THE PLEDGE

A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. [Numbers 30:2 (NLT)]

Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to me. The people will declare, “The Lord is the source of all my righteousness and strength.” [Isaiah 45:23b-24 (NLT)]

green heronEvery Tuesday, we begin our afternoon Bible study with prayer and by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible. The words we use are attributed to Homer Grice, a Southern Baptist minister, who wrote them for Baptist Vacation Bible Schools in 1925. He combined two verses from Psalm 119 into this simple vow and versions of it continue to be used by Vacation Bible and Sunday Schools, Christian homeschoolers, and even adult Bible studies. Because it reminded me of elementary school and standing by my desk with my hand across my heart, starting class with this pledge seemed rather childish at first. Once I carefully considered the words, however, I realized that saying this pledge always reminds me that the Bible is at the center of a Christian’s devotion to Jesus Christ. It was in Him that the Word became flesh and, through Scripture, God continues to speak to us today.

A pledge is a formalized promise but pledging allegiance to the Bible means more than simply promising to read it. The promise of allegiance indicates our loyalty and obedience to God’s holy word. The Bible is unlike every other book ever written—ones written to entertain, inform, explain, improve, or motivate us. Its author is God and its words are there to transform us! The Bible is more than words; it is the Word—the living breath of God. This simple pledge of allegiance reflects the importance of Scripture and its vital role in the life of a believer.

The pledge’s words mean that we honor and respect the Bible; we will let its words govern our thoughts, words, and actions. We vow that God’s words will be a lamp to light our way in this dark and difficult world so that we don’t get lost or step off His path. We promise to hide the Bible’s words in our hearts to keep us from sin (just as they did when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness). This pledge reminds us that studying God’s Word is a matter of the heart with these words: “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word. May it be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and may I hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”

I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. … Give me understanding and I will obey your instructions; I will put them into practice with all my heart. …Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. [Psalm 119:11,34,105 (NLT)]

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WHY PRAY?

You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. [Psalm 139:4,16 (NLT)]

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

blue flag irisAs I offered prayers for a good biopsy report, it occurred to me that my prayer was too late. Already excised, the tissue had been sent to a pathologist; for all I knew, the report was written and waiting to be read by my physician. Was God going to rewrite the report? Any troublesome cells in my body had been there awhile. Most likely, the biopsy result was decided months ago so I probably should have been praying about it long before anyone knew a biopsy was needed. Since the pathologist’s report was determined long before my prayers, “Why bother to pray at all?” was the whisper of doubt in my mind.

I imagine I’m not alone in questioning the purpose and efficacy of prayer. When I question if my prayer right now can affect a report written two days ago, let alone a situation that probably has been months or years in the making, I am thinking in human terms: past, present, and future. While we can remember the past, we can only remember that which we know about, not what was hidden from us. We can see the present, but only that which is immediately in front of us and we are blind to the future. God, however, is infinite. Unlimited, He exists outside time or space. Omnipotent, He knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening now, and everything that will take place in the future. Before I was born, He knew the choices I would make, what those choices would mean, whether or not I would pray, and what I’d say in those prayers. He even knew I’d be having a biopsy, its results, and whether or not I’d pray about it. Having given me free will, He didn’t determine my choices; nevertheless, He knew the choices I’d make. Not only did He hear my prayers before I spoke them, He heard my prayers before I’d even thought about praying them.

While I know prayer changes people, I don’t know if prayer changes history. Rather than changing history, perhaps our history is already determined because God knows whether or not we will pray. Rather than changing history, perhaps prayer determines it. Did God change His mind about destroying the people of Nineveh because of their prayers? Or, even before sending Jonah to them, did He know that, having been warned, they would pray and repent so Nineveh would be spared?

Our vision is limited but God’s is not. Without twenty-twenty hindsight or a crystal ball allowing us to see the future, we’re not likely to understand the way He answers our prayers. Clearly, Jesus believed in prayer. He often prayed, taught the disciples to pray and we know of his anguished prayer in Gethsemane. God the Father knew every prayer Jesus offered, not because He determined them, but because He lives in a continuum of time and sees yesterday, today, and tomorrow as one. I think God already knows the prayers we’re going to offer tomorrow (even though we don’t) and that He has already set in motion whatever needs to be done to answer those prayers according to His will! I don’t understand how prayer works but I’m not going to allow uncertainty or doubts keep me from praying.

Let us pray!

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. [C.S. Lewis]

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS ALL YEAR LONG

But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10-11 (NLT)]

christmas cactusSeveral years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus in early December. It had just started to blossom and, by Christmas, it was in full bloom and beautiful. A Christmas cactus typically goes dormant by Easter but mine bloomed until mid-May. The next year, it blossomed again at Christmas but the flowers weren’t as spectacular; it was dormant by February and didn’t survive the summer. Regretfully, I’m a neglectful gardener and my record with plants is dismal. The cactus actually lasted longer than any of my holiday poinsettias.

The spirit of Christmas shouldn’t end when we take down the tree, put away the crèche, the flowers drop from the Christmas cactus, or the poinsettia gets tossed! We can’t leave the baby Jesus in the manger and forget that He grew, taught, led, suffered, died, rose, ascended into heaven, and will come again! We need to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts well beyond the time the toys break, the holiday cookies are eaten, the Christmas cactus goes dormant and the poinsettia dies. The spirit of Christmas—its joy and anticipation—the good news of the gospel message—shouldn’t be dependent upon the calendar. It should flower all year long unless, of course, we become neglectful and forget to fertilize and water it with God’s word and prayer. A pastor friend always keeps a small nativity scene in her office to remind her (and her visitors) that the manger is as important a symbol to Christianity as is the cross. If we have Jesus in our hearts, we can be Christmas people no matter what season it is. May the spirit of hope, love, joy and peace, so present during Christmastime, continue in your hearts all year long!

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. [Calvin Coolidge]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

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