Saturday, January 30, 2016

Houston... We Have a Problem

So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

-- Ezra 8:23 

Houston... We have a problem.

These words were made famous in April 1970 after an oxygen tank exploded aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft and nearly ended the lunar mission in disaster. The astronauts were forced to return to earth without ever landing on the moon, and they had to improvise a way to conserve onboard electricity while reducing the buildup of deadly carbon dioxide inside the cabin. More troubling still was that no one could determine if the damaged capsule would withstand the intense heat generated while re-entering the earth's atmosphere.

Earth-based radar stations tracked Apollo 13's Apollo 13progress home while NASA stayed in radio contact with the astronauts. But as expected, communications were lost when super-heated plasma built up around the spacecraft. It wasn't until minutes later that Mission Control heard the astronauts' voices break through the static. The prayers of millions around the world were answered that day as Apollo 13 and its crew splashed down safely to earth.

Even for the most experienced Christ-followers, there are times when our prayers to God are met by static. We don't know if He's heard us or not. And if our pleas did reach Him, we don't understand why there's no response.

How can we break through this frustrating spiritual barrier? First, it's important to examine ourselves for sin...and then admit it to God if and when we find it. That's because the noise of unconfessed sin can drown out what God is trying to tell us. Next, we need to clear the airways by forgiving others for anything we might be holding against them. After all, how can we expect God to forgive us for how we've failed Him when we hold grudges against others for relatively minor issues? Next, how are we treating our spouse and children? And are we helping to care for the needy through the riches God has entrusted us to manage? As Christ-followers, we're expected to help those in need with food, shelter and clothing.

Finally...there's the BIG question: Are you a Christ-follower? If not, understand that prayer and communication with God are based on your relationship with Jesus.

"You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it," Jesus assures us in the Gospel of John.

Are your prayers these days met with static, or is communication with God coming in loud and clear? When you're having trouble breaking through, locating the barrier is sometimes as easy as finding the closest mirror.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Operator Assistance

The Lord said to him: "I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there."

-- 1 Kings 9:3 

The world may be about 25,000 miles around, but it's also a very small place. We effortlessly send emails, texts, tweets and Facebook messages to friends and family members who live across town--or even across the ocean. And since long distance rates these days are only a few cents per minute, we don't think twice about picking up the phone to chat.

It wasn't that long ago, however, that Operatormaking a long distance call was a big deal. The phone company's catchy TV commercials even invited us to "reach out and touch someone." Not only was long distance expensive, the caller first had to dial zero and ask the operator to place a person-to-person call.

Today's access to easy and affordable long distance communications is a privilege that many of us take for granted. As Christ-followers, we're also privileged when it comes to another type of communications: the ability to speak with God in prayer about our blessings, troubles, concerns and everything else that's going on in our lives. It's an intimate conversation made possible through our faith in his Son, Jesus.

This raises an important question: If we have such a unique relationship with the Creator, why is it that some of our prayers go unanswered? There are times when even the most seasoned Christ-followers feel like their prayers go no higher than the ceiling.

Prayer is much like a long distance phone call. Sometimes the signal comes in loud and clear--like the other person is as close as the next room. But sometimes there's static, or the call doesn't go through at all.

Borrowing some cell phone lingo, there are several reasons for these dropped calls to God. First, we must make sure that the line is clear by dealing with any unconfessed sin in our lives. Likewise, if we're carrying a grudge against someone--like a spouse, child or co-worker--it must be ironed out before we can expect God to listen to us. Faith also plays a big part in prayer. If we pray but don't think God has the power or desire to deal with our issues, why even ask him in the first place?

But what happens when we pray sincerely and with good intentions, but our prayers still go unanswered? Rest assured that God really does answer all prayers. It's just that sometimes, the answer is "no" or "not now." As the Creator of things past, present and future, he already knows the big picture: the people, places and circumstances that make all the difference in the world to our situation. It's only later that we realize that God had a much better plan in mind for us all along: not what we necessarily wanted, but what we actually needed.

That's news to phone home about. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

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 240 years. And of course, he would be impressed by our modern conveniences and technology, our superhighways--and maybe even our shopping malls.

But how would our first president react if we Washington Prayingtold 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 would he become a believer if we took an iPhone from our pocket and called someone a continent away?

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 could convey the Lord's message.

(A coincidence isn't always a coincidence.)

God wants a relationship with his creation. But it's not much of a relationship if the communication comes from only one direction. Instead, 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 life, we need to ask him to open our ears, heart and mind in faith. If we truly want a relationship with our Creator, he will eventually speak and answer us in one form or another.

There's no doubt that George Washington would be impressed by email, Skype and the other modern ways we communicate with 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 itself--and much more personal. It's called prayer. And it allows us to talk with God.

Try that sometime with Facebook.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Living On a Prayer

Stay awake and pray for strength against temptation. The spirit wants to do what is right, but the body is weak."

-- Matthew 26:41 
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 Prayer2pray, 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. The religious leaders of the time were highly offended by the notion. "After all," they reasoned, "Who dares go before God but our High Priest?"

The answer, of course, was much closer than they could imagine.

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 must be in constant conversation with Him. It's through ongoing prayer that our hearts, wills and vision become closer to the Father's. And it's then that His ways become our own.

It's a remarkable concept. The Creator of the Universe--the One who knows the number of hairs on our heads--wants a personal relationship with us! In these uncertain days marked by distant wars and economic uncertainties, it's reassuring to know that every Christ-follower has a direct line to the Father. 

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

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Doing a New Thing

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

-- Isaiah 43:19 
If you had only 10 words to describe the Bible, timeless should be one of them. After all, one of God's repeated lessons to us through his Word is that there are certain truths and principles that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. For example, it's hard to argue that we don't reap what we sow in life. If we spend our lives loving our neighbors as ourselves and otherwise make a positive difference among friends and strangers alike, good will result in one form or another. That was true then and it still is today. Nothing has changed in God's eyes.

But while His truths and principles remain 2016constant, another ongoing Biblical theme is God's willingness to spring some surprises on those who think they know it all. Every once in a while, God likes to do a new thing. And he tends to accomplish his plans in some very unexpected ways and places through some even more unlikely people.

You can see this in both the Old and New Testaments. Moses had a speech impediment. King David was a shepherd boy. Jesus was born and spent his ministry in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. And His disciples included fishermen, a tax collector and (depending on the translation) a terrorist. Even Paul--the great missionary who wrote several books of the Bible--initially persecuted Christians before he literally saw the light. The respectable religious authorities of his time were astonished. It just wasn't what they expected.
Indeed, God chose an unlikely bunch to spread his kingdom on earth. And He used each and every one of them in ways that have shaped our walks as Christ-followers to this very day.

As we welcome 2016, let's consider how far God brought us in 2015...and peer ahead at the many wonders that are to come. We're a reminder of how our Creator joins unexpected people, places and circumstances to achieve the greater good. God continues to do new, amazing things both among and through us. 

It's a truth that's nothing less than timeless.