THOUGHTS FROM HEBREWS ELEVEN continued

SURE AND CERTAIN

Hebrews 11:1,2

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“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”

Prayer is a thing of faith. It enters the realm of the eternal. It speaks to God who is spirit and invisible. So when we read that the ancients were commended for practicing their faith in a sure and certain manner, we are presented with an oxymoron. We more commonly associate sure and certain outcomes with non-faith-related experiences. We, of the enlightened scientific era, have been raised and nurtured to apply certainty only to empirical data. If an outcome can be reproduced reliably and consistently we are sure and certain of its truth.

Remember the pungent smell of the Bunsen burner in High School chemistry class? Mixing this with that over its blue heat produced such-and-such every time. It was sure and certain. The conclusion always confirmed the hypothesis.

Surely the prayer of faith does not fall within the confines of empiricism. There is no formula to ensure the granting of requests made by mortals to the Immortal One. How then can our prayers of faith be sure and certain?

Perhaps a phrase from verse eleven might give us a hint of the wisdom we seek. Abraham and Sarah’s strangely barren situation had been an obstacle to their family-production plans. They had even tried the surrogate-parent option; this had only succeeded in creating the beginnings of a nation that would plague the people of Israel for millennia to come. The writer of the book of Hebrews summarizes their story: Abraham “was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” What was that again? Abraham considered the promise-maker faithful. He focused on the character of God (His faithfulness) and the Word of God (His promises). There may be a hint here of how we could learn from the ‘ancients’ who practiced a sure and certain faith.

The ancients’ certainty rested in the unchanging character of God. His goodness, integrity, justice, patience, righteousness and loving-kindness (to name a few) are integral to who He is; they cannot be altered. So while we pray a particular request to God, our certainty rests in the realization that His response will be perfectly consistent with these eternal attributes. Can we say as much for ourselves had we the power to answer our own prayers? His wisdom, far beyond ours, and His power, unlimited, will ensure a better-than-humanly-possible scenario ultimately. Admittedly, from our point of view we cannot always see the good, but our certainty is not in our ability to see all; our certainty is in the unmatched character of God.

Secondly, the ancients’ surety rested on the promises of God. Our faith must cling not to notions we ourselves have devised regarding how God must act, but only to promises He has made. There are enough promises to meet every need in our lives; we do not need to fabricate more. (See Annie Johnson Flint’s poem, ‘God Hath Not Promised’).

As we express our faith in our prayers to the Almighty One, let us keep foremost in mind His character and His promises. These will guide and protect our hearts and minds as we pray. Then we will be “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”.

 

 

 

THOUGHTS FROM HEBREWS ELEVEN

                                                     BEING MADE PERFECT

Hebrews 11:13,39,40

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“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

When Jacquie threw a lump of smooth clay onto the wheel head and started the wheel spinning, a miracle began to unfold. With jiggering and jolleying the clay began to take symmetric shape. It widened. It rose. It narrowed and flared gracefully. To me it looked perfect. Jacquie, hands muddied and shirt splattered with grey clay, knew better. She explained the series of steps still necessary for her work of art and function to be complete.

The writer of Hebrews describes a similar process in God’s plan of making His people complete, of followers being made perfect. Unlike clay, those of us who choose to follow God are not merely passive, though. We must somehow apply our God-given faculty of choice to embrace everything God’s hands press into our lives. We call this faith.

Faith submits. Faith sees the invisible. Faith understands, builds, goes, and speaks. Faith prays.

Twice the writer admits that the ancient men and women of faith did not receive what had been promised. But it’s not an embarrassed admission. It’s more of an explanation of a process, a God-ordained business. While we see God’s muddied hands, He sees the final result. He sees His people being made absolutely perfect. Somehow, when His people experience difficult situations yet resist the temptation to reject Him, they are being shaped into something beautiful. Somehow when they find their prayers are not being answered, yet leave the outcome to Him, something truly amazing happens. They are becoming exactly who they were envisioned by God to be.

Prayer is essentially the verbal expression of faith. It’s the means by which we communicate with God our commitment to Him. And perhaps the greatest, most valuable conversations we can have with God are those that surround our unanswered prayers. Here we feel the weight of being clay in the hands of a much greater Being. We feel jiggered and jolleyed, hard-pressed on every side, painfully disappointed at times. God’s plans are good plans, but He never promised they would be easy plans. When, by faith, we ask Him to move in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, He will do exactly that. But His ways are not our ways. His wisdom surpasses ours more than a potter’s mind exceeds the mind of a wad of clay. Take comfort, though. He is working. He is molding and shaping. He will not rest until we are made perfect. His promise will be fulfilled.

On a cold evening when I sit down with a cup of sweet herbal tea, I most often choose one particular mug. It is tall and slender. It flares at the lip. The handle is smooth and slim. The glaze is a mixture of earthy tones of blue and beige like waves at the seashore. It’s one of Jacquie’s works of art. It’s truly perfect and I am reminded of the process of being made perfect and complete. God, make me the work of art and function You envision.

 

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING (…continued)

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“…But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).

The Nike slogan burns in her mind: Just Do It. Jesus’ Beatitudes are for doing. The mirror of self-revelation shows Susan she is proud in spirit, rather than submissive; she is comforted by physical luxury rather than by spiritual repentance; she seeks blessing by grasping rather than by relinquishing; she longs more for recognition than for righteousness; she finds herself more likely to judge others than extend mercy; she conveniently forgets to confess and repent of her idolatries; she procrastinates from her mission of peacemaking, and she insulates herself from the potential of persecution.

What then of Susan’s hopes and dreams? How does Jesus envision her living this opportunity of life He’s given her? What use of her skills, abilities and talents would be consistent with beatitudinal living?

See yourself as a grain of salt, replies Jesus. Alone, you will find life disappointing, disillusioning, un-blessed. You will be easily lost in this world. You were meant for so much more.

“You are the salt of the earth”, Jesus teaches. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

If Susan is serious about her relationship with God, she will heed the direction and the warning. She will begin to understand that she has been offered the rarest of opportunities. Her love for God will enable her to turn her world upside-down if she is willing to apply Jesus’ principles to her life. Reaching out to others, she will find herself affecting the hungers and thirsts of their lives. Her saltiness will bring out the true flavours of Christ’s life-sustaining body-bread life-food for which her world hungers. Her saltiness will leave them with a thirst for more.

But if she fails to accept and act upon the laws of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, Susan’s faith will be trampled and destroyed by godless men. She will fit into neither world. She will be as ineffective and unnatural as salt that has lost its saltiness. The stakes are high and Susan will only realize it as she learns from Jesus’ teachings, as she begins to live the upside-down gospel of Jesus.

Every one of us who have read the Beatitudes is a Susan. Having read Jesus’ words puts us, as James observes, into a position of choice. We are no longer ignorant of His will for us. We have looked into the mirror of His Word and seen ourselves as God sees us. If we are honest with ourselves, we have some ways to go before we are the sorts of people God envisions us to be. His Holy Spirit is hovering, waiting to begin today’s task of making upside-down kingdom-dwellers. He’s waiting for a word from us, a whispered prayer granting the Holy One access into our body, mind and spirit. What will today’s prayer be? ‘Lord, let me mourn’? Or ‘Lord, make me meek, become merciful, be pure’? Or ‘Lord, let me spread your message of peace’? The Beatitudes are a good place to start. Live them. Breathe them. Pray them. It will take more than one prayer to turn our lives upside-down. Today is a good day to begin.

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING (Postscript to ‘Praying the Beatitudes’)

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING

Postscript to Praying the Beatitudes

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Different. Radically different. That is what Jesus describes His followers as being from what the rituals of Judaism demanded. In the cool, fresh air of a mountainside retreat, Jesus sat among those who followed Him and taught His culturally strange message. He revealed to those who were serious about following Him the expectations of God for the people of God. He promised blessings and rewards for those who would dare to live the upside-down gospel Jesus Himself modeled.

Poor in spirit. Mourning. Meek. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Merciful. Pure in heart. Peacemaking. Persecuted.

The choice to embrace this strange way of living would make no sense unless there was a loving Father in heaven, a redeeming Son at His side, and an indwelling Holy Spirit, focused on transforming lives for eternal realms of glory. It makes the mind spin just thinking about the intense reality of things unseen. We can only enter into this strange reality by taking one of many subsequent deep, quavering breaths and whispering, “I believe”.

It must start with faith, because it’s all upside-down compared to this world’s ideas of how to live life.

It takes faith to embrace the mindset that present discomfort is an integral part of future joy. Let’s look at this world’s average person. Let’s call her Susan. Susan has a body, easily observable, a mind, a little less observable, and a spirit, more or less hidden.

Susan is wired to want to live. From infancy she knew instinctively that if anything impeded her likelihood of survival, she must react or fail to thrive. Hungry or thirsty? Cry. Abdominal cramping? Scream. Lonely? Tears of outrage. As she has matured and aged Susan has tempered her expressions of discomfort, but her basic reaction is unchanged: avoid discomfort to survive.

So when Jesus enters the scene, describing His ideas of embracing discomfort, Susan squirms. Is she to pursue an impoverished, submissive spirit, an other-focused mind, and a body that does not withdraw from persecutions? What about her own survival? Her first reaction to this unnatural anomaly is to recoil. She procrastinates applying the practices of the unseen kingdom. She agrees in principle but is loath to burn her bridges of comfort and materialism behind her. She prefers the perils of passivity to the embarrassment of extremism.

In His classic style of perfect timing, Jesus speaks up. He speaks into Susan’s life by turning black ink into red in the book of James, challenging her, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does: (James 1:22-25).

(to be continued…)

SINGLE-MINDEDNESS

SINGLE-MINDEDNESS

“One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” Psalm 27:4

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To live in our twenty-first century Western society requires one main skill: multitasking. Schedules rule. Our minds spin with things to do, things to remember, people to see, places to go. Even our leisure times are fraught with scheduling activities reflecting each family member’s varying interests. Our lives resemble a one-man band busking on a crowded city street.

In contrast, I love the Psalmist’s single-minded focus expressed in this verse. His focus is on “one thing”. Not, ‘the first thing’ or ‘one of many things’; just one thing. He asks just one thing of the LORD. Only one thing will meet his deepest yearning need. He has pared away all superficial wants and mined to the core of his human condition. He has one driving ambition.

He describes this one thing with three verbs. He wants to dwell, to gaze and to seek. He wants to participate fully in absorbing himself with his Creator. He wants to live with Him, look unflinchingly at Him, and worship Him.

How does the Psalmist envision this dwelling, gazing, seeking activity to occur? Prayer. The Psalmist instinctively knows that prayer is his avenue to participating in the God-life, to relating ‘face to face’ in the spiritual sense with his Lord.

He prays, “Hear my voice when I call, O LORD…My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.”

What a call to action this is for us who say we love God, or, for that matter, for us who say we want to live life to the fullest. This is the greatest frontier we can ever explore, to probe the infinite reaches of the person of God. I’m thinking this is why we have been given the opportunity of everlasting life. The task will take an eternity and longer. It also demands the full extent of our focus and energy, to earnestly seek Him. Anything less than single-minded undivided attention will ultimately disappoint both God and us. There is no multitasking when it comes to worshiping the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Let’s put into perspective our purpose here on planet earth. Everything is about one thing. Our attention must be focused, our loyalty unalloyed, our heart undivided. It’s all about God, and we’re invited to be part of the experience. So let’s give a try today at focusing on God. Let’s think about Him throughout the day, talk to Him as often as we think of Him, and when we find ourselves distracted, shake off the inclination to multitask.  Let’s incorporate prayer INTO today’s events rather than segregating prayer from them. This is single-mindedness. This is wholeness.

 

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, CONCLUSION

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, CONCLUSION

Matthew 5:1-10 and 6:9-13

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Wrestling with Jesus’ Beatitudes is exhausting business. Scrutinizing the eight axioms has put us into uncomfortable positions at times. The ever-present Spirit of God has put us into holds that demand us to change our stance or fall. We’ve seen that antithesis is His signature move. His blessings come via unexpected means; the hopeless becomes promising, the presumed cast aside.

Did Jacob receive what he expected when he declared to God, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”? He was notorious for wanting birthrights and inheritances. God’s blessing for him was a new name. He would be defined by a completely new set of parameters.

Jesus’ Beatitudes accomplish the same for us. The hip of our yearning for power is wrenched, and we are turned toward the Giver. We are given new names, now children of a heavenly Father. Our primary focus in life becomes prayer, communicating with the lover of our souls.

We find we cannot be poor in spirit without prayer. We cannot mourn, be meek or merciful without prayer. We cannot hunger and thirst for righteousness or be peacemakers without prayer. And we cannot endure persecution without prayer.

Prayer becomes our new point of equilibrium. When we pray we stand balanced to face every head-locking takedown this world tries to throw our way.

To pray the Beatitudes is to quench a thirst. As C.S. Lewis is attributed as saying in the movie Shadowlands , “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”

Only our connection and communion with God elicits true change in us. All other change is superficial, temporal, a façade. Only prayer makes that connection. As we rise from the wrestling mat of our inquiry into Jesus’ eight inspiring axioms we can be victorious; the Spirit empowers us to move out and live in new ways, more merciful ways, kingdom-seeking ways. Let’s rise and discover the blessings.

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 9

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 9

Matthew 5:10

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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E.M. Bounds once said, “God’s highest aim in dealing with His people is in developing Christian character…begetting in us those rich virtues which belong to our Lord Jesus Christ…not so much work that he wants in us…not greatness. It is the presence in us of patience, meekness, submission to the divine will, prayerfulness. And trouble in some form tends to do this very thing, for this is the end and aim of trouble.”

O that irritation we call trouble. And O when that trouble is in the form of persecution. We in the West know little of it, really, but our brothers and sisters around the world know plenty. The persecuted church is in agony right now.

In India, Hindu extremists target Christians with false accusations, beatings, rapes and murders. Manini is recovering from a brutal attack and sharing her testimony with new believers.

In Laos, Hmong believers are being forced out of their villages and face discrimination in jobs and education. Chan spent thirteen years in prison for his involvement in a house church.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram terrorists are burning church buildings and killing Christians by the hundreds. Monica is awaiting surgery to repair injuries from a machete attack.

In Colombia, FARC guerillas are increasing violence against Christians. Children Marcela, Jeffrey and Lyda were left orphaned when their parents were killed for running a Christian school for local children.

And in Eritrea raids on churches result in arrests, beatings and incarcerations. More than two thousand of our brothers and sisters are imprisoned, many in shipping containers.

These, declares Jesus, are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Theirs is eternal reward and comfort. Theirs is heavenly glory. The apostle Paul, who knew something of persecution, expands on the experience by saying, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17,18).

Seeing persecution through eyes fixed on the unseen brings perspective into view. Prayer is the implement most suited to this task. When forces of evil target the body of believers, only the prayer of faith can see blessing. Perhaps this is that to which Jesus refers when he concludes His ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with the petition “deliver us from the evil one”. Satan is at the nucleus of any attempt to destroy the body of Christ. While physical persecution is a tool, the evil one really wants to destroy souls. Praying for deliverance must not be superficial. We must pray not only for physical relief but also for spiritual strength. The persecuted need prayer to maintain courage, faithfulness, forgiveness and inner peace.

Until God calls us to experience persecution, we have a task. We must lift up in prayer our brothers and sisters of the persecuted church. Sharing in the trouble will allow us to share in the blessing.

(For more information on praying for the persecuted church, visit The Voice of the Martyrs at http://www.persecution.net/)