ASK

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6:7-8 (RSV)]

Our Father, whose predominant residence pattern is widely perceived as being in an exo-atmospheric environment, your name shall be treated, as a matter of course, in a reverential demeanor appropriate to existing protocol guidelines. It is to be hoped that, as an optimal result of the ongoing situational development, your form of governmental institution may be, in accordance with the appropriate procedures, finalized within the foreseeable future, in forms applicable to both bilateral and multilateral fora. [Anonymous]

climbing asterThese are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer as if they were written by a lawyer and, having recently met with our attorney to update some documents, I don’t think they’re much of an exaggeration. With all of their circumlocution, it’s difficult to know what lawyers actually mean. They use vague abstract nouns rather than concrete ones and seem to go around a subject rather than straight through it. Why can’t they use straightforward language and directly say what they mean?

While our prayers probably are not as convoluted as the above version of the Lord’s Prayer, they frequently are as indirect and vague. Of course, the lawyer uses all of that language out of caution. He’s writing so that his words can’t be misconstrued: so that anyone seeking another meaning to his words can’t find it. God, however, is not an adversary who is trying to trap us into saying something we don’t mean or attempting to find a loophole in our prayers. In fact, He already knows what we need before we say it. Nevertheless, He’s waiting to hear it from us.

When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind beggars called out to Him with a rather ambiguous request: “Have mercy on us!” Did they want forgiveness, food, clothing,  or money? Any of those would have been acts of mercy. Surely Jesus knew what they really wanted but He responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Only then were they direct and asked for what they really wanted: to see! It was not until they clearly asked that Jesus acted and they received sight.

We have been told to ask before we receive. Could it be that God answers our prayers based on our requests? Jesus promised that, if we ask for bread, we won’t get a stone and, if we ask for a fish, we won’t get a serpent. Unsaid, but certainly implied, is that, if we fail to ask for that bread or fish, we won’t get either one! Could receiving depend upon asking? Could there be blessings He has for us that we haven’t received simply because we never asked?

Like lawyers, perhaps we err on the side of caution: the less specific our prayers, the less likely it is that we’ll be disappointed. Vague prayers, however, don’t exhibit faith. If someone listened to our prayers, would they know what we mean or are our prayers filled with cautious language and ambiguous requests? I think of a child’s prayers and the long list of “God blesses” usually found at their end. Are our prayers as vague? How do we want God to bless those on our prayer list? What are their specific needs? What are ours? We don’t need a lot of words to be direct and specific with God. If Jesus were passing by right now, what would we call out to Him? What would we ask?

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. [Matthew 21:22 (RSV)]

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:7-9 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

NEITHER OBSESS NOR IGNORE

Now concerning how and when all this will happen, dear brothers and sisters, we don’t really need to write you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. [1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 (NLT)]

Martin Luther once compared human nature to a drunkard who, after falling off the left side of his horse, resolves not to make same mistake again. He remounts and then, overreacting, leans to the right side of his saddle only to fall off again. His point is that just because one side is wrong, the opposite extreme isn’t necessarily correct!

In Jesus’s time, the strict adherence of the Pharisees to the law was an overreaction to Judah’s exile and captivity in Babylon. Knowing that Jerusalem’s destruction and their deportation was God’s punishment for the neglect of His law, no one wanted to endure God’s wrath again. Hoping to safeguard the Torah, the Pharisees went to the opposite extreme by augmenting it with oral explanations and traditions in an effort to guard against any possible breach of law. Shifting from ignoring the law to obsessing over it, they went from disregarding both the Lord and His law to loving the law instead of the Lord.

Sometimes Christians go to extremes. Although both Biblical prophecy and Jesus’s own words tells us that He will return at an undisclosed time in the future, some churches and theologians are obsessed with the End Times and Christ’s Second Coming. They point to every earthquake, political upheaval, famine, natural disaster, or plague as signs of the Apocalypse and often seem more interested in looking for apocalyptic signs than looking to Jesus’s teachings. There even is a “Rapture Index” (a sort of Dow Jones average of End Times activity). As of mid September, the score was 184; according to the site, any score over 160 means “Fasten Your Seatbelts” because the end of the world is at hand.

Since the 1st Century, there have been various end-of-the-world prophecies based on everything from the dimensions of Noah’s ark, the millennium, planetary alignments, mathematical calculations, and secret numerical codes. With an error rate of 100%, those predictions haven’t been rooted in Biblical theology; nevertheless, many have come from Christians and are an embarrassment to the Church.

As a result, many churches and theologians have fallen off the other side of the horse by completely ignoring the issue of the End Times and Christ’s return. Some openly scoff at the prophetic words while others quietly ignore them. Let’s not forget that Christian doctrine is grounded in Scripture and it tells us that Jesus will return. The Athanasius, Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (the summaries of our Christian beliefs) clearly state that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. Nevertheless, afraid of sounding like quacks or fanatics, many churches and pastors choose to ignore the Second Coming entirely.

End time prophecy is confusing but not completely understanding something, comprehending how it will happen, or knowing when it will occur doesn’t mean that it won’t take place. Although Jesus said He would return, He also made it clear that we are not to know the date. Whether or not we choose to believe or consider it; at an undisclosed and unknown time in the future, He will return. Rather than obsess or ignore, it’s time to get back in the saddle, sit squarely, and find the proper Biblical balance.

Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. … However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. [Mark 13:26-27,32 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE POTTERY SHOP

“Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over. Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” [Jeremiah 18:2-6 (NLT)]

hibiscusIn January, there will be an Empty Bowls event in our town. Attendees will purchase a bowl and then fill it with soup and bread donated by local restaurants. The money raised will help feed the more than 36,000 food insecure people in our county. To make that event possible, 4,500 one-of-a-kind bowls are made by local potters. Then, with the help of local volunteers, the bowls are painted and fired. Recently, several of us from church gathered to decorate some of those bowls. While we painted, I thought about the potters who made our bowls—how they formed and reformed their creations until they were just right. Varying in shape and size, no two bowls were exactly the same and, by the time they are painted, each will have a personality of its own. When their purchasers are done eating soup from them, they will be put to different uses. The ones embellished with paw prints or bones probably will be used by pets, and the others may be used for popcorn, nuts, cereal, loose change, or even soup!

In words found in Jeremiah and Isaiah, we see God portrayed as the potter and mankind as His clay (rather fitting since Adam was made from dust on the ground and clay comes from the ground). Picture God forming us in His heavenly pottery shop. As with the bowls we painted, each of His creations would be carefully crafted and one-of-a-kind. While our bowls were made of the same kind of clay, God would choose the best type of clay for each one of us. For those who will be severely tested in life, He would chose a clay that withstands high heat but, for those who will have to be especially adaptable, He would chose a clay that is more easily worked.

Once He’d selected the type of clay, God would knead and shape us. While the bowls we painted were all thrown on a potter’s wheel, God might choose to pinch us into shape, or roll long threads of clay and layer them. For one person, He’d combine flat slabs of clay but, for another, He might select a unique mold or use His wheel. No matter the technique chosen, God would continue shaping and re-shaping us until we were formed the way He wanted us. If we got lopsided, He’d prop us up and, if we tore, He’d put us back together. Because clay is malleable and capable of change, God can continue to fine-tune His creations. We might not enjoy all of that pinching, squeezing, molding and scraping, but it is for our own good.

The parallel ends here because the bowls we painted, having been dried and fired, couldn’t be reshaped. God, however, is never done working on us and we continue to be a work in progress until our dying day. Nevertheless, I picture Him with a paintbrush, making each of us beautiful in our own unique way. Moreover, just as the bowls we painted couldn’t complain that, rather than being painted with flowers they wanted polka dots or preferred candy apple red to sour apple green, we really have no voice in how our potter formed and embellished us. God is sovereign over his people; the creation doesn’t get to argue with the Creator!

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? [Isaiah 29: 16 (NLT)]

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GOD’S GOT IT!

Oh, God, my Lord, step in; work a miracle for me—you can do it! Get me out of here—your love is so great!—I’m at the end of my rope, my life in ruins. [Psalm 109:21-22 (MSG)]

Kandersteg - SwitzerlandIn her book Almost Everything, Anne Lamott describes a young mother who, after surviving a grueling battle with cancer, saw its return a few years later. As her friends tried to reassure her with cancer survival stories, the woman cheerfully announced, “Oh, God’s got it!” Whether figuratively or literally, Lamott says she now wears those words on a necklace. I know that if I ever got a tattoo, I might choose the same words: “God’s got it!”

A story is told of a mountain climber who decided to make a solo ascent of the Aconcagua in Argentina. As the day wore on, a storm threatened. Although the thunder rumbled and the sky grew dark, the man was determined to continue rather than seek shelter. Suddenly a dense fog rolled in and it began to hail. Losing all visibility, the climber slipped on a ridge and fell. As he dropped through the air, he was sure that he’d die until the rope he’d secured caught and stopped him with a jolt. As the frightened man swung in the darkness, suspended he knew not where, he called out, “God, help me!”

A booming voice answered: ”What do you want me to do?” Swaying in the frigid night air, the man said, “Save me, please.” When God asked if the climber really believed He could save him, the man said, “Of course, I do. You’re God!” The man, however, changed his mind about trusting God when the voice in the darkness said, “Then cut the rope that is holding you up!” Refusing to let go, he just clung to his rope and swung over what seemed to be a bottomless abyss. After the weather cleared the following day, a group of climbers found the frozen man hanging from a rope, suspended just a few feet from a ledge and a recess that would have offered him safe shelter during the storm. That climber didn’t believe that, “God’s got it.”

When we’re at the end of our rope, it’s not enough to believe there is a God. We must believe in Him—in His word, promises, love, faithfulness, goodness, and power. Trusting Him with our lives, we must be willing to step out in faith, even if it means cutting a rope. If we want peace, we must believe that God’s got it!

“Please, God!” I cried out. “Save my life!” God is gracious—it is he who makes things right, our most compassionate God. God takes the side of the helpless; when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me. [Psalm 116:4-6 (MSG)]

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. [Matthew 5:3 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.