Ceaseless Praise

Have you ever thought that right now, somewhere in the world, someone is singing praises to God? Someone is praying somewhere in the world at every moment of every day. There is not a solitary silent moment in the universe, where God is not receiving the worship He deserves. In fact, Jesus told some angry Pharisees, when they asked Him to rebuke the people of Jerusalem, that if they (the people who were shouting praises) were to be silent, the very rocks would cry out! (See Luke 19: 37-40)

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In fact, “the whole earth is full of His Glory” (Isaiah 6:3). From the smallest insect to the giant creatures in the seas; from the smallest of dust motes to the stars in the galaxies, all of creation sings, shouts, shines, and testifies to the Majesty of God.

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We don’t hear this constant praise. Nor do we smell the aroma of constant prayers that rise up “like incense” to the throne of Heaven. But our prayer should be that Jesus would be as close as our every thought, word, and action throughout the day; that in everything we think, say, and do, we would be participating in the eternal and glorious worship of the One who is worthy. And that our prayers and praise would blend in harmony with all the others in the great “Song of the Redeemed.”

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Prayer and praise should not be a single activity undertaken for a minute or even an hour a day. It should be as natural as breathing or blinking. And while we are in the flesh, and may not physically “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) we can ask God to “take our moments and our days–let them flow in ceaseless praise!”

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The LORD God Almighty Is His Name

He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.

Amos 4:13 NIV (via biblestudytools.com)
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To whom do you pray? I know many people who address their prayers to “Our Father.” Others pray to the Name of Jesus, or to “Abba,” or even through a saint. I’ve heard some even use terms like “Daddy God,” or “The Man Upstairs.” But the One who hears our prayers, the Triune God of the Universe, is altogether Holy, Righteous, Sovereign, and Supreme. We forget that or diminish that to our peril.

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That doesn’t mean that we cannot draw near to our Creator– in fact, He wants us to call on Him and commune with Him. But He is more than just another someone we can talk to. He sees us– and He sees through us! We may be able to “fool” our friends and even our family with a false smile or half-attentive listening, but God is not fooled by our appearance or our shallow actions.

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The people of Israel, during the time of Amos’s writing, had formed a bad habit of “fake” worship. They prided themselves on their rituals– morning sacrifices, tithes, offerings, etc. They were religious– on the surface. But their lives were filled with greed, selfishness, corruption, pride, and apathy. They not only knew there was injustice all around them, they were willing participants!

They had pushed a loving and merciful God to His limits. He had sent plagues, famines, war, and other disasters to humble His people and shake them out of their sinful stupor. Hard times can bring people together; disasters can cause them to turn their eyes to Heaven; to ask for help, and to offer help to their neighbors. But these stubborn people used hard times to take advantage of those who were already in trouble– the rich watched in comfort and disdain as their countrymen starved. They cheated and hoarded while others were dying.

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Sadly, the Israelites of Amos’s time are not so very different from people in our own time and countries. God’s warnings and pleadings don’t sound out of place in 21st century America. Or Europe. Or anywhere else. We have a form of worship– people who brag about their Mega-churches with worship orchestras, bistros, indoor playgrounds for the kids, light shows, and more; people who attend every “Christian” concert that comes to town, or attend retreats and seminars. And there’s nothing overtly “wrong” about such worship. But it has to translate into WORTH-SHIP–recognizing that God is not just another superstar; that His House is not just a place to be entertained or meet other “nice” people. That His Word is not just a bunch of stories about “other” people who messed up, with a list of suggestions on how to live a “better life now.”

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He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.” May we never forget or take for granted WHO God really is. And may we always recognize His Worth and Majesty. May we be quick to listen and obey Him, and quick to repent when we go astray. That’s what He was asking through Amos and the other prophets– that’s what He asks of us today.

Celebrate Variety

It’s growing and harvesting season in our area for many vegetables. Gardens have been spilling over with zucchini, cabbages, carrots, summer squash, onions, green beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, and much more. Similarly, the flower gardens are blooming with every color and variety imaginable– bright yellow sunflowers, tiny blue and white blossoms, and red cardinal flowers. I’m amazed at the variety of wonderful things God designed for us.

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Did you know there are dozens of different varieties of just carrots?! Orange, yellow, purple, red, white, long and skinny, or short and fat, rounded ends or tapered…and that doesn’t begin to cover varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc. Not to mention fruits, nuts, grains, herbs, flowers, fungi, and bark that are edible. Plants of every size, color, shape, taste, and texture. And many plants have other uses– medicine, fibers for clothing and rope, dyes, wood for building or burning as fuel, oils, and so much more.

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And that’s just the plant world. There are millions of different varieties of insects in the world, and animals ranging from bats to butterflies, pandas to pigs, geese to giraffes, wolves to whales, ocelots to octopuses, and ponies to platypuses.

God could have provided only grass or leaves for us to eat, instead of giving us such a variety of tastes and textures for our nourishment. He could have made all trees look alike with the same texture of leaves/needles, and wood. He could have made just one kind of fish to swim the lakes and oceans. In the same way, God could have created us to act and look just the same. But God loves variety. He loves for us to discover and celebrate all the uniqueness of His creation– including our neighbors and family and friends.

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We have a tendency to look down on or make fun of differences– we say that some people are a little “corny,” while others are just plain “nuts,” or go “against the grain.” But the truth is, God designed each of us to reflect His nature in all Its infinite, glorious variety. We shouldn’t try to be someone else, or belittle someone else for not being just like us. Instead, we should reach out and celebrate those fellow “human beans” who carry a unique imprint of God’s image.

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Genesis 1:27-30 NIV
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I Can Only Imagine…

I live in the Midwestern United States, in an area known for lots of lakes and streams, woods and forests, and fertile farmland. I don’t have to imagine the smell of pines, or the sound of frogs at night, or the sight of cornfields turning ripe in the summer heat. I don’t have to imagine frost on late autumn mornings, or ice and snow on tree branches in January. But I’m not as familiar with mountains, deserts or the ocean. I have visited such areas, but I have to remember the scent and sting of saltwater coming off the ocean, or the dry heat of the desert, or the thin air of the mountains.

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Thankfully, there are photographs, and videos that help refresh memories and capture some of the wonder of jungles and plateaus, waterfalls, tundra, and dunes. We live in an awesome world, and our Creator has filled it with beauty, grandeur, and majesty. Even more amazing, God has created solar systems, and galaxies beyond our ability to visit. We cannot experience such places “in person,” but we can see dazzling views through telescopes of stars and worlds millions of miles away.

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But there are places that are beyond our ability to view– even beyond our imagination.

Heaven is one of those places. We have limited descriptions of Heaven in the Bible– a place of joy and perfection; where God himself is the light and source of life. A place where there is no disease, no death, no sin, and no fear. Several people have tried to depict it, but there is really no way to picture it accurately. Some people imagine a place of boredom, filled with “saints” sitting around playing the harp through all eternity. Others imagine a place filled with all their loved ones– an eternal family reunion, with laughter and singing. But the Bible is clear– Heaven is where God lives and reigns–HE is the focal point of Glory and Dominion and Eternal Praise and Purpose.

Another place we cannot imagine accurately is Hell. Again, we have a few clues in the Bible, and many attempts to depict what Hell might be like– a place of eternal torment and regret, without the presence of God– without light, love, comfort, or hope. We don’t like to imagine going there. We don’t like to imagine anyone being there– not really. Even in anger, we should not want to waste all of eternity watching anyone else suffer the agonies of Hell, and we certainly don’t wish to have a “front row” seat!

The Bible doesn’t give us lengthy descriptions of either of these eternal destinations– and for a reason. We have a life to live here and now! While our eternal destination is of vital importance, it is not for us to spend precious time creating an imaginary set of expectations– pearly gates or fire and brimstone–in our minds. Rather, we are to concentrate on THIS life– THIS gift of God to use and enjoy for His glory.

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Sometimes, we get a small glimpse of eternity– a transcendent moment of such natural beauty that we are hyper-aware of God’s Sovereignty; or a horrific scene of destruction and Sin that makes us shudder and recoil. But the rest is better left to eternity as we pursue God in this life.

Out of the Same Mouth

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 

James 3:5-10 NIV via biblegateway.com (emphasis added)
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‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

Epictetus (Greek philosopher)
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Have you ever made a tape of you speaking, and played it back to listen to yourself? Or have you had someone remind you of what you said earlier in the day or week? Have you been astonished to hear what came out of your mouth (or how someone else interpreted your words)? James, the brother of Jesus, had much to say about the dangerous power of an untamed tongue. “Fire”, “poison”, “corrupt”, “restless”, “evil”, and “deadly” are harsh words, but we should heed James’ warning.

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Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing…
Out of the same mouth come worship and complaining…
Out of the same mouth come encouragement and gossip…
Out of the same mouth come blessings and bitterness…
Out of the same mouth come hymns of heaven and threats of hell…

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And it’s not just our mouths, anymore. I see (and have seen it in my own feeds) posts on social media that make me wonder if the person posting is aware of what they posted just minutes or hours before–rants and boasts, complaints and smug condemnation sprinkled with Bible verses about Peace and Love, and pictures of puppies. We copy and paste, write and speak “in the moment” out of the emotions and thoughts that we allow to govern us. And while we may forget our momentary outbursts and random sarcastic comments, others do not. God does not ignore them, either. He can and will forgive them, but He isn’t “fooled” by our gracious cover-ups and flowery quote boxes.

When I pray today, I need to “listen” to what I’ve been saying lately. Do I need to deal with hidden anger or resentment? Do I need to confess (both to God and to someone else) about gossip? Do I need to reconsider the way I speak about my relationships and my achievements (and failures!)?

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The same mouth that praises God should be speaking life, peace, healing, and hope to those around me. The same mouth that promises to follow Christ, should promise to reach out to those for whom He died. The same mouth that gives thanks for Salvation should be eager to share the Good News.

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The tongue is powerful–whether as a weapon or a tool; whether controlled or out of control. God wants to teach us to use it as a tool for good. Not just when we pray, or worship, but every time we use it!

Nothing But the Blood

As I write this, it is still Sunday evening. This morning, we sang a classic hymn at church– “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” It’s an old hymn, and familiar; we often sing such hymns on auto-pilot and without really thinking of the wonderful words and truths coming out of our throats.

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“What can wash away my sin?– Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” “What can make me whole again?–Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” When I come to God in prayer, confessing my sins, it is not my prayer that makes me clean. Nothing I can say or do will give me right standing before God. I am a sinner, and I fall short of God’s glory. I also trespass against His holiness, and even His mercy. I am guilty, and there is no “magic” prayer that will heal me or exonerate me.

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Yet I come before a Holy God and make my confession. Not because He doesn’t know that I have sinned. Not because my words will save me. I come because I know that the Blood of Jesus Christ has, and will make me whole and justified. I have no need to hide the truth of my condition, or try to make my own justification or sanctification. Christ has done it all.

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Prayers of confession are not for God’s benefit, but for ours. To hide our guilt, or to excuse it, is to despise God’s amazing gift of Grace. When we confess to God, it is not because He wants to humiliate us or cause us additional guilt– though this is often the lie we tell ourselves. God is eager to remove our guilt and to guide us in His righteous ways. But He will not save us against our own will or without our permission. He will not conspire with us to hide our secret sins, or pass the blame on to someone else. To do so would be to submit to OUR will. WE are NOT God, though we sometimes act as though our ways are better than His.

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I’m so glad that God is God– that His ways are perfect, and that I can trust Him completely. Even when I fall short, I can trust that God has already paid the price to make things right– something I could never do, and something I find too wonderful to fully comprehend.

Nothing but the blood can save me. And anything other than the blood will fail to set me free. My prayers of confession– no matter how polished or pious or piteous– cannot unlock the mystery of salvation and restoration. But they acknowledge the marvelous reality that it IS FINISHED! God’s Grace is sufficient! Hallelujah!

“Ever Hearing”

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who just pretended to listen? They nod or make a sympathetic face, but clearly they have no idea what you are saying. Maybe they nodded at the wrong time, or even interrupted you with some comment that was completely off-topic.

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God not only hears what we say to Him, He understands better than WE do!

That is not the case with us. We can be “Ever Hearing” but “Never Understanding,” just like the people of Israel during the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. (see Isaiah 6: 9-13) Isaiah brought warnings and prophetic judgments from God–calls for repentance and warnings of impending punishments. He spent years delivering the same message to hundreds of people. They heard his message, but they did not listen, understand, or repent. Jesus, in Mark 4:12 alludes to this passage in Isaiah– clearly, the people of his day were equally “deaf” to the truth, even though thousands came to hear Jesus speak

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Jesus’ brother James, in his epistle, rephrases the same idea– “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV) Just because we have believed the Good News does not make us immune to hearing without listening, understanding, and obeying.

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We have thousands of Bible study books, websites, videos, broadcasts and webcasts, blogs, and live meetings–and, for many of us, they are free and easy to access. There are billboards, memes, t-shirts, Christian radio stations, and more, sharing scripture, testimonies, cartoons, songs, prayers, and more, 24 hours a day in almost every corner of the world and in most of the world’s languages.

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But sometimes, the very prevalence of such material causes us to take it for granted; and our hearts and minds become numb to the glory of God’s wisdom and the urgency of His warnings. We hear that God is sovereign– and we say that we believe–but we act as though we know better than God how the world “should” be. We hear that God is gracious and merciful– and we sing praises for His mercy toward us– but we have no mercy for others who fall short of our expectations. We hear that God is close to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18), but we act as though God favors the proud and self-sufficient.

Why would God command Isaiah to continue preaching to those who refuse to listen and obey? And why would Jesus follow in Isaiah’s footsteps– relying on parables and teaching the masses who misunderstood His Gospel?

Scholars have different theories, but I think there are two main reasons:

  • We know from examples and from experience that the same message that falls on “deaf”ears over many years can suddenly “click.” God know this better than anyone. He is patient and humble. God’s message doesn’t change, but sometimes, it takes a while to “seep in” to the heart and mind. Someone who is “ever hearing” may be processing more of the message than we know. God’s spirit whispers, and His truth can be drowned out, but it cannot be silenced. It is important for us to continue to speak, to write, and to LIVE the truth– not just for others, but to make sure we are still listening, understanding, and obeying the truth.
  • God IS truth. And God may whisper, but He will not be silent. God is mysterious, but not absent, or cold, or withdrawn. In Romans 1: 18-32, Paul says that God has revealed all of His invisible qualities in all of nature throughout all of time. We cannot say that we NEVER saw the glory of a sunset, or heard the power of thunder, or felt the warm kiss of the sun, or in some other way experienced the loving and majestic reality of God. We CHOOSE to ignore or rebel against God’s ever-present, all-gracious love.
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What glories will we see, hear, and experience today? Will we be “ever hearing” but “never understanding” “how wide, and long and high and deep” (Ephesians 3:17-19) is the Love of Christ? I hope we will take every opportunity to listen, understand, and obey His call today!

Processed Prayer

I love to cook. I love looking at new recipes, and finding new ways to use fresh ingredient, use up that last bit of leftovers, or stretch staple foods like beans, flour, or rice. And I love to pray. I love being able to lift up praises, requests, and even questions. I love knowing that I can confess even my most shameful thoughts or deeds to a God who already knows, loves me more than I can imagine, and stands eager to forgive me and strengthen me to make wiser choices.

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Cooking can be exciting, challenging, and creative. But it doesn’t have to be. I don’t have to cook at all in our culture. I can (at some expense) dine out every day, and let someone else do all the work. Or, I can buy pre-made meals, “processed” foods and “instant” mixes– “just add water,” “cooks in 6 minutes,” “ready to eat.” I can pray “processed” prayers, too. I can recite prayers of others, mumble graces by rote, and even read off a list of requests with little or no effort or emotion.

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But processed prayer isn’t healthy– no more than processed food. Oh, it won’t seem much different– at first. And it isn’t “bad”–every once in a while. But a steady diet of praying someone else’s words and thoughts doesn’t build a personal relationship. We miss out on the “process” of praying, and the end result is not as fresh and healthful.

When I cook from scratch, I have to follow a process:

  • I need to make sure I have the proper ingredients.
  • Some ingredients need to be seeded, skinned, peeled, chopped, or otherwise readied before they can be used.
  • Ingredients need to be added in the proper order.
  • Measurements are important. 1 teaspoon of salt is not the same as 1/2 cup of salt!
  • I need to use the proper methods– simmer, boil, chill, bake, etc.
  • Timing is crucial, too. Cookies may take 10 minutes to bake– a roast may take 3 hours.
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Praying “from scratch” also follows a process:

  • I have to have the right heart attitude.
  • Distractions need to be put aside.
  • I want to include all the “ingredients” of a deep prayer– Adoration and Praise; Acknowledging God’s Sovereignty and Power; Confession and Repentance; Thankfulness; Presenting my requests; Lifting up the needs of others; and Committing to Listen and Obey God.
  • Timing is important–I need to make time to visit with God in Prayer. It shouldn’t be an afterthought or another activity to squeeze in IF I have a chance!
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That doesn’t mean that we can’t (or shouldn’t) pray “in the moment” or recite The Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of St. Francis, or another written prayer. It doesn’t mean that we should make all our prayers from a “recipe” or a formula. But if our prayer “diet” is becoming dependent on “processed” prayers, we may need to go back to the kitchen!

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TGIF

Ahhh…Friday. End of the work week, beginning of the weekend. Payday, too, for some. For many people, their goal is just to get through Friday at work, and spend time doing whatever they want until they have to return to work on Monday. Of course, some people have to work weekends, and others don’t have a job at all. Some have other responsibilities on the weekends– caring for aging parents, or shuttling kids to ball games; volunteer projects, working on home improvement tasks, or mowing the lawn. But Friday has become such a special day in our culture that we even have a phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday” (TGIF for short). And we have special Fridays–Good Friday (the day of Christ’s crucifixion), and “Black” Friday (the huge shopping day after Thanksgiving). And several movies about Fridays– Freaky Friday, His Girl Friday, Friday Night Lights, and a string of Friday the 13th horror flicks. And most of the associations with Friday are positive, even festive. For some people, Friday is the high point of their week!

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But what about the other days of the week? Do we thank God for Tuesdays, or Saturdays, or Sundays? Shouldn’t we be grateful every day? God gave us seven days each week, and He even sanctioned one of those days each week for rest and reflection. When Jesus spoke of the concept of a “sabbath,” He made clear that a weekly day of rest was God’s gift to US (Mark 2:27 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+2%3A27-28&version=ESV) But every day is a gift– filled with God’s presence and promises, even when it may seem like an endless series of chores, mishaps, and personal failures.

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God gives us each day, and whether it is payday, Monday, a “bad-hair” day, or a holiday, every day is an opportunity to live, love, and learn. And every day, we have the privilege and the opportunity to spend time in prayer with our Loving Heavenly Father.

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So, yes, Thank God that it’s Friday today. And use this day (and every day) to honor Him, obey Him, and walk in joy with Him. Tomorrow, Thank God it’s Saturday!

Seasonal Prayers

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It is supposed to be springtime in my neck of the woods. We’ve had two days of snow this week, chilly winds, and frost/freeze warnings. Fruit farmers are worried about losing the fragile blossoms that we need for apples, peaches, and cherries later this year. Many of the spring flowers are also in jeopardy. People are joking that we need to “unplug” springtime and “reboot” it, because it seems not to be working! The seasons seem “out of time.”

Sometimes our lives seem the same. We expect a season of growth or warmth, only to feel the cold winds, or we experience drought when we expected rain. Our prayers will change as the seasons come and go– young parents pray for patience as their days are hectic; aging parents pray for visits from their busy children and grandchildren. We go through seasons of success, seasons of stress, seasons of forced immobility, seasons of grief, and seasons of distracted activity.

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Throughout the Psalms, David and the other psalm writers sang of woes and wonders, praises and problems– sometimes within a single Psalm! We have seasons of questioning, and seasons of confidence. Sometimes, we feel close to God; other times, we wonder why He seems so far away. Our “songs” and prayers will change over the course of our lives and according to our moods and circumstances– desperate, worshipful, even indignant. Yet God hears them all– He wants us to pour out our hearts in all seasons!

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Our seasons may change, but God is Eternally Loving and Sovereign. Our moods and changing circumstances cannot remove us from His watchful eye or His tender care. Our momentary anger and doubt are not beyond His willingness–even eagerness– to forgive and redeem! God is Lord of all the Seasons– seasons of snow and sunshine; seasons of joy and sorrow. Even when our seasons seem “out of time,” we can lift our voices to a God who never changes.

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