EXTEMPORANEOUS PRAYERS

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

great egretIn our pastor’s absence, I led worship for two Sundays. For me, giving the sermons was far easier than leading the prayers. Our pastor has a way with words that inspire, enlighten and lift my spirits and his extemporaneous prayers appear to flow effortlessly from his heart through his mouth to my ears and up to God. He always seems to have the perfect Bible verse up his sleeve, the wisest thoughts in his mind, and the power of the Holy Spirit in his words. The Holy Spirit has truly given him a beautiful spiritual gift and our entire congregation is blessed by it.

While I’m often the one asked to give a table blessing, saying grace among friends or family is a far cry from leading the congregation in opening and closing prayers and Communion. Knowing I’d be leading prayers, I spent nearly as much time composing the days’ prayers as I did writing the sermons and I was fully prepared those Sundays with a well-written script.

More often than not, however, we don’t know when we’ll be called on to say a prayer. We frequently have opportunities to offer a spontaneous prayer with family, friends, and even strangers. Sadly, we may let those opportunities slip by simply because we don’t think we have the right words.

As a writer, I like to carefully select, arrange, rearrange, and edit my words before committing them to paper. Feeling at a loss for the perfect words when leading an impromptu prayer, I used to tell someone I’d pray for them rather than offer to pray with them right then and there. Intercessory prayer, however, isn’t about me and finding the perfect most expressive words; it about the other person and lifting their concerns to God. I’ve finally realized that God isn’t bothered by awkward prayers and hesitant delivery and I doubt that whoever we’re praying for minds either.

When giving a gift, we’re often told, “It’s the thought that counts.” That philosophy goes for prayers, as well. While we may not be gifted at spontaneously leading prayer, we all can pray. While we might not readily inspire others with our language, we can encourage them with our faith. We may not be able to remember the perfect Bible verse for every situation, but we can take the words of the Bible into our hearts and souls and let them guide our prayers. While we may not speak fluent Holy Spirit, we can let Him speak for us.

Prayer is talking with God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. [Josh McDowell]

Prayer is simply talking to God like a friend and should be the easiest thing we do each day. [Joyce Meyer]

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)]

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WHAT LANGUAGE DO WE SPEAK?

The leaders saw that Peter and John were not afraid to speak, and they understood that these men had no special training or education. So they were amazed. Then they realized that Peter and John had been with Jesus. [Acts 4:13 (NCV)]

Sometimes, we Christians use religious jargon or “Christianese” when speaking. In fact, we might “testify” or “witness” instead of talk about our faith and “fellowship” instead of meet with friends! If, while speaking with non-believers, we use words we (and our fellow church-goers) can barely define we may as well be speaking a foreign language. Tossing about words like propitiation, sanctification, justification, glorification, conviction and reconciliation show that we can talk the talk, but what does it mean to anyone else? Let’s remember that Christianity isn’t a secret society like a lodge, college fraternity or sorority. There’s neither a secret handshake nor a password required for admittance.

When sharing our faith [witnessing], let’s not make the mistake of making Christianity harder than it is. Man rejected God [sinned] and we all stand guilty before God [condemnation]. Mankind’s sin alienated us from God but Jesus’s actions restored mankind’s relationship with God [reconciliation]. Jesus is God in flesh [incarnation].  Although the punishment for sin is death, Jesus paid that price [redemption]. Because Jesus took our punishment on the cross [propitiation/substitutionary atonement], we are no longer considered guilty [justification]. Jesus rose from the dead [resurrection]. When we believe in [accept] Jesus Christ and decide to follow Him [salvation], we turn from our old ways [repent] and are changed [born again/regeneration]. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we then grow more and more like Christ [sanctification]. Salvation is not something we earn [works], but something God freely gives to us [grace] when we believe in Jesus [faith].

Jesus didn’t use fancy words; he used parables and metaphors to make his point. Better yet, he explained his parables so everyone could understand the point he was making. The men he chose to spread the faith, men like Peter and John, were simple men. They didn’t require impressive words to preach or heal; they just needed faith! The bracketed words in the previous paragraph weren’t necessary and I’m not even sure I even used them all correctly! We don’t need $10 words or a special vocabulary to talk about Jesus; we just need to be sure we’re speaking the same language as the people with whom we’re talking.

Too many of us have a Christian vocabulary rather than a Christian experience. We think we are doing our duty when we’re only talking about it. [Charles F. Banning]

But we hear them telling in our own languages about the great things God has done! [Acts 2:11b (NCV)]

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LOVE SHALL NEVER DIE

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. … Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [Luke 6:32-35a,36 (NLT)]

One of the hymns at our Easter Eve service was Christ is Alive and we sang, “In every insult, rift and war, where color, scorn or wealth divide, Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, where even hope has died.”  I thought of how hate must be like another nail in His hands and intolerance another scourging on His skin. The text of the hymn was written by Brian Wren in April of 1968, just two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I could not let Easter go by without speaking of this tragic event which was on all our minds, “ he explained. “The hymn tries to see God’s love winning over tragedy and suffering in the world.”

Little did I know while singing those words that, just a few hours later, there would be tragedy and suffering half-way around the world in Sri Lanka. Coordinated bombings at three churches and four hotels turned Easter Sunday into a blood bath leaving more than 300 people dead and 500 injured. A Sri Lankan Sunday school class at Zion Church met before the service that morning. When their teacher asked, “How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” all of the children raised their hands. As they rededicated themselves to Jesus by lighting candles, little did they know that half of them actually would die for Christ that very morning. As they crossed a courtyard to enter the sanctuary, a stranger exploded the bomb he was carrying in his backpack.

Last week, bullets ripped through a peaceful Passover service at a synagogue outside of San Diego, leaving one dead and three inured. Exactly six months earlier, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In March, at least 50 were killed and 20 injured in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In January, two suicide bombers detonated their bombs in a Catholic church in the Philippines, leaving 20 dead and more than 100 injured. Last October, a gunman attacked a Sabbath service in a Pittsburgh synagogue, leaving 11 dead. The heart of God must be filled with grief at these horrific acts of terror and hate.

We live in a fallen world—a world where war, pain, injustice, violence, anger, and prejudice abound. As we mourn the loss of innocent lives, we must resist the temptation to return hate with even more hostility. Just as we pray for their victims, we must also pray for the extremists who perpetuate these terrible attacks. The war on terror isn’t just a political battle; it’s a spiritual battle against the Prince of Darkness.

Let us remember that Christ’s message is one of love and love is more powerful than hate. As a nation, we must work to resolve the social and political issues that encourage terrorism but, as Christians, peace must begin with us. We are called to love everyone—not just the people with whom we agree. Rather than living in fear, as Christians, we must live in hope. Let us be people of prayer against the ungodly hatred and violence of our world. We must extend the hand of friendship and love to all people, not just the ones who think, look, speak, and worship like us.

“Christ is alive!” we sang at that Easter service. “The cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die.” Let us answer the hate of the world with His love!

At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it. [Fyodor Dostoyevsky from “The Brothers Karamazov”]

You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-45 (NLT)]

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WEAR YOUR OWN SHOES

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. [Galatians 1:10 (NIV)]

Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. [Galatians 6:4-5a (NIV)]

seedboxLast Thursday night’s Bible study had been as inspiring as Easter Sunday’s sermon. As we walked out of the building, I confided to my friend that there was no way I could follow such brilliant preaching. You see, our pastor was taking a much needed vacation and I would be doing the preaching for the next two Sundays. Afraid I couldn’t possibly fill his shoes or touch people’s hearts the way he does, I asked, “How can I possibly compare to him?” My friend wisely answered, “You don’t!” He reminded me to be myself and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

As I continued to polish my sermon, the enemy kept reminding me that I could never fill our pastor’s shoes.  I thought of the Apostles after Jesus had ascended. I’m sure their preaching, no matter how heartfelt and inspired, was no match for that of Jesus. That no one could possibly fill His holy sandals, however, didn’t stop them from speaking and spreading the gospel message. Scripture tells us that many became believers and were baptized after hearing the Apostle Paul speak. Yet Paul’s vast knowledge and speaking skills never kept Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Titus or others from sharing God’s word.

When whispers of doubt are heard, I find it best to turn to God’s Word, so I turned to Paul’s letters to Timothy. Telling him not to be ashamed of his testimony, Paul encouraged the young man by reminding him that God’s Spirit “does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” He advised the young man to let his teaching be shaped by his faith and love for Jesus and to teach others so that they could pass those teachings on to still more people. Reminding Timothy that the only approval he should seek was that of God, Paul’s instructions were simple: “Preach the word.” [4:2]

Granted, I felt a heavy responsibility. Ours is a growing young church and I didn’t want us to lose momentum or have the church flounder in our pastor’s absence. Then again, I suppose the people Paul left to pastor the churches he planted felt much the same way. Nevertheless, Paul’s words made me ask whose approval it was that I sought. Did I want to please God or the people? While I prayed that my words would manage to do both, I had to focus on pleasing God and trust Him to take care of the rest. The only approval I should be seeking was that of God.

My preaching, like my writing, is not about me; it’s about God. While I hope that it pleases people, the only one I need to please with my words is God. Saturday morning, my friend sent some more words of encouragement. He reminded me that I’m a child of God, gifted by Him in my own special way, and that all God asks of me is to be myself and “Preach the word.” That’s all God asks of any of us! None of us are expected to fill someone else’s shoes; we just have to wear our own and walk in a way that pleases God.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:7-8a (NIV)]

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)]

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A WEEK OF RESURRECTION SUNDAYS

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. [John 11:25 (NLT)]

rabbitWhen I walked into Bible study last Tuesday, I was greeted with “Happy Easter.” The woman wasn’t late; in fact, she was right on time! Although the candy is gone, the baskets stowed away, and the hard boiled eggs eaten, it is still Easter. On the church calendar, the season of Eastertide (“tide” just being an old-fashioned word for “season” or “time”) lasts fifty days. With seven Sundays, that means we have a week’s worth of Sundays in which to celebrate Easter (and sing the beautiful “alleluias” in Christ the Lord is Risen Today). Eastertide will end on Pentecost (the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church).

The celebration of Easter, Christmas and other Christian holy days or seasons are not mandated in Scripture. Although Acts 7:20 tells us that the early church chose to gather together on the first day of the week (Sunday) for the Lord’s Supper, it was not until 321 AD that Constantine proclaimed Sunday as the official day of worship. In 325 AD, in the hope of unifying the early church, the Council at Nicaea affirmed Scripture’s truths with the Nicene Creed and set Easter’s date as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21.

Remembering that, in the Old Testament, God ordained the regular celebration of events in the history of the Israelites, the early church fathers made a liturgical calendar to help Christians remember the acts of God in the history of their redemption. People didn’t have ready access to Bibles and the regular celebration of these events in the life of Christ and the early church helped them both to understand and remember them. We could say that Jesus laid down the essentials and the church fathers handled the details.

Not sacred, the church calendar didn’t come by divine revelation but was developed by tradition and church law. While liturgical churches such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic still observe the seasons of the church, most other Protestant churches do not. Perhaps as a way of combating the secular commercialization of our religious holidays, however, some non-liturgical churches are beginning to return to the traditional calendar. Last year, a non-denominational mega-church near our northern home announced, “This year we’re going to observe Lent!” as if it were a new idea rather than one centuries old.

While one of my friends went out and purchased half-price candy on Monday, we don’t want to spend the next seven weeks consuming jelly beans or Peeps. Coloring eggs once a year is more than enough mess for me and, while I admit to finding well-hidden Easter eggs several weeks after the grands have departed, I’m not suggesting that we repeat those secular traditions every Sunday until Pentecost on June 9. Instead, for the next several weeks, we could spend as much time pondering the meaning of Jesus’s resurrection as we did pondering the meaning of His birth last December. Easter, after all, was the whole reason for Christmas and, without His resurrection on Easter, we just would have a good man who said some wonderful wise things and was killed for his words.

The promise of our salvation doesn’t disappear when the last chocolate bunny is eaten. The glorious Easter message is everlasting. Christ’s resurrection brings us love, grace, peace, forgiveness, and redemption, not just on Easter, but on every day of our lives. One day is hardly enough time to celebrate a risen Christ; let us be Easter people all year long.

The resurrection gives my life meaning and direction and the opportunity to start over no matter what my circumstances. [Robert Flatt]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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EASTER: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!

monarch butterfliesThe next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. [Matthew 27:62-65 (NLT)]

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia! [Charles Wesley]

Billy Graham told of when an entertainment network was doing a story on highlights of Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered a point of interest, the Billy Graham Library was visited by the show’s co-host, Kristy Villa, and her film crew. Seeing the many crosses displayed throughout the property, Villa asked, “I see all the crosses, but where is Jesus?” Her library guide replied, “He’s in Heaven, and He is also present in the lives of those who believe in Him and follow Him as their personal Lord and Savior.” Villa exclaimed, “Oh, that’s right! Some worship a crucifix, but Christians worship a risen Christ.” The journalist added, “I have been in church my whole life, but I have never heard the emphasis put on an empty cross.” Our emphasis is on the empty tomb, as well!

The bodies of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of Bahá’í faith, and Báb, a central figure in Bahá’í and the founder of Bábisma, are buried in Israel. The grave of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, is in his home town of Qufu in China and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is buried in the Mosque of the Prophet in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. The body of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was cremated and his remains were sent to eight different royal families. The Patna Museum in India displays a casket containing his sacred ashes and a temple in Sri Lanka possesses what is said to be his right tooth. When he failed to resurrect, the body of Cyrus Teed, founder of Koreshanity was buried on Estero Island; two years later a hurricane washed his tomb out to sea. As for Jesus? His grave was empty!

Let us never forget that the story didn’t end with the crucified Christ! The cross couldn’t stop Jesus and the tomb couldn’t contain Him. Pilate’s best efforts to secure the tomb were worthless. A Roman seal, large boulder and a sixteen-man Roman guard were not enough to keep Jesus shut in His tomb! Both cross and grave are empty! With His death and resurrection, Christ triumphed over both sin and death! Alleluia!

Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there. [Anne Lamott]

But the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” [Mark 16:6 (NLT)]

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