A gossip goes around telling secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence. [Proverbs 11:13 (NLT)]

aftermath of fireWhile attending a spiritual retreat, three ministers decided to share their gravest ethical lapses with one another. After a little hesitation, Pastor Jones started the ball rolling and confessed to having an affair with his beautiful (and married) church secretary. After admitting to a gambling problem, Pastor Smith owned up to embezzling thousands of dollars from his church. Pastor Brown, however, was reluctant to share his moral failings. Telling him that “confession is good for the soul,” the other two ministers urged him to speak, especially since his transgression couldn’t be any worse than theirs. Nervously, Pastor Brown answered, “I’m sorry to tell you fellows, but I’m a compulsive gossip!”

Because secrets often get shared in faith-based small groups, the church is a dangerous place when it comes to gossip. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, God will hear their prayer. When those same people are gathered together, He also might hear some gossip. When we’re asked to pray for someone, we often learn details about their lives that are intensely private. Through prayer requests, small groups, friendships, and counseling, we often gain knowledge of addicted children, attempted suicides, abusive spouses, abortions, adultery, medical conditions, and more—information that is not ours to share with anyone.

As Christians, however, we’ve found a gossip loophole. Instead of telling others about someone, we can ask them to pray for that person by name and then give the juicy details of their problems. Some people seem to think passing along information about the life of someone not present isn’t gossip if a “Bless her/his heart” is added to the end of the conversation. They’re wrong! When requesting prayers, God already knows all the names and particulars so specifics aren’t necessary. When given a person’s deepest secrets, we should treasure them, lock them in a safe place, and toss away the key.

Right now, New Mexico is experiencing the second largest wildfire in their history. For more than a month, firefighters have tried to tame this ferocious megafire but, as of Saturday, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire stretched across 169,000 acres and was only 20% contained. That fire, however, is only one of six wildfires burning throughout the state. Altogether, over 300,000 acres have burned just this year! More than trees, wildlife, and homes are being destroyed. Not only have those fires claimed lives but they also threaten an Indo-Hispano culture that has endured since long before the United States came into existence. A way of life that has lasted for centuries is being destroyed by those flames.

Whether carelessly or deliberately spoken, the Apostle James likens our words to a spark that can cause another kind of fire. Like New Mexico’s fires, gossip spreads rapidly, is as hard to stop, and can be just as destructive! While buildings will remain, homes may not; trees will survive but reputations probably won’t. People may not die but their lives may be destroyed. Once started, ill-spoken words are as difficult to contain as a megafire and their smoke and ash can darken a life forever.

Years ago, when we vacationed with friends on Grand Cayman, we agreed to keep any personal information we shared “on the island.” We continue to keep things “on the island” whether we’re on an island, in the living room, at small group, praying for someone, or anywhere else. Forgive me for mixing metaphors but it is only by keeping it “on the island” that we can prevent forest fires!

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.  And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. [James 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill? … Those who refuse to gossip or harm their neighbors or speak evil of their friends. [Psalm 15:1,3 (NLT)]

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On the following day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world! This is the man I meant when I said, ‘A man comes after me who is always in front of me, for he existed before I was born!’ It is true I have not known him, yet it was to make him known to the people of Israel that I came and baptised people with water.” [John 1:29-31 (PHILLIPS)]

mourning doveWe don’t know if John the Baptist recognized Jesus as his distant cousin when the two men met on the banks of the Jordan. Although they were the same age and their mothers were related in some way, with John in the desert and Jesus in Nazareth, it’s not likely they knew one another. If they did, Jesus probably seemed nothing more than an ordinary person to John at the time.

When Jesus walked toward him that day, however, John knew he was seeing someone who was more than a carpenter from Nazareth. In the same way that Elizabeth knew Mary was “the mother of my Lord” when the unborn John leapt in her womb, John recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. John seemed to have no doubt about Jesus when he testified to seeing the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and, throughout John’s ministry, he continued to point out Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

After Jesus’ baptism, the gospel of John tells us that both John and Jesus carried on baptizing ministries. Perhaps out of jealousy, some of John’s disciples complained that more people were going to Jesus than coming to John. Again, John made it clear that he knew their different roles when he compared himself to the best man and Jesus to the bridegroom. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” [3:30]

More than a year later, what happened to John’s confidence in Jesus’ identity? The man who once had been so sure about Jesus sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” [Mt 11:3] Languishing in Herod’s dungeon, John probably wondered why the conquering king from David’s line hadn’t released him. Why hadn’t Jesus taken the throne from Herod and Rome? Where was the end-time outpouring of the Spirit, the winnowing fork that would separate the chaff from the wheat, and the one who would burn the chaff with “never-ending fire”?

In truth, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that John and his disciples were expecting; nevertheless, He was the Messiah! John, however, didn’t understand that Jesus had to teach, heal, suffer, die, resurrect, and ascend before returning a second time and executing final judgment. At first, it seems that Jesus ducks John’s question with a summary of his miracles but John understood. The miracles Jesus listed fulfilled the messianic promises in Isaiah; they were proof that He was the Messiah. Jesus’ final message for John is a beatitude that encouraged the Baptizer (and the rest of us) not to stumble in our faith just because Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations.

While we may not be languishing in a dungeon as was John, we may be in languishing in grief, infertility, depression, illness, addiction, chronic pain, money issues, infidelity, or family problems. Just as Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, He doesn’t always meet ours. He didn’t free John from Herod’s prison and He may not free us from ours and, like John, we may have doubts. Faith and doubt, however, are not antonyms and doubt and unbelief are not synonyms! We can be people of faith and still have questions; like John, we never should be afraid to ask those questions. John went to Jesus for the answers and, like him, we should look to the words and works of Jesus Christ for our ours. We’ll discover, as did John, that the Lord’s credentials will hold up to the toughest of questions!

Jesus gave them this reply, “Go and tell John what you see and hear—that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being brought to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses faith in me.” [Matthew 11:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)]

Of him that hopes to be forgiven it is indispensably required that he forgive. It is therefore superfluous to urge any other motive. On this great duty eternity is suspended, and to him that refuses to practise it the throne of mercy is inaccessible, and the Saviour of the world has been born in vain. [Samuel Johnson (1751)]

water lilyThe friend said, “I hate to admit it, but every night I pray that Putin will be dead by morning.” As we witness the genocide, violence, and horror in Ukraine on the morning news, I suspect he’s not the only Christian who is saddened to learn that Vladimir Putin didn’t die last night or that bombs didn’t destroy the Kremlin and the entire Russian army!

Like many, I struggle with what and how to pray regarding Russia, Putin, and this horrific war. More than 80 years ago, C.S. Lewis had the same dilemma regarding Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—the tyrants and murderers of World War II who, like Putin, were Godless merciless dictators who attacked human rights at all levels. The parable of the unforgiving servant, however, reminds us that if we expect God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are to extend that same mercy and forgiveness to others. That’s a hard pill to swallow when it comes to people like Vladimer Putin but Jesus didn’t mince his words when he commanded that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Believing that praying for others was obligatory for a Christian, Lewis wrote the following to his dear friend Dom Bede Griffiths in spring of 1940: “The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it? When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?” After pondering the problem, Lewis wrote to his brother about a month later and began his letter with Samuel Johnson’s words about forgiveness and mercy. After listing Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and three men he considered his nemeses at university, Lewis said he prayed “every night for the people I am most tempted to despise or hate. In the effort to make this real I have had to do a good deal of thinking.”

How do we pray for evil people in the first place let alone make the prayer real, rather than obligatory empty words?

Praying for our enemies doesn’t mean that we pray for their happiness, that we like the kind of people they are, or that we approve or excuse their behavior. As Lewis pointed out in his letters, praying for them is remembering that they are made of the same stuff we are, that Jesus died for them as much as He died for us, and that we are no more deserving of God’s sacrifice, grace, or mercy than are they. Assuming that these evil people can still be rescued, Lewis believed we can and should pray for their salvation.

As much as we hate the actions of evil people, we mustn’t hate the people. Nevertheless, we often do. Lewis admitted to his brother that he “tends to give free reign to hatred and to regard it as virtuous or normal.”  Reflecting on his own moments of cruelty, the theologian pointed out that his inclination to hate “might have blossomed, under different conditions, into something terrible. You and I are not, at bottom, so different from these ghastly creatures.” Indeed, as much as I hate to admit it, I know I’m not!

As we pray for our enemies (whether they’re our nemeses at work or people like Putin), there is no need to tell God what’s wrong with them or instruct God on the way to deal with such people. As for me, after simply asking Him to change the person’s heart, I leave the rest up to Him. In the same way, I can’t presume to know how this tragic situation can be resolved so I simply lift the people of Ukraine and Russia up to God—He already knows their names and their needs.

We must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves— to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not. I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. [C.S. Lewis]

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:14,19,21 (ESV)]

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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. For the Lord is high above the nations; his glory is higher than the heavens. [Psalm 113:1-4 (NLT)]

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. … Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 118:22-24,29 (NLT)

crucifixion - cathedral st. francis - santa feJesus knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all desert Him. He knew the people He’d fed, healed, taught, and loved—the people who just a few days earlier had greeted him like a king with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna”—soon would prefer a thief over Him. Because of His anguished prayers later that evening in Gethsemane, we know that He knew the suffering and torment that lay ahead for him. Nevertheless, he sang with the disciples during their Passover meal that last night and it wasn’t a sorrow-filled psalm of lament.

Because it was a Passover feast, at least twice during the evening they would have paused to sing the traditional Passover hymns commemorating Israel’s escape from slavery. Known as the “Egyptian Hallel” and consisting of Psalms 113 through 118, they are joyful hymns of praise and thanksgiving. Hallel literally means praise and the Hebrew phrase Hallelu Yah, meaning “praise the Lord,” is found frequently in these beautiful psalms. The sages understood that Psalm 118, the climax of the Hallel, was about the Messiah and that night in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Messiah Himself sang those very words. As the disciples gathered in that upper room celebrating Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt, did they realize they really were celebrating man’s release from bondage to sin?

The following day, after three hours on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After the praise and thanks of the previous night, did He now doubt God? The question was rhetorical because Jesus knew exactly why He was suffering—He was bearing the weight of the sins of the world. What the gospels don’t include is the rest of Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus probably was reciting. Although the psalm begins with the complaint of unanswered prayers and abandonment by God, it is followed by a statement of confidence in Him. A complaint of being forsaken by men comes next but it also is followed by an expression of trust in the Lord.

Although the psalm was written by David, rather than reflecting his experiences, it prophetically presented the future suffering of the Messiah and the next several stanzas clearly depict the crucifixion of Jesus: people mocked and scorned Him, He was in pain, His strength ebbed, His mouth was dry, His hands and feet were pierced, He was dying, and His clothing was divided and lots cast for it. These lines are followed by a cry for deliverance.

By the psalm’s 22nd verse, however, its tone changes and the plaintive cries turn to praise and words of faithful confidence: “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people. Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!” The praise and promises continue throughout the rest of the psalm. These are not the words of a defeated man but the words of the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, the one who fulfilled the promise made to Abraham in Genesis that, “through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Out of what seemed to be defeat came triumph.

The One who’d sung “Hallelu Yah,” the previous night with his disciples again praised the Lord with His last words as He hung on the cross. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

The cross was two pieces of dead wood; and a helpless, unresisting Man was nailed to it; yet it was mightier than the world, and triumphed, and will ever triumph over it. [Augustus William Hare]

I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him. All the families of the nations will bow down before him. For royal power belongs to the Lord. He rules all the nations. Let the rich of the earth feast and worship. Bow before him, all who are mortal, all whose lives will end as dust. Our children will also serve him. Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done. [Psalm 22:25-31 (NLT)]

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Jesus told them, “Tonight all of you will desert me. … Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” “No!” Peter insisted. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” And all the other disciples vowed the same. [Matthew 26:31,33-35 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoApparently, coffee was not served after dinner in the upper room that Thursday night. Granted, a nap is welcome after a big meal but that evening’s Passover meal was like no other and Jesus had predicted that the disciples would desert Him. After such a warning, you’d think the men would have been extra cautious. Scripture tells us Jesus was troubled and grief-stricken when He asked Peter, James, and John to keep watch with Him. Surely, that should have motivated His closest friends to keep awake, but it didn’t. Three times Jesus went to pray and three times he returned to find the men asleep. It was Jewish custom on Passover night to stay up late and talk of God’s acts of redemption so staying awake this night was something they’d all done on other Passover nights. Nevertheless, even after Peter specifically was cautioned to stay awake while praying to stand strong against temptation, the men slumbered. Shouldn’t the warning that he’d deny Jesus three times before morning been enough at least to keep Peter alert and deep in prayer? While the Lord was in anguish and prayed so intently that He sweat drops of blood, His most trusted friends took an after-dinner snooze. They were asleep on the job.

Perhaps the disciples’ biggest mistake was in their self-confidence. When told they’d abandon their beloved leader, they all protested that could never happen. Unfortunately, not one of them took the possibility of their deserting Jesus to God in prayer. Instead, they slept! They didn’t set out to deliberately desert Him but, by not praying, they failed the test before it began. Even the best of intentions won’t protect us in time of trial; for that we need prayer. Moreover, they failed a friend in need. Had the disciples stayed awake with Jesus, while they couldn’t have taken away the bitter cup He’d been given, they could have shared His pain. Sharing our prayers and strength with those in distress is what the community of faith is supposed to do.

The Jewish custom in Jesus’ day was to forgive someone for the same sin only three times. How fortunate for Peter that Jesus said we should forgive seventy times seven. Otherwise, with his three naps and three denials, he would have used his forgiveness allotment twice in just one night. Following Jesus’ resurrection, He didn’t berate the disciples for deserting Him, chastise Thomas for doubting, or rebuke Peter for his denials. In fact, He reinstated Peter and told the man to feed His sheep! From Jesus’ example we learn to love and forgive the human failings of those who disappoint us.

Like Jesus, we’ve all had friends fail us at one time or another and probably more than three times. Perhaps, like Jesus, we should come to expect them to disappoint us from time to time. After all, in spite of our good intentions, we flawed beings can be selfish, self-centered, inconsiderate, callous, inattentive, and worse. Thinking we’re invulnerable to the enemy’s attack is one of his favorite tactics and, like the disciples, we’ve been overly confident in our own abilities and self-control and, like the disciples, we frequently fail our Christian brothers and sisters. When comfortable, content, and well fed, like the disciples that night, we often become oblivious to the needs of others and stop being vigilant and prayerful. Do we pray with and keep watch over our friends during their times of suffering and difficulty or are we asleep on the job?

Why grow we weary when asked to watch with our Lord? Up, sluggish heart, Jesus calls thee! Rise and go forth to meet the Heavenly Friend in the place where He manifests Himself. [E.M. Bounds]

Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” [Mark 14:38 (NLT)]

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“My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” … Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.” … So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. [Matthew 26:39,42,44 (NLT)]

water liliesThroughout His ministry, it seems that Jesus knew that the cross awaited Him but we don’t know if the human part of Him knew the exact details. Even so, it’s one thing to know what lays in the future but quite another to know it is about to begin within a matter of minutes. That night in Gethsemane, God showed Jesus the cup from which He would drink and He showed it in gruesome detail. Jesus viewed the betrayal, abandonment, sham trials, mocking, beating, flogging, and suffering torture on the cross along with the jeers of the crowd and the heartbreak and tears of His mother and the other women at the foot of the cross. Had Jesus not known exactly what the next 24-hours held, He would have been no different than the lambs brought to the Temple for sacrifice. They weren’t there of their own volition and had no knowledge of what would happen to them when presented to the priest. Rather than willing sacrifices, they were victims! The Lamb of God, however, needed to know the extraordinary cup—the horrible ordeal—that lay before him because, rather than a victim, He was a willing volunteer! His anguished prayers that night, however, tell us He didn’t look forward to it.

When we look at Jesus’ prayers that last night, there’s a condition to His request to remove the cup: “if it is possible.” If there were an alternative means to accomplish God’s will, Jesus certainly would have preferred it. Knowing exactly what He was facing, the human part of Him prayed for another way and He prayed so intensely that he sweat blood! Judas and the soldiers hadn’t yet arrived and Jesus could have quietly slipped away in the night and disappeared into Jerusalem, but He didn’t! As He prayed for deliverance, He also prayed to do God’s will. Since the Son of God had come to mankind to do His Father’s will, Jesus obediently and willingly stayed in the garden and submitted to all the horror that followed.

Looking at Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane as a lesson in prayer, we see that since God the Father denied the request of His only Son, we shouldn’t expect God to agree to all we ask. C.S. Lewis says that Jesus’ unanswered prayers that night make it clear that prayer is not to be considered “a sort of infallible gimmick.” There is, however, a greater lesson in Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane.

He forthrightly asked for the horror of what lay ahead to be removed which is the sort of prayer we typically offer when a loved one lies in a coma, the doctor says “inoperable,” the bank threatens foreclosure, we face 32 more radiation treatments, or a child become addicted. We pray, “Take it away, Lord—make it all right!” That, however, is usually where we stop but Jesus didn’t stop there. After asking for our difficult cup to be removed, do we add “if it is possible,” with the understanding that God’s purpose is more important than our desire? Finally, like Jesus, do we complete our prayer by fully submitting to God’s divine plan (whether we like it or not) with the words, “I want your will to be done, not mine”? Jesus submitted, will we?

If there was not an absolute necessity of his suffering them in order to their salvation, he desired that the cup might pass from him. But if sinners, on whom he had set his love, could not, agreeably to the will of God, be saved without his drinking it, he chose that the will of God should be done. He chose to go on and endure the suffering, awful as it appeared to him. [Matthew Henry]

He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. [Luke 22:41-44 (NLT)]

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