THE MIDDLEMAN

Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Mark 11:23-24 (ESV)]

zinniaA pastor friend shared a story about a woman at a previous church who had an odd habit. Whenever the pastor announced a change of some kind, more often than not, she would say to him, “I’m so thankful. I’ve been praying you would decide to do that.” When curiosity overcame him, he asked “Instead of using God as a middle man, why don’t you just tell me what you’re thinking or want changed?” Revealing that she was a preacher’s kid, the woman told of the officious interference, meddling, criticism and complaint her father had endured during his ministry. In fact, the often unchristian fault-finding behavior of his parishioners nearly turned her away from the church. She vowed that, unless asked, she’d never tell a pastor what she thought he should do. Instead, she’d simply pray about it and, “if it is God’s will, then He will reveal it to the pastor.” Apparently, as she discerned, God makes an excellent “middle man!”

When hearing this story, I couldn’t help but wonder at my behavior. Do I see God as the Middleman—the conciliator, the peace-maker, the intermediary, the one who brings two opposing parties to the table and brokers the deal—or do I see Him as the court of last resort? Do I go to Him first or only when I can’t get the desired result on my own? Would I rather intrude, advise, instruct, complain or criticize than pray?

We say we believe in the power of prayer but do we really? Do we truly believe that God really hears us? Do we trust Him enough to put our concerns into His hands before taking them elsewhere? Do we really believe in a God who can make things happen—a God who can move mountains—or do we think He needs our help? If we believe God can move mountains, why is it so difficult at times to believe that He can move hearts? While going through a middleman often seems the indirect and a roundabout way to get things done, when that Middleman is God, both hearts and mountains can be moved!

Of course, there’s another more subtle lesson in the pastor’s story. Do we pray regularly for our clergy? I don’t mean those formal prayers for the church found in various liturgies. We consistently must pray for our specific pastors—not that they’ll do what we want them to do but that they will have the energy, strength, wisdom, and courage to do what God wants them to do!

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. [1 John 5:14 (ESV)]

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)]

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CHUTZPAH

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [Luke 18:1 (ESV)]

pink peony“Lord, you’ve got to…” I started, but got no further in my prayer. “God doesn’t ‘got to’ do anything!” said a still small voice. Whether it was the Holy Spirit, conscience, or even God himself, I don’t know, but the point was well taken. “What chutzpah!” I thought, using a word borrowed from my Jewish friends that has moved from Hebrew into Yiddish and now English. Often defined as audacity, presumption, cheek, arrogance, or impudence, the way I started my prayer was all of those and more.

Some say that chutzpah is when a man kills both his parents and begs the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. One computer executive defines it as, “calling up tech support to report a bug on pirated software.” Neither example, however, captures the essence of the word. Chutzpah includes fearlessness, pluck, mettle, and boldness in its request and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Abraham’s chutzpah when he argued with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It certainly took chutzpah for Moses, an eighty-year old expat Jew who was both felon and shepherd, to demand that Pharaoh let his enslaved people free. Moses then had chutzpah enough to argue with God over the destruction of those same stiff-necked people! Esther showed chutzpah when she approached King Xerxes, David when he said he’d fight Goliath, Daniel when he took Belshazzar to task for his dreadful behavior, and even Jesus when he cleared the temple of money-changers.

I would think the parable of the resolute widow who pestered the unjust judge for justice until it was received tells us that some chutzpah in our prayers in the way of boldness, fearlessness and persistence is a good thing. As one pastor friend says, “Ours in an audacious God; we should honor Him with audacious prayers.” On the other hand, in my prayer, I was not asking for justice, peace of mind, healing or even forgiveness. Mine was the beginning of a disrespectful, brazen and impertinent demand much like that made by a selfish petulant child in a toy store.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman says, “To be a good Jew, you need two opposites: A sense of shame that prevents you from acting with chutzpah to do the wrong thing, and a sense of chutzpah that prevents you from being ashamed to do the right thing.” I think that’s true for Christians, as well, but we should use it properly. While we should step out for God with chutzpah, we always must come before Him with humility and respect.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (ESV)]

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you!  Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! [Psalm 141:1-2 (ESV)]

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NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY

sanderlingsFor I am the Lord, your healer. [Exodus 15:26b (RSV)]

In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. [Luke 7:21-22 (RSV)]

Here in southwest Florida it’s “season,” which means that flocks of snowbirds have arrived (and I don’t mean the kind with wings). While they boost the economy, locals groan at the busy traffic, the difficulty of getting into their favorite restaurants or hair salons, and the scarcity of parking places. One of the biggest problems is seeing a doctor! If we can find a doctor (or dentist) who is taking new patients (a challenge in itself) and takes our insurance, we’ll find a two month or longer wait before getting an appointment. Then, if we’re referred to a specialist, the whole routine begins again. As for urgent care clinics; unless the situation is life threatening, there is nothing urgent about the care one eventually receives. My best advice during season is not to get sick!

Our God truly is the Great Physician but, unlike the doctors in our town, He’ll take new patients. He won’t make us fill out detailed medical history forms; rather than past illnesses, He’s concerned about our wellness in the present and future. Insured or uninsured, Medicare or Medicaid, co-pay or no pay, it makes no difference; Jesus already paid our fee. God will never turn us away as incurable or hopeless because there are no lost causes in His office and He’ll never refer us to someone else because He specializes in whatever is ailing us. Best of all: no appointment is ever needed. God operates a walk-in clinic where the waiting room aways is empty and the doctor always is in!

At first, God being available 24/7 and taking His time during an appointment sounds like the concierge medicine that has become so popular in our area. God, however, doesn’t limit the number of patients in His practice nor does He require a hefty retainer fee before He gives you His number or listens to your complaint. God never takes a vacation and always has enough time and energy to deal with everyone who calls Him. Like a concierge physician, however, God is strong on preventative medicine: regular prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and eating frequently at His table.

Of course, as with any physician, if we don’t recognize our sickness and the need for healing, we won’t call Him. We must have faith in our doctor’s wisdom and skill and follow his directions completely and we must do the same with our Great Physician. While He won’t be prescribing Lipitor, a flu shot, or more exercise, He’ll probably prescribe a healthy dose of repentance, forgiveness, love and prayer. Instead of giving us medical brochures about our condition, He’s already provided us with something better than the Merck Manual: Holy Scripture. As for any sort of long-term therapy—among other things, God is sure to recommend Christian community and service.

Our Great Physician hears our painful cries and heals our troubled souls. Thank you, God.

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17 (RSV)]

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against thee!” [Psalm 41:4 (RSV)]

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NO WHINE ZONE

Lake Maligne - CanadaNot that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. [Philippians 4:11 (NLT)]

Perhaps it was because of the dreary weather, but I started my litany of complaints as soon as I got out of bed. It was chilly and damp (by Florida standards) and my arthritic knees ached. As I gingerly walked across the cold tile floor, I remembered a friend whose rheumatoid arthritis has left her unable to walk even moderate distances. In spite of a few creaky joints, I still manage to get in my 10,000 steps every day. As dreary as the day was, the only reason I didn’t complain about the weather is that, even at my grouchiest, I know that a bad winter day in southwest Florida is better than a good one just about anywhere else!

Nevertheless, my moaning and groaning continued as I faced the mirror and saw those pesky gray roots peeking out from my colored hair. I grumbled about those until I recalled my many friends who lost their tresses to chemo-therapy and radiation. I scrutinized the age spots on my face and the wrinkles around my eyes and then remembered my elderly friend whose skin cancer left him without an eye. While I was on a roll, though, I looked with disdain at my old lady neck and remembered Nora Ephron’s words: “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.” Truer words were never said but, before I could even voice that grievance, I thought of a friend’s wife who lost both her jaw and life to cancer; had she lived into her 70s, I don’t think she’d be complaining about a crepey neck.

Not yet done with negativity, though, I grumbled because the sundress I’d planned on wearing wouldn’t be warm enough. As I browsed through my over-full closet to pick a warmer outfit, I thought of all those people who have no closet stuffed with clothing, pantry filled with food, or furnace running to keep them warm. “Shame on me!” I thought, but I wasn’t done yet with my litany of complaint.

Later that morning, I became annoyed that my limping husband can no longer keep up with me. Before I could bemoan the fact that we can no longer ski together, I remembered the man who pushes his wife’s wheelchair along the boardwalk every morning. I’m sure they both would be thrilled if she could walk, even with a limp! I then thought about the neurosurgeon without whose skill my spouse couldn’t walk at all. There are many places in the world where the speedy and expert treatment my husband received would be unavailable and, like that woman, he would need a wheelchair.

“Count your blessings!” my mother used to say, but I’d wasted a fair amount of the morning counting petty complaints instead. How easy it is to gripe about stupid little things and forget how fortunate we really are. When I need an attitude adjustment, as I so desperately did that morning, I find reading Psalm 100 an excellent antidote to a case of the grumbles. My spirits improved once I’d stopped whining, taken stock of the many blessings of my life, and thanked God for them. While some of us are “glass half full!” kind of people, others are more of the “glass half empty!” sort. What we need to remember is to be thankful that we have a glass at all! Indeed, “Give thanks to him and praise his name.” 

The Lord afflicts us at times; but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient. [John Newton]

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
Worship the Lord with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100 (NLT)]

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PERSEVERING PRAYER

O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out to you by day. I come to you at night. Now hear my prayer; listen to my cry. For my life is full of troubles, and death draws near. [Psalm 88:1-3 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronLast month, a man crashed his car into the frigid waters of the Klamath River in California. Although the accident occurred around 3:00 in the morning, the nearly submerged upside-down car wasn’t reported until 5:30 AM. The dive team finally was able to attach a cable to its undercarriage and tow the vehicle to dry land at 8:00 AM. By this time, thinking it a recovery rather than a rescue operation and with airbags blocking the windows, no one expected to find anyone alive in the car. When the team commander opened the door, however, he heard the words, “Help me!” The car’s driver had survived nearly five hours in icy water while breathing from an air pocket in the car. I have no idea whether the man was a believer but I imagine he might be one now.

This morning, I thought of that man when reading Psalm 88. Although I think the psalmist, Heman the Ezrahite, was writing metaphorically about death drawing near, being “as good as dead,” standing “helpless and desperate,” in “the darkest depths,” with “wave after wave” engulfing him, in a “trap with no way of escape,” and with terrors swirling around “like floodwaters” that engulfed him completely, those words sounded as if they could have been penned by the driver of that submerged car. Alone, in darkness, in a frigid river, desperately trying to keep his head above water, fearful of running out of air, and thinking he’d met his end, I wonder if that frantic man prayed as passionately as did Heman in his psalm.

In his prayer, the despairing Heman doesn’t mince words; nothing is concealed. He lays his miserable life out for God (and everyone else) with brutal honesty. Grieving and in desperate need, estranged from friends and loved ones, he complains that darkness is his closest friend. Yet, in spite of his list of afflictions, there are no accusations, calls for revenge, or anger; there is just woeful resignation, acceptance, and entreaty.

While this is a psalm of lament, it is also one of trust, hope and perseverance. Freely expressing his discouragement and complaint, the psalmist calls to the God of his salvation. Knowing that God is sovereign over his suffering, he also knows God is sovereign over his relief. Even though it seems as if his prayers aren’t being heard, Heman tirelessly continues to pray, crying out to God “day by day” and at night.

I’ve never been gasping for air in an upside down car submerged in icy water and I don’t think I’ve ever been as desperate as Heman must have been when he wrote his psalm. Nevertheless, that doesn’t excuse me from my often sporadic, passionless and perfunctory prayers. Why does it seem that we must be in trouble, in desperate straits, in need of rescue, or in deep despair before we are as forthright, fervent and constant as Heman in our prayers? Shouldn’t every one of our prayers be said with the same level of urgency, ardor, honesty and emotion? Could some of our prayers remain unanswered simply because we haven’t offered them as earnestly as did Heman? What will it take before we pray with his passion? I certainly hope it doesn’t involve an overturned car floating down a river.

When you pray, rather let your heart be without words than your words without heart. [John Bunyan]

I am in a trap with no way of escape. My eyes are blinded by my tears. Each day I beg for your help, O Lord; I lift my hands to you for mercy. … O Lord, I cry out to you. I will keep on pleading day by day. [Psalm 88 8b-9,13 (NLT)]

The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. [James 5:16b (NLT)]

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LET’S PRAY

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

snowy egretsThe eight of us were brainstorming a difficult and heartbreaking situation facing a family we know. We had plenty of ideas about getting them the assistance and guidance they needed but we could only direct them to the resources. They were the ones who needed to take action. Unfortunately, people often want the easy way out of their problems and desire money rather than counsel. Money, however, is usually only a stop gap measure and it frequently enables a bad situation to continue or get worse. The problem we were discussing required change, compromise, work and sacrifice far more than money. These people had to take action and, truth be told, I’m not so sure they wanted to step forward and act.

Those of us sitting around the table that day are people of action. Asking “What can I do? How can I help?” we wanted to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and make things right. This was one of those times, however, when there was nothing more we could do and no way we could make things right. There always will be hurts that we can’t heal, needs that we can’t satisfy, situations we can’t fix, and wrongs that we can’t make right. Sadly, this was one of them.

I learned something important that day, something even more important than understanding when it is time to step back from someone else’s problem. Our discussion had reached a dead end and we started repeating ourselves. At that point, we had a choice. We could beat a dead horse and keep talking which probably would have turned our constructive discussion into gossip and censure. On the other hand, we could stop and pray. Fortunately, understanding we were helpless onlookers and seeing we were dangerously close to becoming judge and jury, someone suggested prayer! Knowing we can’t fix everything but that we can love and pray for everyone, we prayed and handed the situation to God.

The thing I learned that day? While I’ve always believed in the power of prayer, I hadn’t realized the power of just saying, “Let’s pray!” Pausing for prayer changed the entire tenor of the discussion. The next time I’m in one of those conversations that starts to go downhill into the territory of gossip, disapproval, or scorn, I know to say, “Let’s pray!” Prayer can change more than situations and other people; it can change the people doing the praying!

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [James 1:26 (NLT)]

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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