I was recently with a group of pastors where one of the participants prepared a devotional based on Acts 12. As we discussed this portion of scripture, the topic of prayer was brought up due, in no small part, to the mention (in verse 4) of the church earnestly praying to God for Peter, who was at the time in jail, and the mention (in verse 12) of the people gathered in Mary’s home who were praying throughout the night. Despite all this prayer, earnestly offered, the church was not prepared for Peter’s miraculous escape and were astonished when he knocked at their gate. The dynamics of engagement with God through prayer is a wonderful mystery.
I wish I could tell you how prayer works. I wish there was a formula where you could plug in your request and you would know the outcome. I wish I was not like the early believers written about in Acts 12 who powerfully and persistently prayed for Peter but were unable to comprehend the answer. It seems that we are consistently praying in one direction and the answer comes unexpectedly from another direction. Is it possible that our faith effects our ability to anticipate the answer, or do we pray with the realization that our faith will grow through the unanticipated ways the Almighty will work the resolution? Whatever the machinations or motivations for our prayers may be, we are called to present our requests before God.
[Jehoshaphat prayed,] “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV)
I like Jehoshaphat’s prayer. Here is the king of Judah, the earthly ruler of God’s people, crying out to God because of an impossible situation – a vast army from Edom was just beyond the city gates. What would you pray for if you faced certain destruction unless the God of creation intervened? To strengthen your forces? To give success to your plans? Thankfully for us who are puzzled by prayer, Jehoshaphat’s petition takes a different tack.
“For we have no power….” It is as if Jehoshaphat is saying that God will have to do something if anything is going to be done. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words: we cannot arrest cancer, we cannot end violence, we cannot create wealth, we cannot change a human heart. We pray because we are powerless to effect much of what we pray for.
“We do not know what to do….” Jehoshaphat has no plans, so asking for success in the abstract is fruitless. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words as well: We are often unable to process all the details of our situation, let alone formulate action steps to bring about change. We are much better off to leave the process to the one who holds all things in order: God.
“…our eyes are on you.” Ultimately, Jehoshaphat determines that the only thing to do is watch for God’s movement and follow Him. A better prayer has never been uttered: to paraphrase, “Show me where you are and enable me to remain there.”
We have no overwhelming power, but Christ does. We have no earth-shattering plans, but Christ does. But we do have the ability of focus our attention on the things that matter…may that singular point of focus be Christ as we make every petition and request to Him.
Last Thursday night, I was captivated by a contest televised on ESPN: the 92nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Let me say that I am not an advocate for the cultural predilection toward presenting “participation awards” (the ubiquitous practice of giving everyone on the team a trophy, regardless of the score); both winning and losing has the ability to build character and excellence ought to be recognized. So, as I began watching the ‘evening finals’, beginning with round nine where sixteen children were still competing, I was very-much looking forward to seeing a champion crowned and the other 15 children cheered as they walked off the stage, defeated but undaunted.
The ninth round of words was perfectly executed – all 16 mastered the words they were given. Then, over the next 5 rounds, eight participants misspelled their word and exited the competition. At that point, the remaining eight spellers broke the system, correctly spelling the next 47 words. It was announced at one point that they were running out of words and, after a few more rounds, all those still spelling would win. After a total of 20 rounds, the directors of the bee declared all the remaining contestants the winner of the competition. Rishik Gandhasri, age 13 (who spelled ‘auslaut’), Erin Howard, 14 (‘erysipelas’), Saketh Sundar, 13 (‘bougainvillea’), Shruthika Padhy, 13 (‘aiguillette’), Sohum Sukhatankar, 13 (‘pendeloque’), Abhijay Kodali, 12 (‘palama’) Christopher Serrao, 13 (‘cernuous’) and Rohan Raja, 13 (‘odylic’) all walked away with the $50,000 and the trophy as champions of the National Spelling Bee.
This was not, in any way, a participation award. It was a pronouncement of excellence, as each one perfectly executed the task before them. These eight great spellers finished the competition without error and were declared the winner. The unfolding of this competition reminded me of the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
These young competitors all expected that there would be only one winner and they prepared accordingly. They competed to win the prize and they finished the competition in first place. They won – they all won – together, giving one another High-fives and cheering on one another’s correct (always correct) efforts. The rules of the competition did not change, only the fact that many finished perfectly, together.
In many ways, I saw a glimpse of the heavenly in the very early moments of May 31st. The conclusion of the spelling bee reminded me of the concluding moments of life: we are diligently competing for the prize, surrounded by our fellow competitors, when the director of the race, the Lord Almighty, states that all who cross the finish line first will be declared winner. At that moment, we interlock elbows and all step across the finish line together, all securing the prize. We celebrate one another, realizing that we are not competing against the other runners, but the course itself. All those still standing at the end will receive the prize.
One last word to spell: H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H!
It was supposed to be the fastest two minutes in sports, but the Kentucky Derby turned out to be the longest 20 minutes in horse racing. As a way of providing a quick recap from the race that took place a couple of weeks ago, here is what the stewards of Churchill Downs officially recorded: the lead horse, Maximum Security, strayed from his lane and impacted the progress of another horse, War of Will, which in turn interfered with two others, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress; because of this infraction, Maximum Security was disqualified and considered not to have participated, and the second place finisher, a horse named Country House, was declared a winner. Earlier this week, ten days after the race, the owners of Maximum Security filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification.
I have an insufficient knowledge of the rules of thoroughbred racing to posit an opinion about the merits of the disqualification or the lawsuit. Was one horse’s veering from its path into the path of another sufficient cause to force the forfeiture of the substantial purse and the even more substantial legacy that goes with winning the Kentucky Derby? I cannot say. But then again, hypothetically, was my traveling ten miles over the speeding limit, along with everyone else, sufficient reason for a state police officer to cite me for speeding? Hypothetically again, was my fabrication about a little thing like coffee consumption sufficient cause for people to question my truthfulness?
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)
Call it what you will: a competitive edge, a social construct, an ethical dilemma or a way of doing business; if it is unlawful, unethical or ungodly, it ought not to be done. Those who do these things are in danger of disqualification. Paul’s advice: stay in your lane. He tells us the secret to his spiritual integrity – if it takes away from the message we are telling or tarnishes our witness to the gospel, it is not worth the price. When we step over the line, we risk everything: it is possible that we could also forfeit our reward and forgo our legacy.
The antidote for disqualification is discipline or, as other translations put it, beating our bodies. We need the Holy Spirit to ride us like a righteous jockey, coaxing us with the crop to continue running on the right track and spurring us on to expend our greatest effort and achieve God’s goal. We need the Word of God to be a faithful trainer, strengthening us through resistance exercises and building our endurance through running the course. We need the Church to be a constant companion, challenging us when we are slogging through the mud and encouraging us to finish the race.
We are so much more than racehorses. We, who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, are children of the Almighty and we ought never do anything that might jeopardize our birthright – the crown of life reserved for the victor. Trust the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the Church to keep us on track and finish the race properly.
“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Abraham Lincoln
Sunday is Mother’s Day, when three out of four of us will purchase a greeting card and over two-thirds of us will buy flowers for our mom (or our children’s mom). It is the least we can do for those who have given us so much of themselves. There is something in our mother’s kisses that are more therapeutic than the best medicine and something in her voice that is more comforting than the best psychotherapy. Mom was likely the first to read to us, pray for us and cry with us. She made sure, for most of us, that we had a birthday cake on our special day and a new outfit for the first day of school. It is right and good to honor and remember the ones who endured painful labor and sleepless nights for her children: God bless Mom!
As I think about Mother’s Day, my thoughts come back to a commercial I recently saw for the Portal from Facebook. In the commercial, actor Neil Patrick Harris decides to call and celebrate his mother on Mother’s Day using the Portal from Facebook. He sees that she’s not alone; she has company: the mothers of Serena and Venus Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Snoop Dogg and Dwayne Johnson among others. While Neil knows who they are, most people watching the commercial are unfamiliar with the women on the video-chat screen and are given only a clue by Neil’s references – Odell’s mom, Jonah’s mom and the like. These women, no doubt, have done great things in their own right but are willingly recognized as someone’s mom. We ourselves may not actually know some women’s names, only that they are so-and-so’s mom. God bless you, Neil’s mom.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)
One of the moms of the Bible who lived a life of seemingly quiet obscurity is Lois – the mom of Eunice, who was the mom of Timothy. All we know about this woman is what we read in the verse I have quoted. All we have as a historical record is that a sincere faith lived in her. There are so many unanswered questions: Did she have hobbies or a favorite story? Where did she grow up? How long was she married? Was she like the Proverbs 31 woman and worked outside (as well as inside) the home? Was she tall, attractive and wealthy or petite, plain and poor? All we know is her name, her heart and her grandson. But, in God’s economy, that is enough. God has blessed us with moms like Lois.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who are known by the world only as someone’s mom. God knows you are much more than that: you are leaders of industry, educators, medical experts, investors, inventors and artists – and then you go out the front doors of your home and do even more. Happy Mother’s Day!
The other day, an article in Relevant Magazine came to my attention. It reported on a new Instagram© account, PreachersNSneakers, that shows influential Christian leaders wearing high priced fashion. According to the article, the internet poster shows, among many examples, one pastor wearing SBB Jordan 1 sneakers, which cost $965, and another pastor wearing $1,045 Adam & Yves Saint Laurent boots. With all fairness, it is unclear who paid for or provided the pictured church leaders with their footwear or clothing, whether it was a personal purchase, an unsolicited gift or a promotional perk. Whatever the source, the pictures are shocking the sensibilities of many in the Christian community.
The article made me think about my choices, especially a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, of dress. I wore a new suit (purchased at a ‘Buy 1, Get 2 Free’ sale), a new shirt and tie (both acquired while on sale at Kohl’s), a pair of old, but polished shoes, and new socks. It is these socks that give me pause: they were a gift from my daughter, who purchased them in Rome at the Vatican’s gift shop; they were produced by the tailor of the Pope. They may be the most luxurious item I have worn in a great while.
I remember commenting on the socks throughout the morning, glowingly reflecting that my “Pope socks” were a gift. I have no idea how much they cost my daughter – perhaps as little as $10 or as much as $50 (to which my thoughts scream, “Heavens, no!”) I gave no thought to the challenges some in the congregation may be facing: was there a participant in worship that wondered if I had paid for socks that would have filled their car with gas or bought them a weekend’s worth of groceries? This train of thought has subsequently been derailed as I think of the luxuries I enjoy that may come at the expense of ministry – thoughts relating to how much I spend on coffee or dining out or fashion accessories.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Proverbs 15:16
It is easy to judge people we only read about because their sneakers are more valuable than our cars. It is harder to correctly assess these things as they relate to our own personal spending habits. The line between necessities and luxuries can be difficult to locate. Most of us do not need personally tailored suits or dresses, brand name sneakers or stilettos, or homes with ten bedrooms. But we do need shirts, shoes and shelters. The optics of excess lie in the details, both in what we spend and the cultural surrounding in which we spend. Manhattan has a different standard than Montgomery of what is a necessity versus a luxury .
I am choosing to continue wearing my “Pope socks” but I will graciously refuse to accept any gift which includes a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2s. I will continue to try to give more to others than I luxuriously spend on myself. Hopefully, that we keep me from appearing on Instagram in a Tesla®.
Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
Later today, my daughter will spend 18 hours travelling over 4,500 miles, flying from Boston to Thessaloniki in Greece. When she gets there, she will study abroad for her spring semester and be far from home for 3 months. It is, without a doubt, a wonderful opportunity for her. However, I am anxious about all the logistics that a trip of this nature requires: will she make her connecting flights, communicate with reputable locals to get to the college campus and be compatible with her roommate? I fear that my anxiety will not subside until the first week of April, when Rebekah returns to the sweet land of liberty. Until then, I will pray.
But what should I pray? That the airplanes remain in the sky between uneventful takeoffs and landings? That everyone in Europe is kind and caring? That she will enjoy 90 days of Aegean bliss, akin to the images of Grecian villages in “Mama Mia”? I have to admit that I would like to offer these prayers, except that they all seem so self-serving, as if I am saying that in this world where so many are in the midst of genuine suffering, I want God to place my little girl in a bubble of security. There must be more to prayer than simply supplying the sustainer of the heavenly spheres with my personal wish-list.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
As my daughter departs for her next adventure, I am choosing to take the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi to heart. I am choosing, in this situation, to not be anxious as I present my requests to God. I will make these requests with all the gratitude I can muster, recognizing the enormity of my circumstance (able to offer prayers in the presence of our Great High Priest and offer petitions before the King of Kings). After I have emptied my heart of all the anxiety that it harbored, I will be blessed with the peace that replaces it. I may not understand God’s remedies to my requests, but I will remember that He loves my daughter even more than I do. And that will be more than enough.
As I pray for my daughter over the next three months, I recognize that my intercession will not change God’s will; it will, however, give voice to what I would like God’s will to be – protection and blessing for those I love. This will bring me to the threshold of faith (as the author of Hebrews says, that which gives us confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see) where I enter the place of God’s grace, trusting that He will always answer my prayers with what He knows is best, whether I comprehend its goodness or not.
So, please join me in prayer: continue to bring your heart’s cry before the throne of the Almighty and trust that He will perfectly answer your every request…and enjoy the peace that will keep watch over your heart and mind, whatever the resolution.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
One of my favorite parts of celebrating Christmas is watching the Christmas specials on TV with the family (and if we are unavailable for the network broadcasts, we have most, if not all, the best on DVD). I am sure everyone has a list of their preferences: “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Prep and Landing”, or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. They are all wonderful in their own right, but my personal choice for the greatest Christmas special would be a tie between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. These marvelous stories, regularly broadcast since 1965 and 1966 respectively, hold a special place in my heart.
At first blush, these two stories have very little in common. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a boy seeking the real meaning of Christmas while preparing for a traditional Christmas pageant which emphasizes, in a pivotal scene, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recounts the happenings of a fantastic location known as Whoville and the mean resident of Mount Crumpet who is seeking to rob the Whos of their Christmas joy. One has overtly Christian themes and the other has overly secular themes, seemingly the two opposites of the celebratory spectrum.
But these two masterpieces have more in common than you might think. Both the authors grew up in Lutheran homes. Both were based on works intended for children. Most significantly, both, at their cores, deal with the dangers of consumerism. “Charlie Brown”’s animated landscape is riddled with aluminum Christmas trees and its dialogue is filled with gift suggestions, leaving the protagonist with the zigzag shirt longing for more. “The Grinch”’s narrative couplets tell of jingtinglers and games like zoozittacarzay, and decry the noises of the season, all of which cause consternation within the titular green meanie. Both Charlie Brown and the Grinch want to stop the celebration of a consumption-centered Christmas.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11 (NIV)
If you have not watched these specials at least once in the last 50 years, stop reading and watch them on Youtube© here and here. Both these Christmas specials come to the conclusion that the meaning and significance of Christmas is not the stuff under the tree, but the relationships we cherish while gathering around the tree. It is the relationships – for “Charlie Brown” it is Jesus and for “The Grinch” it is family – that makes Christmas matter. These relationships bring the school children around a tiny tree to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and bring the Whos around the spot where the village tree was placed to sing “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze, Welcome, Christmas, Come This Way.”
My prayer this Christmas is that we can all come to the same realization that the Grinch reaches: that Christmas can come without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes or bags. My hope this Christmas is that when we reach our breaking point and cry out, as Charlie did, whether anyone knows what Christmas is all about, some kind soul reminds you about the marvelous events that took place just outside Bethlehem. It is not about presents…it is all about presence.