APPROACHING THE KING (Esther – Part 3)

I will exalt you, my God and King, and praise your name forever and ever. I will praise you every day; yes, I will praise you forever. … The Lord is righteous in everything he does; he is filled with kindness. The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. He grants the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cries for help and rescues them.  [Psalm 145:1-2,17-19 (NLT)]

maccawAfter Esther fasted and prayed about approaching the king, she had both courage and a strategy. From the way Xerxes was so easily manipulated by his Persian noble friends and Haman, it’s clear that he was a temperamental, weak, and foolish king; Esther used that knowledge to her advantage. When she dressed in her finest robes and approached the king, I imagine she made sure he was in good spirits and that she looked irresistible. Welcoming Esther and offering her half his kingdom, Xerxes invited his queen to ask for anything, but she knew better than to take the royal offer literally. Graciously, she only asked for his and Haman’s presence at a banquet that evening. Esther’s delay didn’t mean she’d lost her courage. Persian etiquette for making a request typically began with a small unrelated favor, which is what Esther did. After a pleasant evening, she beguiled Xerxes by simply inviting him to dinner again. Gaining one small concession at a time, she eventually worked her way up to the real issue at hand. By waiting to make her appeal, Esther aroused the king’s curiosity.

A banquet was the perfect setting for Esther’s request. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Persians typically decided important matters when they were drunk; once they’d sobered up, their decisions would be confirmed. That certainly was the case when the drunken Xerxes banished Queen Vashti. On the other hand, any decisions made while sober were suspect and were to be reevaluated when the parties were intoxicated (which may explain why Xerxes and Haman sat down to drink after their apparently sober decision to eliminate the Jews)! Esther understood the importance of alcohol in the king’s decision making and, after two nights of banquets, she finally made her request while they were drinking wine. When Esther asked the king to save her life and the lives of her people, she prudently put the blame for the wicked plot entirely on Haman rather than her easily manipulated husband.

By necessity, Esther made her plea to the king in a calculated and roundabout way. Fortunately, we don’t have to strategize or scheme when we approach our Heavenly King! Because we are His beloved children and know that He loves us, we don’t have to worry that God’s interest in us has waned. There’s no need to dress in our finest attire to entice Him nor must we wait until He extends his golden scepter before approaching His throne. God is far more interested in our hearts than our appearance and our imperfect selves can approach Him any time. We don’t have to pique God’s curiosity or manipulate Him into asking us what we want because God knows what we need even before we do! We don’t have to carefully phrase our words out of fear that He will banish us from His presence if we displease Him. We certainly don’t have to ply God with vintage wine, start with little favors before working up to our big request, or wait until He’s in a good mood before offering our prayers. God is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow. If we have no words, the Holy Spirit will speak for us.

Let us never approach God with subterfuge and apprehension as Esther did Xerxes. We should come to Him as candidly as did David and the other psalmists. With our Heavenly King, we can honestly sob in sorrow, shout in anger, plead in distress, stammer in confusion, whisper in fear, weep in regret, confess in repentance, shout in praise, sing in thanksgiving, and even dance in joy—all without fear of banishment from His presence!

O Lord, hear me as I pray; pay attention to my groaning. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for I pray to no one but you. Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly. [Psalm 5:1-3 (NLT)]

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COMFORT ZONES (Esther – Part 2)

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. [Daniel 9:3 (NLT)]

So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer. [Ezra 8:23 (NLT)]

orchidWhen writing about Esther yesterday, I thought how terrified she must have been when Mordecai asked her to step out of her comfort zone to save the Jews. Even though she was queen, her access to Xerxes was severely limited.  Living secluded in a private chamber in the women’s quarters, she didn’t regularly dine with the king. Powerless, she was the one to be summoned rather than the one who did the summoning and she hadn’t been summoned by Xerxes for a month. She was just one of many beautiful women in the king’s harem and perhaps someone else had caught his eye. The previous queen was banished when she defied the king and Esther could expect nothing less if her presence wasn’t welcomed. The young queen had a simple choice: comfort or courage. She chose courage and saved a nation!

Where did Esther get the courage to defy the law and approach the king? She got it from God! That may seem a strange answer since God isn’t mentioned anywhere in her story. After asking Mordecai to gather together all the Jews in Susa and fast for three days, however, Esther promised that she and her maids would do the same. The beautiful queen wasn’t fasting so she’d fit into her sexiest gown! She was fasting in prayer.

For a Jew, fasting and prayer went hand in hand and, while prayer is not specifically mentioned, it certainly is implied. Fasting combined with prayer was a customary practice in times of grief, distress or repentance. It was a way to seek God’s favor and demonstrate the sincerity of one’s prayers. Although fasting was only demanded on the Day of Atonement, Scripture tells us that the Israelites and people like Ezra, David, Nehemiah, Jehoshaphat, and Daniel all combined fasting with prayer. When Esther and the people of Susa fasted, I have no doubt their fast was accompanied by their heartfelt prayers. Only then did Esther have both a plan and the courage to step out of her comfort zone.

Unlike Esther, we may not be asked to save a nation. Nevertheless, God has a mission for each of us. Because He is far more interested in our growth and obedience than our comfort, God’s mission for us, like Esther’s, usually begins at the end of our comfort zone. How do we move from comfort to courage and from fear to faith?

Like Esther, we could choose to fast. The purpose of fasting is never to change God; its purpose is to change us. A fast helps us take our eyes off the world and focus them on God. While Esther probably fasted from food, a fast also can be from things like gaming, social media, alcohol, television or anything else that takes our mind off God. Although Scripture tells us that Jesus and the early church fasted, it does not demand that Christians fast.

The spiritual practice of fasting is a personal choice for a Christian but prayer is not. Prayer is an act of obedience to God; it is the way we demonstrate our faith. When faced with the choice of comfort or courage, whether or not we choose to fast, we must choose to pray. Prayer is what will enable us to step out of our comfort zone and courageously do God’s work.

Courage is faith that has said its prayers. [AA slogan]

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles. [Psalm 34:4-6 (NLT)]

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SCHEDULED

Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray. [Mark 1:35 (NLT)]

clock

I like the calendar app on our smartphones and its ability to remember recurring events: just put in an occasion and tell it to repeat every day, week, month, or year for as long as you want. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, yoga class, tennis lessons, Bible study—there’s no reason to miss any of those recurring events and my man no longer has any excuse for forgetting my birthday or our anniversary! Our devices notify us of the day’s events and, with just a quick glance, we’re reminded of something we need to do, somewhere to go, or someone we should remember that day.

Attentive as we are about scheduling book club, haircuts, birthday cards or the dentist, are any of us as diligent about scheduling God into our lives? Do we schedule a recurring daily appointment with Him or is He just allotted one hour Sunday mornings? The most important appointment of the day (one that should be repeated each and every day with no end date) is the one we have with God.

Scheduling an appointment, however, doesn’t always mean it is kept. Things come up, plans change and appointments are broken. Since some professionals like doctors, lawyers, and personal trainers often charge when we don’t show for a session, we’re usually careful about keeping their appointments. God, however, doesn’t charge a fee if we skip our time with him. Perhaps, since He’s never too busy for us, we take Him for granted and frequently get too busy for Him! If we don’t have time to pray and read Scripture, we are far busier than God ever intended us to be.

Moreover, for what the lawyer, physician, or trainer charges per hour, we’re usually attentive to whatever it is they have to say to us. Are we as attentive when we meet with God? I start the day reading the day’s Bible verses and meditations in my in-box but my attention can get diverted to emails from the kids, humor from a friend, or a sale from my favorite retailer. While reading Scripture, I can get side-tracked, as well. I start researching one thing and, several links later, find myself totally immersed in another thing! It’s not so much that I’ve wasted the time—it’s that God is no longer at the front and center of our appointment and something or someone else has taken my attention. Pretty soon, breakfast and the day’s activities call; prayer and meditation get put off until a more convenient time. I promise to get back to God later, but that rarely happens. Even though I’ll spend time later in the day writing devotions, that’s doing a task for Him, rather than spending time with Him and the two are not the same.

Originally, I started this devotion with the point being to schedule and keep a daily appointment with God. Now, I realize I’m wrong. In actuality, God shouldn’t have to be scheduled; He should be there in the forefront 24/7/365. Rather than making time with God fit into our calendar and plans, it’s all of the other things demanding our attention that we must arrange to fit into His agenda and timetable.

We usually spend our money on what is most important to us—on what do we spend our time?

The biggest battle you will face in life is your daily appointment with God; keep it, or every other battle will become bigger. [Ravi Zacharias]

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [1 Chronicles 16:8-11 (NLT)]

Teach me your ways, O Lord, that I may live according to your truth! Grant me purity of heart, so that I may honor you. [Psalm 86:11 (NLT)]

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JEHOVAH RAPHA

Steamboat SkiThe same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:9,11 (NLT)]

Several years ago, what should have been my first ski run of the day became my last one of the season when a tumble down an icy slope left me with three broken ribs and tears in both my ACL and MCL. After the closing prayer at church that evening, the woman behind me said, “I see you’re in a lot of pain. May I lay hands on you and pray for you?” This woman believed she’d been gifted by the Holy Spirit with healing and I’d often seen her praying over others after church. Unsure about her supposed gift, I was in such pain and despair that I would have accepted any offer of relief. She accompanied me to the front of the church where a few others joined her as they laid hands on me and prayed.

I certainly needed prayer; my body hurt but so did my heart. Scheduled to depart in five days for a much anticipated tour of Belgium and the Netherlands, I suspected my injuries meant we’d have to cancel the trip. I also feared that I’d seen the last of my days skiing on the mountain.

While I can’t say whether those hands and prayers made an immediate difference, I know I felt far better leaving church than when I arrived. I still had torn ligaments and broken ribs, but my pain had eased and my spirits had lifted. The following day, we returned to the Midwest. Only time would heal my ribs but the orthopedic surgeon gave me a full leg brace and scheduled physical therapy. We took our trip and, in spite of my discomfort, had a wonderful time. Hoping to avoid the surgery that seemed inevitable, the next several months were spent in intense physical therapy. Fortunately, without needing surgical repair, I returned to the slopes and continued to ski, albeit with a leg brace and a little more caution, for several more years.

Was my excellent recovery because of the hands laid on me and prayers offered for me or the skill of my physician and physical therapist or both? Only God knows for sure, but I believe those petitions reached God’s ears and He acted on them. Through the healing prayers and touch of my brothers and sisters in Christ, God gave me the spiritual, emotional, and physical strength (along with good medical care) to recover fully.

Throughout the Bible we read of miraculous healings: Naaman was healed of leprosy, Elijah brought the widow’s son back to life, Peter and John healed a lame man, Paul healed the father of Publius, and physical healing was Jesus’ most common miracle.  We have a God who hears our prayers and has the power to heal: our Jehovah Rapha. Today, however, miraculous healings seem few and far between.

Before that evening, I’d questioned whether the Spirit still bestowed the gift of healing on believers. Could someone’s touch really serve as a conduit for God’s healing grace? I no longer doubt; while the spiritual gift of healing may not always manifest in immediate or inexplicable recovery, it does exist.

While few of us may be gifted with healing, every one of us should be engaged in intercessory prayers for the sick. Nevertheless, no matter how strong our faith, the faith of those who pray for us or of those for whom we pray, healing does not always occur. Let us remember that healing is more than the mending of broken bodies; it is the mending of broken souls. God is more concerned with our spiritual salvation than our physical well-being and the restoration of our bodies may have to wait until we enter God’s glory. The healing of our souls, however, can happen right now!

Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. [James 5:13-15a (NLT)]

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FOR THOSE WHO LABOR

If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. [Galatians 6:3-5 (NLT)]

Old World WisconsinLabor Day was my least favorite holiday when I was a girl (and not just because school started the next day)! For the Smith family, Labor Day meant work. We spent the entire day helping my father as he climbed up and down a ladder to exchange the screens (that had been mounted the previous Memorial Day) with the external storm windows. It was several years before I understood that Labor Day was not a special day dedicated to this yearly ritual of washing windows, lugging screens and windows to and from the garage, and otherwise spending my last day of summer vacation working. Energy efficiency and fuel bills were of no interest to me and, selfishly, it never occurred to me that my father probably didn’t enjoy the holiday ritual any more than did his children. I certainly never thought to thank him for working so hard to provide us with the house (and storm windows) that kept us safe and warm all winter long!

In 1894, Labor Day became a federal holiday to honor the contributions workers make to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our nation. Nowadays, rather than the storm window ritual, most people celebrate with barbecues and shopping the Labor Day sales. They probably don’t give much thought to the people whose labor makes all that we have and do possible. This year, however, I have a new appreciation for our nation’s workers.

While my husband and I can remain safely at home to limit our exposure to other people and COVID-19, many workers can’t. They continue to harvest food, manufacture products, package goods, deliver boxes, stock shelves, work cash registers, keep the utilities running, prepare the dishes, serve the food, repair what’s broken, cut our hair, teach our children, care for the sick, put out fires, fill prescriptions, and protect our safety. Being in contact with others puts them at a higher risk of infection and many are working under challenging conditions. They deal with daily temperature checks and health screenings, masks, sanitizing regimens, new procedures, irate customers, anxious parents, testy co-workers, fearful patients, and child care issues while schools teach on line. Although safer, working remotely from home offers its own set of challenges. It’s not easy to give the sermon to a computer screen week after week, be isolated from the rest of your management team, have the kitchen table do double duty as your office and your child’s schoolroom, or make your business video-chats from the bathroom because it’s the only private spot in the house! Keeping the attention of a classroom of first-graders while teaching remotely from your bedroom on Zoom, discussing investments with a client when the dog is fiercely barking at the Amazon delivery man, or closing a deal when your toddler calls for help going potty is problematic!

This Labor Day is more than the end of summer and beginning of pumpkin spice everything season. It is a time to pray for our workers: both those still employed and those who’ve lost their jobs.

Lord, we thank you for the gift of work and for all who labor in our communities, many of whom we never see or thank. We lift in prayer those who labor and ask that you keep them safe. May they always be treated fairly and properly compensated for their work. For those who long for employment, we pray for their perseverance as they seek work and for success in finding it. Make us attentive to the needs and appreciative of the efforts of the workers we encounter. May their work always glorify you.

O God, you have bound us together in this life. Give us grace to understand how our lives depend on the courage, the industry, the honesty, and the integrity of all who labor. May we be mindful of their needs, grateful for their faithfulness, and faithful in our responsibilities to them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [Reinhold Niebuhr]

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:23-24 (NLT)]

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THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens.  Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:9-10 (NLT)]

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe the horse was lost, For want of a horse the rider was lost, For want of a rider the battle was lost, For want of a battle the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. [Poor Richard’s Almanack (1758)]

painted lady - marigoldOf course, in another time or place, a missing nail might have better consequences. Without the nail, horseshoe and rider, the horse wouldn’t have been on the road, reared at the sight of a snake, and thrown off his rider (who died from his injuries)! Life is unpredictable.

Theorizing that weather prediction models are inaccurate because knowing the precise starting conditions is impossible and a tiny change can throw off the results, meteorology professor Edward Lorenz posed this question in 1972: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings won’t cause a cyclone but Lorenz’s point was that nature’s interdependent cause-and-effect relationships are too complex to resolve. Small variations in conditions can have massive, minor, or imperceptible consequences and it is impossible to predict which will be the case.

As if the magnitude of this pandemic isn’t proof enough, Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” reminds us that life is amazingly unpredictable. We often pray that God will fix, heal, repair, reverse, or resolve situations or people and are disappointed when it seems that God has turned a deaf ear to us. The answers to our prayers, however, are not up to us—they are up to Him and the people and situations we want God to change are frequently the people and circumstances that God is using to change us!

As weather forecasters have learned with the “butterfly effect,” we mortals can’t possibly see all of the consequences of the changes we request in our prayers. God is the only one capable of knowing the repercussions of any alteration. While we have a limited concept of what the future will bring, His view is all-encompassing; He sees not just our lives, but all of the lives before us, with us, and those yet to come. God knows exactly what will happen if He grants our prayers, not just to us but also to everyone else. Our faith is not that God will give us what we want but that God will give us what is best!

In retrospect, I can only offer thanks that God, in His infinite wisdom and love, didn’t give me everything for which I asked. When Garth Brooks thanked God for unanswered prayers, he was wrong. God always answers prayers; it’s just that sometimes He answers with a “No!”

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care.
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. [Garth Brooks]

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? [Romans 11:33-34 (NLT]

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