What’s Been Happening Since



Last October, a friend of mine died of cancer. In early December, another friend’s husband died from a rather rare lung disease. Just this month, the wife of a former colleague and of two former students passed away as a result of brain cancer.

The reality of life is that we die.

Except I didn’t. Not yet.

I could have died and many people do die as a result of a stroke and/or a heart attack.

Nothing I did separated me from my friends that have gone on ahead of me into heaven. I’m alive today by God’s mercy and grace. My time is in His hands, and the end of my days in the here and now simply hasn’t arrived yet.

I say all this because I want it to be clear that I didn’t survive because I have some magic bullet or pipeline to God. I survived because He wanted me to. I could have just as easily succumbed to my physical ailments as survive. But in response to my call for help, in response to the prayers of His children, and in the perfect working of His sovereign will, I survived.

But I didn’t just survive. I’m recovering from the stroke. It’s not like getting over the flu, but there’s no doubt I’m stronger every day.

I’ve had such tremendous support, not the least of which are the prayers of many. Some of the people who have given me help, I know either in person, or on-line, or from some time in the past. Some, I’ve never met! Imagine that! I tend to think that’s a work of the family of Christ, caring for a sister in need.

So this past month, I’ve been surrounded by people who have prayed faithfully, and have done the work of providing for what I need.

I live on my own in an upstairs apartment. So right after I was discharged from the hospital, friends invited me to stay with them over the weekend to re-hab a bit as a transition. When I came home, they sent me with enough food for that first week. Then a group of former students who had organized to take care of my grocery needs, stepped forward. They have taken turns to bring me what I’ve needed each week.

A writer friend headed up a Go Fund Me page to help provide for my needs while I’m not working. Another couple friends have given me rides to the doctor or pharmacy. A neighbor has taken out my trash, done my laundry, vacuumed my living room. Another friend changed light bulbs. And people have called, sent cards, texted, offered help. Others have provided monetarily through other means.

Friends have stepped up and covered for commitments I couldn’t keep. And above all, people have prayed. I can’t emphasize this enough. God wants to involve His people in His work, whether through our prayers, giving, or doing. He uses those who are available to Him.

I am blessed. And also mindful that God has more He wants me to do.

So I’m in the process of recovery, adding daily to my endurance and to what I can do on my own. It’s not easy. My head says I’m ready to do it all, but my body isn’t quite there yet. Close. And progressing. But the things I can do still take longer than I want, and I’m not able to do all I think I should be doing.

But a number of good counselors have reminded me to take my recovery one day at a time, and not try to get everything back all at once. My head says, “Go for it,” my heart says, “You can do it,” my body says, “Hold on, that’s enough.” So my physical therapist said, I need to listen to my body.

Knowing how much to push and how much to “listen to my body” is now the trick. But by God’s grace, I’m better today than I was yesterday. May His name be praised.

Published in: on May 31, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (15)  
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Reprise: Does God Care Who Wins The NCAA Tournament?


NCAA_tournamentI don’t usually reprise an article that I first published so recently (March 2015), but I didn’t think I had anything to add to what I wrote two years ago about the cultural phenomenon known as March Madness, which is the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament. So here, with only the smallest revision, is that post again.

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Even the person least into sports here in the US is likely to know that the top division in men’s basketball is holding their tournament to determine the 2017 champion. We’ve fondly dubbed this time each year, March Madness.

It’s not quite as mad as it used to be. Yes, there are still upsets which scrambles everyone’s game by game predictions, but one TV network used to cover the games so there were split screens and much jumping from scheduled game to updates and even the endings of close games. The games, of course, start during the week, so working people were taping the games they most wanted to see and trying to avoid hearing final scores.

Things have changed. Cable TV is now part of the mix. All games can be viewed by whoever has that service. Or has the Internet and enough data minutes to see the games they can’t otherwise get. In other words, there’s far less scrambling, far less madness connected with seeing the games.

Still, many people put a lot into picking winners and following the games to see how well they’re doing and what chance they have of winning office pools or more. In other words, a lot of people are interested in what a bunch of college students are doing the three weeks of the tournament.

Factor in interested parties which include fellow students at the competing universities, friends and family, alumni, teachers past and present, people who live in the communities where the different schools are located. In other words, beneath the layer of unattached fans, you have a layer of attached fans.

At the core, of course, are those intimately involved with the basketball programs—players, coaches, athletic directors, trainers, cheerleaders, ball boys, those who work the games, scorekeepers, timers. People involved are invested, some to a greater degree than others.

In all this, does God care who wins the NCAA men’s basketball championship?

That question comes to mind in part because I spent thirty years as a coach—of various middle school, and then high school, girls sports teams, including basketball. Since I worked at Christian schools, we always prayed together as a team, but most often we were playing against other Christian schools which also prayed as a team.

Early on I confronted the dilemma—could I expect God to hear our prayers and not theirs if we both prayed to win the game? And if we prayed to win and yet lost, did that mean there was sin in the camp, that God was somehow displeased with us, that we had more to learn spiritually before He would reward us with a championship?

In other words, I wrestled with the issue of praying for a victory in a basketball game. In the end, I decided not to pray for wins.

The temptation is to conclude that God simply doesn’t care. Whether team A or team B wins certainly doesn’t change who He is or what He wants to accomplish. But I believe God cares about games because He cares about us.

In fact, one of the reasons I loved coaching so much was that I viewed sports as a microcosm of life. During a season of basketball, a team faces in miniature many of the things that they’ll have to deal with on a larger scope later on: adversity, success, hard work, togetherness, failure, discipline, teamwork, obedience, response to injustice, doing your best, bouncing back from not doing your best, and more.

Don’t get me wrong. Winning is sweet. But there’s so much that goes into winning, and I think God cares a lot more about those things. Ultimately, He cares more about the people than He does about the winning. Sometimes the greatest affect on a person comes from losing. In other words, some people need to lose to be the people God wants them to be. Some players need to forgive a teammate for making a bad decision or taking a bad shot. God cares more that they learn to show compassion and forgive than He does about their winning.

There’s a song that goes right to the heart of this matter by Laura Story. It’s called “Blessings”:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep

After a catalog of other things Christians have been known to pray for, the song turns and asks in the chorus, penetrating questions:

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

Sports can be a training ground for young athletes, and we who are on the sidelines, or on this side of the TV, watching have no way of knowing what God is doing in the lives of those people running up and down the court. I think God cares a great deal for each one of those student-athletes, but I don’t know if that means He’ll calm a nervous heart so a young man can play up to his potential or if He’ll prompt a player to say a kind word to an opponent or allow a TV camera to distract him so he misses a key free throw.

The book of James makes a couple clear statements about prayer:

You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2b-3)

So God wants us to ask—just not with wrong motives, not selfishly.

Does He care about who wins the NCAA Tournament? In the grand scheme of things, probably not, but how the winning and losing and all that leads up to those results affects us, absolutely: God cares because He uses raindrops for His purposes. Or teardrops.

You have taken account of my wanderings;
Put my tears in Your bottle,
Are they not in Your book? (Psalm 56:8)

Published in: on March 16, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Combating Satan


Scripture, of course, is the only reliable source of information on the subject of combating Satan. In Ephesians the Apostle Paul names the armor we need for the battle we’re engaged in “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12b).

I’ve most often heard the armor identified as the list in verses 14-17: truth, righteousness, the “preparation of the gospel of peace,” faith, salvation, and the word of God. Each of those elements Paul aligns with physical armor of his day.

Too often that’s where we stop since the metaphor stops, but Paul went on to name another vital element we need in our battle against the schemes of the devil—prayer.

With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints,, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Eph 6:18-20)

Pray for all saints. Pray for those who are charged with proclaiming the gospel.

Years ago when I wrote a series of posts about Satan, I couldn’t help but think about C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. This little book contains supposed letters of instruction from an under-secretary of a department in Satan’s organization to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. At one point he gives his thoughts about rendering prayer ineffective:

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether … If this fails you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. (pp. 33-34)

Screwtape goes on to say that should “the Enemy” defeat Wormwood’s first attempt at misdirection, all is not lost. He can still disrupt “his patient’s” prayer by getting him to pray to a “composite object” constructed from images of “the Enemy” during the Incarnation and images associated with the other two Persons, coupled with the patient’s own reverenced objects: “Whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him” (p. 35).

It seems to me this “keep them from praying” strategy might be all too real. How many churches dropped their prayer meetings? How many Christians dropped their family prayer times, their before-meal thanks, their individual quiet times?

And when we do pray, how much of our time is filled with requests rather than praise and thanksgiving … or confession? How many of our requests are for ourselves rather than intercession for all the saints and for those who preach the word of God? When we intercede for others, how much of our prayer is for what’s happening physically rather than for what’s happening spiritually?

Lest you wonder, I’m feeling quite convicted.

This post is a revised version of one that first appeared here in June 2019.

The Purpose Of Prayer


I don’t understand much about prayer and its purpose. In fact, for years my prayer life was … sad.

For the longest time, I prayed pretty much for no other reason than that Scripture tells us to pray. From my experience, it seemed mostly like a crap shoot as to whether or not God would give me what I asked for.

When I was a kid, I prayed for things like a bike—didn’t get one until I was in junior high and then we lived where there was no place to ride.

As a young adult, I prayed for things like our friend who mysteriously disappeared one Sunday morning, never to be found again.

Later I prayed for a spouse. I’m still single. I prayed for people to get well who died, and for others, who lived. I prayed for families to stay together that split up.

As a teacher I prayed for my classes and my lesson prep and my work load, and I was never sure when God answered. When things went well, was it because of His provision or the natural course of things? When they went badly, was He telling me I’d neglected something I was supposed to be doing?

At some point, I pretty much stopped trying to figure prayer out. I knew what it wasn’t. It was not God’s vending machine—insert faith, push the desired prayer button, wait for answer to automatically spit out.

Prayer as vending machine had been my philosophy when our friend went missing. I knew God was powerful enough to bring her back, whole and healthy, even. I believed He wanted to protect her and to return her to her role as a pastor’s wife. I asked, believing she would be found. I fully expected it. But days turned into weeks, then years, and eventually it was clear God had not answered my prayer—at least not by giving me what I requested. Now I understand that’s not the way prayer works.

In fact, prayer doesn’t “work” as if it’s a tool to fix what’s broken. Rather, prayer is our “spiritual media” (in contrast to our ever demanding social media)—our means of communicating with God.

So I guess that defines at least part of prayer’s purpose. God wants us first and foremost to talk to Him. I mean, we’re in a relationship. Healthy relationships need healthy communication. Clearly, communication involves a lot more than simply asking for things.

I find it interesting that there were times in Scripture God said He wouldn’t hear His people’s prayers. In other places, however, He seemed to promise answers. If two or three are gathered in His name, if we have the faith of a mustard seed, if we pray without any doubt, if we pray according to His will.

That last point is a stickler. How are we to know His will? Does He want my friend to be healed of cancer or does He want to glorify Himself by how she approaches death? How am I to pray? Or is my every prayer to be, This is what I want God, nevertheless not my will be done, but Yours.

If so, aren’t we back to the crap shoot idea since I really don’t know how to pray or what God plans?

Here’s the shocking thing I’ve learned in the last few years. When it comes to asking for things, God has told us in Scripture what things He wills. Over and over He’s told us.

But silly me, I persist in asking for things without having a clue what God wants instead of asking for the enduring provisions God wants to give me.

Look at this one passage in the book of James, and think how life-changing it could be if I were to pray for these things that I know are God’s will:

Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you double-minded.

Or how about this from Philippians:

Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intend on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests but also for the interests of others.

And later in the same chapter:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.

Prayer changes things, I’m convinced. Until recently, though, I don’t think I understood what things God wants to change most of all.

Sure, in answer to prayer He could have changed Jesus’s status as the Suffering Servant who would die to redeem mankind. He didn’t because He knew the stakes. And Jesus knew to pray, “Not My will but Yours” because He knew the stakes, too.

He also knew His Father to be good, to be loving and merciful. So He put His trust in the Father’s will.

The purpose of prayer? First as communication between us and the Father. I think God wants us to pour our our heart to Him, to unload our burdens, to plead with Him for comfort or strength or even for change. We know God hears, but like a kind Father, He will only give us what is good for us.

But of equal importance, a key purpose of prayer is as a means for us to be involved with God to accomplish His will—things we know He wants because He has stated them in Scripture. These things we can pray knowing God hears and answers, though we may never see the outcome. God’s time is not ours, just as His ways are not ours. But praying with perseverance means we wait eagerly for God’s perfect answer.

This post is a an updated and revised edition of one that first appeared here in May 2011—because I still need to re-read thoughts on prayer.

Published in: on January 23, 2017 at 6:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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Prayer Changes Things?


praying_guy-429125-m

I don’t understand prayer. I’ve thought about it, written about it, heard sermons about it, studied it in scripture, participated in it corporately and individually, and I still don’t understand it. Not really.

Here’s what I do know—it’s a short list.

1. God doesn’t pay us for being righteous by answering our prayers. In other words, getting what we pray for is not in direct correlation to doing what God tells us to do. Somebody like Job lived righteously, but he lost everything. Daniel prayed and still got thrown into the lion’s den. Sure, he survived, but he still spent the night with the lions. Is that what he prayed for? I doubt it.

2. God doesn’t give us a formula to follow: Do steps A through F just exactly as I tell you to, then I’ll answer your prayer.

3. God will not be manipulated. He’s God. He does not move mountains at our behest! He moves them because moving them fits His plan and purposes.

4. God wants us to pray. He actually commands it, but He also promises to hear, wants us to ask without doubting Him.

5. We don’t receive from God because we don’t ask. And too often when we ask we do so with wrong motives. That’s actually what James say in chapter 4, but I recognize the truth of what he said in my own experiences.

I might also say, I also pray with impatience. I get tired asking for the same thing over and over, and I just give up. Am I to be more persistent or has God said no?

Paul asked three times that the thorn he lived with would be removed and God said no. One of the Old Testament prophets was apparently praying for God’s people, but God told him to stop because He determined to judge them for their disobedience.

But Jesus told parables about prayer, particularly about being persistent in prayer.

So how do I know if I am being persistent, faint-hearted, not willing to hear God say no, or filled with doubt?

I have this sense that prayer is more than what I make it to be.

On one hand, I don’t think I pray believing as I should. I mean, Jesus seemed to be making a huge promise in Mark 11:23-24 when He said

Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 2Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.

He also told His disciples to “seek first [His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things [food and clothing] will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).

So perhaps prayer should fit in with what we seek. If I’m seeking my own good and glory, that’s not seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness. Don’t selfish pursuits fit into James’s “wrong motives” category?

Perhaps this motives question explains why repentance should be a part of prayer. Of course, not everyone thinks it must be. After all, believers in Christ have already been forgiven our sins. But I see David sorrowing for His sin in various Psalms, and James tells us to confess our sins to one another. David also says,

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps. 13:23-24)

It seems such an approach to prayer would be perhaps the only way to have right motives.

But I come back to the basic point of prayer: what is it? Is it a way we can get what we want from God? Right there, that seems to shout, WRONG MOTIVE.

But Jesus, in response to His disciples’ request that He teach them to pray, modeled a prayer that included requests for both physical things (daily bread) and spiritual things (forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil).

So asking for things isn’t wrong in and of itself. But I can’t help but notice that the spiritual things in Jesus’s prayer outnumbered the physical ones three to one. And if you add in His opening: Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, then it’s actually a six to one ration.

But people in the Bible prayed for physical things. Hezekiah prayed that he wouldn’t die from his illness and God extended his life fifteen years. Gideon asked as a sign of God’s choice of him as the leader of the army, that dew would fall only on his fleece and nowhere else. Then the next day he asked for the opposite: dew everywhere except on his fleece. Both times, God answered. Then there was Elijah who prayed that it wouldn’t rain. God answered by sending Israel a three and a half year drought.

Were these prayers selfish? Hezekiah was clearly praying for something for himself, but Isaiah records his prayer and there is more to his desire than simply his own life extended:

It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.
“For Sheol cannot thank You,
Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.
“It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today;
A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness.
“The LORD will surely save me;
So we will play my songs on stringed instruments
All the days of our life at the house of the LORD.” (Isaiah 38:17b-20)

These physical things, then, seemed to have a spiritual motive.

But there’s something else about prayer that I know I neglect: friends talk to each other. Prayer doesn’t have to be about asking for things. It can be communication for the sake of “getting to know you better.” I think it’s good to ask God questions: I don’t understand this passage of Scripture, God. What does it mean? Or, I have this dilemma and I don’t know which to choose. What do you think, God?

I think those kinds of prayers make me mindful of God’s way—what He values, how He looks at things. That’s the real key. Prayer is not me telling God what He should do. Prayer is me getting to know the heart of God and asking Him how I fit into His plans.

Published in: on January 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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Thoughts On Prayer


woman-praying-840879-mMy mom prayed. Among others, I know she prayed for me. Every day. When she passed away, it dawned on me that I no longer had someone praying for me on a daily basis. It was a sobering thought. I felt a little as if someone had removed my safety net.

As time passed, I realized I wanted to be more like my mom in a number of ways. She was a good correspondent, writing notes to people she knew decades earlier and consistently sending birthday cards to family members. She was disciplined—had regular eating and sleeping habits, kept her home neat and clean and her checkbook balanced. And she prayed.

I’m not my mom, so the discipline and the correspondence, when I think about them, are dreams, at best, but prayer … now that’s a different story.

Prayer is something God asks of all Christians, not just the disciplined ones or those who are particularly good at staying in touch.

So prayer is something I need to work at.

Interestingly, among the things of my mom’s that I kept was a prayer journal. Not one she used. In fact, it might actually have been my dad’s, but at any rate, I acquired this volume that neither of them had written in.

It wasn’t revolutionary in its content. In the introductory section, those who put the journal together (Peter Lord originally, and with Daniel Henderson in the current version) gave Biblical instruction about praise and thanksgiving, confession, intercession, including how to pray for the unsaved, and petition.

And then the journal. Above all, it provides a way for me to think about who I should pray for.

There are pages to record requests for national and state leaders, judges and civic leaders, school board members and principals and teachers.

Another page is reserved for recording requests for enemies. Another for friends.

Several pages focus my thoughts on missionaries. One page lists Biblical needs to pray about for persecuted Christians around the world.

There is a “heart burdens” page (this is were I pray for Christian fantasy writers and the success of the genre). There’s a page for praying for my pastor and for other pastors and church leaders.

You get the idea. The journal focuses my attention on the people God says we are to be praying for and the things Scripture says we are to be praying about.

Yes, there’s also a page for “my stuff,” so I am still praying about the things that used to dominate my prayer time—the very things that made prayer feel redundant and boring, even to me. But now, I see them as part of a greater whole. My perspective is different and my stuff doesn’t seem as urgent as it once did.

The biggest difference is the praise and thanksgiving time the journal has led me to include consistently. By focusing first on God, I realize that He is bigger than my prayer concerns, that His concern for these same issues is greater than my own, that He who has shown Himself to be faithful in times past, is still faithful and true and trustworthy.

One last thing. The journal editors encourage recording answers to prayers by giving God the glory—praise Your holy name, or PYHN for short. It’s a great short-hand way to look back and see what God has done in answer to prayer.

Sound mechanical? I suppose so, but I needed structure. My prayer life was … nothing like my mom’s, and I wanted that to change.

This post is a re-print of one that first appeared here in May 2010—because I needed to re-read this one too.

Published in: on January 19, 2017 at 5:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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Holy Habits


prayer handsWhen I was growing up, rebellion was the in thing. Teen angst, questioning the establishment, finding fault in every “meaningless” adult action–these were the norm.

A good number of us Christians didn’t buy into all these challenges to society, but culture seeped into my thinking regardless. One way this became apparent was in questioning the value of doing things by rote. Rather, everything was to be authentic, transparent, significant. And what was the worth of doing things over and over simply because we’ve always done them?

Significance, of course, is important, as opposed to doing something for show. Yet some things don’t reveal their value immediately. Unfortunately, my generation expected instantaneous results. If something didn’t have apparent worth right then, it was shuttled off to the side.

Note the word “apparent” in that statement. Unfortunately, if something is not perceived to have immediate value, then the conclusion is, it doesn’t have any.

When it comes to being a Christian, here are some of the things I grew up with: church, Sunday school, evening Sunday service, youth group, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Youth for Christ or Young Life, family devotions, prayer before meals twice a day (three times during the summers when we were home at noon), vacation Bible school.

Mind you, nothing is sacred about any of those things, except assembling with believers in worship, which Scripture tells us not to stop doing. Yet, there is an advantage in developing holy habits. Each of those activities I remember from my growing up years served to reinforce what I knew and was learning about God. That these activities were important to my parents said something too.

Sadly, for too many of the adults, they were simply going through the motions, or they could have answered the questions about purpose and significance their teens were asking. They could have demonstrated authenticity, had their holy habits carried real meaning.

Instead, those holy habits started to fade. First to go was prayer meeting, then evening church. Pretty soon, showing up for a church service once in a while seemed to become the norm. Happily Bible studies and fellowship groups have risen more recently to take the place of some of the other activities.

Through it all, I’ve learned that nothing substitutes for personal holy habits.

I wondered and questioned, more than I care to relive, the value of reading the Bible when “I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” My mind would drift when I prayed, and I felt frustrated when I found myself faced with the same requests week after week.

Yet here I am years later, with such a different attitude toward spending time in God’s word and in prayer. When did this change happen? Somewhere in the midst of the routine of pulling out my Bible first thing every morning. The change didn’t happen because of something I did, and there was no switch God flipped inside me.

Rather, the holy habit of spending time with God, even when I didn’t feel like it, had a transforming effect. Or more accurately, God’s presence in His Word and by His Spirit made the time with Him increasingly more significant.

Yes, holy habits can be routine and seem mundane, but like any other habit, the value comes with time. Establishing the habit may be hard, but enjoying it once it’s in place—that’s priceless.

This post is a re-print of one that first appeared here in December 2012—because I needed to re-read it.

The Third Person


Christians agree—God is a triune person. The problem is, we often act as if He’s two in one, not three.

In some groups which claim the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit is elevated so much that you’d hardly think the Father was part of the Godhead, but in other groups, the very thought that the Holy Spirit has some part in giving the Christian guidance today, has them shouting, “Heresy.”

OK, both those sketches are somewhat exaggerated, but not by much. On one hand are those who believe the ecstatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially speaking in tongues, are the true evidence that a person is a Christian. On the other are Christians who believe that those particular gifts—speaking and interpreting tongues, prophecy, healing—have ceased. They were existent in the early church, but now that we have the Bible, no more.

There is even a segment of Christendom that apparently believes any inner leading of the Holy Spirit that can’t be confirmed by Scripture is evidence of Gnosticism.

In other words, if I pray and ask God for direction regarding a career change or for leading in ministry choices, the leading that I then might claim would be considered as some kind of esoteric knowledge that we can’t actually obtain. What, then, I ask, does the Holy Spirit do?

If we strip Him of His gifts and of His function to guide us, is His work as our Comforter next? Or as the Person who convicts of sin?

Ah, someone may well say, the Spirit does guide us—into Truth. He brings Scripture to mind, but He doesn’t tell us what toothpaste to buy. Fair enough. I believe that too. But I also believe when we pray something akin to the lines Jesus modeled for us—lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil—that the Holy Spirit answers quite specifically.

Why wouldn’t He? Jesus demonstrated great concern for the details of people’s lives—if they had enough food or wine, if they had a sick mother-in-law or daughter, if they had money for taxes or gave their last coin as an offering, if they were married or blind, if they had dirty feet, or an inappropriate desire to be first in His kingdom. He cared for the most marginalized members of society—lepers, women, children, the disabled, the demon possessed. He touched, cleansed, raised up, healed, and taught. And He told His disciples it would be better for them after He left.

Better?

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. (John 16:7 — emphasis mine).

Honestly, I’m really ignorant about the Holy Spirit. But one thing I learned early on in my Christian life—that the presence of the Holy Spirit is one way we can be assured of our salvation: “We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 John 3:24b).

Of equal importance, John went on to say in the next chapter that we need to test the spirits: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

So there’s the dilemma with which the Christian lives—the Spirit might be guiding us, but what we think is of God might be false. The fact is, we need discernment.

We are told not to quench the Spirit. How do we not quench the Spirit if we don’t recognize His voice? And if we say He only speaks what He’s already spoken in Scripture, isn’t that already a form of quenching Him?

Jesus said something amazing to His disciples: If you want that mountain tossed into the sea, pray believing and it will happen (Mark 11:22-24). Except . . . how do I know if I should pray for the mountain to be tossed into the sea? Isn’t that sort of a Big Deal, one that could affect countless other people? Shouldn’t I be sure that moving the mountain is what God wants? Or do I just willy-nilly pray for whatever I think might be a solution to the things I’m concerned for and then see what sticks—the old spaghetti-against-the-wall trick. (When I was a kid, I did pray for a mountain to be moved, except I knew I didn’t really believe it would, so figured that was a failed experiment since I didn’t meet the condition 🙄 ).

My point here is this. Jesus gave a very specific something to pray, something we can’t know is His will by looking into Scripture. We can find principles that can guide us, but from that point is it up to us to make the decision what specifically we should pray, or ought we not expect the Holy Spirit to guide us, nudge us, disquiet us, urge us, focus us, wake us, stir us? Ultimately, do we not experience the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives more often because we’ve become so skeptical we aren’t looking for Him to be active?

This post is a reprint of an article that first appeared here November 2011.

Published in: on July 22, 2016 at 6:40 pm  Comments (2)  
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Doing Ministry In The Twenty-first Century


New_Spring_Church_Greenville_2Another pastor has been asked to leave his church—a megachurch, no less, so there’s lots of attention to his failings and his firing. I’m referring to Perry Noble, pastor and founder of NewSpring Church in South Carolina, who confessed to an ongoing overuse of alcohol.

Apparently he’s been trying to grow his church to a membership of 100,000, and the stress got to him, such that tension developed in his marriage. He turned to alcohol to alleviate the problems and of course, alcohol became one more problem on its own.

Noble’s statement said: “What we’ve seen the Lord do over the past 16 years has been a modern day miracle. However, in my obsession to do everything possible to reach 100,000 [members] and beyond – it has come at a personal cost in my own life and created a strain on my marriage.” (“Perry Noble enters treatment centre”)

I have to ask, was the church growth he referred to, a modern day miracle or a result of his obsessive activity? I don’t think it can be both. Either God does the work or man’s marketing techniques does the work.

I can’t help but contrast Pastor Noble’s obsessive work to grow the size of his church (which apparently is more like a denomination “which claims 30,000 members across 17 cities” [“How Perry Noble’s Alcohol Firing by NewSpring Compares to Other Churches”]) and that of George Müller a hundred and fifty years ago. The latter wasn’t trying for great numbers. He wasn’t obsessive about growing his ministry. He continued building orphan homes as God enabled because the list of children who needed a place continued to grow and grow and grow.

The only thing Pastor Müller worked tirelessly at was prayer. And preaching God’s word. He didn’t care if he was talking to a small group in Australia or a large church in Chicago. He preached, during the last eight or so years of his life when he felt called as an itinerant preacher, to any and all churches that invited him. Further, from the beginning of his work with orphans and with support for various other Christian endeavors, he laid his needs before God and did not publicize them.

Today’s churches seem to have capitulated to the organization and the marketing mechanisms used by corporations. We have boards that oversee churches, made up of pastors from other churches, not from a group of elders within the church body. We want celebrity pastors who Tweet and livestream and do Facebook, all for the purpose of growing the size of the “ministry.”

Gone, it would seem, is dependence on prayer and gone is the centrality of God’s word. Now “ministry” means seminars on addiction and dealing with autism and job loss or infertility or any number of other heartbreaking and difficult situations people might encounter.

Does no one still believe that the Bible is actually relevant to our times and our problems? Why are we so quick to look to the devices the world has manufactured, to cope with our hurts and sins? Why don’t we pay attention to Scripture instead?

In fact, shouldn’t we be so plugged into what the Bible tells us about how we ought to walk and please God, that we don’t find ourselves falling into the pit created by following the world’s way of doing things?

The Church should be like a hospital, I think, for those outside. But for those of us inside? We should be all about healthy habits that keep us from getting sick. What would we think of a hospital that spends the majority of its efforts and resources treating the nurses and doctors who worked there?

Of course Christians fail, we stumble, we fall, and we need people with whom we can confess our sins. We need people who will walk beside us so that we aren’t adding sin to sin. I’m not suggesting the Church should not provide a support system for those who need help. But that’s the thing—prayer, relationships with other Christians, a study of God’s word should be a regular part of our lives, allowing room for the Holy Spirit to work.

Churches need pastors who faithfully preach the word of God, in season and out. We need to hear the full council of God’s word, not just messages from favorite passages, hop, skipping, and jumping through the text based on a topic. That’s the way important passages get skipped. That’s why we don’t address addiction in the church or divorce or premarital sex. There are lots of other topics the church simply lets slide—apparently the marketing strategy says talking about a lot of “old time” topics isn’t appealing to the target audience.

I wonder if God’s heart isn’t broken by us going off on our own to do His work without Him.

Published in: on July 20, 2016 at 6:25 pm  Comments (5)  
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Prayer Changes People


Christian prayingThis past week I heard something distressing. A Christian in a leadership position handled confrontation by telling the other person that perhaps they should leave the organization. That’s the second instance of this kind that I’ve learned about. The first time was years ago and the organization was an entirely different one, but a person in leadership handled the criticism he received in exactly the same way.

Such a conclusion, especially from someone in leadership, seems so contrary to Scripture. After all, the Bible gives us instructions for handling a situation in which a fellow Christian sins (see Matt. 18). It also is full of exhortation to be reconciled with other Christians, to forgive, to be at peace with one another, to be unified.

Paul had a conflict with his partner in ministry, Barnabas, because of John Mark, who initially accompanied them on their first church-planting trip. Half way through their travels, the young man deserted them, however, so when Barnabas wanted to include him on their second trip, Paul said, NO WAY! So Barnabas and Paul parted company.

But that’s not the end of the story. Rather, Paul at some point reconciled with Mark, to the point that he told the church at Colossae to be sure to welcome him. He also said this to Timothy in his second letter: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” (4:11b)

He went a step further in his advice, however. In verse 16 Paul says to Timothy, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them.” Paul went from holding Mark’s desertion against him to praying that the Lord would not hold these other people’s desertion against them.

Paul was a changed man. And he ended up with a changed relationship.

The secret passed on in Philippians is for us to have the attitude of humility Christ had, which is the way we can follow these commandments:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

The thing is, the only way to do what is so opposite to our instinctive reaction to others is by prayer.

I had occasions when I was teaching and coaching in which somebody would rub me the wrong way—whether another teacher, a student, an opposing coach, a parent, an administrator—and the only way I could face the day was by praying for the individual. OK, sometimes I prayed for the circumstance, too, but inevitably, when I prayed for the person, God changed me. My heart. Not them necessarily. He changed me!

Suddenly, things that had bothered me in the past didn’t seem as awful as before. In my dealings with such a person, I now wanted to be on the same page, not at odds, so I communicated in a more positive, encouraging way.

In several instances, what had been a relationship fraught with friction, turned into one of closeness and caring.

That’s God answering prayer. Not in the way I might initially think.

I can pray, God, please make this person leave, but that doesn’t solve MY problem. I need to learn to love the unlovely, to be kind to the unkind, to give God room to work. After all, He says that a gentle answer turns away wrath. But if I don’t turn to God and ask Him to give me His gentleness in my answers, I’ll never see the turning His word promises.

Commonly we say that prayer changes things, and it may. But it also changes people, and from my experience, the person it changes most is the person praying.

Published in: on May 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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