Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:30 (NLT)]

Zion Presbyterian - Schapville IllinoisThe story is told about a pastor who was shaking hands with his congregation after church one Sunday morning when a little boy handed him a dollar. After thanking him, the pastor asked what it was for. The youngster replied, “It’s for you, because I heard my daddy say that you were the poorest preacher that we ever had.” How easy it is to criticize our pastors when, instead, we should be praying for them.

Have we given thought to the fact that our pastors are people just like us and prone to the same physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges? Expected to produce inspiring sermons every week, their family lives in a fish bowl, they’re on call every hour of every day and, unlike Superman, are vulnerable to far more than kryptonite! Like the rest of us, they get sick, lonely, tired, disappointed, discouraged, angry and can feel inadequate, depressed, overworked, and under-appreciated. A clerical collar does not protect our pastors from the hazards of living in our fallen world; like you and me, they endure illness, injury, family problems, loss, financial hardship, and temptation yet, for some reason, we find it easier to criticize them than to pray for them!

Ministry never has been and never will be a one-man show! The Apostle Paul understood he couldn’t conduct his ministry alone and, knowing he needed God’s power, frequently asked the church for their prayers. Although Paul asked for prayers, our pastors frequently don’t. Just because they don’t ask, however, doesn’t mean they’re not in need of them!

Rather than complaining to his son about the minister’s poor preaching, the man could have asked God to refresh the pastor’s call to preach so that his sermons would inspire and revive the congregation. Prayers for our pastors, however, aren’t limited to complainers; along with praying for their preaching, we should pray for their spiritual discernment, evangelism opportunities, ministry effectiveness, leadership, wisdom, courage, and spiritual protection. As we pray for our pastors’ physical, spiritual, and mental health, let us remember to pray for their families. Our churches seem to have councils, altar guilds, prayer chains, small group leaders, hospitality committees, and worship, set-up and evangelism teams, but do they have anyone who regularly prays for the pastors?

Evangelist, author, and radio host Woodrow Kroll said that, “Pastors need your grace, not your gripes.” I would suggest they need our prayers, as well.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. [Ephesians 6:19-20 (NLT)]

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Why do you accuse God of not answering anyone?  God does speak—sometimes one way and sometimes another—even though people may not understand it. He speaks in a dream or a vision of the night when people are in a deep sleep, lying on their beds. He speaks in their ears and frightens them with warnings to turn them away from doing wrong and to keep them from being proud. [Job 33:13-17 (NCV)]

monarch butterflyWhile sorting through comic strips I’d saved, I came across an old Beetle Bailey (written by Greg and Mort Walker). In it, the inept General Halftrack approaches the chaplain and says, “I’d like to talk to God like you do, but when I try to talk to him, He doesn’t answer.” Chaplain Stainglass replies, “Maybe you’ve been calling the wrong number!” Indeed, sometimes the silence seems deafening when we call on God but I don’t think it’s because we’ve called the wrong number. The general simply may have hung up too quickly! Abraham determinedly pled for the city of Sodom, Hannah untiringly prayed for a son, Elijah persisted in praying for rain, and the Syrophoenician woman stubbornly begged Jesus to heal her daughter. They continued to call and God answered them all! Then again, maybe the General was so busy talking, that he didn’t hear God answer him!

The General may have missed the answer because he didn’t recognize God’s voice. Perhaps he expected to hear an audible voice as did Moses in the meeting tent or Paul on the road to Damascus. Maybe the general imagined God’s words would come from an angel as they did to Mary and the shepherds long ago. Most of us, however, will have neither a face-to-face meeting with God nor an encounter with a host of angels. It’s more likely that God will use the voices of other believers when He talks to us as He did with the prophets to Israel and Judah, Jethro to Moses, Samuel to Saul, and Paul to Timothy.

Nature and natural events are another way God speaks. The thunder, lightning, quaking and smoke at Mt. Sinai certainly made God’s presence clear to the Israelites. He spoke through both a flood and a rainbow to Noah and a star to the Magi. Because God has a specific plan for our lives, we also will find God’s voice in our circumstances. When, like the Israelites, we find ourselves between an army and the sea or a rock and a hard place, He may be telling us to trust Him. If, like Jonah, we end up in the belly of a whale, He might be teaching us about obedience. Sometimes God’s even speaks through the supernatural as He did to Gideon with the fleece, to Moses with the burning bush, to Balaam with a talking donkey, and to King Belshazzar with writing on the wall.

Dreams and visions are another way God speaks. It was in a dream that God told Abimelech that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and a vision led Ananias to visit Paul. In one dream, Jacob saw angels ascending and descending from a ladder and, in another, God told him to return home. It was through Joseph’s dreams God spoke to him and through Pharaoh’s dreams that Joseph knew of Egypt’s future famine.

God also He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. While some refer to Him as that “still small voice,” the Holy Spirit is anything but still or small when He points out our sins or has an assignment for us. Speaking to our hearts and often through our conscience, the Holy Spirit helps us discern God’s will, convicts us when we go astray, and gives us a sense of peace when we’ve taken the right path.

Perhaps the General forgot that God already provided him with plenty of answers in the Bible. All of scripture is God-breathed and His word is filled with wisdom and guidance. The words of Jesus are as relevant today as they were over 2,000 years ago. We, however, have to do our part by reading those words!

Like the General, we all have times when it seems God is away from his desk and ignoring our calls. The problem isn’t with God; it’s with us. We’re just not listening with our ears, eyes and hearts!

And the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he brings all his sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:3-4,27 (NCV)]

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For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

little blue heronThirty years ago, Al Franken played a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smalley. Host of a fictitious self-help show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” Stuart would look into in a mirror and affirm that he was good enough, smart enough, and that people liked him. A member of several twelve-step programs, Stuart often shared maxims like, “Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt!” along with affirmations that he was entitled to his share of happiness and (my personal favorite) that it is easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.

Even though we laughed at Stuart’s corny affirmations, what we say to ourselves is important. The word affirmation comes from the Latin word affirmare, which means to make steady or strengthen. Affirmations really do strengthen us because they can break the cycle of negative thoughts that lead to negative speech and actions. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

Last May, Jonathon Borge, Senior Editor of Oprah Daily, compiled 40 daily affirmations. It’s no surprise that most quotes came from life-coaches, motivational speakers, self-help authors, and Oprah. One notable exception was boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s: “I am the greatest!” First said in 1964, Ali may or may not have been the greatest boxer but, as Christians, we know that God is greater. Ali’s was a prideful affirmation bordering on blasphemy! Life-coach Tim Storey’s affirmation was, “Your life is about to be incredible.” That’s probably true as far as it goes since Storey never specified incredibly what. Incredibly difficult, confusing, boring, exciting, happy, painful, easy, or sad? We must never forget that, along with an abundant life, Jesus promised troubles so it will be all of those things at one time or another.

Self-help author Louise Hay’s affirmation was, “I am in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.” While that’s a great way to justify our situation and actions, it’s not true. While they may have been in the right place at the right time, Adam and Eve didn’t do the right thing when they disobeyed God, nor did Jacob when he impersonated Esau, Rachel when she stole her father’s idols, Aaron when he fashioned the golden calf, David when he bedded Bathsheba, Solomon when he amassed his enormous harem, Peter when he denied knowing Jesus, the Pharisees when they falsely accused Jesus, or John Mark when he abandoned Paul. Sadly, being in the right place at the right time doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing!

As Christians, what sort of things should we affirm? Rather than turning to Stuart Smalley, self-help authors, or talk show hosts, perhaps we should look to God’s Word to guide us. God’s promise found in Isaiah 41:10 tell us that we can face life with confidence: “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” We can affirm an attitude of thanksgiving with the words of 1 Chronicles 16:34: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.” With the words of Ephesians 4:32, we can affirm how we’ll treat others: “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” The words of 1 Peter 4:8 affirm our love for our neighbors: “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Because of Galatians 5:22-23, we can choose to be filled with His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The words of Psalm 118 affirm that we can know that God is good, His faithful love endures forever, He is our strength and song, and that His love endures forever. Perhaps my favorite affirmation of all is found in verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” It’s one with which I start my day.

We don’t have to look in a mirror to convince ourselves of our value or that we are loved. We know because the Bible tells us so!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3:16-17 (NLT)

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” [Mark 6:30-31a (NLT)]

Whenever we were with my mother-in-law, she would say, “Come, sit down, and rest for a bit.” Since I usually was busy preparing a meal or doing some task for her, I’d say, “Not now, Grandma, maybe later!” Now that she’s gone, I wish I’d spent a few more minutes sitting and resting with her. I thought of her this morning when reading Jesus’ words urging the disciples to find a quiet place to rest awhile.

Having just returned from their first mission trip of preaching, healing the sick, and casting out demons, the disciples were tired and hungry. In an attempt to get away from the crowd gathered around them, Jesus and the men left by boat to find an out-of-the-way place where they could rest and talk. We know the rest of the story—the people followed on foot and were waiting for Jesus when He came ashore. Seeing the throng as “sheep without a shepherd,” Jesus had compassion and taught them throughout the day. When evening came, He ended up feeding over 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. The miraculous feeding of this multitude overshadows the way the story began—with Jesus’ suggestion that they find “a quiet place and rest awhile.” Nevertheless, it’s as important as the rest of the story.

My physical issues the last several months made it clear that not taking regular breaks from the computer and failing to get a decent night’s sleep take a toll on our bodies. I’ve also come to understand that it’s not just our bodies that suffer when life gets out of balance. Retreat and rest are as important spiritually as they are physically; that’s why, as busy as Jesus was, He often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.

According to the Talmud, Jews are supposed to pray three times a day and Scripture tells us that both David and Daniel did so. Muslims also take daily spiritual retreats in their obligatory five-times-a-day prayer ritual called salah. The Arabic word salah literally means “connection” and this practice is intended to link the one who prays with the creator. Other than Paul telling us to never cease praying, we Christians don’t have a similar “requirement.” If we did, I suspect some of us would try to lump together the five prayers into one or two so we wouldn’t have to interrupt our day (which would defeat its purpose). Muslims, however, have specific times (dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening) specified so that believers continue to maintain their connection with God throughout the day. Perhaps we should consider adopting their practice in some way.

In her book about discerning God’s will, author Ruth Haley Barton said, “Disciplines of rest and retreat teach us to live within our limits.” She pointed out that when we fail to do so, we compromise the quality of our relationships both with God and the people around us. My mother-in-law knew how to live within her limits. Granted, as a centenarian, she had fairly narrow limits and did a lot of resting, but she had a point! We need to find a balance between work and retreat, activity and rest, doing and being, in all areas of life.

Even though we know better, when it comes to spiritual matters, many of us emulate Martha by being busy doing for the Lord rather than model her sister Mary, who retreated from her activities to be with the Lord! When God instituted the work-free Sabbath, the Israelites had to trust God’s provision enough for tomorrow to retreat and rest on the Sabbath. Observing the Sabbath kept them from idolizing work. When we won’t stop working to be with the Lord, we’ve created a false idol. When we pause for Him, as did the Israelites on the Sabbath, we begin living within our limits by conceding that God is God and we are not! Only He can do it all.

Living within our limits doesn’t mean we have to go off on vacation or spend a week in a monastery and it shouldn’t be confined to just one day a week. Living within our limits could begin with our own Christian version of selah by taking regular mini-retreats from our daily activities to connect with God through prayer. Scripture tells us that Jesus frequently withdrew from the world to pray; let us not be afraid to do the same.

But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer. [Luke 5:16 (NLT)]

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Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NLT)]

great egret - great blue heronWhen visiting our daughter’s family in New Mexico one October, stormy weather caused us to switch from the pumpkin patch/corn maze outing to an escape room attempt. With just an hour to solve a mystery and “escape,” we entered into a room filled with assorted puzzles, locks, props, and gadgets. Knowing we had to discover clues and complete a series of clever puzzles, we novices decided to divide and conquer. Each person worked on a different task speaking to their individual strengths. I worked on word puzzles while others worked on number challenges, dexterity puzzles, combination locks, or searched for hidden clues.

Silently working on our individual tasks, we missed important clues like the picture of randomly placed fruit. Had we counted the six apples, four lemons, two pineapples, and eight limes, we would have known the four numbers we needed to open a combination lock! Thinking the content of a letter was important, we missed seeing that it was an acrostic with the first letter of each line spelling the clue!

Wanting to prove our stellar problem-solving skills, we hesitated to ask our game guide for help. It wasn’t until we consulted her, talked with one another, and started working as a team that we made any headway. With less than five minutes left, we finally unlocked the kitchen door—only to find that it led into another locked room with even more hidden clues! Our guide is the one who finally released us. Even though we held a up sign saying “epic fail” in our post-game photo, we learned some valuable lessons about life.

Sure that we were as smart as the game master and wanting to get bragging rights for completing it on our own, rather than asking for help, we wasted time spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. Isn’t that what we do with God by only going to Him when all else fails? After all, if we do it by ourselves, we get the glory but, when we ask for God’s help, He gets the glory! Paul, however, tells us that God’s power works best in weakness: “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” [2 Corinthians 12:9-10]

Ignoring the wise words of Ecclesiastes, rather than help one another, we divided to do our own thing. No one, however, makes it through an escape room alone—it’s a team effort and so is life! Escape rooms require collaboration, cooperation, communication, and listening to one another (even when the idea seems crazy); so does life in Christ.

Although we each had our own particular gift set and abilities—it wasn’t until we appreciated the gifts of others that we made any headway. Being the shortest one in the room, my grand saw a code on the baseboard that we bigger people missed. Even though she wasn’t good with letters or numbers, she spotted what turned out to be the most important clue! No one’s gift is more or less valuable when it’s a team effort. Isn’t that what Paul is telling us in 1 Corinthians 12?

The final lesson we learned was a simple one—don’t be afraid to lose. Failure—even an epic one like ours—is an inevitable part of playing any game so it’s best to embrace the game rather than the outcome. As for our life in Christ—we too will experience failure. With the exception of Jesus, no one else in Scripture did life perfectly. Nevertheless, because we believe in Jesus, we know the eventual outcome is a win. In the meantime, let us find joy in our journey, regardless of its challenges and difficulties.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. … But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 20 Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. [1 Corinthians 12:12-22 (NLT)]

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But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. (Matthew 6:6 NIV)

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. [John 14:13-14 (NIV)]

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. [Ephesians 6:18 (NIV)]

“To whom should we pray?” is a common question. People wonder, “If we pray to God the Father, are we leaving out His Son? But if we pray to Jesus, are we leaving out God? And where does the Holy Spirit fit in?”

I’m no theologian, but it seems we certainly can’t go wrong by praying to God the Father. After all, when asked how to pray, Jesus began with “Our Father” and the Apostle Paul wrote the Romans about joining together and “giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [15:6] Nevertheless, Jesus, as the son of God, is divine and He promised that we can ask for anything in His name. So, we can pray to Him as did Stephen who prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” while being stoned. [Acts 7:59] To further confuse the matter, Paul explained that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us so it appears that we also can pray to Him.

If we can pray to any of the three, how do we decide to whom we’ll pray? Some people decide who they’ll address by the topic of their prayer. When they want to offer worship and praise, ask for forgiveness, or plead for divine intervention, they call on God the Father. When they need to talk with someone who understands their earthly struggles, they call on Jesus. Since the Holy Spirit helps us pray, they pray to Him when they can’t find the words to express themselves.

When we worry about to whom we address our prayers, however, we’re forgetting that our Trinitarian God, while three persons, is one God! Calling it a “divine riddle,” Puritan minister Thomas Watson explained, “The three persons in the blessed Trinity are distinguished, but not divided; three substances, but one essence. … If there be one God subsisting in three persons, then let us give equal reverence to all the persons in the Trinity. … One person has not a majority or super eminence above another, therefore we must give equal worship to all the persons.”

When learning about Jeopardy contestant Matt Amodio for yesterday’s devotion, I discovered that his answers irk the grammar police. Jeopardy answers must be given in the form of a question and he begins every response with “what’s…” even when referring to a person. Amodio’s strategy is to keep things simple and explained that keeping his responses consistent allows him to focus on the “meat” of the clue. Just as a Jeopardy contestant’s answers don’t have to be grammatically correct to be accepted, I suspect our Trinitarian God cares far more about our hearts than our words and would prefer we give more thought to the “meat” of our prayers rather than to whom or how they’re said.

We can address our Trinitarian God in any of a number of ways—as Eternal Father, Holy Spirit, Lord, Blessed Jesus, God, Lord of My Life, Almighty and Eternal God, Holy Spirit of God, Eternal Being, Divine Love, God of Mercy, Holy One, Holy and Blessed Trinity, God, Jesus, Spirit of God, or many other reverent names. Flawed beings that we are, we seem to complicate our lives unnecessarily and worrying about how to pray (rather than simply doing it) is one of the ways we do it. Amodio’s answers are accepted by the Jeopardy judges just as our prayers, offered in faith with a humble heart, will be accepted by God the Father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit.

Christian prayer is most often Trinitarian. Practically, this means we pray by the Spirit, through Jesus Christ our mediator, to God the Father. [Mark Driscoll]

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. [Romans 8:26-27 (NIV)]

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