Prayer: Blessing or Burden?

 

Prayer seems to be both a blessing and a burden for Christians. We love the idea of it – to have access to the living God at any moment — but we struggle with how poorly we execute our privilege. And in our private moments, when we’re alone or with somebody we trust, we ask lots of questions. Why doesn’t God answer prayer in a more consistent way? Doesn’t Scripture say we should pray expecting that we’ll receive what we ask for? Where is the fulfillment of that promise? Often we come to the sad conclusion that we must be praying with wrong motives or we don’t have enough faith for whatever we’re asking for. Self-recrimination can hamper our efforts and discourage us from what we know should be a regular part of the Christian life.

Maybe in all our speculations we are missing the most important question. More about that later. First, let’s look at what normally happens in prayer.

All of us tend to pray about what bothers us most. Whatever is making us worry or fret – whatever consumes our thoughts and fuels our desires – is usually what we lift up to God. That’s normal and natural. Listening to prayer requests shared among friends we notice a couple of common themes. The first is safety … the safety of our kids or other loved ones, or the safekeeping of material things we own. Lumped into this category are things like traveling mercies, good health, and quick recovery from surgeries and accidents. We ask God to protect us and those we love from all kinds of calamity, peril, and pain.

A second common request is for God to provide something for us. Often it goes beyond daily bread (necessities), focusing more on our wants. We ask for the “good” job that pays well and makes us feel fulfilled. We want to prosper and move past the state of having to depend on God for our daily needs. Like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, we want to be able to build bigger barns so we can store up provisions for years to come. In whatever area we feel vulnerable, whether in our jobs, our health, our relationships, or goals we have set, we see any setbacks or roadblocks as negative so we immediately ask God to intervene. And sometimes the requests border on the ridiculous.

Help me to pass that exam I halfheartedly studied for, Lord. Help me (or my loved one) not to suffer any pain – make it all go away! I know I made a bad decision, Lord, but would you work in a way that minimizes the fallout? Help me slide through this situation without suffering the usual consequences. Is it any wonder we grow discouraged when we’re praying like this? It’s not that God couldn’t do these things, but how likely is He to intervene to magically spare us from all pain, challenges, and adversity? Wouldn’t that cancel out much of the good work He wants to do in our lives to conform us to Christ?

Maybe we need to reflect on our prayer lives from another perspective. Not so much to figure out what we are doing wrong in our prayer techniques but to reflect on the state of our heart. Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). In speaking our prayers we reveal the concerns of our hearts. The most important question about our prayer life I believe is this: WHAT AM I FOCUSED ON?

If we are primarily self-centered (and I am so guilty of this!) we pray about what will make us comfortable and happy. We pray about what will benefit us and the people we love. We pray for success so we don’t suffer the humiliation of defeat. We pray for what will elevate us in the world’s eyes. We pray to protect our pride and feather our nest. Why? Because we believe our security is wrapped up in our status — who we are and what we own. Paul warned Timothy about this attitude in 1 Timothy 6. He tells him to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, and “to fight the good fight of the faith” (vv. 11-12). But a lot of the time we pray for things that have no bearing on our spiritual lives, things that won’t impact God’s kingdom except in some really remote way.

When I read the New Testament I’m reminded of what my focus should be. In Acts 4 Peter and John were jailed because of their bold testimony regarding Jesus.  The Jewish rulers commanded them to stop speaking about Him, threatening to harm them if they persisted. Upon their release the apostles returned to their fellow Christians and told them what’d happened. “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.”

What did they pray? Not for safety. Not for the rulers to back off and become their allies. Not for protection against persecution or physical harm. Not for a safe hiding place where they could take their families. Knowing the true nature of their situation – that they’d been called by Jesus to spread the Good News – they prayed for the ability to persevere in their witness and take down the forces of darkness.

Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (vv. 29-30). And they got an immediate answer! The place where they were meeting “was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31).

Throughout Paul’s letters we can see what he prayed for. The things he asks God to do in the churches aren’t the sorts of things we normally ask for in our prayer meetings. He wants to see His fellow believers filled with the Holy Spirit, walking in love, standing fast against their spiritual enemy, and living in unity. He asks for God to fill them with a Spirit of wisdom and revelation so they might better understand their calling in Christ. He wants them to be rooted and grounded in God’s love and to be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). He wants them to be generous, as God is. His prayer for the Christians at Colosse is that they would live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way, “bearing fruit in every good work” (1:10). When he asks for prayer for himself, he doesn’t ask the churches to pray for his safety or some special blessing. His desire is that he would have the power to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19).

Are these the kinds of prayers we lift to the Father, both for ourselves and for others? How kingdom minded are we? I’m sure the Lord is happy to receive any prayer we utter to Him. We are invited to cast all our cares upon Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). And sometimes the cares we have are mostly about being safe. He knows that and He wants us to come to Him anyway.

But if we want to see our prayer life mature and grow, we need to pay attention to the focus of our prayers and see how they reflect our hearts. Jesus told us how to prioritize our requests: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these [earthly] things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

If I want to see God move in response to my prayers, changing not only me but also my world, I need to pray out of my new life in Christ, not my old life in the flesh. I love how Colossians 3:1 sums the whole issue up. “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

We are new creatures in Christ. We have died with Him and have been raised with Him. Our citizenship is now in heaven. We are no longer controlled and defined by the world. We have access to God’s throne and we should be praying as Paul did … for the power to live fully for Him. When we care more about God’s kingdom and glory than our own comfort and security, we begin to see the results we’ve always wanted in our prayers. Then the full blessing of the privilege of prayer will be ours.

What is your focus?

Advertisements

Discovering Love in Surprising Places

Have you heard of the Kindness Rock Project? The movement was started by a couple of women who wanted to do something simple to help spread joy. They took small rocks, the plain kind that nobody would look at twice, painted them with images and messages, and then hid them in different places outside, hoping that whoever found them would be encouraged. Kind of like an Easter egg hunt with rocks instead of eggs. Except in this case, those who stumbled upon them would not be looking for them, making their discovery even more delightful.

The idea has caught on around the world, and local groups have formed. There’s even one in Fort Mill, South Carolina I discovered. Members meet together at an appointed time, hand-painting rocks as creatively as they can. The results are unique, inspiring, and eye-catching.

Can you imagine stumbling upon one of these rocks? You would know right away it’d not been made by natural processes – someone had created it. You would wonder, who would take the trouble to prepare this for me to find? And why would they do it, not knowing who might discover it … or even if it would ever be discovered?

Such random acts of kindness are surprising in today’s world of self-absorption and “What’s in it for me?” attitudes. Sure, I know there’s joy and satisfaction involved in creating something beautiful. But when most artists create, they have some anticipation of being recognized for their effort. They sign their work proudly and look forward to the admiration and praise they’ll receive from grateful fans. There’s none of that at work with these rocks. The creator “hides” their work with the simple hope of blessing another, of creating a connection with another human being through love. Kind of sounds like God, doesn’t it?

When I look at God’s creative work in the world around me, I marvel that He went to such trouble to make sure there was enough variety, brilliant color, and complexity that I would never grow tired of exploring. There’s always something beautiful or surprising to discover. And His hidden treasures are designed to connect us to Him in love.

How sad that some are blind to all of this. They have decided to ignore what common sense should tell them – that the laws and systems that govern the entire solar system are too perfect to have occurred naturally – and live in denial. What was designed for their pleasure is overlooked or taken for granted. I love what the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17).

When we stumble upon a “hand-painted rock” from God, whether it’s something in nature or some gift He’s given to another human being, it should fill us with gratitude and praise. We get to enjoy what He has created without any cost to ourselves (except maybe our pride). We are recipients of His overflowing love and grace. When we look at what He’s done (and continues to do) just to bless us, to bring a smile to our face and encourage us, we can’t help but echo the words of David in Psalm 145:

I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.
My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord. Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever.  (vv. 1, 3, 8-9, 13-16, 18-19, 21)

We who know Him should always have this sense of awesome wonder and delight. The exalted Lord has done the unthinkable. He’s lovingly provided good things in abundance for all He has made. Even within our own bodies we can see His incredible design. There’s no doubt we’re how fearfully and wonderfully made. But how often do we remember to thank Him?

He invites us to discover the many hidden treasures He’s planted all over the earth. Like the creators of the colorful rocks, He enjoys knowing they are sources of joy in an otherwise dark and painful world. He hopes we will approach His creation with the excitement of a child on an Easter egg hunt, ready to rejoice in every new treasure we find.

 

 

Easter Reflections

When we approach the Garden of Gethsemane we are struck by two things. First, something painful is happening in a beautiful, tranquil setting. Second, we have no clue what the pain is about.

In the Garden, where they had gone many times before to rest and pray, Jesus is agonizing this Passover night, and His disciples aren’t sure what’s happening. Like them, we wonder … Is it because of what He’s facing, the physical pain and suffering of being crucified? Is it the impending humiliation of being stretched out in front of the whole city in mocking defeat? Is He having second thoughts about being the sacrificial lamb, a sacrifice that would mean unspeakable horror not only for Him but also for all those who had followed Him?

Scripture tells us some things about that night, but we are left in relative ignorance about why Jesus was so deeply distressed and troubled. Before He began wrestling in prayer He gave three of His disciples – the inner circle He’d invested so much in – a simple request: “Stay here and keep watch” (Mark 14:34).

We know what happened. Instead of staying awake and watching with Him, they fell asleep. As the One they loved was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” they could not carry out His simple request. It’s easier for us to speculate on the reasons for their behavior, since we share in their frail humanity. They were scared, they were tired, they were overwhelmed with grief and anxiety about what the next day would bring. Although He warned them to pray “lest they enter into temptation” they found themselves unable to do so. Their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak.

It’s far more difficult for us to understand what the Son of God was going through in the Garden and why He found the prospect of the cross so agonizing “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Many possible reasons have been offered by great Christian theologians and writers over the centuries. Some advanced include: The pure and spotless One was repelled by the prospect of taking on all sin for all time; it was an attack of Satan, who was trying to deter Jesus from fulfilling His role as Savior of the world; it was the anguish of being separated from His Father (prophesied in Psalm 22:1) that made Jesus shrink back from the cross.

We can’t fully comprehend what He was going through, but we can tearfully sing the words penned by hymn writer Isaac Watts:

Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I have done He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!

In his devotional My Utmost for His Highest Oswald Chambers observes: “We can never fathom the agony in Gethsemane, but at least we need not misunderstand it. It is the agony of God and Man in one, face to face with sin.” He contends it was not the death on the cross that Jesus feared in Gethsemane, but something far more consequential. As the Son of God He knew He could get through the cross himself. Satan could not touch Him in His divinity, and resurrection would follow His death. The sinless One could not be held by the grave; it had no claim on Him.

But Jesus didn’t want to just survive the cross himself. He wanted to “bring many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). So it was vital He get through as the Son of Man as well, as the head or representative of all men who were separated from God by sin. Paul points this out in Romans 5:14-21. As by one man’s sin (Adam), all men were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience (Jesus), all can be made righteous by faith in Him. God “made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21, KJV).

We will never know all that was going on in Gethsemane that night this side of heaven. But we can rejoice in the fact that He DID triumph over all opposition to obtain eternal salvation FOR US. The reason it is so easy for us to be saved is because it cost our Savior so much. Easter is our time as Christians to remember and reflect on the blessing of the cross and Christ’s resurrection, to bow in humble adoration before the One whose mercy covered even the sin of sleeping in His hour of greatest need.

Because of Christ’s faithfulness we are in the family of God, forgiven of our sins and clothed with His righteousness. It truly is amazing pity and love beyond degree. That weak and cowardly men like the Twelve could become so transformed by His grace that they turned the world upside down is something that fills us with hope for our own lives. Like them, our only appropriate response to such love is the giving away of ourselves to Him.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe;

Here, Lord, I give myself away … Tis all that I can do!

LENDING TO THE LORD

Have you ever run across a Bible verse that sets you back, making you wonder what on earth the writer is saying? Some of these are the result of culture. Being from the West, we just don’t understand Eastern expressions and ways of thinking. Other times, it’s more a matter of connecting the dots. One such verse for me is the following.

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and

he will reward them for what they have done.”

Proverbs 19:17

When I first read this I wondered what my kindness to the poor had to do with making a loan to the Lord. First of all, God obviously doesn’t need anything from anybody. What could we possible lend to Him … the Almighty, all sufficient, all powerful One?

Until recently I’d never noticed how many verses in the Bible mention the poor. Once I began to look, I discovered how much God identifies with them and sees our treatment of them as somehow reflective of how we see and honor Him. Way back in Deuteronomy, God gave instructions to Moses as to how to create a godly society under His leadership, telling him “There should be no poor among you” (15:4). That’s because God was going to richly bless them and there would be enough to meet the needs of every individual if they followed all the commands He was giving them.

Yet, only a few verses later, God seems to reverse course, stating (as Jesus quoted in Matthew 26:11) “There will always be poor people in the land” (v. 11). God knew the Israelites would not follow all His commands or love their neighbor as themselves, so He offered plan B. “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites … do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need” (vv. 7-8). In other words, be kind to the poor. Don’t think “that’s not my problem! If they’d been more careful or diligent or … they wouldn’t be in this mess.”

God’s concern and compassion for the poor and needy is carried throughout the Bible and comes to full fruition in the New Testament. The apostle John writes, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity of them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).

It’s as if God has allowed need and poverty in the world to test His people. Do we love our possessions and wealth more than we love Him and other people, who are made in His image? Covetousness is the opposite of generosity. When we refuse to be openhanded and to give to those in need out of a deep sense of gratitude for all we’ve been blessed with, we betray our hard hearts and tight fists. We fail to show we’ve been transformed by the love and mercy of God towards us. We do not reflect His character. That’s why John Wesley minced no words when he addressed this issue, saying to fellow Christians:

“Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

In our western affluence many of us sadly prove Wesley’s observation. “The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet.”

As we see in our opening verse, Proverbs 19:17, God chooses to identify with the poor and needy in their distress. When we choose to be generous and kind to them, He promises to reward us. We don’t have to worry about coming up short ourselves. We can never out-give God; He will never be in our debt. We can loan to Him with complete confidence, knowing His rewards will far outweigh our investment.

In Matthew 25 Jesus illustrates for His disciples how complete His identification is with the needy. They are astonished to hear Him say: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40). By meeting the needs of the hungry, the thirsty and the unclothed, offering hospitality to strangers, visiting those in prison, and tending to the sick, we minister to our Lord, He says.

God is pleased when His children show the same spirit of compassion and generosity He extends to all. He knows we’ll discover for ourselves “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Anything we “lend” to Him will be repaid in full, both materially and spiritually. The concept may seem obscure at first, but once we grasp this spiritual principle we can become His hands and feet in a world of need. How many of us in the West lend to the Lord? Not nearly enough to make a significant difference in our world. But it’s never too late to start! Don’t you think it’s time our pocketbooks were converted too?

Confessions of a People Pleaser

When you’re a people pleaser like me, truthfully replying to a question can be hard. What do you want me to say? runs through my mind before I even formulate my answer. Admitting this is embarrassing. As a follower of Jesus I know what Scripture says: “Speak the truth to each other” (Zechariah 8:16).

I don’t intend to be disobedient or dishonest. I just let my fear of offending, disappointing, or hurting the other person get in the way. And I can come up with lots of reasons why this tendency is actually a good thing. After all, we don’t want to be callous or insensitive to the feelings of others. What difference does it make on small issues if I say what the other person wants to hear? Isn’t that better than saying what might be perceived as negative or critical?

These rationalizations miss the point. God wants us to be kind and thoughtful, yes. But He also wants us to be truthful. We can reflect both attributes, as He does, by “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In all cases, truth is more loving than deceit. We can deliver truth in an unloving manner or with unloving motives, but even then it is less destructive than the alternative – telling lies. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27:6, KJV).

Lies, half-truths, flattery, secrecy, and deceit belong to Satan’s kingdom, not God’s. To use any of his tactics, even with “good intentions,” identifies us with him rather than the holy One we love and serve.  God cannot lie (see Numbers 23:19, Hebrews 6:18). It is outside of His nature. If we desire to be conformed into His image we must learn to love truth, even when it hurts, is inconvenient, or doesn’t give us what we want. “If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1 John 1:6).

People pleasers can learn from Jeremiah. When God sent him out to be a prophet to Israel, He told him not to worry about how people received him or his message. “Say whatever I command you; do not be afraid of them, for I am with you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8). God knew that if Jeremiah let their reactions affect him, he couldn’t be God’s faithful messenger. He needed to fear God more than he feared men. For “Fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Proverbs 29:25). It will trip us up, bind us, and prevent us from freely living the life God intends for us.

In my life I’m seldom faced with such a momentous assignment as Jeremiah was given. The kinds of answers others seek from me are far more inconsequential – like whether their new haircut suits them, what I think of their new furnishings, or my choice of a good restaurant. But it’s still important to God that I speak truthfully. We’ve already touched on two reasons: to reflect His character and to avoid being tripped up by a fear of man. But there’s another reason as well. The building of trust.

When our oldest son was eight years old he asked his grandmother: “Are you true?” She didn’t know where his question came from and wasn’t sure how to respond. But after we reflected on it together we decided he was asking if he could trust her. He wanted to know if she was trustworthy, someone he could depend on to act in his best interest.

The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:11 was called Faithful and True. The armies of heaven followed him into battle, knowing he could be trusted. In life we choose those we want to be in relationship with. The ones we can safely give our hearts to are those who will tell us the truth, even if it momentarily disappoints or hurts us. A sincere and honest heart that embraces truth is both rare and precious, both in God’s eyes and among people. We get so used to being dishonest that we don’t even see it as sin. I want to repent of my weakness in this area and learn from Him how to speak the truth in love. Always and in every circumstance. My fear (reverence) of Him instead of men will enable me to make right choices.

Being truthful with myself, with others, and with God is a sure foundation that will stand the test of time. Whom I fear and honor will determine how I respond to circumstances, crises, and any kind of question that comes my way. People pleasing may give short-term gratification but it cannot build trust or enable me to grow in the likeness of Christ.

Am I true? I want to be! And with God’s help I am determined to leave my people pleasing tendencies behind. Will you join me as we begin a new year? Every word of truth spoken in love is a spot of light that will make a difference in a dark world. As Paul wrote, God’s people are to be “blameless and pure … without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15).

March/April 2016

Returning to Say Thanks

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.                 (William Arthur Ward)

One day, as Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem with His disciples, they were met by ten lepers. Recognizing Him as the miracle worker, the leprous men began to shout, begging Him to have pity on them. He immediately told them to go to the priests to be checked out. His intention was to heal them all as they made their way there.

In their excitement to get on with their lives, to return to normal society, the men didn’t think to turn around and thank Jesus … except one. “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (Luke 17:15-16).

More often than not, we forget to thank those who have, out of mercy and love, made a tremendous difference in our lives. A few years ago I felt prompted to thank my mother, who at that time was 87. What’s significant about this letter, which appears in its entirety below, is its timing. While elderly, my mother wasn’t yet experiencing full-blown dementia. She could read and appreciate all I shared with her. I would guess she read it more than once, savoring each compliment, chucking at each memory. If I’d waited much longer, it would’ve been a futile exercise.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

I know it blessed my mother to receive this letter. Now a mother myself, I know how encouraging gratitude from a child can be. But I also received a blessing from the exercise. It was good for me to recall the many ways she sowed good things into my life, things that remain with me to this day.

I share my letter with the hope that God will prompt you to send an encouraging word to someone who invested love and showed support for you at some point in your life. I pray you will do it soon … before it’s too late to be appreciated.

February 2003

Dear Mom:

I was thinking that it might be a neat thing to try to set down on paper some of my best memories from childhood. In the process of remembering, I will be able to let you know the things I most appreciated about you as my mom.

First of all, as that little book said that I gave you, I always felt loved. In a world like ours, that is saying a lot! I always knew that you (and Dad) were glad I was in the family; I didn’t feel I had to compete or perform in a certain way to gain your approval. Gary and I felt valued, like we were the most important thing in your life, apart from Dad of course. You were never too busy to talk to us and you always listened with great interest. I knew you were “on my side” no matter what the issue was.

This was especially evident in that incident in third grade when Joyce, Querida, and I got in so much trouble for walking home during last recess. You never questioned my account of what happened (why we felt justified to do that) as many mothers would have. And while you didn’t protest or interfere with the school’s discipline, you still supported me throughout the two-month ordeal. I can’t tell you how secure that made me feel.

From my perspective, you were the greatest mom possible. You let me have just about any pet I wanted (dogs, cats, toads, baby pheasants, rabbits, mice, and in Gary’s case, even snakes). You didn’t complain about the extra cost and care, and the mess that such pets brought into the house. And when Dad surprised me with my own horse for my 11th birthday, I was thrilled beyond words. Did I ever tell the two of you how much that meant to me? Probably not, as I was a pretty self-centered child. Please accept my belated thanks!

You seemed to be a good combination of discipline and fun. You were definitely “permission granting” but I don’t think you were too far on the permissive side. I can remember times you drew clear lines and stood your ground because you were concerned about my health or safety, or you wanted to reinforce some principle you believed in. I always respected you when you didn’t give in to me, although I probably complained loudly at the time.

I remember how you always wanted to provide the “nice things” (the cultural parts of life) for Gary and me. Too bad I wasn’t better at learning the piano. If I had been more disciplined to practice I could have learned it well enough to play for my own enjoyment. I wish I had seen the value of that back then. I recognize that the piano lessons, ballet and tap lessons, all the other lessons I started but didn’t finish for one reason or another were paid for by your expert management of our family finances and sometimes by you taking on extra cleaning jobs outside the home. Thanks for trying to instill in us an appreciation for good literature, poetry, art, and academic study. While we may not have seemed very interested at the time, I think our lives have reflected your influence, don’t you? Neither Gary nor I have led typical, Midwestern lifestyles. So many of our adventures can be traced back to your efforts to make sure we saw “more” of the world.

I don’t remember feeling a lot of anger or rebellion towards you during my teen years. You were one of those rare moms who could “let go” gradually and trust me to make good decisions. That was a special gift and I think I recognized it somewhat, even then. Now, looking back, I can praise you even more for it. Well done!

Along the way you taught me a lot about life. Mostly you taught by example but sometimes you spoke of what you believed too. Hard work, dedication to family, how to manage finances, kindness and tolerance towards others, pursuing my dreams, trusting God, being spontaneous, taking time for people, keeping a clean house, supporting my husband and children, and so many other things I’ve learned from watching you. I hope you know how much God has used you for good.

I have had my challenges in life, like everyone else, but overall it has been a wonderful journey. I enjoyed a rich, supportive beginning because of you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Mom. May you be encouraged as you look back on what you accomplished by God’s grace. May He bless you and give you peace.

Love, Jeanne

Giving thanks is good for the soul. So who will you thank today?

If you didn’t have supportive or loving parents, recall the other good people God sent into your life to make a difference. If you can’t think of any people you need to thank, sit down and write a letter of gratitude to God. As your loving, gracious, merciful, protective, and all-wise Father, He’s been caring for you your entire life. Don’t be like the nine lepers who thoughtlessly charged ahead with their healing. Turn back, throw yourself at Jesus’ feet, and thank Him at the top of your lungs. After all, where would you be without Him?

January/February 2016

NOT IMPRESSED

Approaching the Temple Mount in Jerusalem today holds none of the visual splendor enjoyed by the pilgrims in Jesus’ day. We stood in line at the base of a long staircase coming out of the Jewish sector of the old city, waiting to be admitted at the entry point for non-Muslims, a dingy checkpoint near the Western Wall. After our backpacks had been screened we were waved through by gruff Arab soldiers.

As we walked towards the site of the Dome of the Rock and El Aksa Mosque we had a hard time visualizing the grandeur and beauty of the Temple that had once stood there. Everything looked unkempt; we could see trash thrown haphazardly behind rundown shacks that popped up around the perimeter of the site. When we reached the top of the mountain the Muslim structures seemed too small — and too ordinary — for the enormity of the space. The people wandering around the grounds, mostly Muslim students, soldiers, and some tourist groups, also seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. Pointing at a minaret off to the south, our guide told us the columns for the Temple were as tall as that minaret tower and so big around that three grown men could only touch hands around the base of each column.

In Jesus’ time Jerusalem was a city of 100 to 200,000 people, but when a religious festival was held, that number could swell to a million. To accommodate that many people, Herod, the appointed Roman ruler, decided to enlarge the Temple area and erect a new and more beautiful Temple. By building a box around Mount Moriah first and filling it in, he was able to double the available land to build on (to a total of 35 acres).

The retaining walls of this “box” were five meters thick and made of stones averaging 10 tons each. The walls were so massive and strong, no one ever imagined them being leveled. Yet, the only part of this retaining wall left standing is the Western (wailing) Wall where Jews still gather to pray.

In the first century pilgrims entered the Temple area via an overpass built over the main road. It was the width of a four lane highway and had an arch made of stones whose combined weight was 1,000 tons. This overpass carried worshippers into the royal portico, a stunningly beautiful portico with 162 matching columns. Each stood 27 feet high and was carved out of one white marble stone. Ten thousand workmen were used to build the Temple and its supporting structures over a period of more than twenty years. The attention to detail especially in the outer courts was staggering. Herod spared no expense in materials, and some individuals gave gifts of jewels and other extravagant decorations.

Most of the pilgrims would congregate in the outer courts (Solomon’s Porch, the court of the Gentiles, and the Women’s Court where the temple treasury was located). While there they would hear Levites playing and singing songs of Zion, including the Songs of Ascent found in Psalms. Depending on which festival they were attending they would see various activities taking place in these courtyards and be taught by the Scribes and Pharisees.

Inside the Temple itself, the place where the Holy Place and Holy of Holies was set up, only priests were allowed to enter. But no one could miss its shiny white marble and gold exterior and bronze doors. Even the roof had gold spikes placed on its roof line to keep birds from sitting on it and soiling it. Because of its brilliance and how high it stood on the pinnacle of the mountain, it could be seen miles away. Those who looked at it close up were almost blinded by its brightness.

Enter Jesus and His disciples. In Luke 21 Jesus is watching gifts being put into the Temple treasury. He commends the poor widow to His disciples, saying she’s puts in more than all of them. “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down’” (vv. 5-6).

I’m sure the disciples were astonished by His attitude. Everyone else who saw the new Temple was awed by its elegance, architectural complexity, staggering opulence, and sheer size and scale. How could Jesus not be similarly impressed?

If they’d thought about it, it wasn’t that surprising. After all, Jesus came to earth from heaven. Compared to the splendors of God’s throne, even Herod’s Temple must have seemed as dinghy and trashy as the present Temple Mount struck me. Besides, Jesus was interested in something far more important than buildings and decorations.

Just a week earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. “As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and your children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you’” (Luke 19:41-44). He was thinking about the people He’d come to save. He knew they would soon face God’s judgment, be overthrown and scattered throughout the earth, because they failed to recognize Him as their Messiah. It was an unspeakable tragedy that “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).

Jesus’ focus at the Temple that day was on hearts, not glittery gold or intricately carved marble. He wasn’t impressed by the glory of the Temple because He knew this material temple was only temporary. One day it would be torn down and utterly destroyed. His concern was men and women who would one day BE God’s temple through new birth. “Do you not know” Paul asked in his letter, “that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

As He headed for the cross Jesus had a clear and unwavering focus: the redemption of mankind. No matter how impressive the accomplishments of people might be, they are always and necessarily temporal. They cannot enter into eternity. Far better, He taught, that we give ourselves to things that cannot be destroyed. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).

This is an important reminder as we enter another new year. There is much in the world that can distract and dazzle us, but how important are they? As Christians it’s far better to give ourselves to what Jesus did – to give our lives to see others come to salvation. He invested in people, knowing they would last forever. If He could turn their hearts towards God, He would deliver them out of the kingdom of darkness and bring them into His marvelous light, as it says in 1 Peter 2:9. Setting our priorities towards people will keep us from storing up the wrong kind of treasures.

Jesus’ parting words to His disciples were “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This Great Commission cannot be carried out without building relationships, both with those who know Him and those who don’t. It means investing the majority of our time and talents and money into what will last for all eternity. Redeeming mankind was what Jesus came to do and He didn’t allow anything to distract Him from that task. His task for us as His disciples is to give everyone we know the opportunity to receive Him and then to be built up into living temples that glorify God.  “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18). To do that, we may have to choose to NOT BE IMPRESSED with worldly and temporal things that are sure to distract us.

The great theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “God in His wisdom has ordained that man should ally himself absolutely to the Absolute, and only relatively to the relative. But, man in his finite wisdom has rather allied himself only relatively to the Absolute, and absolutely to that which is relative.”

Often that’s true. But the good news is that we can choose to be different. Jesus set the example for us and we can choose to follow Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the coming year let’s be sure we spend ourselves in what will last and what’s most important: relationships. Spending time with God will realign our priorities and remind us to keep the main thing the main thing. And by investing in relationships with other people we can share the life of Jesus with them. Let’s not be awed or impressed by the glitter of temporal things. The souls of people are far more important and investing in them will bring eternal rewards. They are the treasure in heaven that cannot be stolen or destroyed.