to come. No, He doesn’t always reveal details or give us a calendar of times and dates; but He does remind us that what we see is not the whole picture. And we need to remember this when we pray and when we look around us.

Much of the Old Testament, plus parts of the New Testament, are given over to prophecy– visions, promises, warnings about the future. Many of the prophecies have already been fulfilled– in detail. Some of the prophets prayed for revival in Israel and Judah; others prayed for the coming of the Messiah. Their prayers were answered– but not always in their lifetime, and not always in a way they understood. The Apostles, writing to Jesus’ followers looked forward to His return– but they never saw it in their lifetime.

Prayer is not just about us and our immediate needs. Today, spend some time praying with an eternal mindset–that God’s will would be done, in His time and His way. And then, trust that whatever is going on in the “here and now,” it is all part of God’s perfect plan. One that we will understand more fully in the “not yet.”

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The Lord Does Not See Us..

In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man.  From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”

Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.

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I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.

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But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.

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And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

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In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.

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God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.

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The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.

And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.

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When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.

I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.

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Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.

The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

Just When it Couldn’t Get Any Worse…

It is very discouraging to listen to the news lately…pandemics, riots, economic collapse, lock-downs and social distancing mandates…some days it seems like it can’t get any worse. And yet, if someone were to report that things will soon get better, would we believe it? Even if a prophet of God came to reassure us, would we greet her/his news with joy, or would we react with cynical disbelief?

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Such was the case hundreds of years ago in Samaria. The capital city of Israel was under siege by the Syrian King, Ben-Hadad. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+6%3A24-7%3A20&version=ESV The entire city was trapped; surrounded by thousands of soldier, they were terrified, diseased, and starving. It was far worse than most of us have ever experienced. The siege had gotten so bad that the people had resorted to cannibalism–things could not get any worse. The king, desperate and helpless, sent for Elisha. And the prophet had unbelievably good news– in less than twenty-four hours, the fate of Samaria would be completely reversed. There would be food, freedom, and joy throughout the city– plenty for everyone!

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Hope! Joy! Salvation! But how could this be? The king’s messenger scoffed–“Impossible! Even if God opened up the heavens, this could not happen.” So Elisha has bad news for the messenger– he will see this prophecy fulfilled, but will not be able to enjoy it.

And it all happens just as Elisha predicted…in the middle of the night, the Syrian army panics and flees. Prompted by the Lord, they believe they hear a mighty host coming to ambush them in their tents. In their flight, they leave everything behind– food, weapons, clothing, medicine–vast resources, and enough to supply the entire city!

Alerted to this miracle by four lepers who brave the enemy camp only to find it deserted, the king and his messenger are still skeptical. But when the report is confirmed, the citizens rush out to plunder the Syrian goods, trampling over and killing the messenger in their haste.

When times are tough, it is easy to hold on to a limp and lifeless form of faith– we keep praying and reciting platitudes; we tell ourselves to be patient and bear up under pressure. And we should not lose heart or compromise the truth for a temporary sense of ease. But our faith has to be prepared to see God do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us..” (Ephesians 3:20 NKJV) Because just when things couldn’t get any worse, they may just be about to get better than we can imagine!

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Lord, may I seek your face with confidence and joy– not because of the circumstances I face, but because of my faith in Your great might and power, and in Your grace and wisdom to turn even the worst night into a glorious and victorious dawn!

Are You Ready?

Someone asked me yesterday if I was “ready for Christmas.” They wanted to know if I had prepared for the holiday– had I bought and wrapped presents for the family, sent out Christmas cards, decorated the house, baked cookies, etc.? I had to admit that I was not ready in that sense. I don’t generally do much in the way of decorating, and I’ve cut back on the cookie baking, too. I’m not sending greeting cards this year, and I don’t have all the presents purchased or wrapped.

But I AM ready for Christmas– I’m ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Earth; His life, death, and resurrection; the new life and hope that resulted from God’s boundless love. I’m ready to sing carols and light candles and rejoice! I’m ready to be awestruck again by the ancient story of shepherds and angels and wise men from the East; of the little town of Bethlehem and the manger stall and a bright star; of a newborn child; the Lord of all Creation wrapped in rags; the Word of God willingly limited to unintelligible cooing and soft cries, to nakedness and infant human weakness.

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Being “ready for Christmas” means different things to different people. To many, it means surviving the stress of shopping, going to rounds of holiday parties, and trying to remember that it is supposed to be a season of “peace on Earth.” For others, it means watching the celebration from the outside looking in; facing loneliness, grief, regret, and envying or resenting those who have found joy when all they see is darkness. For some of us, it means reflecting on the amazing transformation we experience because of the coming of this single baby. We remember that there was a time when there was no Christmas– only a dim hope that God would someday send a Savior. Once the prophets could only speak of what had been promised, but not yet seen– could only remind people to “get ready” for something they had never known.

The world was waiting for the Messiah’s coming, yet it was unprepared for His actual arrival.

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But the story of Jesus Christ didn’t end with Christmas. It didn’t even end at Easter, with the glorious resurrection. We await the triumphant return of the risen Christ. He is Coming! He will return in an instant…no long period of Advent; no countdown calendars or lists of things to get ready; no angels or stars to announce His arrival; no Christmas pageant or Easter sunrise service–just a trumpet blast and an explosion of Glory. He will not arrive as a helpless babe, or a suffering servant, but as a conquering King. There will be no carols about little towns and sleeping cattle; no time to “let every heart prepare Him room.”

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Today, we prepare to celebrate Messiah’s coming. We spend time and money and energy getting “ready” to recreate the Advent of Jesus Christ. How much time have we spent getting ready for His return? I pray that this Christmas season will mean more than just a happy celebration of one event– even one as joyful as the Birth of Christ. Let us prepare our hearts to live out the joy of His Salvation, and prepare to receive our King in triumph.

Of Gingerbread, Christmas Trees, and Frankincense…

As the Christmas season approaches, people are decorating their homes– wreaths, Christmas Trees, lights, gingerbread houses, manger scenes, elves and reindeer, candles and more. And along with the sights and sounds and tastes, the air is redolent with the scents of the season.

Scents evoke memories and emotions deeper than any of our other senses. We can close our eyes or ears to unwanted stimuli, but it’s difficult not to breathe in the spicy air filled with cinnamon or cloves, or ignore the scent of pine or scented candles filling the room.

There was no gingerbread, or evergreen tree, or clove orange in the stable where Jesus was born so long ago– no candles or air fresheners to cover the other scents of animals and afterbirth. But when the wise men arrived to worship the infant King (which may have been a couple of weeks or even months later), they brought gifts, and two of the three were spices– Frankincense and Myrrh. They were precious spices, with medicinal and healing properties, and were also used in embalming– symbolic of Jesus’s future life and death. Oddly enough, their fragrances are reminiscent of citrus and pine, two scents we commonly associate with the Christmas season. https://www.history.com/news/a-wise-mans-cure-frankincense-and-myrrh

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God never wastes details. The Bible is full of them– lists of names, detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and Temple, references to various places, animals, trees, events– seemingly unimportant, sometimes even distracting–but all of them have a purpose. The gifts of the Wise Men (or Kings) were costly, prophetic, and worthy of a newborn king. But they were also physical gifts. The Bible never tells us how the gifts were eventually used– Did Joseph and Mary use the gold to help pay for their flight to Egypt? Did Mary save the frankincense and myrrh to use for Jesus’s burial? We don’t know. But the spices would have kept their scent for a long time, releasing their fragrance whenever the jars or containers were opened. And they reveal something about both the recipient and the givers.

God reveals Himself to us in many ways– and He appeals to all of our senses. Our worship of and fellowship with Him should do the same. We may not have access to frankincense or myrrh (though they have increased in popularity and are readily available from dealers in essential oils), but the Bible tells us that WE are a fragrance– our worship, our obedience, our sharing of the Gospel with others.

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (ESV) via http://www.biblegateway.com

Above all, our prayers are said to be incense– a pleasing aroma before the throne of heaven:

The Lamb Takes the Scroll (Revelation 5:1-10 CSB)

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides, sealed with seven seals. I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. I wept and wept because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Look, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw one like a slaughtered lamb standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth. He went and took the scroll out of the right hand of the one seated on the throne.

The Lamb Is Worthy

When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song:

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You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
10 You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth.

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This season, as we revel in the scents of the season and remember the gifts given to the infant Emmanuel, let us present Him with the gift of fervent prayer and enthusiastic praise. He is Worthy!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.

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Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.

Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.

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He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.

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In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.

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Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

Whom Shall I Fear?

Psalm 27

Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread?
When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell.
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
For he will conceal me in his shelter
in the day of adversity;
he will hide me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Then my head will be high
above my enemies around me;
I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy.
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Lord, hear my voice when I call;
be gracious to me and answer me.
My heart says this about you:
“Seek his face.”
Lord, I will seek your face.
Do not hide your face from me;
do not turn your servant away in anger.
You have been my helper;
do not leave me or abandon me,
God of my salvation.
10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord cares for me.
11 Because of my adversaries,
show me your way, Lord,
and lead me on a level path.
12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing violence.
13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart be courageous.
Wait for the Lord.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+27&version=CSB
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There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…

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David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.

But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!

Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.

Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel:
She has fallen;
Virgin Israel will never rise again.
She lies abandoned on her land
with no one to raise her up.
For the Lord God says:
The city that marches out a thousand strong
will have only a hundred left,
and the one that marches out a hundred strong
will have only ten left in the house of Israel.

For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live!
Do not seek Bethel
or go to Gilgal
or journey to Beer-sheba,
for Gilgal will certainly go into exile,
and Bethel will come to nothing.
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will spread like fire
throughout the house of Joseph;
it will consume everything
with no one at Bethel to extinguish it.
Those who turn justice into wormwood
also throw righteousness to the ground.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns darkness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who summons the water of the sea
and pours it out over the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.
He brings destruction on the strong,
and it falls on the fortress.
10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty
at the city gate,
and they despise the one who speaks with integrity.
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.
13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.
14 Pursue good and not evil
so that you may live,
and the Lord, the God of Armies,
will be with you
as you have claimed.
15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the city gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says:
There will be wailing in all the public squares;
they will cry out in anguish in all the streets.
The farmer will be called on to mourn,
and professional mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass among you.
The Lord has spoken.

18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
What will the day of the Lord be for you?
It will be darkness and not light.
19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion
only to have a bear confront him.
He goes home and rests his hand against the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Won’t the day of the Lord
be darkness rather than light,
even gloom without any brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise, your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
22 Even if you offer me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+5&version=CSB
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The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.

God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!

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Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

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