Staying Thankful

Here’s the context for the meme verse: Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:15-18, NLT).

There are three dogs living in my house. Two belong to my daughter with whom we share the house. And one is mine. Half the time we walk the dogs together, but some days I walk them by myself. Our walks together are full of conversation and much laughter. When I walk alone, I occasionally talk to the dog, or myself. Sometimes I talk to God.

A friend of mine used to live in one of houses I pass often. She moved away this year. I miss her. A few walks ago as I walked past her old house I told God I missed her and asked for a special blessing to fill her heart. Without missing a beat, I felt God nudge me that I should let my friend know I thought of her and prayed for her.

That’s what Paul did here. Beyond that, he also listed what he would ask God for his friends. Consider his list: spiritual wisdom, growth in knowledge of God, understanding of the hope God offers to those who believe and follow.

The friends Paul prayed for “unceasingly” were seeking to walk in faith in a new way. Some were building on their Jewish roots, but others were building as they went. The things Paul asked of God represented how the Ephesian believers hearts and minds needed to be equipped for the persecution they faced for choosing to walk in a different way.

The world doesn’t understand our choice of following the way of Christ. Our friends need prayer for strength and wisdom.

One other thing jumps out at me from Paul’s prayer. Appreciation. It’s not a big thing, but expressing our gratitude for others can go a long way, and deliver a huge blessing. Today let’s make a point of telling someone how much they mean to us. Let’s thank God for them, and let them know we’re holding them in our prayers.

Gratefulness

Hi. If I told you this year’s been hard, it would be an understatement.

Words, thoughts, creativity…they’ve been tough to come by.

Right now I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. That’s not how I like to be. I want to be all in and enthusiastic about everything. Just not there right now.

So it’s not surprising to me that while I intended to write 30 devotions about gratitude and thankfulness this month…I’ve only gotten as far as creating a few memes and picking out Bible verses to reflect on.

Here’s the first meme:

I referred to this verse in my FB Midweek Refresh lesson. I have felt like addressing the different verses which point to giving thanks and being grateful, while frequently discussed, are not always given a honest interpretation when it comes to application. Why? Because life is tough and we need more than Pollyanna platitudes.

On a scale of 1-10, I would give this verse a 10 for difficulty. My reasoning lies in the phrase “in all circumstances.”

Before we pick this verse apart, let’s drop it into context for a moment. Paul wrote the letter of 1 Thessalonians in response to the heavy persecution the believers were facing. He wanted to encourage their faith and hope. To do this he directed them to look to the future, and specifically to Christ’s return.

When do we lose hope? For me, hopelessness creeps (and often floods) in when my focus is on the direness, bleakness of the situation. Feelings of overwhelming lack and negativity block out the positive…the hope.

Paul’s words and intent reminded me of the old hymn: “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” The encouragement of the hymn writer syncs with Paul’s message, for when we look full into Jesus’ wonderful face “the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

Nothing about this verse diminishes the awfulness or pain we might be going through. It certainly didn’t for the Thessalonians. Our hope is not in the circumstances changing. So what does? Our focus.

It is God’s will for us to give thanks in all (each and every) circumstances because we experience the presence and promise of God through it all. We never face the test or difficulty alone. We never have to do it in our strength alone.

And look…just thinking about this enabled me to write a blog post. Thank you, God, for your presence and promise. Forgive me when I lose focus. Remind me where to keep my eyes. Amen.

Answering the Call to Prayer

“That has to be the dumbest commercial.” My daughter was emphatic in her disgust.

“Which one this time?” was my response.

She went on to describe a fast food restaurant’s advertisement where people are engaged in some activity: a baseball game, a wedding, and a meeting at work. Then a gong sounds (the company’s identifying mark) and one of the characters immediately leaves what they were doing to find the nearest gong-sounding restaurant. The closing scene is that person chowing down on one their meals.

It does seem a bit contrived. But then I was reading in Robert Benson’s book, “Living Prayer.” In it he describes how the monks at the monastery drop what they’re doing when they hear the bell ring for prayer. The question he raises is, “When the bell rings, will you answer the bell?”

Monks ceasing their activity to go to prayer seems much more logical and natural than a person pulling into a fast food restaurant when the gong sounds. But what about you and me? What calls us to pray? If the Spirit were to move or nudge us to pray would we drop whatever we were doing?

I was reading a blog where someone was describing a trip to Egypt. While there, this writer was struck by how often people would pray, how many times a day there was a audible call to prayer, and many people responded. They wondered, as a result, what that would look like in America?

The apostle Paul left instructions that the fledgling church in Thessoalonica was to “pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).” There are at least thirty-five other similar instructions in the Bible (according to my Google SEO). But how can that be a realistic expectation?

One way to attack the seemingly insurmountable instruction to always be at prayer would be to take a few meaningful steps in that direction. We could set a timer on our watch or phone to go off three times a day: start with morning, noon, and night. When those become a habit or second nature, we could begin to increase the number of times to four, then five, and stretch ourselves to six. Imagine praying as we awake, again at mid morning, then as we eat lunch, on then to middle afternoon, dinner, and when we go to bed. We might even be able to find a time to pause and prayer in the hours between dinner and bed—depending on whether you’re a night owl. This is not the kind of thing to attempt all at once, but slowly over time as we sense the Spirit wooing us.

I can almost sense resistance as this is being read. “We don’t have time for this.” “What would we find to pray about?” I find these things to be typical of busy people, but it really is a good question.

Book titles quite often catch my eye and last longer in my mind than the material between the cover. Bill Hybels wrote a book that falls into that category for me: “Too Busy Not to Pray.” Instead of looking for reasons to not pray, let’s just start doing it.

And the what is just as “easy” to address. Whatever you find. Scan the news on your phone and pick three things. Open a hymnal and pray the verses. Carry the prayer list from your church’s bulletin with you. Pray through your friends alphabetically: Monday for everyone who’s name begins with A, and on and on. Do a search on your favorite search engine for ways to pray. You’ll find lots of suggestions.

Now, with timers set, hearts committed, ears open, and armed with ideas for how to use the time, let me ask Benson’s question again: When the bell rings will you answer it?

I’m going to be giving it my best effort. Will you?

Wednesday’s Word: Miracles

Today’s word comes to you courtesy of my dear friend, Mary Hofacker.

When I think of miracles, I am reminded of a song Nelson and I heard at a Steve and Annie Chapman concert way back in the 1980’s. Living far from family with two toddlers and very little income, we felt desperate and prayed for God to miraculously reveal his power and grace. The song was a constant ear worm: things are looking right for a miracle.

When I went to WordSwag to create the pic for today’s post, I used a font I rarely use, but it fit perfectly. Miracles quite often come in very plain and obvious ways: a miracle healing, the perfect job, etc. But sometimes the miracle we need comes disguised as something else and we appreciate the gift or improvement to life, but we don’t see God’s intervention coming in a way we couldn’t have imagined or even begun to ask for. We missed the backstory completely, claimed the gift, and moved on.

I think that’s why I appreciate Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (see Eph. 3:20): Now to the One who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly, above and beyond anything and everything we could ever ask or even imagine…

And that God knows me best and loves me most. You, too.

Things are looking right for a miracle.

In the Midst of the Storm

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I came out to the patio to write. I swept the patio. I fussed around the table. I decided to work on worship music for tomorrow’s online service.

I was doing everything but writing.

I pulled up the song, “Fear No More by building 429.” I found something to write about. I love this song. It fits my current situation. The lyrics of the song contain an image of Jesus holding us in a storm not of our own choosing. “This isn’t what I planned…” Chaos is all around but Jesus is with us in the storm.

As I listened my mind drifted to the passage where Jesus and the disciples are in a boat and a strong storm happens. Mark records Peter’s recollection: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-40, NIV)

Jesus is not holding the disciples when the storm crashes in on them, and they are terrified they are going to die.

Jesus is there. He’s been there all along. He has the power to still the storm around them…and within them. Their fear brought them to Jesus, but not for an answer. They came accusing him of not caring. They are angry because while they’re consumed with and by their fear Jesus is curled up, cozy on a cushion. They are infuriated at his selfishness: this is no time to sleep, man! Do something for us. NOW!

In Mark’s account, Jesus rebuked the storm. What an object lesson. Storm, be at peace. Be still. Jesus may have addressed the storm, but his message was for the disciples. And it’s for us also.

Do you feel like there’s a storm all around you? Are the walls closing in? Do you fear for your life…or your way of living?

Here’s my confession: I’ve been really mad at God. Life was going pretty sweetly for me. I was achieving goals. I was about to start my D.Min (or finish it). Nelson was finally getting some of his medical issues addressed. We were happy. It was sort of like a Sunday boat ride on the lake on a wonderful summer day. Weather perfect. Floating along. Cozy. Relaxed. Happy.

Then bam. And nothing was comfortable. I couldn’t find happy anywhere on my radar. Ripped from the familiar. Life as I knew it…as I wanted it…was gone.

And this isn’t the first time in my life. I don’t want to re-rehearse the litany of what I saw as injustices perpetrated by God upon me. Why give it to me just to yank it away?

Selah. (Period of reflective silence.)

Job: shall we take the good and not the bad?

Paul: I have learned whatever situation I am in to find contentment.

Jesus: I’m right here. Be at peace. Be still.

Paul again: God puts us right where he wants us. (1 Corinthians 12:18)

Me: okay. I will trust that you are with me—even in the storm. I may not be in school for my D.Min, but I have a lot to learn. Right here. Right now. (That’s my prayer, so Amen.)

Sermon Seeds: Persistence in Prayer

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When I was in high school and experiencing all the typical teenage angst of relationship break-ups, peer pressure, and raging hormones, I had one encounter that forever shaped the way I move toward the future.

I felt a closeness to the the mother of one my friends…her whole family actually. This woman of faith died from breast cancer the fall of my senior year in high school—but not before imparting to me the words that became my mantra for life.

One evening, when my angst and stress was overwhelming, I went to her home. I poured out my heart, and at some point spewed my need to just give up.

She got right in my face, and quietly, but firmly told me to never, ever give up.

Here was this woman, my spiritual mentor at the time, dying from the ravages of cancer, on oxygen, barely able to move off the couch, telling me to never give up. Nothing in life comes easy, but it’s always, always, worth fighting for.

I can’t tell you how many times those words have come back to me, sustained me, pushed me, enabled me.

I apply them to work, to child-rearing, to writing, to facing the seemingly impossible.

And I apply them to prayer and my relationship with God.

The words of Jesus about prayer, “ask…seek…knock” are actually: keep on asking, keep on seeking…keep on knocking.”

Are you in a situation that seems overwhelming? Do you need a miracle? Never give up in prayer. God’s answer, his way, his truth, are worth fighting for.

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Hopefully Devoted: How much love?

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The trial of a serial killer has captured the attention of most of the people in my little town. Finding an impartial jury has not been easy. Opinions are expressed in the morning coffee gatherings, in the papers, and on the regional news.

I met recently with a group who were close to one of the victims. Very early into our meetng, one of people spoke up: “I have a question. Do I have to pray for that guy?”

Easy answer: no.

But I’m not into easy answers.

I helped my questioning friend to tease out what she was really wanting to ask. She was somewhat resistant—seeking to hide the truth she was trying to avoid. But we finally got there. “Do I have to forgive him?”

What followed was an honest discussion about forgiveness. No one was comfortable…needing to forgive can do that.

As we were wrapping up our meeting, a new question surfaced: Do I have to like him?

Even easier answer: no!

Scripture says nothing about liking someone. I don’t think we’re wired to like everyone.

But we have to care about them. We have to love them.

Loving someone…caring for them…praying for them doesn’t mean we have to like them—and we certainly don’t have to like or condone what they did.

Perhaps the only thing we can pray for them is that they will find the strength to face the consequences of their actions.

If I did something horribly wrong I would hope someone prayed that much for me.

Hopefully Devoted: Not What I Want…

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When the disciples of Jesus saw the followers of John had a “prayer,” they went to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray.

I wonder if Jesus shook his head, looked at the ground and thought, “You already have one…in fact you have many. What do you think the Psalms are? You already know this.”

But what he said and did was give them the format for prayer that we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” And many parts sound like they come from Psalm 143. Consider verse 10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground (NIV).”

Thinking then on Jesus praying in Gethsemene sent me to examine the rest of the Psalm:

1 Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
3 The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
4 So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.
5 I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.
6 I spread out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.[a]
7 Answer me quickly, Lord;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit.
8 Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
for to you I entrust my life.
9 Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
lead me on level ground.
11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
destroy all my foes,
for I am your servant.

In the Garden, Jesus’ prayer boiled down to: not my will but yours be done.

He taught us in word and action to pray for God’s will—not our will, or our wants.

Hopefully Devoted: Who is my neighbor?

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One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25, NLT)

When the expert in the Law asked Jesus what he MUST do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked his own question: What does the Law tell you? (Answering a question with a question makes my husband crazy!)

The man quickly demonstrated his knowledge: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself.

Ding, ding, ding.

He probably should have stopped there, but…endeavoring to find out the least he had to do with the least amount of people…he asked the question of clarification: and just who is that?

So Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan.

Readers Digest version: A guy heads out on a business trip. Robbers attack him, beat him, and leave him to die. A couple of religious types avoided getting involved by passing on the other side of the street—can’t get too close!

Jesus then introduced the most unlikely of heroes, a despisssssssssssssed (hiss like a snake when you say that) Samaritan. And he does everything to care for the man—he hows him mercy.

Who is your neighbor?

A.N.Y.O.N.E. And everyone you can extend the hand of mercy to.

And how do we love that neighbor?

This afternoon while I took (yet again) the grandson’s dog out to do his business, a thought popped up through my grumbling. He says he love the adorable mutt, but only puts words to that love when it’s convenient or fun. He’s nowhere to be found when there’s puke or poop to clean up, or when it crimps his plans.

Love isn’t conditional or convenient. Love costs. Love changes the lover and the beloved.

There is no how or who, why or when—Our neighbor is everybody else and we love them by seeing them, not avoiding them, and offering them the amazing love of the Father.

Prayer thoughts: God, I confess I don’t always leap to love. Sometimes I wish someone else would do the tough stuff. But you never fail to love me—no matter what mess I’m in. Thanks. Sink your love deep into my awareness until I don’t worry about the least I have to do, but live into your fullness until that’s what people see in me. Amen.

Year In Focus: Thinking

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV)

Yesterday during worship we had a time of anointing and prayer. During our congregational time of sharing, a family member shared, from a broken heart, a desperate need of a family member. I felt nudged in my spirit to focus on the need, the individual, and the family.

As I began to pray, I sensed a childlike spirit—more like a self-centered, spoiled child wanting to demand my way. I didn’t understand what God was thinking, why he was allowing this horrible suffering and grief. My first thought was to tell God what he needed to do in this situation.

Now here’s one of the difficult things for me as I pray publically: even when I am aware of leading others to the throne of grace, I get there first and at times God starts working on me—and that’s what I felt happening.

Trust me.

But God…don’t you understand?

More than you’ll ever know.

So I don’t have to tell you what’s happening.

No. But I care about what you’re feeling. Go ahead and pour out your heart.

SELAH (Pause, reflect, and connect)

The truth is: we don’t naturally think like God or see things from his perspective. Can we? Will we ever?

I really don’t know to what degree we will, but here’s what I do know: God is in the business of transforming our thinking, maturing our understanding. And I know this because he tells me in his word:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2, NIV).

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5, Berean Study Bible).

Jesus extended this invitation to those weary from trying to “do” religion, trying to understand God—those who were ready to give up:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

Is your situation confusing? Overwhelming? Having trouble finding the mind of God? Stop trying to make sense of things with your limited knowledge…trust the heart and mind of God. He is gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls.

SELAH

 

 

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