Saturday, July 30, 2011

Now You're Talking!

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.

-- Jeremiah 29:12

Imagine what would happen if someone famous from long ago (maybe George Washington?) reappeared in 21st Century America. There’s no doubt that George would be amazed at how his nation had grown over the last 200 years. And of course, he would be impressed with our modern conveniences and technology, our superhighways—and maybe even our shopping malls.

But how would our first president react if we told him about modern communications? Could we blame him if he refused to believe that the air is actually filled with music, sporting events, news reports and talk shows? And how quickly he would become a believer if we showed him a radio and tuned it in to a signal?

Many Christ-followers today are a lot like this modern George Washington. A recurring theme in the Bible is that God wants a relationship with us and attempts to communicate His love in many ways. But if we’re not able (or willing) to pick up His signals, all we get is static.

What should we be listening for? God speaks in many ways, both expected, surprising…and somewhere in between. First, it’s through the Bible—our user’s manual for living a fulfilled life in preparation for an eternity with Him. But God can also communicate through our friends, a worship service or even a discussion in your Small Group. Your 5-year-old child might say something straight out of the blue. Even a stranger in the supermarket checkout line can convey the Lord’s message.

(A coincidence isn’t always a coincidence.)

Yes, God wants a relationship with His creation. But it’s not much of a relationship if the communication comes from only one direction. The solution is that ongoing prayer—a constant conversation with God—must become a priority for every Christ-follower. And since we tend to be distracted by the static of everyday living, we need to ask Him to open our ears, heart and mind in faith. If we truly want a relationship with Him, God will eventually speak and answer us in one form or another.

There’s no doubt that George Washington would be impressed with E-mail, Skype and the other modern ways we communicate with our loved ones. But history records that he was an expert practitioner of a much better kind of communication. It’s one that’s nearly as old as creation…and much more personal. It’s called prayer. And it lets us talk with God.

Try that with Facebook!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Weekend Warriors

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

-- 1 Corinthians 12:13

Whether it’s switching out a bathroom light fixture, installing a kitchen countertop or building a backyard patio, completing a do-it-yourself project is one of the most satisfying aspects of home ownership. Stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot cater to the millions of so-called Weekend Warriors who literally make it greener on the other side of the fence. And for those seeking inspiration for their designer-worthy project, help is as close as television’s D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) Network or the time-tested House Beautiful magazine.

Credit (or perhaps blame) our modern Information Age. Expert advice on the Internet and TV—together with access to affordable tools and supplies—means there’s often no need to hire a master carpenter or plumber to achieve professional results. Ordinary Joes and Jo-Anns can save big bucks by doing it themselves.

Since Jesus probably learned carpentry skills from His human father (Joseph), it’s appropriate that today’s fixer-upper spirit has biblical parallels. But rather than wowing the neighbors with their electric miter saws or impact drills, Christ-followers can also achieve amazing results when they plug into a much greater source of power: God. And all it takes is sincere, focused prayer and the desire to do His will.

It’s a recurring theme throughout the Bible: God chooses the weak and otherwise unqualified. To this point, much of the New Testament revolves around a group of unlikely and unremarkable characters who learn their skills from a Master Craftsman (Jesus) and eventually change the world. Some were fishermen, one was a tax collector and another (Simon the Zealot) might be considered a terrorist by today’s standards!

Their project was to change the world for Christ’s kingdom…one person at a time. And since it continues to this day, it should be no surprise that God still chooses society’s outsiders and those who tend to fade into the crowd. But the unfeasible becomes achievable because through Him, all things are possible.
“That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties,” wrote the Apostle Paul. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And indeed God does much through the weaknesses of a different kind of Weekend Warrior. Through their contributions and work in food pantries, the Salvation Army and similar organizations, families are fed, clothed and housed. The sick are cured with the help of healthcare professionals who also happen to trust Jesus. And still other Christ-followers teach the illiterate to read and the undereducated to gain critical life and job skills.

Are you ready to get your hands a little dirty this weekend? To borrow Lowe’s catchphrase: Let’s Build Something Together. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Lesson from Hollywood

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

-- Ephesians 6:18

The entertainment industry is one of the last places that anyone—especially Christ-followers—should seek guidance about godly behavior. After all, Hollywood is well known for its moral relativism and feels-good-do-it lifestyle. Celebrity relationships and marriages are often short-lived, and what constitutes a family is redefined by political correctness. On the other hand, Believers are often mocked as being intellectually inferior and bigoted.

In Tinseltown, there’s not much room in the inn for God and His people.

But maybe Hollywood can teach us something after all. If you’ve ever watched any of its award shows like the Academy Awards or the Grammys, the winning actors and musicians often go to great lengths in their acceptance speeches to recognize others for their success. They’ll often cite their producers, agents, writers—even their family members—as helping to make it all possible. Rarely if ever does an entertainer take all the credit.

This is not to suggest that most Christ-followers hog the acclaim for their own blessings and achievements. But what is true is that even faithful, long-time Christians can fall into the trap of selfishness when it comes to prayer. Without thinking, prayer—what should be an intimate conversation with God—becomes a laundry list of personal wants and must-haves. The Father becomes little more than a cosmic genie. And we think our wishes should be His command. It’s all about I, me and mine.

Make no mistake: God does indeed want us to tell Him about our legitimate needs and wants. We read in Luke’s Gospel that the disciples once asked Jesus to teach them to pray, just as John the Baptist had taught his disciples. Christ responded through what we call the Lord’s Prayer that we should always ask God to provide us with our daily sustenance and protect us from temptation and the Evil One (the devil).

But God’s Word through the Bible also teaches us to pray for others. And not just for our friends and family, but those who we may never meet (or even want to meet!).

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” Jesus says. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”  

With our nation—and the entire world—besieged these days by economic crises and social unrest, now’s the time to pray specifically for our local and national leaders, that God opens their hearts, eyes and minds to His ways…and that they respond by doing His will.

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” we read in the Book of James. So what could happen if millions of Christ-followers began praying as one for healing and spiritual revival to spread across our land? Let’s take hope from God’s response to the Israelites, who centuries ago faced immense challenges that they could never surmount on their own:  

“This is what the LORD says: I will answer your prayers because I have set a time when I will help by coming to save you. I have chosen you to take my promise of hope to other nations. You will rebuild the country from its ruins, then people will come and settle there.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Real Thing

When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven.

-- 1 Kings 8:54


Whether it involves a product, a company or a person, the public tends to gravitate to what’s believable, what’s trustworthy and what satisfies. Fads come and go. But authenticity--The Real Thing--often leads to longevity.

Maybe that seems like a no-brainer. But it happens to be a basic marketing principle that one Fortune 500 company ignored with disastrous results. In 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced New Coke with much hype and fanfare. Unfortunately, this product replaced the tried-and-true fizzy beverage that had quenched the world’s thirst since the late 1800s. Consumers complained that the new drink tasted suspiciously like rival Pepsi. The black market began selling $30 cases of the old cola to those still thirsty for the beloved original product. And worse yet, sales of New Coke fell flat (pun intended). The result was a public relations fiasco for Coca-Cola. So within weeks, they pulled New Coke from the market and returned to the The Real Thing.

Coca-Cola’s folly is a textbook example of how companies can seriously damage themselves by replacing their reliable products with inferior, second-rate imitations. Consumers might be fooled for a while. But eventually, they see through the slick promotion and hype.

Of course, this truism extends beyond the realms of marketing and advertising. Authenticity also means a lot in our relationships. And in our worship. Whether you prefer Traditional worship (stained glass, steeples, choirs, etc.) or the more free form Contemporary expression of faith, a critical common denominator is that every Christ-follower must avoid the trap of worshiping God with their lips rather than through their daily actions and lifestyles. Yes, an awe-inspiring church sanctuary (or even a movie theater) can be a place of worship and prayer. But so are the workplace, gym and supermarket. Wherever we worship, we can’t just phone it in.

Just as consumers can usually spot a fad product, God can also spot a phoney follower. Here’s what He once told the people of Jerusalem through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:  

“When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen,” God declared. “Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good.” 
That’s a sobering eye-opener, to say the least! So what type of prayer and worship does God honor? The Sunday morning variety for most Christ-followers consists of singing praise songs, teaching God's lessons and sincerely thanking Him for how He blesses our lives through the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. But every day and in every way, we also must worship God authentically by being Jesus' hands, feet and eyes at home, in the workplace and in our community. Perhaps the Apostle Paul best sums it up through his famous words from the twelfth chapter of Romans:   

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship."  

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Living On a Prayer

Each morning you listen to my prayer, as I bring my requests to you and wait for your reply.
-- Psalm 5:3

We read in Luke’s Gospel that one day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When He finished, one of His disciples made a simple--yet profound--request that Christ-followers remember to this day.

“Lord,” the follower began. “Teach us to pray, just as John (the Baptist) taught his disciples.”

Jesus’ famous response is what we know today as the Lord’s Prayer:

“When you pray, say: Father, help us to honor your name. Come and set up your kingdom. Give us each day the food we need. Forgive our sins, as we forgive everyone who has done wrong to us. And keep us from being tempted.'"

Jesus wasn’t teaching His followers some magic formula to compel God to grant their most heartfelt wishes. Instead, He was modeling His intimate, ongoing conversation with His Father. And the religious leaders of the time were highly offended by the notion. “After all,” they said, “Who dares go before God but our High Priest?”

The answer, of course, was much closer than they bargained for.

Jesus also taught His 1st Century disciples that He could do only what he saw His Father doing. That’s a reminder to 21st Century Christ-followers that to do God’s will in our communities--and the entire world, for that matter--we need to be in constant conversation with Him. Through ongoing prayer, our hearts, wills and vision will become closer to the Father's. And His ways will become our ways.

The notion of prayer evokes different images to different people. If you grew up attending a traditional church, you might think of kneeling on pews (with eyes closed and heads bowed) between the sermon and the choir’s stirring rendition of How Great Thou Art. To others, prayer is something done aloud with hands outstretched and eyes looking skyward. But Jesus’ lesson to us is that prayer boils down to the simple act of talking with God. And it’s a remarkable concept. The literal Creator of the Universe--the One Who knew us before we were born and counts the hairs on our heads--wants a personal relationship with us. And that means thanking Him for all He does for us and asking Him to meet our everyday needs.

That’s one part of the conversation. Of course, the other half involves listening to His response through our daily experiences, interactions with others and His Word through the Bible.

Shortly before Jesus began preaching the Good News of His Father’s kingdom, He was baptized by His cousin, John the Baptist. As Christ arose from the waters and began to pray, the sky opened up. The Holy Spirit came down upon Him in the form of a dove, and a voice from Heaven said, "You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you."

In these uncertain days marked by distant wars, high unemployment and financial upheaval, it’s reassuring to know that every Christ-follower has a direct line to the Father. And just as it was with His own beloved Son, He’s also pleased to hear from us.

“I was in terrible trouble when I called out to you,” wrote the Psalmist centuries ago. “But from your temple you heard me and answered my prayer.”

And so it can be for us all today.