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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KORAH’S SONS

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. [Psalm 46:1-3 (ESV) A Psalm of the Sons of Korah”]

monarch butterflyWhen researching their genealogy, most people hope to lay claim to ancestors who were nobility, war heroes, statesmen, historical figures or people who performed note-worthy deeds. Nevertheless, every tree has a few bad apples and we all probably have a few scoundrels in our line. For those seeking infamous rather than famous ancestors, several web sites provide access to court records, outlaw and criminal biographies, and lists of prisoners, convicts, executions, “pirates and buccaneers,” and inmates of asylums.

With the “sons of Korah” having written at least eleven of the psalms, the question of genealogy arises because we wonder about Korah’s identity. In Scripture, “son” has the broad meaning of descendants and Korah was the bad apple on their family tree. A Levite from the Kohathite clan, Korah’s story is found in Numbers 16. The Kohathites had the honor of transporting the most sacred objects of the tabernacle. Korah, however, wanted to serve as a priest—something that only could be done by Aaron and his family. Whether jealous of Aaron or resentful that the holy items had to be carried on his shoulders rather than transported on an ox cart, Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Along with two malcontents from the tribe of Reuben, he challenged their leadership. As a result, the rebel leaders were swallowed by a sinkhole, 250 of their followers were consumed by fire, and 14,700 people died in a plague. Korah’s three sons, however, were spared and, seven generations later, the prophet Samuel came from his line.

Scripture tells us that Korah’s descendants (Korahites) joined David in various military exploits and, when he was king, they led the choral and orchestral music in the tabernacle. Three of those sons are named: Heman the Ezrahite (grandson of Samuel), Asaph, and Ethan (or Jeduthan). Along with being David’s chief musicians, all three men served as “seers” or prophets. Once the Temple was built, the “sons of Korah” became doorkeepers and custodians for the tabernacle.

For those of us with rotten apples on our family tree, unless we publicize their sordid history, it’s our secret. Korah’s descendants, however, had no secrets; their ancestor’s rebellion was a significant part of their nation’s history. I wonder if, when they wrote of the earth giving way in Psalm 46, they remembered the story of their rebellious ancestor sinking into an abyss. Korah had been given a special ministry by God but didn’t appreciate it. Covetously, he wanted more and people died because of him. His “sons,” however, never allowed the infamy of their ancestor to keep them from faithfully serving both God and their king as doorkeepers and musicians and using their God-given gifts to magnify the Lord.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor.  [Psalm 84:10-11 (ESV) A Psalm of the Sons of Korah]

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WOULD ANYONE NOTICE?

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.)… For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. [Romans 8:9,16 (NLT)]

canna - bandanna of the evergladesIt was obvious we had ceiling fans in all three bathrooms but, because all their bulbs were burned out when we moved here, we didn’t know they also had lights. Never having seen how bright the bathrooms could be with working fan lights, we didn’t notice their absence. It was only when we had some electrical work done that we discovered the dead bulbs. Now that we’ve put in new LEDs, we’ll be sure to notice if any stop working in the future!

I bring up the fan lights because this question was asked: “If the Holy Spirit withdrew from your church, would anybody be able to tell?” That question forces us to ask whether our church is more of a social club than a spirit-powered community. Is it centered on Sunday’s service or serving others? Is it about entertainment or enlightenment, conversation or conviction? Does it believe more in the power of networking than the power of prayer? Is it about growing bigger or becoming better, pleasing people or glorifying God, filling pews or fulfilling God’s purpose?

As thought provoking as that first question is for pastors and church councils, it raises another and far more personal question. If the Holy Spirit were to withdraw from you, would anybody notice?

When we accept Jesus, we’re not given a membership card, pin, or secret handshake. Underwriters Laboratories doesn’t certify us and there’s no symbol like the OU from the Orthodox Union to indicate we’re kosher. The only thing attesting to our salvation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He regenerates and guides us, convicts us of our sins, teaches us to live in Christ’s righteousness, equips and empowers us to do all that God asks us to do, and helps us discern between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us so that we can grow and more and more like Christ and the only evidence of His presence is found in our changed lives.

We didn’t notice the missing lights in the bathroom because we’d never seen them on. In the same way, no one would notice that we’re no longer connected to the light of the Holy Spirit if we’ve never previously reflected “the glory of the Lord” in our lives. Life with the Spirit should look vastly different than life without!

While the Holy Spirit guides us, He doesn’t control us; we can ignore Him. Sin, like a burned out light bulb, can cause us to be unresponsive to the power of His presence. Although the Spirit will never abandon a true believer, the hypothetical question is one worth asking. Would anyone notice if the Spirit took a sudden leave of absence from our lives?  The answer to that will be found in another question: When we look into our hearts, do we see ourselves or the Holy Spirit?

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you. [Corrie Ten Boom]

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [[2 Corinthians 3:18 (NLT)]

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BAKING A PRAYER

Once Jesus was praying in a particular place. When he had finished, one of his disciples approached. “Teach us to pray, Master,” he said, “just like John taught his disciples.” [Luke 11:1 (NTE)]

ibisI used to look forward to our occasional stops in the bank where a tray of homemade cookies always was laid out for their customers. I admit to having no will-power when it came to their white chocolate chip/macadamia nut cookies. With a hint of lemon, they were so delicious that I searched the internet to find the recipe so I could skip the bank visit. Several recipes came close but none were quite right so, using those as a guide, I developed a recipe that met the taste test!

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, He recited what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s important to remember that the disciples asked how to pray but not what exact words to use. Being a good teacher, instead of a lecture on praying, Jesus gave them a model prayer, but certainly not the only prayer to be said.

My recipe search told me the basic ingredients I needed for the cookies: flour, baking powder, brown and granulated sugars, butter, eggs, and lemon extract. Jesus’ model prayer included basics like praise, an acknowledgement of God’s holiness, acceptance of His will, confession, forgiveness, and petitions for daily provision and protection from evil. I found other recipes that included ingredients like cornstarch, lemon zest, nuts, and vanilla extract. If we look at other prayers said by Jesus, we find things like thanksgiving, a desire to bring God glory, and pleas for others and for the church.

When Jesus showed the disciples how to pray, He gave them an outline (or a basic recipe) rather than a comprehensive list of components. Like a recipe, it’s up to us to put them all together. Some days, I give God an extra cupful of thanks and praise because, unlike salt, we can never overdo those ingredients. It’s often easy to skip the confession and forgiving but, like forgetting the baking powder in cookies, prayers don’t seem to come out right without them. While it’s possible to add too much flour to a cookie recipe, our prayers seem to improve the more we pray for the needs of others. God, however, probably won’t find our prayers very appetizing if we spend more time mixing in petitions for ourselves than for others! Unlike a cookie recipe, there is no set amount of time for baking the perfect prayer; that’s a judgment call. As for me, I often find it necessary to bake my prayers a long time before acceptance of God’s plan forms in my heart.

When we grow bored with the food we’ve been preparing, we create new recipes or tweak the old ones by adding something extra like dried cherries or cinnamon chips to oatmeal cookies. The same goes for our prayers. If prayer seems boring, we need to change it up by gathering the ingredients and presenting them to God in a different way. Just as there are countless ingredients with which to bake delicious cookies, there are countless components that can go into our prayers. Regardless of the recipe, my grands are pleased whenever I bake; I think God feels the same way about our prayers!

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. [John Calvin]

“So this is how you should pray: Our father in heaven, may your name be honoured may your kingdom come may your will be done as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today the bread we need now; and forgive us the things we owe, as we too have forgiven what was owed to us. Don’t bring us into the great trial, but rescue us from evil.” [Matthew 6:9-13 (NTE)]

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THE HALLEL

Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. [Psalm 113:1-3 (NLT)

Southern MockingbirdSeveral years ago, our mountain church hosted a concert sponsored by the small Jewish congregation in town. I vividly remember the end of the program as Jews and Gentiles sang Hava Nagila, joined hands, and danced the hora around our large sanctuary. Impressed by the performer’s energy, passion, and love of God, I purchased one of his recordings. Yesterday, after sorting through some old books and CDs, I listened to it for the first time in over 10 years. The music was composed and performed by a man who still performs today but the Hebrew words he sang were those of the Hallel and over 2,000 years old.

Hallel means “praise” and the Hallel is a liturgical prayer found in Jewish prayer books today that consists of all or parts of Psalms 113 through 118. Considered the cornerstone of Jewish liturgy, it testifies to the glorious miracles performed by God. Except for the solemn days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the jubilant Hallel is said or sung on all major Jewish holidays.

The author or authors of the six psalms of the Hallel are unknown but the psalms share a common theme: the events surrounding the exodus, God’s covenant with Israel, and the people’s obligation of praise and thanksgiving for God’s loving-kindness and sovereignty over Israel and all nations.

It opens with the simple song of praise found in Psalm 113 which begins and ends with “Hallelu yah” meaning “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 114 follows with a poetic description of the exodus and all of nature reacting in dance to God’s great work. Psalm 115 is an appeal for God’s assistance, not for Israel’s sake, but to bring honor and glory to God’s name among the pagan nations. The next psalm is one of gratitude by someone who, in a time of trouble, called upon God and was saved. Ending with a commitment to serve the Lord, it is followed by the shortest of all the psalms with a call for all nations to praise the Lord. The final psalm, 118, begins with thanksgiving followed by recounting God’s salvation in troubled times. It echoes the words Moses and the people sang after crossing the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory.” [Exodus 15:2] This last psalm ends as it began—with thanksgiving.

Until now, I don’t think I appreciated the psalms as what they are: an ancient hymnbook. Reciting or singing the Hallel was a well-established part of the Jewish Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth celebrations by the first century. When I’ve sung or spoken the psalms in unison at church, I didn’t think about Jesus singing or saying those very same words (in Hebrew, of course). That Jews continue to sing the same hymns of praise sung by Jesus and the disciples when they worshiped—the same songs they sang together during the seder on the night He was betrayed—is mind boggling. That we still have those beautiful words of praise and thanksgiving, words we can say or sing any time, is a blessing. Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, all you nations. Praise him, all you people of the earth. For his unfailing love for us is powerful; the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever. Praise the Lord! [Psalm 117]

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