UNARTICULATED PRAYERS

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. [Romans 8:26-27 (NLT)]

peony - field bindweedI couldn’t tell if my vague sense of unrest was because something was missing or there was something I needed to do. I couldn’t articulate it but I knew it was there and, as the days went by, the sense of disquiet continued. I simply asked God to reveal whatever was troubling me; perplexed, I didn’t know what else to pray. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did!

A week later, when I was asked to serve on the church board, I realized my unrest was because I needed to step out of my comfort zone and do something more to grow both as a Christian and a writer. I finally understood Paul’s words that the Holy Spirit will express our prayers for us when we don’t have the words. When the pastor asked me to pray about the offer, he didn’t know that I’d been praying about it for a week without knowing I was. In fact, the board position was the answer to my unarticuated prayers!

Last fall, a young musician in Kentucky felt a longing to deepen his faith through music. While looking for music ministry positions in his home state, he found an opening not far from the Florida town where he frequently performs on weekends. He certainly didn’t ask God to lead him to a new church that meets in a park in southwest Florida but that’s where the Spirit led him. Now he’s leading worship at our church. Was that coincidence or did the Holy Spirit speak for him? His new position answered his unspoken prayers (as well as our spoken ones for a worship leader).

Several years ago, my friend Lynn moved to a town where she knew no one. Away from family, with two active toddlers, and a husband whose business kept him away for weeks on end, she was overwhelmed by motherhood’s demands. While talking to a friend 1,000 miles away about her loneliness and need for a break, the phone call was cut short by a knock at the door. Standing there was the answer to Lynn’s unuttered prayers: a girl who lived nearby and was seeking a mother’s helper/babysitting job!

As it turned out, Lynn was the answer to this girl’s unvoiced prayers, as well. The teen’s mother was gone and she lived with her father and four brothers in a house heavy with testosterone. Sports reigned supreme there and no one talked about things important to teen-age girls or could help her with make-up, hair, or fashion. That, however, was right up Lynn’s alley and she was the perfect surrogate “aunt” to guide the girl through adolescence; Lynn even taught her how to cook and sew. I doubt this teen had prayed about finding a refuge from sports central any more than Lynn had prayed for someone who offered companionship and purpose along with babysitting. Yet, God heard their prayers!

We often are in the dark when it comes to our needs and how to pray but those unarticulated prayers may be the best ones. The Holy Spirit utters wordless prayers on our behalf and intercedes for us according to God’s will. Even when we don’t know what or how to pray, we can remain confident that God will arrange circumstances to work out beautifully in a way that we’d never imagine. He has a wonderful way of knowing what it is we need long before we do!

In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart. [John Bunyan]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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LET IT GO (Part 2)

frost aster - northern cataulpaInstead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)]

After writing about forgiving ourselves as a step to experiencing the abundance of Christian life, I came across some classic Peanuts comic strips (drawn by Charles Schulz) that illustrate the importance of forgiving others, as well. In the first one (originally published Christmas Eve, 1972), Charlie Brown tells Snoopy that Poochie is coming for a visit. Snoopy responds that “it would be like getting the mumps twice! …You don’t forgive someone who does to you what she did to me!” The sulking Snoopy then whines, “Just what I didn’t need…a Poochie Christmas.”

A week later, Snoopy is lying on the roof of his doghouse when Charlie Brown tells him of Poochie’s arrival. “I don’t want to see her!” replies the dog. Saying that beagles have long memories, Snoopy relates his last encounter with Poochie. He was just a puppy when she tossed a stick for him to fetch. Eager to please the girl, he retrieved it just in time to see her walk away with an English Sheepdog. When Charlie Brown expresses amazement that Snoopy remembers the incident so vividly, the beagle replies, “How could I forget?” Showing the boy what he’s holding, Snoopy explains, “I still have the stick!” The following week, the story continues with Poochie’s visit. Wearing his sunglasses, Snoopy puts on his “Joe Cool” persona and snubs the little girl. Refusing even to speak with her, there is no reunion or reconciliation and a disappointed Poochie leaves.

Peanuts looks like kid stuff but Schulz’s characters show us what it’s like to live in a world of disappointments—where our baseball team never wins, the football is yanked away, kites get tangled in trees, big sisters boss around little brothers, people suffer from unrequited love, grudges are held, and a security blanket often seems like a good idea. Charles Schulz portrays the kind of world in which we live: one where we’re more likely to lose than win.

Almost certainly, the embittered Snoopy fretted about Poochie’s visit all through the Christmas holiday right into the new year and he probably spoiled another week or more reliving their unsatisfactory meeting. Although we don’t see it, I’m sure Snoopy still has that stick and continues to bears a grudge against the little girl who chose an English Sheepdog over him!

Snoopy is just an imaginary character, living in a comic strip, but he’s not much different from us. Granted, we may not keep a stick we fetched as a puppy but we often keep other mementos of heartbreak and disappointment, use social media to stay connected with the people who hurt us, or make ourselves miserable by replaying an offense in our minds or revisiting it in our conversations. Intentionally holding onto our grievances is like rubbing salt into our own wounds!

Being hurt by people, even people we love and trust, is part of life, but dwelling on what happened in the past can only rob us of today’s joy. If we ever want to experience the abundant life promised by Jesus, if we want to be filled with His joy, if we ever hope to enjoy His peace that surpasses understanding, we must love others in the same way He loved us. We have to let go of the stick and forgive!

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:10-12 (NLT)]

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LET IT GO! (Part 1)

But if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil. [1 John 1:9 (PHILLIPS)]

I’ve undertaken a series of “Abundance” exercises, the purpose of which is to take Jesus up on His promise of an abundant life. While my first assignment was to notice God’s abundance in His creation, the second was to let go of any guilt that I might be holding by asking God to forgive me (and believing that He truly has).

“Forgive yourself and let it go!” is easier said than done and this second exercise was more challenging than the first. Asking God for His forgiveness is less difficult than actually believing we’re forgiven and forgiving ourselves can be hardest of all. Sadly, the underlying guilt and self-reproach when we can’t let go of the past robs us of an abundant life.

I thought of Peter’s many failures that last night of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He protested Jesus’ washing of his feet, bickered with the disciples about their Kingdom status, boasted that he’d never desert the Lord, fell asleep in the garden, and then denied knowing Jesus! The lowest point of Peter’s life must have been when the Lord looked into his eyes after that third denial. By disavowing the man he loved, Peter did exactly what he promised he’d never do and, weeping bitterly, he left the courtyard. Peter’s despair and shame must have grown the following day when Jesus died after hours of suffering on the cross. Did guilt for his betrayal fill Peter’s heart?

Several months earlier, Peter had asked Jesus if forgiving someone seven times was enough. Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven meant there is no limit to forgiveness. While Luke tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, we don’t know how that first reunion went and what words were spoken. We do know that, when Jesus appeared on the lakeshore and told the men to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, Peter was so anxious to see Him that he jumped into the water and swam ashore. I can imagine Peter’s tears at their soggy embrace.

That morning, as the men stood around the charcoal fire while the fish cooked, did Peter remember warming himself by another charcoal fire when he denied Jesus the third time? We know that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and that Peter answered in the affirmative each time. Although we never read of Jesus explicitly forgiving Peter, we know that man who preached unlimited forgiveness certainly practiced it! That He told the apostle to take care of and feed his sheep certainly implies the Lord’s forgiveness. Indeed, Peter shepherded His flock and became the Rock of His church.

While Peter probably remembered that Thursday night with regret, he also knew there was nothing he could do to change it; his words of denial couldn’t be unsaid. Yet, if he’d chosen to hold onto his guilt, he would never have been able to speak of forgiveness and lead 3,000 to Jesus on Pentecost! Fraught with guilt and shame, he may even have taken his life as did Judas. Instead of holding onto the past, Peter sought God’s mercy and forgiveness and reaffirmed his devotion to the Lord. Believing in Jesus’ power to cleanse him from his sins, he accepted God’s forgiveness and lived the abundant life promised by Jesus. Peter forgave himself and let it go; let us do the same!

If we live like this, we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own hearts make us feel guilty. For God is infinitely greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. And if, dear friends of mine, when we realise this our hearts no longer accuse us, we may have the utmost confidence in God’s presence. [1 John 3:19-21 (PHILLIPS)]

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IT’S JUST BEGINNING

We know that our body—the tent we live in here on earth—will be destroyed. But when that happens, God will have a house for us. It will not be a house made by human hands; instead, it will be a home in heaven that will last forever. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (NCV)]

butterweedI can’t understand why a young mother lies on her deathbed when an elderly Alzheimer’s victim whose mind is long gone remains in this world. I will never comprehend why one person suffers a debilitating disease for years and another person breezes through life with nary an ache or pain. I wonder how a young family can be wiped out in a car accident when the drunk driver who caused the crash survives without a scratch. I will never grasp why some people are in such despair that they take their lives while others bravely fight to take each breath. I don’t know why one child is born with multiple birth defects when his sibling is the picture of perfect health or why one child is abused and another one is cherished. Life often seems incredibly unfair!

How can we make sense of the wicked prospering while the godly suffer let alone understand random shootings or terrorist attacks? How can we make sense of a world that makes absolutely no sense? It’s not fair and yet we can’t even cry “foul!” There was nothing fair about Jesus suffering and dying for our sins!

The answer to my query is that, because mankind sinned, we live in a broken world: a world that is not as God meant it to be. That’s not a very satisfying answer but, if we truly believe that God is good and that it is He (rather than some cosmic roulette wheel) who is sovereign over the world, we must trust Him. There are divine reasons for all that passes through His hands and those reasons are not ours to know. It is God who is the treasure and not the various blessings He bestows on any of us in this life. The trials endured by us or others do not permit us to put God on trial.

While the here-and-now makes little sense to me, there is one thing I do understand: our trials are short-lived but the blessings of the godly are eternal! Whatever happens in this world is just a small part of the rest of our lives. We’re merely in the preface of the best book ever written or viewing the trailer for the greatest movie ever produced. We’re seeing only a rehearsal of the finest ballet ever danced and have heard just the prelude to the most beautiful symphony ever composed. We’re in the lobby of the grandest hotel ever built and have tasted but a bite of an appetizer in the most delicious feast ever prepared. We’re barely out of the driveway on an extraordinary never-ending journey. Let us take comfort in knowing the best is yet to come!

Life would be void, senseless and of no portent if our existence here for 70 years or more were to end as we draw our last physical breath. Our life on earth is but a drop of a moment in the ocean of time. To dis-acknowledge God would be to admit the futility, the hopelessness of existence. It would be to place reliance merely upon flesh, the physical body and the physical structure of man … It would be to deny the presence and existence of a soul. [Lionel Luckhoo]

The Lord All-Powerful will prepare a feast on this mountain for all people. It will be a feast with all the best food and wine, the finest meat and wine. On this mountain God will destroy the veil that covers all nations, the veil that stretches over all peoples; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away every tear from every face. He will take away the shame of his people from the earth. The Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 25:6-8 (NCV)]

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.” The One who was sitting on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new!” [Revelation 21:3-5 (NCV)]

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SEEING HIS FACE IN AN UNLIKELY PLACE

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:40 (NLT)]

painted bunting - corkscrew swamp sanctuaryAfter my walk through the bird sanctuary, I visited the ladies’ room. While washing my hands, I heard someone struggling to open the door. As I opened it, a heavy set woman shuffled unsteadily into the room. I gave her my arm as she explained that she suffers from MS. After assisting her into the stall, I offered to stay in the rest room until she was done. As I lent a hand while she washed up, she thanked me profusely for my help and explained that her husband didn’t feel comfortable coming into the ladies’ room to assist her. I said that she’d do the same for someone else if she could. “Of course, I would,” she replied, pulling out a cross from around her neck, ”I’m a Christian.” My reply was a simple, “As am I!” I helped her out to the lobby and got her settled back into her wheelchair. “You see,” she explained, “I just had to come. I want to see the painted-buntings again before I leave for home.” I hope she wasn’t disappointed; I, too, had wanted to see the buntings but they’d remained hidden in the trees that morning.

I don’t know if she saw the birds that day but I do know what we both did see: the face of Christ. She saw it in a woman wearing glasses, a baseball cap, and a jean jacket who offered assistance, a few kind words, and a steady arm. I saw it in the smile of a gray-haired woman, visiting from England, who just needed a little help and a few minutes of my time. Thank you, Lord, for showing me your face when I took the time to help one of your children.

To love another person is to see the face of God. [Victor Hugo]

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. … No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. [1 John 4:7,12-13 (NLT)]

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ENTRANCE EXAMS

Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:61-62 (NLT)]

In Jesus’s time, rabbis weren’t the Jewish equivalent of a minister or employed by a synagogue. A rabbi simply was a teacher of the Torah—what we’d call a sage—and his students were called disciples. Jesus’s disciples often called him “rabbi” and there were more than just twelve of them. Although we know the identity of His inner circle, we don’t know the names of the seventy-two he sent out to prepare towns for his visit or the two with whom He spoke on the road to Emmaus that Sunday morning.

Disciples normally chose their rabbis and two of John the Baptist’s disciples (Andrew and probably John) left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Sometimes a disciple was called by the rabbi, as were Simon Peter, Philip, and Matthew. In either case, the decision to follow any rabbi meant a total commitment. Hoping to become like their teacher, disciples left their employment, home, and family for an extended time to learn from him. Wanting only those he thought could fully live up to his standards, the rabbi would examine his potential students carefully. By accepting the rabbi’s invitation to follow him, the disciple was totally submitting to his authority in all things. In that context, Luke 9:57-62 and Jesus’s curt response to three would-be disciples makes more sense.

When the first potential disciple promised his willingness to follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus quickly warned him of the privation encountered by an itinerant rabbi. Although the proper response would have been that he’d follow Jesus in spite the hardships, we hear no more from the man.

When Jesus called another man to follow Him, he asked to return home and bury his father first. Responding that the dead can bury the dead seems harder to understand until we realize that a funeral was not imminent. If the man’s father had just died, rather than talking with a teacher, he would have been home in mourning. Perhaps wanting to collect his inheritance before leaving, the man wanted to postpone his discipleship until his father was dead and buried (which could have been years). By telling him the spiritually dead could bury their own dead, Jesus made it clear that proclaiming the Kingdom of God was not to be delayed; it should be a disciple’s first priority.

When the third follower said he wanted to say good-bye to his family first, Jesus had another abrupt response. Reminding him that a plowman who looked back couldn’t plow a straight furrow, Jesus made it clear that a man who looked back was unsuitable as a disciple and would be of little use to Him. Nothing in life, not even family, was to have greater priority than following Jesus. If Jesus had been an ordinary rabbi, those would have been harsh words, but He wasn’t ordinary. The only One who has a greater claim on us than family is God and Jesus was God! He had every right to make such demands upon those who wanted to be His followers. He expected absolute and immediate, not conditional and delayed, trust and obedience.

These somewhat harsh exchanges tell us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is not interested in half-hearted discipleship; He demands our undivided attention. What are we willing to sacrifice to be His disciple and grow more like Him?

But the soul renounced shall abide in the boundlessness of God’s life. This is liberty, this is prosperity. The more we lose, the more we gain. [Watchman Nee]

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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