COINCIDENCE OR PRAYER?

We are confident that God listens to us if we ask for anything that has his approval. We know that he listens to our requests. So we know that we already have what we ask him for. [1 John 5:14-15 (GW)]

great egretRecently, the Sinner’s Shack Gentlemen’s Club wanted to open an establishment in our small Midwest community. It’s a rather conservative town and, since there’s nothing gentlemanly about the goings on in such an establishment, everyone was up in arms about it. When the Holier Than Thou Evangelical Church started a campaign to halt the tawdry business from locating in town, prayer sessions were held three times a day and the City Council was inundated with letters and calls of protests. Unfortunately, in spite of the prayers and complaints, proper zoning was attained and construction on the Sinner’s Shack began. Just a day before its grand opening, however, lightning struck the new building and it burned completely to the ground!

The Holier Than Thous were rather smug and self-righteous about the fire until Honey Bunn, the owner of the strip club, filed suit again the church, its pastor, and the entire congregation on the grounds that they were “ultimately responsible for the demise of the building and business, either through direct or indirect divine actions or means.” The Holier Than Thous replied to the court by vociferously denying any and all responsibility for the lightning and the building’s loss.

As the judge read through the plaintiff’s complaint and the church’s reply, he commented, “I have no idea how I will be able to decide this case. I have a staunch sinner who appears to believe in the power of prayer and an entire congregation of Christians who don’t!”

Of course, this is just a bit silly fiction, but it poses some interesting questions about our belief in the power of prayer. Would we have joined in those prayer sessions or would we have considered the issue a lost cause? If we’d attended those prayer sessions, would we have gone out of a sense of duty or because we truly believed our prayers could make a difference? Do we ever pray without the confidence that our prayers are heard? Do we pray without believing in the power of our prayers? When our prayers are answered, as they were in the story, are we surprised? Instead of crediting it to prayer, do we chalk it up to coincidence or good luck?

When we pray; we’d better believe that prayer works, or it won’t. Effective prayers require trusting in a God who is faithful in His promises to us. We need confidence that God is both willing and able to act on our behalf to advance His kingdom. I know it’s difficult at times not to attribute God’s answers to coincidence but, as for me, I’m going to chalk one up for God!

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. [Albert Einstein]

When you ask for something, don’t have any doubts. A person who has doubts is like a wave that is blown by the wind and tossed by the sea. A person who has doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord. A person who has doubts is thinking about two different things at the same time and can’t make up his mind about anything. [James 1:6-8 (GW)]

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PRAY NOW

Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. [James 5:13 (NLT)]

I’m continually amazed that, for someone who claims to believe in the power of prayer, I so rarely exhibit my belief! Our distressed friend had come over for advice and encouragement. The three of us brain-stormed various ways to meet her many challenges. When she departed several hours later, my husband and I promised to keep her family in our prayers. As she walked down the driveway, I realized that, while we pray daily for her, her family and their difficulties, we hadn’t bothered to pray with her! During our long discussion, we’d never paused to pray together and ask God for His guidance. Yes, my husband and I are a good source of information and encouragement, but it was God’s direction and His gift of courage that our friend needed far more than ours. We should have started the conversation with a prayer for God’s guidance rather than ending it with a promise to pray!

How often do we tell someone we’ll keep them in our prayers rather than pray with them right away? Worse, how often do we tell someone we’ll pray for them and then we don’t? Sadly, more often than not, our promise to pray becomes an empty promise but, if we pray right then and there, we’re sure to make good on that promise. Perhaps, if all the promised prayers actually were prayed, the world would be a far better place!

Communal prayer isn’t just for church, Bible study groups, or table blessings; it’s for everyday situations. Nevertheless, most of us are hesitant to pray with others; we’re uncertain of how the offer will be received, think we don’t have the right words, or are unsure about what it is for which we should pray. People are free to decline the offer of prayer but, whenever I’ve made the offer, it always has been accepted and appreciated. A heartfelt “Lord, please help!” is all we really need to say; our omniscient God doesn’t need us to tell Him what’s wrong or how to fix it! The time to pray, to invite Jesus into a situation, is now, not later!

Those who do not believe do not pray. This is a good functional definition of faith. Faith prays, unbelief does not. (John A. Hardon)

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

With God’s power working in us, God can do much, much more than anything we can ask or imagine. [Ephesians 3:20 (NCV)]

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NO LOST CAUSES

And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 (NLT)]

lambI was re-writing and updating my prayer list when I came to the names of several prodigals. Some of their names have been on that list for nearly two decades; during that time, they’ve been in and out trouble, jail, and rehab. Having wasted most of their lives, each one of them one would qualify as the poster child for lost causes. I thought of not adding their names to my new list. “After all, what’s the point?” I wondered.

I then thought of the parable of the prodigal son—a young man with plenty of opportunities who squandered his money and broke his father’s heart. When life got really tough and the pigs were living better than he, the boy finally repented and returned home to the welcoming and forgiving arms of his father. Like the prodigal son, when they were in financial or legal difficulties, the prodigals on my prayer list often returned home for a warm bed, financial and legal assistance, and even another trip to rehab. Unlike the prodigal son, however, they never managed to truly repent and always returned to their old friends and way of life.

What if there was another chapter to Jesus’s story of the prodigal son? What if, after cleaning up, getting some good meals in his belly, and obtaining a few coins in his pocket, the boy had returned to his life as a wastrel? How would his father have reacted? What would his father have done if his son, after wasting everything again, had returned home a second time? Would his father have rejoiced and thrown his arms around the boy? What if it happened again and again? Would his father eventually have stopped looking for his lost son? In anger, would he eventually have barred the gates and turned his back on his child?

I think not. Jesus’s parable was about forgiveness and hope, God’s grace and mercy, and His lavish love for his children. I think the father would have continued to run to his child and welcome him back every time he returned. Although God won’t enable His prodigals in their sinful ways, I believe He will receive them every time they come home, forgive them when they repent, and shed tears if they relapse and return to their old ways.

Our Heavenly Father will continue to forgive and welcome them (and us) back again and again until they (and we) finally get it right. With God there are no lost causes, only lost children. If God hasn’t given up hope, neither will I. For all of His lost sheep, I will continue to pray that they eventually find their way home and into the arms of their loving Father.

I’ve wandered far away from God, Now I’m coming home;
The paths of sin too long I’ve trod, Lord, I’m coming home.
I’ve wasted many precious years, Now I’m coming home;
I now repent with bitter tears, Lord, I’m coming home.
I’m tired of sin and straying, Lord, Now I’m coming home;
I’ll trust Thy love, believe Thy Word, Lord, I’m coming home.
Coming home, coming home, Nevermore to roam,
Open wide Thine arms of love, Lord, I’m coming home.
[“Lord, I’m Coming Home” by William J Kirkpatrick]

He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. The Lord is like a father to his children,    tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. [Psalm 103:10-14 (NLT)]

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TRUSTING THE OUTCOME

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Our pod is missing! Well, not exactly missing but no one can tell us where it is! We only know that the large box holding our precious possessions is no longer sitting in our driveway back in Illinois nor is it sitting in our driveway here in Florida. While the company promises us that it will arrive by September 29, their responses to our inquiries don’t inspire much confidence. How can they know when it will arrive if they don’t know where it is? Moreover, no one can tell us why it will take four weeks to travel 1,378 miles! Although I keep reminding myself that it’s just stuff, it is our stuff—the stuff we cared about enough to keep and move.

My impatience and frustration at not knowing where the pod is, what condition it is in, and how close it is to arriving make me think of my impatience in prayer, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Not only do we want to dictate the manner, timing, and outcome of our prayers but also we’d like God to provide us with regular updates as to His progress on our requests. While God is far more trustworthy than any moving company, He usually is as silent about the particulars of our prayers’ outcomes.

It really comes down to trust. Do I trust the movers? Well, I trusted them enough to fill their box with things that were important to me and have them haul it away. At this point, I can trust them to keep their delivery promise or worry about it. Since worry isn’t going to get it here any faster (if at all), I have no choice but to surrender the outcome to them (while praying for its safe and speedy arrival).

It comes down to trust in our prayers, as well—trust in God (and He has a far better track record than any moving company!) Trust has to fill the gap between our heartfelt request and His response. It’s found in that space between our telling God the what, how, where and when of what we want and our ceding the outcome and all of its details to Him. Not everything we ask for will be received; we’re not the customer and God isn’t our celestial vending machine. We don’t get to dictate the terms of our agreement or the end result. We can’t threaten to take our business elsewhere and, unlike the proverbial customer, we are not the ones who are always right. There is only one God and, as the One in charge, He is not at our mercy; we are at His!

When Jeremiah spoke his words of condemnation to the people of Judah, the people had trusted in false gods and military alliances instead of God. In effect, they’d trusted in their own wisdom rather than God’s promises. We may not be erecting Asherah poles, sacrificing to Baal, or making alliances with pagan nations but, when we dictate the outcome of our prayers, we’re little different; we’re trusting in our wisdom and strength rather than God’s.

“The great act of faith is when man decides that he is not God,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes. Indeed, it is. When we turn our concerns Godward, we must trust that our Heavenly Father, the omnipotent creator of the universe, actually knows what He’s doing. Recognizing that God is God (and we are not), we must surrender the outcome and all of the particulars (including the timing) to Him. He is our hope and confidence, our strength and our shield!

“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.” [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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OUR CALL IS IMPORTANT TO HIM

When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. [Psalm 91:15 (NLT)]

mockingbirdWhen we moved to our small Midwestern town over fifty years ago, we paid our utility bills at the local drugstore and I longed for the “good old days” when we sold our northern home recently. Trying to update our information and go completely paperless, I attempted to access our various accounts on line, meaning I had to remember (or create) a wide variety of user names and passwords. If I managed to sign in, I’d get to the security questions and discover that my favorite color or dessert is not what I thought it was! Once past that hurdle, I had to prove I wasn’t a robot by deciphering those squiggly letters and numbers (a near impossibility)!

When I couldn’t accomplish my task on line, I’d resort to a phone call. It would be answered with a computerized voice offering a list of options, none of which ever seemed quite right. Another robotic voice would then ask a series of questions (“to better serve your need.”) Eventually, after being put through several programmed interrogations, I’d be put on hold. When I wasn’t being told how important my call was, I was subjected to a loop of horrible music and advertisements for additional services (along with the helpful suggestion that I go to the company’s website which, of course, I had already tried.) Occasionally, a voice would tell me how much longer I would be in the queue before an operator would be available. When I took the option of having them call me back, the call never came! Once, after holding for what seemed an eternity, I got disconnected! When I finally spoke with a real person, it was often someone in a distant land whose accent baffled me as much as mine baffled his.  We’ve all been in similar situations. We cry out, “Is there no one there who can hear me, who understands my problem, who cares, or who can help?”

Thank you, God, for never requiring me to log on to your heavenly site. Thank you for not requiring an account number, a user ID, a password, or a security question. You always know who I am, where I am and what it is that I need. Thank you for being available 24/7, never putting me on hold, and always returning my call. Thank you for understanding me, even better than I do myself. Thank you for speaking softly yet clearly to me. Thank you for never passing me off to someone else and, most especially, thank you, God, for never dropping my call!

And He knows my name. Every step that I take,
Every move that I make, Every tear that I cry,
He knows my name. When I’m overwhelmed by the pain
And can’t see the light of day, I know I’ll be just fine
‘Cause He knows my name – He Knows my Name! [The McRaes]

I will answer them before they even call to me. While they are still talking about their needs, I will go ahead and answer their prayers! [Isaiah 65:24 (NLT)]

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IT COULD BE WORSE

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God—soon I’ll be praising again. He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God. [Psalm 42:11 (MSG)]

cardinalThe story is told of a circuit-riding preacher who never failed to thank God for the day’s weather. One Sunday, after battling through wind and sleet to his preaching appointment in a distant town, the congregation wondered how he could be thankful in such dreadful weather. When it came time for prayer, however, he said, “This is a wretched day, dear Lord, no doubt about it. But, we thank Thee, Lord, that every day isn’t as bad as this one!”

There certainly are times when it is difficult to praise the Lord, and not just because of the weather. We’ve all had days, weeks, months or maybe even years, when every time we turn around, something else seems to have gone wrong. A financial, health, family or business crisis seems to lurk around every corner. In fact, it’s so bad that the light at the end of the tunnel is just an oncoming train! God knows, it’s not easy to get through those times. It is tempting to stop thanking and start complaining: to allow our prayers to reflect our circumstances rather than our faith.

Another story is told about Matthew Henry, a 17th century preacher and Bible commentator. One evening, on his way home after preaching in London, Henry was accosted by four thieves. His response is said to have been this prayer: “Lord, I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.”

While I would prefer to be neither, I have to agree with Matthew Henry that I’d rather be the one robbed than the robber. At least the robbed has not offended God or his fellow man. As these two stories illustrate, there is always something for which to be thankful, if only because it could be worse!

Father, forgive us if we lose sight of you when we are beset by trouble. Give us the ability to rejoice, not for our difficulties, but for the knowledge that we are not alone and that you are greater than any problems we may encounter. Give us thankful hearts for all of your mercies—even when that means we’re thankful that we were the ones robbed rather than the robbers or that every day does not bring a raging storm! When necessary, remind us that it could be worse!

Gratitude is an offering precious in the sight of God, and it is one that the poorest of us can make and be not poorer, but richer for having made it. [A.W. Tozer]

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (MSG)]

Thank God! Pray to him by name! Tell everyone you meet what he has done! Sing him songs, belt out hymns, translate his wonders into music! Honor his holy name with Hallelujahs, you who seek God. Live a happy life! Keep your eyes open for God, watch for his works; be alert for signs of his presence. [Psalm 105:1-3 (MSG)]

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