USING A MIX

When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! [Matthew 6:7-8 (NLT)]

tri-colored heron

While I enjoy cooking from scratch, I’ve never found recipes that produce better results than those from certain boxed mixes. Conceding that someone else has created better and easier recipes than mine for cornbread and brownies, I occasionally resort to using them. Nevertheless, I usually add chopped green chilies to the cornbread and chocolate chips or crushed Oreos to the brownies to make the finished product uniquely my own.

Like a boxed mix, there are times when we want to use a ready-made prayers when talking with God. Ready-made prayers are well written and, like Kraft mac ‘n cheese, comforting in their familiarity. They help us to convey thoughts we just can’t seem to find the words to express, clarify our concerns, or guide our prayers in God’s direction instead of in our own. Believing they kept him in touch with “sound doctrine” rather than his version of “religion” and fixed his focus on the long-range rather than the immediate, C.S. Lewis often used prayers from The Book of Common Prayer.

Just as I occasionally resort to a baking mix, like Lewis, there are times I use ready-made prayers like the ones found in the Psalms, The Book of Common Prayer, John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, or The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions. Sometimes other people’s way with words—their passion, vulnerability, repentance or joy—are more expressive than anything I could articulate. Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference,” say it better than I ever could.

Nevertheless, much as having the same recipe prepared the same way over and over again can get boring, saying the same prayers over and over again can get humdrum. The disciples were warned about the mindless repetition of prayers. Our prayers should never be dull and routine and we should be cautious of reciting words that are overly familiar or insincere. It helps if we’re sure to add a little something of our own thoughts to ready-made prayers just as we might do with a boxed mix of cornbread or brownies!

Bend down, O Lord, and hear my prayer; answer me, for I need your help. Protect me, for I am devoted to you. Save me, for I serve you and trust you. You are my God. Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am calling on you constantly. Give me happiness, O Lord, for I give myself to you. O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive, so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help. Listen closely to my prayer, O Lord; hear my urgent cry. I will call to you whenever I’m in trouble, and you will answer me. [Psalm 86:1-7 (NLT)]

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HANDS

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. [Psalm 134:2 (NIV)]

handsWhile social distancing has put an end to breaking bread with friends and holding hands while sharing a table blessing, I recall a dinner several years ago when I held the hand of our pastor’s wife during grace. For a small woman, her hands were larger and stronger than I expected. After grace, I looked at them and, comparing her youthful hands with mine, admit to feeling a twinge of envy. Like her, I played the piano but, unlike her, I could barely span an octave. Her sturdy hands had incredible reach and, unhampered by arthritis, there was power in her touch on the keyboard. I was overwhelmed by the strength of her hands and the beautiful way she uses them to praise the Lord as the worship leader at our mountain church.

As I pondered hands, I thought of a friend who used her hands to sign for the hearing impaired, the men whose hands set up chairs for Bible study, people who use their hands to pack meals for the food bank, and the ones serving soup at the homeless shelter. Some people’s hands warmly greet people as they enter church, bake cookies for Bible study (and lonely neighbors), fold programs or pass out communion. I thought of the preschoolers’ hands acting out “Zacchaeus” or “This Little Light of Mine” and the adult hands making a joyful noise in the bell choir and band. I thought of the calloused hands that mow the lawn and shovel the snow at our northern church, the patient hands that help the church’s children create sheep from cotton balls and tongue depressors, and the little hands that make those crafts. I thought of the hands that comfort the sick and hospitalized, baptize new believers, are raised in praise during worship, or enthusiastically clap during a spirited song. I considered the hands that prepare meals for families in need, hold babies in the church nursery so their mothers can have a few quiet minutes during worship, and fold in intercessory prayer for their church family. I thought of the hands that knit or crochet for the prayer shawl ministry and those that went from sewing colorful pillowcases for hospitalized children to making masks during the pandemic. What of the hands that so freely drop money into the offering baskets and those that carefully count the money and keep the books? They may not be leading worship while playing a keyboard or strumming a guitar but those hands are doing God’s work in their own unique way.

Today I looked at my wrinkled hands with their short fingers and knobby knuckles—hands that ache at night, are stiff in the morning, struggle to open jars and no longer fly over the piano’s keys. Nevertheless, they are hands that still can serve God. Mother Teresa often defined herself as “a little pencil” in the hand of the Lord. Indeed, we all are pencils in God’s hands and leave his mark on those we touch.

Thank you, God, for our hands; show us what you want us to do with them so they bring glory to your name. While this pandemic means we can’t hold hands with one another, show us how we can use our hands and hearts to reach out to your children. Bless our hands, O Lord, to do your holy work.

I don’t claim anything of the work. I am like a little pencil in His hand. That is all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used. [Mother Teresa] 

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands. [Psalm 90:17 (NIV)]

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THE SCARLET CORD

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Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. [Hebrews 11:1-2 (NLT)]

One of only two women listed in the book of Hebrews’ “Hall of Faith,” Rahab married Salmon, was the mother of Boaz (who married Ruth), a great-great grandmother to David, and one of Jesus’ ancestors. Not an Israelite, she was a prostitute from Jericho who collaborated with her nation’s enemy. Yet, her faith is commended in Hebrews, Matthew makes specific mention of her in Jesus’ genealogy, and James speaks highly of her in his epistle. Why?

Rahab met many travelers in her dubious profession and heard how the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, defeated the Amorite kings Sihon and Og, and slaughtered all of their people. Recognizing the Israelites’ God as supreme, she anticipated Jericho’s defeat and the perceptive woman judiciously aligned herself with the winning side. After protecting two Israelite spies by hiding them from the king’s men, she requested the same loyalty to her that she’d given them and negotiated for the safety of herself and her family. As Rahab lowered the spies to safety on a scarlet cord, they warned that her protection was only ensured if she had that same cord visible on the day of their attack. True to their word, when Jericho fell, Rahab and her family were saved. Was it Rahab’s treason to Jericho that caused her to be mentioned so highly in a gospel and two epistles or was there more?

After leaving Rahab’s house, the spies hid in the hills for three days before returning to camp and reporting to Joshua. After that, the Israelites broke camp and moved to the banks of the Jordan where they stayed another three days before crossing the river. Once across, they erected memorials to commemorate their crossing by God’s power. Four days later, the people celebrated the first night of Passover and, at some point, all of the men were circumcised. While the Israelites observed the eight days of Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread and the men recovered from their surgery, the invincible city of Jericho closed its gates and readied itself for battle. By then, Rahab had waited at least two weeks for the Israelites and her rescue. Did she begin to doubt the two spies and their God? Had they forgotten about her or did she pick the wrong ally? Did she consider bringing in that scarlet cord and making an alliance with a protector in Jericho? Was she tempted to lose faith in the God of the Israelites?

Eventually, the Israelites set off to conquer Jericho but they didn’t assault the town or lay siege to it. Instead, seven priests blowing rams’ horns followed by 40,000 silent soldiers paraded once around the walled city with the Ark of the Covenant before returning to their camp. For six days, Rahab watched from her window as the Israelites marched once around Jericho and returned to their camp without ever lifting a weapon or shouting a war cry. Was her faith shaken by their strange behavior? Were the Israelites too afraid to attack? What kind of God used such a bizarre battle plan? On the seventh day, when she watched the Israelites parade seven times around the city, did she abandon all hope as she witnessed what appeared to be another day of even more pointless marching? Apparently not; that scarlet cord, the sign of her faith in the God of the Israelites, was still hanging from her window. When the army finally shouted, the walls of the unconquerable city collapsed and Rahab and her family were saved.

The walls of Jericho were leveled by faith in God. Rahab helped two strangers and kept that scarlet cord dangling from her window by that same faith. When God’s plan seems inexplicable or a long time in coming, do we exhibit a similar kind of faith? When things seem at a standstill, when we can’t see His plan, do we despair or do we hang out a scarlet cord of faith in God?

It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down. It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. [Hebrews 11:30-31 (NLT)]

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RECIPE BASICS

I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too. [Mark 11:24-25 (NLT)]

But Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22 (NLT)]

While creativity is encouraged in both cooking and prayer, there are certain procedures for both that should be followed to ensure good results. For example, before a cook even begins, his work surface, utensils, and hands should be clean. In prayer, instead of starting with clean bowls and spoons, we should wash ourselves of any resentment or anger and start with a forgiving heart.

Even the most creative chef knows there are some cooking rules that simply can’t be broken: egg yolks can’t get mixed in with whites in a meringue, fudge needs to be cooked only to the soft ball stage, and poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees. Prayer has rules, too. For example, a willing, obedient and thankful heart is a necessity. In addition, just as leavening of some kind must be added to any bread recipe, we must have faith in God and the power of our prayers. Without leavening, no matter how delicious the rest of the ingredients, the bread won’t rise. Without faith, no matter what we’ve said or how nicely we’ve said it, our prayers won’t rise to God’s ears!

Some recipes, like risotto, require patience and persistence in preparation and others, like a 20-pound turkey, take a long time to bake. We have to be patient and persistent in prayer as well. The answers to our petitions aren’t like instant potatoes—they often take time. Just as pans should be greased so baked goods won’t stick, we need to lubricate our prayers with a large amount of humility if we want them to come out easily. Any good chef knows to use only fresh wholesome ingredients. Self-righteousness and pride will spoil any prayer and are as vile to God as rancid nuts in granola.

Anyone who watches cooking competitions knows that presentation is judged. God however, doesn’t score our prayers on their aesthetic appeal and extra points aren’t awarded for fancy words as they might be for fondant flowers or a strawberry fan. If God judges our prayers at all, it would be on things like sincerity, motives, repentance, obedience and willingness to submit to His will!

Finally, a good chef doesn’t offend a gastronome with bland or tasteless food; he honors him with bold flavors. A true connoisseur of prayers, our God is awesome and capable of anything and everything. Let’s never insult Him with insipid or weak petitions. Like a gourmet chef, we must be bold with our offerings. When cooking in God’s kitchen, let’s give Him everything we’ve got!

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. [Ephesians 3:12 (NLT)]

He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” [Luke 18:27 (NLT)]

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CARKING CARE

Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:22 (NLT)]

The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers spanning from the sixteenth through the late nineteenth centuries. Having grown up with the King James Bible, its antiquated thees and thous along with verbs forms like wilt, didst, and makest don’t bother me. Their formality actually adds to the beauty and charm of the prayers. Although context usually explained outdated words like nethermost, subserve, and extenuations, I had to look up a few new words like peradventure.

Although I’d never seen the word carking, I immediately knew what the author meant when writing, “Deliver me from carking care…” Sounding like a crow’s unpleasant cry, the phrase “carking care” sounds as disagreeable as what it describes: oppressive worry!

The word cark comes from the Old North French carkier (to load, burden) from the Late Latin carcare (to load a wagon or cart). Carcare is also the source of the word cargo. In English, carking literally means putting on a load or burden and carking cares are concerns that have become burdensome. It’s as if we’ve loaded all of our worries into a wagon and are carting around that troubling cargo. Although we grow weary of the heavy burden, we continue carrying it in our hearts and souls.

Right now, I imagine we all have some major concerns. We fret about children who have missed out on school and family members who must fly, care for the sick, or meet the public in their jobs. We’re in another unpleasant season of politics and the media is filled with incidents of mask rage, protests, civil unrest, and financial woes. If we’re not out of work, we have friends or family who are. Loved ones remain isolated in retirement and nursing homes, bills are piling up, supply chains are broken, businesses are closing, and some people still haven’t gotten their unemployment checks. Vacations, weddings, reunions and even memorial services have been put on indefinite hold, no one knows how schools will function safely, and the COVID dashboards seem to have nothing but bad news. Here in Florida, with hurricane season upon us, we also have the dubious honor of being called the “epicenter” of the latest coronavirus surge. We find ourselves weighing the risks before having a repair man in the house, getting carry-out, or venturing out to the beach or grocery. We’re moving into our fifth month of this pandemic and, with no end in sight, people everywhere are feeling assaulted on all sides. Regardless of their faith, I doubt that anyone feels completely free of cares.

Living in a fallen world, we always will have troubles and concerns. The good news is that they don’t have to be carking ones—we don’t have to carry that cart of cares because God will carry them for us. For that to happen, however, we have to unload our wagon of cares and give them to God through prayer. John Calvin wrote of believers relieving “themselves of their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom…that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.” As we pour our concerns into God’s bosom, let us join with the anonymous writer in his prayer: “Deliver me from carking care, and make me a happy holy person….Teach me to laud, adore, and magnify thee, with the music of heaven, And make me a perfume of praiseful gratitude to thee.”

Perhaps what our Father would have us learn is that worry is not for Him to take away, but for us to give up. [Kathy Herman]

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. [1 Peter 5:7 (NLT)]

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. [Romans 8:38 (NLT)]

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RATS

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

Last week, my foot accidentally made unfortunate contact with an unmovable and incredibly hard piece of furniture. The intense jolt of pain that radiated from my toes through my foot caused words to come spewing out of this church lady’s mouth that had no business being there. While icing my bruised and swollen foot that evening, I recalled C.S. Lewis’ observation that provocation isn’t really what makes us “ill-tempered;” it simply shows us how ill-tempered we really are.

When our immediate response to something or someone is positive—the sort of thing Jesus would do—we’re more than willing to acknowledge our bravery, patience, compassion, or generosity. But, when our instant response to something (or someone) is less than stellar, rather than owning up to our sinfulness, we tend to blame the situation or other person. Justifying ourselves, it was the extenuating circumstance, problematic person, excessive demands (or table leg) that provoked, taxed, perturbed or goaded us into behavior unbecoming of a Christ follower. We, however, can’t have it both ways! Our emotions—our gut reactions, knee jerk responses, and unthinking words—reveal who and what we truly are deep inside.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis likens the sins that are usually revealed only when we’re taken by surprise to “rats in the cellar.” Not seeing the rats when we turn on the light and noisily stomp down the stairs doesn’t mean they’re not there. Most likely, those rats (like our hidden sins), will be seen only when they’re taken by surprise.

It isn’t life’s ambushes—the grueling day, a salesclerk’s rudeness, impossible deadlines, unreturned phone calls, a co-worker’s spitefulness, the vicious tweet, or even broken toes—that cause us to sin; those ambushes just reveal how sinful we actually are. When James and Peter wrote about considering our trials a reason for joy because they help us mature, I thought they were referring only to the significant and often long-lasting challenges of life. Lewis’s words made me consider that those trials include the small, often inconsequential, aggravations and vexations of life that come without warning. They are God’s way of shining a light on the rats in our cellars!

What a man does when he is taken off guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is. [C.S. Lewis]

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. [1 Peter 1:6-7a (NLT)]

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