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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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)]

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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)]

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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)]

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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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INADEQUATE AND UNQUALIFIED

I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 2:3-4 (NLT)]

buttercupWhen I sit in front of my computer to start writing, I often wonder what makes me think I am qualified to spread the good news of the Gospel. I take comfort in the Apostle Paul’s similar feelings of inadequacy. Of all the people we meet in Scripture, Paul’s credentials (other than those of Jesus) seem to be the most impressive. Fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, from the tribe of Benjamin, and a second-generation Pharisee who had studied and trained under the respected Gamaliel, Paul was well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and passionate for Jesus. Yet, we know that even he sometimes felt inadequate to the task. Although extremely knowledgeable, by his own admission, his preaching ability left much to be desired.

Then again, an 80-year old man who stammered was called to lead his people out of slavery, a shepherd boy was called to be a king, and a housewife was called to be a prophetess and judge. Samuel was just a boy when he first prophesized, Jeremiah little more than a teen when God called him, and the disciples were just ordinary people like you and me. None of them had impressive resumes. Yet God, knowing exactly who they were, their ages, skills, capabilities, and shortcomings, called them! And He calls us!

In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote that, rather than calling the qualified, God choses to qualify those he calls: “God chose the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.” [1:27] Paul reassured the Corinthians in a later letter that, “God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.” [2 Corinthians 9:8] While the Apostle was referring to material gifts for the believers in Jerusalem, his words hold true for the other gifts with which God has blessed us. Sometimes, we don’t even know we have those gifts until God calls us to use them!

Whether God calls us to lead two million across the desert or lead a small group, to compose letters to the new church or write a blog, to speak to kings or a troubled teen, to build a temple or the set for the Christmas pageant, none of us can do it alone; we must depend on God and believe his promises. We continually underrate ourselves because we’re thinking small; we think we have to go it alone, under our own power, but we don’t. When God called the young Jeremiah to be His prophet, He didn’t promise that it would be easy or that he’d never get discouraged or frustrated. What God promised was His protection, provision, and supervision. Those promises apply to us, as well. God is the source of our ability and it is His power that will enable us to do His work. We are merely God’s tools; He is the builder and we must let Him use us to build His Kingdom.

Loving God, His word, and His children hardly qualifies me to write and yet, with over 1,800 devotions written, as unqualified as I am, through God’s power, it’s been done. He has, indeed, generously provided. We must trust the God who calls us to reach beyond where we think we can grasp, to climb higher than we’ve ever been, or to dig deeper than we thought possible. He will enable us to do whatever He asks us to do. While we may not do it perfectly, all God asks is that we answer Him, obey His call to the best of our ability, and trust in His provision. The outcome is His responsibility!

We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ. It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. [2 Corinthians 3:4-6a (NLT)]

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

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