Pass It On

The county fair is on this week– seven days of community-wide activities, including, but not limited to:

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  • Carnival rides
  • Games
  • Concerts
  • Exhibits of home arts, fine arts, craft items, and locally grown produce
  • Carnival food booths– pulled pork, corn dogs, elephant ears, ice cream, sno-cones, cotton candy, caramel corn, sausages on sticks, fried cheese curds, fried veggies (with ranch dip), cinnamon buns, fruit slushes and “shake-ups”, pizza, steak wraps, fried rice, tamales and burritos, craft root beer, funnel cakes, popcorn, caramel apples, and so much more to choose from!
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  • Farm animals on display everywhere– pigs, chickens, cows, horses, ducks, geese, turkeys, goats, sheep, rabbits, pigeons, cats, a burro, an emu, and probably more that I missed–perhaps a mule or an alpaca!
  • Youth competitions for animal showmanship, arts and crafts, etc.
  • A quilting competition
  • Commercial and community booths featuring local businesses, churches, political groups, schools, and services
  • Tractor pulls, horse pulls, Motocross, a Demolition Derby, and a Monster Truck show
  • Free live entertainment venues
  • Antique and new tractors on display
  • People– lots of people…some of them who live in the area, and some who visit from neighboring counties and states.
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What does the County Fair have to do with prayer?  I suppose for some, there is no connection.  For me, there are two ways prayer goes hand in hand with the County Fair:

  • The local Fair is a long-standing tradition, tying the community together and celebrating its heritage and hope for the future.  All around the fairgrounds, there are banners and plaques honoring people who have given of their time and talent to this community– farmers, teachers, civic leaders, doctors, police officers, pastors, donors, veterinarians, business owners, parents, coaches, and helpers.  In each generation, people pass on their knowledge, enthusiasm, passion, and excellence to those who will use it, expand on it, modify it, and pass it along to others.  In the same way, prayer warriors of the past have inspired and led people to the knowledge and love of Christ– many of the names at the fair represent people who poured love into, and prayed for my generation.  They discipled, taught, cared for, and inspired me and so many others.   We don’t worship them as idols or honor them in place of God, but we honor the way God used their lives as examples for us to follow.  Even those who were not Christ-followers had talents and wisdom that they shared, and God used, to help others.  This is a tradition worth celebrating, remembering, and continuing.
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  • The County Fair is a great place to see people I know but don’t always get to talk to
    • Classmates from school I haven’t seen in ages.
    • “Children” (now grown with children of their own) I used to babysit.
    • Former students, from when I was a schoolteacher.
    • Former neighbors, friends of my family, and people I knew from the church I attended as a child.
    •  Family and extended family who still live in various parts of the county or surrounding counties.
    • People for whom I have been praying– because I have heard of their needs or seen an e-mail or FB post or talked to a concerned family member.
    • What an honor and a privilege to spend time (even a short minute or two) to catch up, encourage and be encouraged, or even share a smile or a memory!  I might meet up with someone who needs a hug, a simple assurance, or even an “on the spot” prayer.  I might also have the opportunity to reconnect, restore a relationship, or even meet a new friend.  In addition, I see exhibits with names of people I know– people I can be praying for with joy and gratitude for all that they mean or have meant in my life.
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I hope, for anyone reading this, that you can think of times or opportunities when you can connect, reconnect, or form connections with others in your community.  Think of ways others have challenged, inspired, or encouraged you.  Take a minute to lift them up in prayer, and, if you have the chance, to pass on (or back) some of what they have given you along the way.  Imagine what even the smallest connection can do to spread God’s love to others.

 

 

Blinded By the Light

A few months ago, I went to the theater to see the movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.”  It was an excellent movie, not the least because I found so much of it relevant to what is happening in the world today.  The movie was centered around Paul’s time in prison in Rome; the upheaval and persecution facing the early church, and the looming certainty that Paul would be martyred and his words and leadership sorely missed.  The church in Rome was facing division– some were militantly opposed to the corruption in Rome under Nero, and wanted to form a rebellion.  Others wanted to flee Rome in hope of supporting outlying churches, starting new churches, or just finding a safer haven.  Still others were losing hope and wanted to give up or hide.

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The movie also covered (in a series of flashbacks) scenes of Paul’s earlier life.  I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this part of Paul’s life is covered in the Bible, so I will stick to the facts presented there, rather than the drama from the screen…

Saul of Tarsus was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth.  He had studied God’s word intensely his whole life, and became a Pharisee.  He had studied under some of the greatest scholars of his age–in today’s world, he would have been one of the greatest legal minds of our time– a superstar in the arena of law, philosophy, and logic.  Of all the people in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world, Paul KNEW right from wrong.  He KNEW the words of God, the laws of God, the traditions of God’s people.  The result of all that knowledge was an obsession with wiping out those people (Jews, especially, but also Gentiles) who followed Jesus of Nazareth and “The Way.”  Saul was a man filled with righteous anger, and a zeal to have everyone conform to what was “right.”   He was a man of power and influence– a man to be feared and respected.  In his letters, we can still see some of that intensity and the way he has of arguing both sides to their logical ends.  But something happened to Saul..something that changed his entire future, including his name.

Paul, the Apostle of Christ, was still a Jew and a Roman citizen.  He was the same man who had studied vigorously and knew the laws of Moses and God’s words through the centuries written by prophets and historians and psalmists.  But the Paul we see in scripture, while still bearing the intensity of his youth, is a man of gratitude and peace.  Here is a man who works steadily with his hands for honest but meager wages compared to what he might have made as a Pharisee.  He is a man who boldly faces down even Peter and James in Jerusalem, but who nevertheless takes orders from a council made up of former fishermen and tradesmen.  Paul undergoes flogging, arrests, prison, cold, hardship, physical pain, poverty, and disgrace with the kind of stoic acceptance, and even joy, that makes him a great hero of the early church.  Never once does he return to the anger that drove him to persecute others who did not agree with him.  Instead, he is willing to be the victim of persecution at the hands of those he used to serve.

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I was scrolling through Facebook the other night, and I chanced upon posts from two women I know.  Both are about the same age, both mothers of five children, and both are practicing Christians.  The first woman was posting about two recent difficulties faced by her family, and how God had been faithful and gracious in spite of a huge loss and a tense situation that could have turned into another tragedy.  She spoke of God’s answers to prayer, and how their family was reminded of God’s goodness as people came alongside at just the right moment, and the loss was not as great as it might have been.  I was inspired and encouraged by the way she saw God’s love, and gave credit to all who had helped them.

The second woman spoke in vicious tones about how she would not associate with certain Christians who hold political and social views she sees as hateful.  She cursed fellow followers of Christ for being “anti-Jesus,” and condemned several of her early teachers and pastors.  I read her remarks with great sadness, because I remember her as a younger woman, eagerly memorizing scripture and being a loving and encouraging example to others.  I also read her remarks with pain, because I think she includes me in the “hateful” group based solely on the type of church I attend.

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It is not my place to say that one woman is a “better” Christian than the other– on another day, their FB posts might cause me to think very differently.  And God sees more than just what we post on FB or say in passing conversation–He knows our every thought and motive.  So I want to be careful–these women, though similar in some superficial ways, lead very different lives and have very different experiences of following God.  But I saw in their posts two ways of “seeing” Christ.

When Saul of Tarsus, in his anger and zeal, traveled toward Damascus intending to kill people he may have never met, he was already a crusader for Jehovah– ready to mete out justice against anyone who didn’t meet his standards.  He KNEW all about God.  He knew what it took to be righteous.

But when he actually encountered Christ– he was knocked off his horse, blinded and overwhelmed by a vision.  And when Christ spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Saul didn’t recognize the voice of the very God he so proudly served.  Saul remained blinded for three days, but his vision was never the same again.

As Paul, he became a man of prayer– his letters are filled with prayers for the well-being and spiritual growth of those he misses and longs to see.  They overflow with doxologies and prayers of worship for the Savior he loves and serves with gladness.  He can’t stop talking about God’s goodness– to him, to Israel throughout the centuries, and to the Gentiles who now have access to the throne of Grace.  He still has harsh things to say to some of the followers who “don’t get it.”   To those who want to compromise with sin or go back to legalism.  But he pleads with them; he doesn’t throw stones.

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It can be very frustrating in today’s world and in our society to see Christians who have very different ideas about worship styles, ways of interacting with others, even ways of living out the words of Christ.  Sometimes, it seems that fellow Christians are blind to the needs of the poor, or the sins of their friends, or the hypocrisy in their lifestyle.  I think scripture gives us a clear directive:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5 (English Standard Version)

We should not rush to condemnation, name-calling, and finger-pointing.  Instead, we should do a “vision” test and see if we are looking and acting in love or in self-righteous hypocrisy.

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God doesn’t want us to be blinded by the light of our own knowledge and self-righteousness.  Instead, He wants us to walk in the light of His Word–His Word made flesh!  May we live in the light of Paul’s example of prayer, loving correction, and running the good race.

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What? A Privilege?!

“What a Friend we have in Jesus,  all our sins and griefs to bear!  What a privilege to carry everything to God in Prayer!”

The word “privilege” has taken a beating lately.  A privilege used to be considered a good thing.  Merriam-Webster defines it as, “a right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor.”  A privilege is granted–given as the prerogative of someone in power or authority– to someone else.  It may be given as a reward, or granted for a limited time and under certain conditions.  But a true privilege is a gift–you can’t make your own privilege, and you cannot own or control a privilege– the terms are set by the giver, not the receiver.

In the past generation, the word “privilege” has become charged with political and societal connotations.  Those connotations, and the issues surrounding them, are worthy of discussion and could fill volumes, but I want to talk about a privilege that should be free of undertones and dubious meanings.

Prayer is a pursuit, and a practice.  It is personal, practical, and powerful.  But it is also a privilege.  Often one that we take for granted.

In pursuing prayer, we are not just developing a personal routine or discipline.  We are not just approaching a powerful supernatural entity.  We are fallen creation entering the presence of a Holy Creator; we are rebels entering the throne room of the King of Kings.

We have the right to approach God; to talk to, converse with, ask favors of, plead with, confess to, and expect answers from the One who creates galaxies with a single spoken word, and designs every unique flake of snow.  This same God grants us the right to draw breath, to experience both beauty and wonder, to question and to create.

Prayer in ancient times was almost universally accompanied by sacrifices, and surrounded with ritual– incense, bowing and prostrating oneself, covering or uncovering the head–in recognition of the horrible chasm, the great separation between God and mankind.  Many traditions still use ritual for prayer, and there is nothing wrong in this reminder of God’s Holiness and Sovereignty.  Yet God talks of prayer in intimate terms.  He didn’t impose ritual and sacrifice for his benefit, but for ours.  Several times throughout the Bible, he makes clear that he does not require the blood of bulls and goats–what he wants most is a humble and pure heart.  At the moment Jesus died, the great veil in the Temple was ripped in half from top to bottom–the most holy place laid open to all who might come into God’s presence.  Christ’s death and resurrection were not just means of saving us from Hell, but the means of bringing restoration of the intimacy God designed from the beginning.  God– Almighty, Omnipotent, and completely Holy–wants to give us the privilege to enter his presence and pour out our thoughts, feelings, burdens, and triumphs; to share intimacy with HIM.  We are not just objects of his care (or his wrath), not just creatures in whom he has a certain fond but distant interest.  We are recipients of lavish love and priceless privileges– forgiveness, power over sin, power to become more Christlike, restoration and renewal, and yes,  the pursuit of  prayer.

The Lost Art of Saying Grace

“God is great, God is Good…”
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest…”
“For what we are about to receive…”
“Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts…”

Saying grace at the family dinner table used to be a tradition.  So much so, that it has been made fun of several times in the movies and on television.  Some families recited a favorite prayer; others selected a family member to do the honors.  Some families held hands; some closed their eyes; some stood.  But NOBODY touched their plate until the Amen.

Grace has fallen out of favor in recent years.  Some families still practice it for the holidays or special occasions, but many of us have lost the art of saying grace.  In fact, many of us no longer have a family dinner table.  Some of us eat, sleep, and live alone; others share a house, but rarely a meal, and never a grace.  I would like to think that many of us WOULD say grace more often if  we made time and effort for it, but many others actually hold grace in contempt, calling it old-fashioned; a senseless ritual, or a meaningless tradition.

I want to look a little more closely at grace– how and why we say it, and what it means (or should mean) as part of our daily walk with God.  Calling grace a meaningless tradition may sound harsh, but it may also be a valid criticism.  If “Come, Lord Jesus…” could be replaced with “Gentlemen, start your engines…”, then it might be time to rethink the entire practice.  Similarly, if we dust off grace, only to say it for company, or to show that we still acknowledge tradition and have “good manners”, we’re missing the point.  Grace should be more than just a moment to bow our heads, say a few familiar words, and dig in…grace has become laughable and spoof-able precisely because it has become senseless, formulaic, awkward, and grudging.

I read a tragic statement by someone who asserted that saying grace is actually “graceless”– tactless and inane.  The writer suggested that when we thank God for food, we are really thanking him for feeding us, and choosing to bless us, as he allows others to starve– that saying grace makes us feel more special/less guilty in light of social and economic inequities, which he blithely allows.  In other words, saying grace, in this person’s opinion, makes us arrogant and apathetic to the condition of others, while giving an unjust God undeserved thanks.

I would posit that it should be just the opposite.  I suppose there are many who pray with the arrogant mindset suggested above, but their mindsets and their hearts are not mine to judge.  True grace is not about the recipient of the grace, or the other potential recipients of grace, but about the giver–God– and his worthiness to receive our sincere thanks.  If I believe that God is indeed unjust, then it makes little sense to feel “blessed” or “special” at all– an unjust God is also a capricious  and unreasonable God who is not likely to be impressed or swayed by my smug “thank you,” anyway.  So not praying doesn’t make me any less arrogant or apathetic toward others, nor does it move me to be more grateful or more generous than one who prays.  It merely passes the blame for all injustice to God, leaving me off the hook, and making me feel more just than God.

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However, if God is loving and gracious, promising perfect justice in his time, and forgiveness to those who seek him; a God who promises to be close to the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who are broken and contrite; I am not thanking him for who I am, for what I have, or for what I think he should do.  I am thanking him for who he is and for what he has chosen to give.  And in thanking him for the very things I would take for granted,  I am reminded that blessings are not given for me to boast about or hoard, but to share with others.  That’s what saying grace SHOULD do–cause us to reflect on God’s goodness, and our call to share it with a needy world.

Grace is also an invitation– asking God to be part of every moment of our day, rather than just on Sunday or during a special devotional quiet time.  According to his Word, he’s always present, anyway.  But grace is a way of acknowledging and welcoming that presence.  And that invitation isn’t limited to Thanksgiving or Sunday dinner with the whole gang.  That invitation can be made anywhere, by anyone, at any meal (or snack, or midnight raid on the fridge!)

Is God welcome at our dinner table?  Does he share in our drive-thru breakfast, or our trip to the deli?  Do we allow him to join us at the restaurant, where others might overhear and find us quaint and old-fashioned?  Does he sit with us in front of the TV or computer as we absent-mindedly munch on a sandwich?  Grace isn’t about our goodness, our riches, or worthiness to enjoy God’s blessings.  Grace is about a gracious God who has poured out blessings on a graceless and fallen world; a God who loves us all equally and offers to give us something more precious than food– freedom, forgiveness, and family–forevermore.

“God IS great; God IS good; Now we thank him for our food.”
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest; let this food to us be BLESSED”
“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us TRULY grateful.”
“Bless us, O Lord, and these, THY gifts, which we are about to receive from THY bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

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