ANSWERED PRAYERS

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

May he grant your heart’s desires and make all your plans succeed. [Psalm 20:4 (NLT)]

santaWhat do you hope to find tucked into your Christmas stocking or deposited under the tree Christmas morning? From the above words, it’s easy to think God is promising something like Christmas morning every day. Although He promises to hear and answer our prayers, let’s remember that He’s not so specific as to how He’ll answer them.

Remember the story of King Midas? As a reward for the King’s kindness, Dionysus offered Midas anything he wanted. Coveting wealth, Midas wanted everything he touched to be changed into gold. Although he was warned to think seriously about such a wish, the king insisted. How thrilled he was when the twigs and stones he handled became precious metal. Midas’ joy at his gift began to fade, however, when he discovered that gold roses have no aroma and food became metal before it could be eaten. After a simple touch turned his daughter into a golden statue, the king detested the gift he’d so desired. Taking pity on him, Dionysus told the king to wash in the river Pactolus to lose his golden touch and make things right again.

While the Midas story has pagan beginnings, there is much a Christian can learn from this ancient myth, the first of which is not to love material possessions. When we pray, we shouldn’t act like children looking through Amazon’s “Ready, Set, Play” holiday toy catalog or grown-ups browsing through the Neiman Marcus 200-page Christmas Book and marking the pages with our holiday fantasies. Prayer is not like writing a wish list to Santa for all the gifts we desire and God’s promises are never an excuse for greed or selfishness.

Unlike a mythical Greek deity, God will not give us anything that could harm us. While we’re not likely to ask for a snake or scorpion, we have been known to ask for other things that could bring us harm—the extra money, new job, sexy guy at work, vacation in Vegas, or that big house with an even bigger mortgage. Just like King Midas, our limited (and selfish) perspective cannot possibly see all of the ramifications of our prayer requests. We ask for things without understanding how they may affect our life or the lives of others. We may know what we want but God, in his infinite wisdom, knows what will happen if we get it. If God had given me everything for which I prayed, it would have taken way more than a bath in the river Pactolus to clean up the resulting mess and set things right again. It’s been said that God’s answers are far wiser than our prayers and, indeed, they are. With love and wisdom, in His own time and way, God will always answer our prayers. Let’s give thanks that “Yes” is not always His answer to our requests.

The devil doesn’t come in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for. [Anonymous]

You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. [Luke 11:11-13 (NLT)]

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THE BUSINESS OF DESIRE

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. [Exodus 20:17 (ESV)]

ground orchidAlthough it sounds like something Satan might say to his demons, it was Alex Dumas, CEO of Hermès, who said “Our business is about creating desire.” It’s not just Hermès (with their $8,500 Della Cavalleria “magical bag”) that is in the business of creating desire; that seems to be the goal of many businesses. The LA Times has a “Coveted” column in their Image magazine featuring a curated list of luxury items (like $950 Gucci sneakers) they claim to be “mandatory” or “must-haves.” The October Vogue featured “coveted street style trends,” (like $1,364 velvet trousers and $600 Levi jeans) while urging its readers to purchase them “before it’s too late.” There’s even an on-line game called “Covet Fashion” in which you build your virtual dream wardrobe and then follow links to purchase the desired items.

With all its sales, catalogs, and advertisements, Christmas easily can become a season of desire and desire is what coveting is all about—a strong desire for something we don’t have or something we think we don’t have enough of. The sin of coveting, however, isn’t just desiring material goods. Coveting is a desire for what we can’t have or what other people do have—everything from that $8,500 Hermès bag to a fashion model’s beauty or someone else’s success to our neighbor’s wife.

The tenth commandment not to covet is unique among the Ten Commandments. The first nine deal with actions such as worshipping idols, keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents, taking the Lord’s name in vain, theft, adultery, or murder, but coveting is not an act. Coveting is a matter of the heart and allows desire for something to replace our desire for God. When we covet, we grow discontented, resentful, and even selfish enough to gain what we want at the expense of others.

By desiring the wrong things—whether other’s people’s lives and possessions or things like beauty, life-style, wealth, or fame—our goals get distorted. We may be willing to sacrifice things of real value—home, integrity, marriage, family, financial security, health, ethics, or faith—to attain what, in the end, has little value in this world and absolutely none in the next. When Eve coveted that forbidden fruit, sin and death entered into the world. When David coveted Bathsheba, he ended up ordering Uriah’s death. As a result, his infant son died, calamity entered his house, murder was a constant threat in his family, and he was publicly humiliated by Absalom. After Achan coveted the spoils of war, his entire family was destroyed. As a result of Ahab coveting his neighbor’s vineyard and Jezebel arranging the man’s death, Ahab and every male in his family died and Jezebel was eaten by dogs. Let’s remember that desiring what God does not mean for us to have will always come with a steep price!

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. [Ephesians 5:5 (ESV)]

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. [James 4:1-3 (ESV)]

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GIVING AND RECEIVING

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)]

For it is in giving that we receive. [St. Francis of Assisi]

It’s less than a month until Christmas and I’m awaiting the family’s Christmas wish lists. Six years ago, when my son was helping his daughter compose her Christmas list, he told Mali she could ask for anything. A bit overwhelmed by such free rein, she questioned, “Anything?” While warning Mali that she may not get everything, he reassured her that she could ask for anything. To his surprise, the sweetheart asked for a sleeping bag for her little brother and explained that if he had one like hers, they both would be snug and cozy while watching their half hour of TV at night. Just four at the time, she had the right idea—giving truly is better than receiving.

Now that Mali is a worldly ten-year-old in fifth grade, I doubt that her Christmas list will reflect the same naïve generosity. Since she now has an American Girl doll, I suspect this year’s list will be more like the one her cousin made when she was the same age. That list was so long that it would have been easier if she’d just sent the American Girl catalog with the few things she didn’t want crossed out. Overwhelmed by the plethora of doll accessories available, she wanted everything. Fortunately, as she’s matured, she’s become more discerning and sensible in her requests.

Two extremes—wanting nothing for oneself or everything. How do we find balance? Although Christmas is about just one gift—the Christ child—the traditions surrounding this holy day tend to be ingrained in those colorful bags and gaily wrapped packages sitting beneath our Christmas trees. How do we keep things in perspective, not just during this season of giving and getting, but all year long? Perhaps we need to think more about filling our homes and the homes of others with love, peace, joy, and happy smiles rather than boxes, wrapping paper, and ribbons.

Father, as we prepare to celebrate the Savior’s birth, help us to share your love and blessings, to hold your Word in our hearts, and to properly set our priorities by keeping Christ as the focus of our Christmas.

The giving of gifts is not something man invented. God started the giving spree when he gave a gift beyond words, the unspeakable gift of His Son. [Robert Flatt]

You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” [Acts 20:35b (NLT)]

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BAD EXAMPLES

Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life in your neighborhood so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives. [1 Peter 2:11-12 (MSG)]

laughing gullWe’d gathered for coffee when the conversation turned to tipping. Several who had been servers at one time or another mentioned what notoriously bad tippers church people seem to be. Rather than a tip, some only leave a religious tract. A barista admitted removing any she finds in the tip jar because her fellow workers find them incredibly offensive. Rather than bringing anyone to Jesus, they serve to further distance non-believers from any church!

I recalled my college days in the 60s when many restaurants and businesses had restroom attendants. Rather than money, my fellow Campus Crusaders often left religious tracts in the attendant’s tip jar. Believing that a woman who cleaned up other people’s messes in bathroom sinks and stalls for tips (and purchased gum, breath mints, hand lotion, and perfume to increase those tips) would appreciate the money more than a tract, I always left money.

Thinking that leaving a tract meant they could “chalk one up” for Jesus, my friends may have  congratulated themselves for sharing the Gospel but I thought they were taking the cheap and easy way out of witnessing for Christ. Religious tracts aren’t a substitute for sharing the Word; they are mere tools. While they may get a conversation going, explain a concept, or provide information, they don’t replace interacting with someone. Tracts are an extension of a relationship, not a replacement for one. Relationships, however, take time and effort.

Since we were discussing “bad” Christian behavior, the barista mentioned the incivility of some of the local clergy who frequent her shop. One minister is so notorious that the baristas play rock-paper-scissors to determine who has to wait on him! Doing nothing to promote the Kingdom with their short-tempers, supercilious manner, or brusque behavior, those rude clergy could take a lesson from my son.

While listening to him talk with an airline’s customer service agent, I knew why he’s such a good salesman. He sincerely cares about the people with whom he interacts. Rather than beginning with a complaint about the airline, he started out by asking the agent how she was doing, where she was located, and followed up by commenting on the location and asking about the weather. He sincerely tried to find some common ground before launching into the problem at hand. My son, however, doesn’t save his charm for people who can help him. He’s that way with baristas, butchers, bell hops, bus boys, cashiers, and supermarket baggers as well as neighbors, vendors, employees, customers, and bankers. Everyone he meets is treated with the same amount of courtesy and respect. As salesmen for Christ, we must do the same!

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Sadly, many people hold that same sentiment. Both believers and non-believers can be arrogant, nasty, and stingy but that doesn’t make it right! It’s not just the eyes of God that are upon us—the world sees us and judges Jesus by our behavior.

It simply comes back to how we treat people—not just the people we like, want to impress, or who can do something for us—but everyone from the homeless man, server, janitor, and landscaper all the way to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Remembering to reflect God’s grace and generosity in all things, let’s not further the stereotype that Christians are a rude, judgmental, and cheap lot! (And, if you want to leave a tract, be sure to leave a hefty tip, as well!)

The world takes its notions of God from the people who say that they belong to God’s family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. They see us; they only hear about Jesus Christ. [Alexander Maclaren]

Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. [Matthew 7:12 (MSG)]

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IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY

Woe betide you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed graves, which look very fine on the outside, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and uncleanness of every kind. That’s like you: on the outside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NTE)]

yellow hawkweedAlong with proclaiming the Word of God, the young Church was committed to ensuring that there were no needy among them. As a result, many of the early believers voluntarily sold their property and shared their wealth with the rest of the church community. Barnabas, for example, sold a field he owned and generously brought the money to the apostles for those in need.

Immediately following the mention of Barnabas in Acts, Luke tells us about Ananias and Sapphira. Like Barnabas, they sold some land and brought the proceeds to the apostles but, unlike him, the couple retained some of the funds. But, wanting to impress everyone with their generosity without actually making a sacrifice, they claimed to have contributed the full amount. Peter, however, knew better and confronted each one about their deceit and they were struck dead in divine judgment.

This is a troubling story when we mistakenly think of it in terms of how much of our money we should give to the church. It’s important to remember that Ananias and Sapphira’s sin wasn’t in keeping some of the money; it was theirs to do with as they wished. The sharing among believers wasn’t compulsory and didn’t originate in the law. It originated in love and was completely voluntary. Rather than the sin of greed, the couple’s sin was that of hypocrisy; they wanted to impress the church into thinking they were something they clearly were not. They lied to the church but, worse, they lied to the Holy Spirit! Luke tells us that “great fear” struck the entire church when the learned what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. It should strike fear in us as well! The message, however, isn’t about money; it’s that God will not tolerate deception in spiritual and personal matters.

None of us manage to fully live up to our ideals and values; we’re flawed human beings who miss the mark in a variety of ways. That we fail to be the person we should be does not make us hypocrites; it’s failing to be the person we claim to be that is hypocrisy! Putting reputation before character, the hypocrite creates a public impression at odds with his or her true self.

The book of Acts relates how the early church was threatened by the world in which they lived: persecution, arrests, imprisonment, and even death. But it also relates how the church faced threats within its own community when the sins of a few (like Ananias and Sapphira) threatened the testimony of the church. Both threats continue today. I can’t help but wonder—if God dealt as severely with deceivers and hypocrites today as He did with Ananias and Sapphira, how many people would be left to fill our pews on Sunday morning?

The hypocrite, certainly, is a secret atheist; for if he did believe there was a God, he durst not be so bold as to deceive Him to His face. [Thomas Adams]

They declare that they know God, but they deny him by what they do. They are detestable and disobedient, and useless for any good work. [Titus 1:16 (NTE)]

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THE WRONG MASTER (Part 2)

You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24 (CEV)

black vultureWhen writing about serving only one master, I thought of Gehazi, the scoundrel who tried serving both God and mammon. A servant to the prophet Elisha, Gehazi’s story is found in 2 Kings 5. When Naaman offered Elisha great riches in gratitude for being healed of leprosy, Elisha refused. It was God’s power, not his, that healed Naaman and, knowing that the only master he served was God, Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve. I will not accept any gifts.”

It must have irked Gehazi to see his master refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth around $750 million today). After eyeing those riches, the servant pictured the life of luxury he could enjoy with some of Naaman’s treasure. It seemed foolish to send all that wealth back to Aram. Wanting some for himself and thinking Elisha would never know, Gehazi secretly followed after Naaman’s chariot.

After catching up with Naaman, the servant explained that his master had sent him. His master, however, wasn’t Elisha; it was mammon! The deceitful servant concocted a story that Elisha would like a talent of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. Granted, the servant’s request was somewhat modest considering the size of Naaman’s initial offer; nevertheless, it was the equivalent of 300 years’ worth of wages! I suspect Gehazi was afraid a larger request might have aroused suspicion. Nevertheless, more than happy to find a way to repay the prophet, Naaman offered twice that amount of silver and Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains.

When Elisha asked where he’d been, the servant foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain. As a result of his greed and deceit, Naaman’s leprosy became Gehazi’s and would afflict his descendants forever. The exact nature of his disease is unknown since leprosy in the Bible referred to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) as well as any other skin disease like psoriasis, alopecia, impetigo or dermatitis. Although his punishment didn’t threaten Gehazi’s life, such a skin disease condemned him to life as an outcast. Having served mammon instead of God, Gehazi expected the power, comfort and luxury promised by riches; what he got was life as an untouchable pariah.

There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (CEV)]

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