And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. [James 4:3 (NLT)]

santa rose de lima - NMWhen we pray about a decision, we often set the desired outcome we want rather than ask God to reveal His will to us. Instead of trusting our decision to Him and bending our will to His, we want God to bend His will to our desires. If His response to our pleas isn’t the one we want, we refuse to recognize it or complain that He never answered our prayers! Until we’re willing to step back and say, “Thy will be done,” we can’t truly discern God’s will.

When writing about discerning God’s will, Ruth Haley Barton suggests starting the decision-making process with a prayer of trust that acknowledges our need to trust in God. The second prayer, the one Barton calls “the prayer for indifference”, is far harder. In this prayer we ask God to free us from our personal stake in the issue or our attachment to a particular outcome so that we become indifferent to anything but God’s will. This prayer echoes the one of Jesus when He asked God to take away His cup of suffering: “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:31] It is only then, when we are willing to abandon our agenda and detach ourselves from the outcome, that we are ready for the third prayer in which we ask God for wisdom in discerning the answer.

Twenty-five years ago, long before I knew of this three-step process in discerning God’s will, the Spirit guided me through it. Our daughter was finishing up her post-graduate year of internship at a Chicago hospital when she received two good job offers at the same time. One was from the hospital where she was interning—meaning she could remain in her apartment and live no more than 90-minutes from any of the family. The other offer was from a hospital 1,400 miles west that wanted her to start work within two weeks. The thought of relocating in so short a time to a place she’d never been and a city where she knew no one was daunting. When my daughter called to ask for advice, I wanted to say, “Stay here near family and friends!” The Spirit put His hand across my mouth and reminded me that this was not my decision to make and filled me with wisdom I didn’t know I had. Rather than telling her what I wanted, I advised her to trust that God would handle the logistics if she decided to move and suggested comparing the jobs as if they both were in the same location. Promising our prayers that evening, I told her to trust in the Lord and ask Him for wisdom in making her choice.

Our prayers that night were difficult ones because my husband and I were not indifferent to our daughter’s decision. Although we’d raised her to fly from the nest, we didn’t want her flying across the country to New Mexico! We wanted her to be on her own but with the caveat that she be on her own while staying close to home! Nevertheless, putting our personal feelings aside, we detached ourselves from the outcome and fervently prayed not for what we wanted but for what God wanted and that our daughter would have wisdom enough to discern His plan and make the right decision—whatever that was!

The following morning, our daughter told us that, in spite of the challenges of moving, the right job for her was the one in New Mexico. I don’t think it was dumb luck that, with just a few calls, we found her an apartment there or that the first moving company we called happened to have a truck (with the right amount of space available) passing through Chicago the day before our daughter’s graduation, or that it was scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque the day she took possession of her new apartment! When we trust God and follow His plan, He has an uncanny way of making things come together.

We often complain that God hasn’t answered our prayers. Perhaps we should consider that He may have given us the answer but, because we’re vested in a particular outcome, we haven’t seen it. I wish I could say that I abandon my will and become indifferent to God’s answer whenever I pray, but I can’t. Nevertheless, remembering how well it works when I do, I continue to try!

Jeremiah replied. “I will pray to the Lord your God, as you have asked, and I will tell you everything he says. I will hide nothing from you.” Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord your God be a faithful witness against us if we refuse to obey whatever he tells us to do! Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God to whom we are sending you with our plea. For if we obey him, everything will turn out well for us.” [Jeremiah 42:4-5 (NLT)]

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. [Psalm 143:10 (NLT)]

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These people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’” [Isaiah 30 9b-11 (NLT)]

fireweedBeing a prophet was a calling from the Lord and probably an unwelcome one at that. Amos, a businessman from Tekoa in Judah, was minding his own business when God called on him. He probably would have preferred tending his sheep and cultivating his fig trees to pronouncing judgment upon the Israel, Judah, and other nations. Nevertheless, this layman accepted God’s call and denounced the nations’ sins with brutal frankness. It was at the height of Israel’s prosperity that he prophesied their end by singing a funeral song for the northern kingdom. Needless to say, the words of a Judean pronouncing judgment upon Israel were not welcomed. Even though Amaziah ordered him back to Judah, Amos continued to give God’s message to the people.

It never seemed to go well for God’s prophets. Having infuriated the priests by going to the Temple to rebuke the people for their idolatry and falseness, Jeremiah was banned from the Temple even though he was the son of a priest. Seeing him as a traitor and conspirator, the priests plotted his death and Jeremiah was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and thrown into a cistern to die. Although he was rescued from the cistern, he later was forcibly taken by rebels to Egypt and church tradition holds that he was stoned to death there.

It didn’t go any better for the rest of God’s prophets. Blaming Elisha for his troubles, the king of Aram wanted him beheaded and Elijah spent much of his time fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and Ahab. Micaiah was tossed into prison for predicting Israel’s defeat and Ahab’s death, Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den, John the Baptist was beheaded and, according to rabbinical tradition, King Manasseh executed Isaiah by having him sawn in half! If the prophets weren’t losing their lives, they were running for them!

These prophets were unpopular because they fearlessly told the truth instead of what the people wanted to hear. They revealed the people’s sins and warned of their consequences. Sent to confront rather than comfort, their messages often were unwelcome and ignored. What those who persecuted them failed to realize is that, while they may have silenced the men’s voices temporarily, the truth of their messages didn’t disappear!

Let’s face it—reproach, sacrifice, and repentance are never popular messages. Not everything we read in the Bible or hear from the pulpit is going to be comforting and cheerful; it does, however, need to be heard. Not everything the Holy Spirit tells us is going to be approving, but it will be edifying. Not everything God instructs us to do will be easy, but it will be worthwhile. Not everything said by our brothers and sisters in Christ will be appreciated, but it will be honest. God gives warnings so we won’t have to suffer his wrath. Rather than ignoring, persecuting, or killing God’s messengers, we’re better off listening to them and heeding their words.

This is the reply of the Holy One of Israel: “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly—like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. [Isaiah 30:12-13 (NLT)]

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And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

May he grant your heart’s desires and make all your plans succeed. [Psalm 20:4 (NLT)]

santaWhat do you hope to find tucked into your Christmas stocking or deposited under the tree Christmas morning? From the above words, it’s easy to think God is promising something like Christmas morning every day. Although He promises to hear and answer our prayers, let’s remember that He’s not so specific as to how He’ll answer them.

Remember the story of King Midas? As a reward for the King’s kindness, Dionysus offered Midas anything he wanted. Coveting wealth, Midas wanted everything he touched to be changed into gold. Although he was warned to think seriously about such a wish, the king insisted. How thrilled he was when the twigs and stones he handled became precious metal. Midas’ joy at his gift began to fade, however, when he discovered that gold roses have no aroma and food became metal before it could be eaten. After a simple touch turned his daughter into a golden statue, the king detested the gift he’d so desired. Taking pity on him, Dionysus told the king to wash in the river Pactolus to lose his golden touch and make things right again.

While the Midas story has pagan beginnings, there is much a Christian can learn from this ancient myth, the first of which is not to love material possessions. When we pray, we shouldn’t act like children looking through Amazon’s “Ready, Set, Play” holiday toy catalog or grown-ups browsing through the Neiman Marcus 200-page Christmas Book and marking the pages with our holiday fantasies. Prayer is not like writing a wish list to Santa for all the gifts we desire and God’s promises are never an excuse for greed or selfishness.

Unlike a mythical Greek deity, God will not give us anything that could harm us. While we’re not likely to ask for a snake or scorpion, we have been known to ask for other things that could bring us harm—the extra money, new job, sexy guy at work, vacation in Vegas, or that big house with an even bigger mortgage. Just like King Midas, our limited (and selfish) perspective cannot possibly see all of the ramifications of our prayer requests. We ask for things without understanding how they may affect our life or the lives of others. We may know what we want but God, in his infinite wisdom, knows what will happen if we get it. If God had given me everything for which I prayed, it would have taken way more than a bath in the river Pactolus to clean up the resulting mess and set things right again. It’s been said that God’s answers are far wiser than our prayers and, indeed, they are. With love and wisdom, in His own time and way, God will always answer our prayers. Let’s give thanks that “Yes” is not always His answer to our requests.

The devil doesn’t come in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for. [Anonymous]

You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. [Luke 11:11-13 (NLT)]

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Words bubble up from waters deep within a person; a stream gushes from the fountain of wisdom. [Proverbs 18:4 (VOICE)]

Reichenback Falls - Switzerland“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” said C.S. Lewis. I agree and admit to enjoying the seven books comprising Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia both as a child and an adult. Even though the Narnia books take place in a make-believe world filled with talking animals, mythical creatures, and magic, there are Christian overtones to the entire series. For example, the first book calls up images from Genesis when Aslan, the Great Lion, sings Narnia into existence and evil is introduced to the land. In the second, Aslan willingly dies so that the sins of one boy are forgiven but comes alive again. In another book, Eustace, who had “greedy, dragonish thoughts” becomes a dragon. When Aslan strips away the boy’s scales and throws him into the water, the repentant boy is transformed and images of rebirth and baptism come to mind. Resembling the last book of the Bible, the final story in the series tells of a beast, a false prophet, Narnia’s fall, and a Narnian paradise (where sadness and weariness do not exist).

In spite of the Christian symbolism throughout the series, Lewis never set out to use his fairy tale as a way of writing a “Christian” book for children. “Everything began with images, a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them,” said Lewis. In fact, that image of the faun had been in his mind since he was 16, long before he became a believer. When Lewis began writing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he thought it would be the last in the series. He didn’t anticipate writing four more Narnia books and evoking the end times with the last one. How then did his books become “Christian”? The author explained: “That element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.”

Without deliberately meaning to do so, Lewis’ deep faith in Christ couldn’t help but bubble over into his work. As the tale solidified, Lewis found himself answering the imaginary question of “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” The question, however, came after he’d begun writing the answer.

Lewis’ phrase, “part of the bubbling,” got me thinking. Gifted with a brilliant mind, C.S. Lewis has been called “one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century.” Nevertheless, I don’t think those stories sprang just from his genius; they came from the presence of the Holy Spirit! His genius may have put the words on paper but the spring from which they bubbled over was filled with Biblical truth, Christian doctrine, and love of God. Once Lewis became a believer, he couldn’t help but put Christian ideals and a Biblical worldview into everything he said or wrote.

None of us are likely to be called intellectual giants but, as followers of Jesus, I wonder if what bubbles out of us in our day-to-day existence reflects our faith the way it should. Instead of imagining what Christ would be like in Narnia, perhaps we should consider what He would be like in our world today and then make Him visible in our words and actions. What bubbles from our fountain?

There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. [C.S. Lewis]

Do not slack in your faithfulness and hard work. Let your spirit be on fire, bubbling up and boiling over, as you serve the Lord. [Romans 12:11 (VOICE)]

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And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn [Luke 2:6-7 (ESV)]

Holy FamilyTomorrow (December 16) is the first day of Las Posadas. Originally a solemn Christmas novena, it was brought to Mexico in 1587 by Spanish priests. Perhaps, because it occurred during the Aztec celebration of the birthday of their pagan god Huitzilopochtli, what began as formal nine-day prayer vigil eventually moved out of the church and into the community where it became a nine-day religious pageant.

Posadas is Spanish for “lodgings” or “accommodations” and the ritual commemorated Mary and Joseph’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. At dusk December 16, people dressed up as Mary and Joseph, angels, and shepherds reenacted the couple’s journey and their unsuccessful search for lodging. Going to several houses each night, the pilgrims (called Peregrinos) were sent away until the ninth night (Christmas Eve) when they finally were given shelter. People along the route decorated their homes’ entrances with luminaria to light the way. This tradition spread into our nation’s southwest when Catholic settlers migrating from Spain and Mexico came northward.

When reenacting Mary and Joseph’s quest for housing, the participants sang a carol called “Pidiendo Posada” and the verses alternated between those outside seeking lodging and those responding from behind their doors. “In the name of the heavens I request lodging from you…,” sang the pilgrims while, from inside, they’re told it’s not an inn and the door won’t be opened because they could be scoundrels. The song went back and forth as the pilgrims begged for mercy and promised God’s reward but were answered with denials, excuses, and threatened with a beating. Although the Peregrinos identified Mary as “the Queen of Heaven,” the response was doubt that a queen would travel without an entourage. Not until the last house and entrance was gained was the final verse sung: “Enter holy pilgrims. Receive this haven. That although it’s a poor dwelling I offer it to you from the heart.”

When a homeowner received the Peregrinos, they were welcomed with food and a piñata shaped like a seven-pointed star. Like everything else about Las Posadas, the star had religious significance. Representing the star of Bethlehem, each of its points represented one of the seven deadly sins, and its bright colors denoted the lure of sin. Participants were blindfolded and made to turn around 33 times before trying to hit and break the piñata with a stick. The 33 turns represented the years in Jesus’ life and the resulting dizziness denoted the disorientation caused by temptation. The blindfold signified Christians’ blind faith that good will triumph over evil, the stick represented the virtue needed to overcome sin, the breaking of the piñata symbolized the triumph of good over evil, and the candy and fruit that spilled out once the piñata broke open signified the riches of the kingdom of Heaven. The rituals of Las Posadas served as a perfect way to teach a largely illiterate population the Christmas story and the gospel message.

Through the centuries, piñatas have lost most of their religious connotation and can be found in all sorts of shapes and sizes at all times of the year. While Las Posadas celebrations continue wherever a large Hispanic population is found, its observance has changed, as well. Rather than the original nine days of  processions, it often is observed only one night. Like the piñata and many of our Christmas traditions, it even has become secularized in some places with Santa’s appearance.

Beyond its pageantry and symbolism, what does Las Posadas mean to those of us who are neither Roman Catholic nor of Hispanic origin? Since it’s about welcoming strangers in need, we might recall that this beautiful tradition was brought to our country hundreds of years’ ago by immigrants who, like the Holy Family, were seeking a place of refuge. There are parallels between Joseph and Mary’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem (and their escape from Herod into Egypt) and the challenges today’s migrant families face when they flee their countries. While Las Posadas is about the importance of finding room for Jesus in our hearts so that His Spirit can live in us, it also is about finding room in our hearts for others who, like Joseph and Mary, seek safe shelter. A local Hispanic pastor explained that Las Posadas is about “doing right by Christ.” Let us remember that Jesus made it clear what doing right by Him meant.

There was no room that night so long ago, will we make room for Him today?

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)]

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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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