Why Bother to Pray?

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One of the most basic questions on prayer is this: “Why bother to pray?”

Does prayer really change things? Does prayer really make a difference?

Many people get stuck and don’t pray because they have the wrong concept of prayer. They ask philosophical questions instead of relationship questions.

The questions aren’t: “If God knows everything – why must we ask for things in prayer? Does God really need to be informed? Is prayer merely data transmission?“ These philosophical questions have their place. But they don’t come first.

The primary question is: “If the Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier), created me, saved me and loves me, how can I not pray?!” Prayer is about our relationship with God long before it considers cause-and-effect or the dynamic relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Why bother to pray?

Prayer “Centers” Us.

We bring ourselves to every relationship. Are we bringing our “whole self,” or just “partial attention”? Centering is being truly “present” in the moment. Centering means focusing our attention and energy, our heart, mind and body on the ultimate priority of life: our relationship with the Lord. (In other words, put your phone away!).

Centering in prayer is like taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling. Simply stepping back to focus on the Lord often brings a sense of peace. Try it now.

“Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10).

Prayer Clarifies

Prayer is like “getting up on the balcony,” to use an image from Harvard MBA professor Ron Heifetz.

In high school I played first trumpet in the marching band. We learned all kinds of formations for half time shows (which were watched by our parents only!). On the field, it seemed like chaos. But from the stands people could see, understand and appreciate the patterns.

When we pray, we not only step back to catch our breath, but we climb up to a higher place.

This is one reason Jesus spent nights in prayer as he sought wisdom about his ministry, as when he selected his 12 disciples (Luke 6:12-16).

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (James 1: 5 NIV).

The ultimate and fundamental reason we “bother to pray” is because…

Prayer Connects Us with God

Prayer centers us and clarifies things because we connect with God.

Prayer is not like making a list for Santa Claus! Prayer is like a conversation with your best friend, cherished mentor, loving parent.

This is a time for a brief comment on one of those philosophical questions: “If God knows, why ask?”

The answer lies in the fact that prayer is not about information.

Prayer is conversation with the Living Lord. Jesus’ prayed earnestly, not because he needed something, but because he wanted to talk with his Father.

“… Your Father know what you need before you ask him. This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father…’” (Matthew 6:9).

Prayer begins not with something we want to ask of God, but with something God wants to ask of us!

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering (Romans 8:15-17 NLT).

Prayer is not ultimately about making requests and getting answers. Prayer brings us into heart fellowship with the Living Lord as beloved daughters and sons.

10 Questions for the New Year

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The New Year is a great time to take inventory as you look back over the past year and do some “holy daydreaming” as you approach the new one. A primary tool for the most effective assessment and planning is asking good questions.

Questions have the power to change our lives. They move us from being spectators to participants. They cause us to stop and take stock of what we believe and how we behave. They push us to challenge our assumptions, assess our needs, clarify our thinking and confront our imposed limitations. They prod us to analyze, criticize and synthesize.

The Greek philosopher Socrates is best known for recognizing the power of leading students to discovery through questions.

In the course of writing my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, I was intrigued by the spiritual power of questions in the Bible. In the course of my research, I became acquainted with Bobb Biehl, President of Masterplanning Group International (Yes, there are two ‘b’s in his first name). In his booklet, Asking to Win: One Hundred Profound Questions, he writes,

As you master the art of asking profound questions you’ll be able to unlock information, insight and wisdom with a friend in any situation. You’ll be able to open doors to inner motivation and dreams which no one has ever been able to unlock. You’ll be able to solve problems, analyze risks and take leadership you’ve never before dreamed possible. For questions are like intricate brass keys which unlock the lock boxes of people’s minds and heart, their hopes and dreams.

I appreciate Bobb’s image of questions as keys. Another image I see is that the right question is like a jeweler’s chisel that breaks open an uncut, dull-looking stone into a precious treasure with gleaming facets of beauty and value.

While we could explore literally hundreds of stimulating questions, that would be overwhelming. My hope is that you will use this blog in the coming days for some intentional reflection and planning. The best way to make any progress is to focus on a narrow framework of simply looking back and looking forward.

Remember: Five questions for looking back to celebrate and learn.

The Bible places a great deal of emphasis on remembering what God has done (and also crying out to God to remember his covenant with his people). Memory awakens gratitude and also provides the context for learning from our lives.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (Psalm 77:11 English Standard Version).

  • Where and when did I see you, Lord, working this past year?
  • If I had to summarize my year in one word or phrase, what would it be? Why?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities came my way I never expected?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities did I miss?
  • What was my primary accomplishment this past year?

Anticipate: Five question for looking forward to maximize your time.

The Bible calls us to be intentional and make the most of the time God gives. There’s power when we focus on specific goals.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16 ESV).

  • What are two or three important goals I have for the coming year? (Think, for example, in terms of personal, relational, vocational and recreational—relaxation and renewal—areas).
  • What projects would energize me this year?
  • What do I need to stop?
  • What do I need to start?
  • What word or phrase can I use to keep my focus in this coming year?

These are my suggestions. I encourage you to ask and respond to additional questions that you feel will be most helpful. You’ll notice I haven’t asked any direct questions in the area of confession and repentance — though that is a rich area for prayer and reflection. Give yourself the gift of time– to make the most of the time God provides.

While wrong questions take us on senseless detours, the right questions take us to the very heart of life.

[Portions of this blog are adapted from my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, “Introduction,” xi-xii.]

An Inkling: Haunted by a Sense There’s More

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“If you were God, how would you have come into the world?” This question from one of my Young Life leaders has stayed with me for years.

He said he would have gone the dramatic route of having the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flight demonstration squadron do a fly-over at the biggest sports stadium in the world. He would parachute out and land in the middle of the field, dressed in a black leather flight suit that had zippers everywhere. He’d silence the cheering crowd with a wave of his hand and say, “Now that I have your attention—it’s time you listen to me…”

The world has changed a lot since I first considered this question. James A. K. Smith gives a sobering portrait of our religiously-disinterested culture.

Your “secular” neighbors aren’t looking for “answers,” for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps. You’ve realized that instead of nagging questions about God or the afterlife, your neighbors are oriented by all sorts of longings and “projects” and quests for significance. There doesn’t seem to be anything “missing” from their lives – so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.”

Smith describes how our neighbors have no idea they are failing to ask some very important questions.

They don’t have any sense that the “secular” lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor. In many ways, they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives (though a lot hinges on that “almost”)… No, it seems that  many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine – though that world might still be haunted in some ways, haunted by that “almost.”

(James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014, p. vii-viii).

I realize these are meaty quotes, but I encourage you to read them again slowly. They describe both our toughest challenge and our greatest hope. The hope is in that word, “haunted.”

Scripture assures us that all people have an innate sense of that there’s “Something” or “Someone” more out there. They try to ignore it or dismiss it (see Romans 1:18-20), but it lingers. The preacher in The Book of Ecclesiastes says,

God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 New King James Version NKJV).

The wonder of Christmas, of the incarnation, of Jesus coming as the Word of God in flesh, is that God gives us much more than an argument for his existence. God gives us much more than a dramatic, coercive confrontation. God stirs that internal, eternal longing.

God’s strategy leaves us in awe because it so very “down to earth”—literally!

God’s response to human longing was more than a sentimental message.

Yes, God continued to give his message through Jesus, as he had through his prophets;

But in Jesus Christ, God gave (and gives) his Living Word– a message not only to hear, but one humans could touch and watch and know.

God’s response to human longing was more than a philosophical proof.

Yes, there are many reasonable proofs for the existence of God.

But in Jesus Christ God gives us much more than a reason to believe; God gives us a person to trust.

God’s response to human longing was more than a show of power.

Yes, God showed his power through Jesus’ miracles: water changed into wine, loaves and fishes multiplied, bodies healed and, above all, his own resurrection.

But Jesus’ powerful acts point beyond themselves to what the fullness of love and the gift of salvation in him look like. God hates suffering and evil and death. Jesus shows us how much more God intends for us.

You see, God gave us nothing less than his very best: God gave himself.

For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Isaiah 9:6 English Standard Version)

The message of Christmas is this: God exists, and God’s strategy is to win the heart– and with it the whole person through faith in Jesus Christ.

Pay attention to that inkling. Doubt your doubts and follow them to faith.

The Great Train (Set) Robbery (or one way to spoil Christmas)

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I was not an original sinner, but I caught on fast. By that I mean I didn’t usually think up ways to get into trouble. But I was quite responsive to suggestions.

One November, when I was in sixth grade, my friend, Jimmy, said, “I know what I’m getting for Christmas!”

“How could you know?” (I know this sounds like I was terribly naive– but it’s true…)

“I found my presents,” he said. “Wanna’ know what you’re getting? When you’re mom’s not home, we can look…”

So we did. And in the hamper in my parents’ room we found an HO Gauge Train set that I had asked for to go with my road race car set.

So now I knew… and I felt sick to my stomach with guilt.

Christmas morning came. When we opened our gifts, I noticed there was no box under the tree that resembled the train set. That seemed odd. We finished with all the presents, but I must have looked a bit puzzled.

My mom (who was no dummy…) looked at me and said, “Oh, just a minute…” And she came out with a present the size of the train box. “I think you were hoping for this,” and I could see “the look” in her eye.

While we could consider a number of lessons learned from this story, the one most appropriate to right now is waiting. In gift-giving and receiving, waiting is part of process. For many, anticipation itself contributes to the joy. It’s fun to look forward to what’s coming. And that applies to both the giver and the receiver.

Most often the giver has given a great deal of thought and time (and, likely, expense) to getting the right gift. The experience of seeing the reaction the gift elicits is the giver’s greatest joy. To steal that by “peeking” is selfish and hurtful to the relationship.

Waiting is also a significant part of life. Sometimes we wait in excited anticipation. Sometimes we wait in anguish. Sometimes we just plain wait. In most cases, there are lessons in the waiting.

In the Christian Year, Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) is a season of waiting, of anticipation, of reflection. We look back on God’s people awaiting the promised Messiah. We look around to our current circumstances of waiting for direction, for answers to prayer, and for particular projects to come to fruition.  We also look forward as we await Jesus’ promised return.

When we ponder the timing of Jesus’ coming, the Bible tells us that Jesus was born “In the fullness of time…” (Galatians 4:4). The Greek word plaroma could be used of a woman coming to full term with a child, being ready to deliver. God’s people had waited centuries for his coming. God was waiting until the time was just ripe. For instance, it was a time of relative peace under the Pax Romana. It was the first time such an extended region of the world shared a common language that could communicate the gospel and had roads that could enhance the ability to carry the gospel beyond Judea. For these, and many other reasons, Jesus was born at just the right moment.

Waiting is rarely easy, but it becomes more bearable when we trust that the Giver wants to give the best gift possible at the best time possible.

Overcoming Christmas Distractions

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I’m not one of those totally against the way we do Christmas in our culture.

I enjoy taking time to bless our family and friends with gifts.

I like the emphasis on putting up decorative lights at night—that’s a powerful symbol of Jesus coming into the increasing darkness of the world.

I really enjoy the gatherings around food and special events.

And I love the additional church services and seasonal music!

Sure it’s a bit crazy for a few weeks, but much of it is driven by our desires to give, to connect and to celebrate. Those are good things.

Still, as we plunge headlong into the holidays, many forces conspire to pull us away from the real meaning of Christmas:

Searching & searching for new gift ideas for those people “who have everything;”

Being plagued by the post office warning “mail early or else;”

Deciding on a Christmas card list (“Let’s see, did they send us a card last year?”)

Losing that favorite recipe;

Trying to make all the parties, pageants, concerts & community appearances;

Trying to make good memories;

Feeling the sting of loneliness, loss and/ or disappointment that is magnified during these days.

It’s easy to lose sight not only of the new life that came to Bethlehem, but the new life faith births in us through Christ.

When you stop and consider, however, that “first Christmas” was pretty chaotic, too: Mary and Joseph’s untimely (from a human viewpoint) journey to Bethlehem, the “housing challenge,” the birth of a child, and the coming of shepherds to offer special greetings… It was a bit much.

And in the midst of it all we read these wonderful words: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 NIV).

Treasure—See the value of every moment, every interaction, every opportunity– and even every challenge.

Ponder—Give yourself the gift of some time to reflect. Ponder conveys the meaning of thinking deeply about something, of giving something more thoughtful consideration.

How do we resist the many forces that conspire to pull us away from the real meaning of Christmas? Taking time to treasure experiences while they are happening, and to ponder them afterward – perhaps through journaling—can go a long way to enriching every day, especially this holy season.

 

 

God’s Will is like Tacking into the Wind

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Many times God’s plan for our lives doesn’t seem very efficient. Rarely do we travel directly from A to B by the quickest, most direct route. There appear to be many detours.

It’s fascinating to read the Bible in light of God’s timing in individual lives. Here are a few highlights to consider:

Noah. How long did it take to build the ark? Considering Genesis 6:3 and 1 Peter 3:20, it could have been up to 120 years.

Abraham. How long was it between God’s promise of a child for Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac? Genesis 12:4 says Abraham was 75 when given the promise, and Genesis 17:17 tells us he would be 100 when his covenant child was born.

Moses. How long was Moses exiled in the wilderness after killing an Egyptian before returning to lead God’s people out of Egypt? Acts 7:23 says, “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites.” Exodus 7:7 says Moses was 80 years old when he first spoke to Pharaoh. Based on these scriptures, it was 40 years.

Jesus. How long from birth until he began his ministry? Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23).

We could also consider Joseph’s long experience as a slave and prisoner (Genesis 37-41) and David’s delay from Samuel’s anointing him as king and his actually becoming king (1 Samuel 16- 2 Samuel 5). And, of course, there was Israel’s long awaited anticipation of the coming Messiah.

We could find these illustrations disheartening and be tempted to lose hope. When we read each person’s whole story, however, we learn that God was working in a variety of ways both to prepare people for their situations and to prepare the situations for his people.

One Scripture that has always fascinated me (and I’ve never seen on a calendar or in a book of quotes!) is Deuteronomy 7:22:

“The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you” (Revised Standard Version).

Little by little? Why not all at once? The unintended consequences of Israel’s immediate conquest of the Promised Land would have been vulnerability caused by a population explosion of predatory beasts. I did not anticipate that.

One quote of mine you may read in a calendar (I’m serious) is a statement I made in my baccalaureate message at my seminary graduation and later published in my article “What to Expect of a Seminary Graduate” in Christianity Today: “Full-grown oaks are not produced in 3 years; neither are servants of God.”

Spiritual maturity is not instant. God shapes and prepares us one step at a time. And that “SoulShaping” takes time. Detours may be better interpreted as times to grow, times to be seasoned and tempered, times to learn additional truths about God, ourselves and others. Primarily, I see apparent delays as times to nurture our love for God over our desires for what we want from God.

The sailboat moving into the wind overcomes resistance by tacking. Tacking is the process of sailing sideways, perpendicular to the wind, instead of sailing straight ahead. In the process, as the sailboat covers more of the lake, sea, or ocean, it also provides different perspectives. Above it, the adverse wind does not halt progress. In fact, knowing how to tack enables progress.

As I said at the outset, many times God’s plan for our lives doesn’t seem very efficient. There appear to be many detours—until we look back from the perspective of time and experience. Sail into the wind with hope, trusting God for progress.

 

Spinning Plates

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Jugglers are just one of the many entertainers we pay to generate anxiety. As if we don’t have enough anxiety already, we watch death-defying circus acts and terrifying movies that keep us on the edge of our seats. Perhaps it’s a type of catharsis for us: seeing others under more pressure or in worse situations than we are facing may make us feel better. But I’ll leave that to the trained psychologists.

Back to jugglers. They begin juggling a few harmless, ordinary balls, but then toss in a knife, then an ax, then a bowling ball—and we are just hoping they don’t cut off a finger or drop that ball on their toes. I can’t imagine doing what they do— until it comes to spinning plates. When I see a juggler spinning plates I feel like they are talking directly to me.

Spinning plates is what I do! I have lots of energy and very high expectations (we can talk about my Enneagram sometime, if you like…) and get too many plates spinning. It’s no surprise that I can get stressed running back and forth to all the wobbling projects just about to fall.

The good news is that I don’t waste much time on cheap plates. I am spinning many fine pieces of porcelain projects. Right now I’m spinning intentional preaching plans and vision plans, as well as leadership development and coaching plans for several different situations. I spin the usual you-gotta-do-this-to-keep-your-job plates. Oh, and I have a goal for publishing this blog and some other new materials. And did I mention that I’m a husband, father, grandfather and friend? Lot of plates. But you likely have as many.

So here’s the question: What do you do when you’re over-extended, especially with projects you are really interested in doing?

First, look at what’s “driving” each plate. Why did you choose to spin this plate? There are a number of commendable motives. The key is that you affirm that validity of that particular plate. It may not be a plate you would choose (like caring for a loved one with chronic illness), but you know it’s what you are called to do at this time. On the other hand, it may feel a plate imposed on you that you could choose to put down. I think of the pressure Jesus felt to meet expectations for performing miracles. When pressured, he refused to spin such plates (Matthew 12:39).

Second, give yourself permission to put one or two aside for the time being—as in my pause from blog writing. The world didn’t end when I didn’t publish weekly (though I’m sure many were just heart-broken not to have a nugget of wisdom from me… right?) I disappointed myself, but realized that there are seasons not only in the climate, but in life. Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 speaks of these varied seasons:

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: 2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them… 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 7 … a time to be silent and a time to speak…”

Third, manage your expectations for each plate. This is where your journal and a great listening partner come in handy. As you might have guessed, I feel compelled to give everything my best effort. I’ll never forget my annual personnel review when one of the elders, Wally, said to me, “Doug, we’re very pleased with your work—but also concerned.” “Concerned?” I responded with genuine alarm. “Yes, concerned. You need to learn that not everything deserves ‘A’ effort. We’re not grading you, but you need to figure out a way to get a few ‘C’s,’ or you’re going to burn out.”

Fourth, savor the present moment.  Plate spinners are most alive in the spinning. There will always be more plates and poles and opportunities to spin. Welcome Jesus’ invitation to focus on now.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message).

Gotta’ run– there’s a wobbler that needs some attention!

What Would Jesus Pray? (WWJP)

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It’s all too common to approach prayer as an obligation. It’s like a duty we know we should fulfill, rather than a joyful engagement. If you’re like me, you wish there was more to our experience of prayer. How do we change prayer from being like placing just another “online order” for our list of needs?

As a new believer I learned a Scripture that said Jesus “ever liveth to make intercession” for us, quoting the King James Version of Hebrews 7:25. Sadly, I didn’t really realize the implications of this verse for many years.

There’s a powerful picture here. You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” (from Charles Sheldon’s famous book, In His Steps, published in 1896). It became popular again a number of years ago with the acronym WWJD. The verse from the Letter to the Hebrews made me think of a variation on that: “What would Jesus pray?”

Here’s a contemporary translation of that verse in context. “Because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf. (Hebrews 7:24-25 New Living Translation).

My prayer life has been energized by mediating on how Jesus is praying (interceding) for us.

As I enter into prayer, I begin by centering on this verse, picturing Jesus seated on the throne of heaven with our Heavenly Father.  It’s a holy conversation. They are lovingly discussing their family members.

I picture them discussing the person on my heart. What does our holy, loving Lord want to do in his or her life? It’s like the breath of the Holy Spirit inspires my prayers. Instead of a list of “Please, Lord…” or “Lord, I hope…” phrases, I begin to pray with confidence rooted in God’s promises of mercy and grace. I pray like this:

“Lord, thank you for interceding for my friend, and carrying their burden with them. I am so grateful they are not alone and that you are making your presence known to them…”

“Lord, thank you for hearing the heart desires of my loved one. I know you are asking us to trust your timing, your wisdom, your power…”

Jesus’ prayers in the gospel give us numerous examples of how to pray. I have found praying the Lord’s Prayer over a person opens new vistas for creative intercession. Here’s a paraphrase I use as a framework. For convenience and clarity, I’ll frame this in terms of a prayer for my wife, Sarah, and include the New Living translation of Matthew 6:9-13 as a heading for each petition.

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy (Matthew 6:9);

Our Father in heaven, thank you for adopting Sarah into your family and caring for her as your precious daughter. Come in the power of your Holy Spirit to bring honor to your name through her by the way she thinks, acts and lives.

May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10);

Our Father, I pray Sarah will experience the love and power of your sovereign rule in her life. I know you want to work through her to bring your love, your care, your power, your life into ever relationship and every responsibility.

Give us today the food we need (Matthew 6:11);

Lord, Sarah and all of us rely on you to provide for our needs: physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, financially, vocationally, in relationships and in every other way. You provided manna in the wilderness for your people during the Exodus, and provide yourself as the Bread of Life for us through your life, death and resurrection. Reassure Sarah that you are with her to provide her every need and continue to give her a spirit of confidence and gratitude, trusting you at all times.

and forgive us our sins (Matthew 6:12);

Our Heavenly Father, we are still all-too-human. Your work in us has begun, but is not yet completed. Let Sarah know the cleansing gifts of your mercy (in not giving us the judgement we all deserve) and your grace (in giving us the favor none of us deserve). Release her from regret, shame and self-condemnation. Silence the voice of the Accuser of your children, the evil one.

    …as we have forgiven those who sin against us (Matthew 6:12);

Merciful God, we are all quick to keep records of wrong done against us and to hold grudges instead of holding on to you. Heal Sarah’s wounds, her sense of being devalued, and whatever other pain has lodged in her heart. Give her both the willingness and the will to release others from the consequences their words and actions have generated. Help her surrender her right to hurt them in return.

And don’t let us yield to temptation (Matthew 6:13).

Lord, there is an enemy eager to trip us up and see us fail. And too often we all-too-willingly go along with him. Awaken your power within Sarah to resist temptation. Give her eyes to discern the evil lurking in the shadows of the world and even in her own heart. When the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, come in your power to keep her heart, mind, soul and body stayed on You.

…but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13).

Almighty God, we are so vulnerable to the powers of darkness. Dress Sarah in your amour (Ephesians 6:10-18) so she will stand strong against the evil one. Above all, Lord, protect her by your power and might.

When we begin to pray with holy imagination, inspired by God’s Spirit using God’s Word– prayer becomes an experience far beyond an online order! I invite you to make a simple sign to post in a number of places: WWJP.

It’s Who You Know

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(Not my bookshelf!) Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Early in my ministry I was sitting in my study one morning. I was particularly discouraged by the stacks of unread books and magazines that continued to grow as my time for reading contracted.

“Lord,” I cried out in prayer, “how can I ever know enough to serve you properly? I’ll never get caught up!”

Then a stillness came over me, and it was as if the Lord said, “Doug, look at your library.” At that time I had one bookcase with six five-foot shelves.

“Can you hold all those books?” the Lord continued. “If you stacked the books, one on top of the other, how many could you carry?“

I realized I couldn’t carry even one-third of one shelf.

“Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

Refreshment and relief swept over my spirit.

One of the joys and challenges of ministry is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in almost any and every field imaginable. Our medieval ancestors called Theology the “Queen of the Sciences” (a title sadly discarded by most today). That designation points to the fact that all knowledge finds its roots in God. We are stewards of this world in every aspect, including mining the treasures of knowledge and understanding.

So there’s hardly a subject I find irrelevant. This has led to a love for—and a significant accumulation of—books. After seminary and over 40 years in pastoral ministry, I have nearly 20 times the number of books than when the Lord first communicated, “Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

I am committed to pursuing Biblical knowledge and theological understanding. It’s part of our obedience to the greatest commandment.

“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29-30).

I believe fervently in apologetics (the logical explanation and defense of the faith—as represented by Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ). I have a satisfied mind and continue to love God with all my mind, as well as with my heart, soul and strength.

Problems arise, however, when knowledge about God replaces continuing fellowship with God.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… 8 Love never fails… where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:1-10 selected verses).

If I never read another book or developed another concept, God would love me no less.

It’s not how much we know about God— it’s knowing God that matters most.

God Hates Death

picture of eiffel tower
Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.