Praying Like a Sinner

[This devotional, first published in ‘Tween Girls and God is intended for youth.]

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God … “

Trista glanced across the yard as she climbed into the backseat of her family’s minivan one Sunday morning.

“The Carlsons never go to church,” she said to no one in particular. Daddy fastened Trista’s younger sister in her carseat, opened the door for her mother and then climbed in behind the wheel. Slowly, he backed out of the drive. No one replied, so Trista turned it into a question.

“Daddy, why don’t they go to church? I mean, God says we should, I know it’s in the Bible somewhere. Does that mean they don’t believe in Jesus? If they do believe in Jesus, does that mean we are better Christians? Does that mean they are bad people? Does that mean … ”.

“Slow down, Trista,” her mom interrupted. “If you don’t stop asking so many questions, your dad can’t give you an answer. Besides, I think this is a very important conversation. The things you’re saying sound a little prideful.”

“Trista, have you heard the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector?” Daddy asked. “Jesus tells the story in Luke chapter 18.”

“No. I don’t think so,” Trista said.

“Well, Jesus was talking to some people who were pretty sure they were really good people. They believed that they were doing a good job of keeping all of God’s commandments and that God must be pretty pleased with them.”

Daddy, continued, “So the story is that there were two men who went to pray. One was a very important religious leader and the other was a tax collector. In those days, tax collectors were considered to be bad people. Sometimes they cheated people out of their money.

“The religious leader stood off to the side, far away from the tax collector. Then he started to pray out loud, ‘God, I’m so glad that you didn’t make me like that tax collector over there. I’m a really good person. I do everything you say to do.’

“But the tax collector stood off to the side and looked sadly down at the ground. He cried, ‘God, I’m so sorry for the bad things I’ve done. Please have mercy on me.’

“Jesus finished the story by saying, ‘I promise you, the humble tax collector went home forgiven, not the prideful religious man.’”

Now it was Trista’s turn to hang her head. “I think I understand, Daddy,” she said in a small voice. “God isn’t happy when I am proud of myself and think that the good things I do make Him happy with me.”

“That’s right, sweetheart,” Mom spoke up. “Jesus died for our sins—for everyone in the whole world. You and I are only saved because we believe in Him, not because we go to church or do anything good at all. Also, it is not our place to judge other people. Actually, I know Mrs. Carlson from the bank. Their family goes to a different church and they worship on Saturday nights.”

Trista turned to look out the window and watched the other cars streak past. She wondered where they were going. Quietly, she whispered a prayer:

“Jesus, thank you for forgiving me when I am prideful and when I do bad things or don’t do the things you want me to do. Thank you for parents who teach me to believe in you and to understand the Bible. Help me to be humble and to remember that I am saved because of your grace, not by anything I do.”

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Who Prayed For Paul?

The headlines ran red. If there were a secret first century parchment bearing news, prayers and encouragement, circulating the dispersed believers, surely it read, “ Steven, our beloved brother in the faith, perished at the hands of Saul and the religious leaders. He breathed his last yet full of the Spirit and testifying to the goodness of Jesus.”

Maybe, John picked up that parchment or maybe he wrote it, heart aching. What a loss for the early church! No doubt Christians across the known world knelt in their homes and small gatherings, praying fervently for Steven’s family, the progress of the Gospel, their own safety and Christ’s soon return. But who prayed for Saul?

The early church knew who was responsible for much of their terror, and God asked them to do the unbelievable. After Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, He approached one of His own, a man named Ananias, and told him to go to Saul and lay his hands on him: “ ‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’ ” (Acts 9:13, 14)

I wonder about that as our own headlines run red. Every single day we learn of more Christians, more People of the Cross, losing their lives for the name of Jesus. And, I kneel. I kneel by my bed and pray with tears streaming down my face. My emotions boil, a hot alloy of anger, fear, compassion and longing for justice. I lift up the Coptic Christians, those in Syria, Pastor Saeed Abedini, the orphans, the widows and those fighting for freedom.

But who prays for ISIS? Who prays for the Muslim Brotherhood? Who prays for Boko Haram and Vladimir Putin? Who prays for Al Queda?

Last Sunday, I served on prayer team at my church. Five of us huddled in the church office praying for the service and everything the Spirit laid on our hearts. We prayed for the church worldwide, but in that hour, none of us prayed for the persecutors. I have to confess, that even on my own time, I am reticent to pray for them. It’s not that I haven’t thought of it; it’s just that I don’t want to.

But in the biblical account, God didn’t let prayer warriors off the hook. In Acts 9:15-17, He replied to Ananias, “ ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’ Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ ”

If Ananias had refused God, if he had found praying for the murderer of his Christian brothers just too hard, what would have become of Saul? Who would have become Paul? Who would have written the majority of the New Testament? Who would have written Romans, the consummate doctrine of salvation by grace through faith?

God may have asked Ananias to do the unbelievable, but God proved that He will do the impossible. The bulk of our sacred New Testament was penned by the very man who once slaughtered People of the Cross.

Might God dramatically change the trajectory of history if Christians today pray for the persecutors? Can you imagine, for a split second, the magnificent manifestation of God’s glory if those perpetuating evil turned their hearts toward Jesus?

Do you think we should be praying for terrorists? What should we pray?

A Place Called Home, For Now…

“Father, I’ve found a church I like here. They have a women’s group that meets at the perfect time on Wednesday nights. Other doors to get involved are opening right and left. I get so excited, God, and then I panic. What about when we move?”

As a nomadic, military spouse, I hate one question: “What church do you belong to?”

I can handle, “What church do you go to?”, but the concept of belonging…somehow that doesn’t seem possible for me anymore. 

In our nearly eleven year military career, my husband and I haven’t moved as much as some. I’ve lived in four states; my husband has lived in four states and three countries. At our first two duty stations, I dug in quickly. I grew up like a good, church girl, having a church membership with my family at the same building for years at a time. My parents taught Sunday school classes, I went on trips with the youth group, sang in the choir, attended and then helped to lead vacation Bible school. 

It felt like the right thing to do as a married adult, to carry on those traditions in a new church home. But that’s just it, it didn’t feel like home. As if uprooting my irises, un-hanging all our pictures and garage selling the least sentimental gifts from last Christmas isn’t enough; as if bidding farewell to my biological mother and father and sisters isn’t enough, now ever few years I am supposed to say farewell to brothers and sisters in Christ that I have sat with, served with, eaten with, laughed with, confided in and studied with. 

No, I’m not sure I want to belong anywhere. But then, not belonging feels terribly lonely. 

I lifted my pen from the journal page, flipped the notebook closed and stood. My petition and fears now lay at the foot of Abba’s throne. It was up to Him to show me what to do about this inviting church. 

Later that day, I listened to a sermon by Paul White as I cleaned the bathrooms. 

“We have a lot of transience here, and it’s tempting to wonder why our church numbers aren’t constantly growing. To many, that would signal that we’re doing something wrong. Why are people leaving?”

It was almost an aside to the message, but he believed the words were for someone. That someone was me. 

“But I believe Christians are sent out. People are supposed to leave. The point is not to build a big church, but to equip and encourage people in the love and grace of Christ and send them out to share that with others, even within other churches.”*

I love how God often hammers a point home by repeating it through many sources. The next sermon on my iPod was by Ed Young, so I let it continue to play in the background. 

Ed spoke on evangelism, the urgent need for believers to be all consumed with sharing the love and rescue of Jesus Christ. He quoted from Matt 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”.

In the original language, Jesus said to the disciples, “As you are going…”. This going out to the nations (and states) is an ongoing thing. I am not called to establish a home in one location, but to be a tent-dweller (2 Corinthians 5:1), uprooting my tent pegs every time the Spirit leads, just like Moses and the Israelites followed the cloud by day and fire by night. (Num. 9:21)

The Holy Spirit tapped my shoulder one more time, to reinforce His point. That evening, as I poured over this new church’s website, reading their mission statement and distinctives, my eyes snagged on this phrase:

“We don’t want you to ‘join the church’ so your name can be on a list or in a database somewhere. We want you to experience the awesome adventure of finding real life in Christ and helping others find it too. Our end goal is not for you to become a member; we want you to partner with us by choosing to Live Big, Love Big and Give Big.”

That was it. I can hammer in a tent peg here and get busy serving with a diligent, nomadic, enthusiastic, committed body of Christ. I may not be here long. Within a year or two, I’ll likely be pulling up stake, uprooting my irises and giving the remaining contents of the fridge to my neighbor. But for now, until it’s time to get going again, I belong.

Book Review: Church Behind the Wire

There’s something about the Christian life that is so contrary to the human disposition; there is something so completely backward about this life with Jesus. Barnabas Mam in his book, Church Behind the Wire, captures the discrepancy between the ways of God and the expectations of His creation, perfectly.

Born in Cambodia, Mam converted to Christianity in 1970, just as Communism sunk its teeth into his country. At the end of Pol Pot’s maniacal campaign, Mam was one of only 200 Christians remaining. His story is of the sheer grace of God.

During his arrest and subsequent displacement, Mam tells impossible stories of God’s goodness. He tells of food miraculously appearing in the form of fish that seemed to jump from a bush in front of him. He tells of Communist officers who befriended him and “took good care,” of him. He tells of God miraculously providing musical equipment for his worship ministry.

Church Behind the Wire, is a constant ebb and flow of tension. Each of these wonderful accounts is punctuated by long periods of starvation, isolation, loss of family, betrayal and despair. Mam learns to trust God’s favor, justice and mercy. He gains strength for the struggle as God proves His faithfulness through little graces and big miracles.

Mam’s book is a beacon on reality. We love books because they beckon us into another world. Church Behind the Wire, invites the reader to vicariously experience the world of Christians suffering for their faith. The result is a deeper sense of gratitude, compassion and activism.

The church in America has a general expectation of ease. Often times, ease blinds us the uncomfortable truth of people suffering in other countries. As I read, I felt convicted of my ignorance. I realized how little I knew of the Killing Fields. Mam’s book incensed me to learn more of the history of the church and its broader experience and impact.

On a technical note, my only disappointment in this book is that it is very disjointed. The author jumps from place to place, back and forth in time. This made it difficult for me to place certain events and people within the story. However, this gives the reader an empathy for the author. Mam conveys a feeling of wandering, lack of control and displacement.

book reviewed for Moody Publishers, complimentary copy provided

The Best Kind of Poetry

I wonder if I inherited my urge to create from my Heavenly Father? Long before any author had tested their penmanship, cracked a thesaurus in search of a rhyme, or scribbled out a misspelled word – long before any orator had spun a tail or sung a psalm, our very own Creator spoke.

God spoke everything into existence, except for man. Man, he bent down and sculpted from His brand new clay. And then, He blew. God Himself exhaled into man’s lungs. With a sharp gasp, a deep, strong inhale, man became a living soul. And since, God has used the breath and pen of man to transcribe His sentences, His love letters, His thoughts toward us.

I was at a Cynthia Heald conference this past weekend. Her entire lecture, on Becoming A Woman of Simplicity, was excellent. However, one of the things that charmed me most was the variety of translations of the Bible that she referenced. Each one rolled a little bit differently off the tongue. Each shifted one tiny phrase to the left or right and brought the incomparable truth into a brighter light. I thought I’d share some of the verses that I fell freshly in love with.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 1 John 2:15 NLT

The one thing I ask of the LORD–the thing I seek most–is to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, delighting in the LORD’s perfections and meditating in his Temple. Ps. 27:4 NLT

Will you put up with a little foolish aside from me? Please, just for a moment. The thing that has me so upset is that I care about you so much—this is the passion of God burning inside me! I promised your hand in marriage to Christ, presented you as a pure virgin to her husband. And now I’m afraid that exactly as the Snake seduced Eve with his smooth patter, you are being lured away from the simple purity of your love for Christ. 2 Cor. 11:1-3 MSG

This last one, I’ve had memorized for most of my life, probably in the New King James version. But listen to Ps. 23 in the NLT. I love it!

The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,a
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD
forever.

Finally, this poem by William Wordsworth, is unparalleled. I’m only quoting the first several lines of his one stanza poem, The World Is Too Much With Us,  because it most clearly highlights the theme of simplicity, namely, simplicity lost.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God!

Hysterical Marital Issues?

Two weeks ago, Patrick and I wrapped up our Sunday school class called, Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage. It’s a video series produced by Mark Gungor, head pastor of Celebration Church in Wisconsin. Patrick and I missed the first week, but had no problem jumping into the second video. We had a small class, probably the few bold couples who could endure Gungor’s humor. 

Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage is exactly what it says. Every problem you ever faced, argument you ever had, moment you nearly left – is fodder for mocking by the merciless pastor. Don’t get me wrong, Gungor is tasteful – moderately. Everything he says is entirely supported Biblically and the gospel message is threaded through every concept. However, as in his daily radio show, Gungor makes no effort to secure his audience’s comfort. Sex is wonderful. Pornography is a marriage destroying sin. Submission is badly misconstrued by the church as a whole. Women need to get over themselves and their expectations that men should behave like their girlfriends.

“I love to inspire people’s lives with truth and humor. There are a lot of performers that make people laugh, and there are a lot of speakers who give solid principles for living. I want to do both,” Mark says.  “Our secular culture over-romanticizes marriage and our Christian culture over-spiritualizes it. The reality is that relationships between men and women are very down to earth.”

Do you believe that? That relationships between men and women are really down to earth? In our marriage, absorbing that little nugget of truth, which dawned slowly on me like an LED bulb warming to full exposure, was life changing. Suddenly, we are more free to enjoy each other. Funny, my husband’s been telling me for years that I am too concerned about the state of our marriage. I have been constantly re-evaluating it’s health, worried if we are stronger than we were before, if we’re ignoring any warning signs, instead of simply enjoying the fact that we’re still together and applauding the nearly 10 years that we have loved each other.

For the rest of this week, I will introduce you to a few elements of Gungor’s ministry. It is multi-faceted, so you would do well to explore the site on your own, listen to his radio show and read some of his articles. Laugh hard, come back here and share your joy and relief with me.

It’s The Least We Can Do?

Counter-intuitively, the church of Jesus Christ has historically seemed to flourish in the midst of persecution. In Iran, China and Ethiopia, Christians are hunted, hounded, harassed and often killed. Pastor Youcef was arrested nearly 3 years ago. He remains in prison in Iran for “offending Islam.” Recently, an execution order hung imminently over his head. It was denied following international indignation, yet daily he waits with no resolution. In spite of this, the church grows. In July 2011, it was reported that the Christian church in Iran was growing annually at 19.6%. [oprev.org]

In Turkey, Christians are getting tired. It’s been five years since three Christian men were bound, tortured and killed in Turkey. [persecutionblog.com] The church is barely hanging on.

“Within Turkish culture, Christians remain vilified and are treated as second-class citizens. The news media often portray Christianity in a negative light, and some church leaders rely on bodyguards and police protection. In 2011, a Protestant group documented 12 attacks against Christians, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom added Turkey to its list of 16 ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ this year.”

 There is another blessed outcome of persecution.

“Let the whole world bless our God
and loudly sing his praises.
Our lives are in his hands,
and he keeps our feet from stumbling.
You have tested us, O God;
you have purified us like silver.
You captured us in your net
and laid the burden of slavery on our backs.
Then you put a leader over us.
We went through fire and flood, but you brought us to a place of great abundance.” Ps. 66:8-12

As a grateful Christian, living in America, it’s hard to know what to say. I feel refined in my own daily life, sometimes I feel like the heat is more than I can bear. Why am I spared the sufferings that Christians in other countries experience? Does God know that my faith is not yet strong enough to endure? I pray that’s not the case!

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17

Often we feel like there’s little to do from where we sit. “All we can do is pray,” is a common, comfy-Christian refrain. First, there is no such thing as “only praying.” I think we see little because we ask little, we expect little, we endure little. However, there is something else we can do.

“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Hebrews 3:13

Stacy Harp is the editor of persecutionblog.com. I asked her what I can do, what we can do, to raise the awareness of the persecuted church and to increase the fervency of American Christians to support our brothers and sisters. Her first, specific request is that we write to Pastor Youcef.

Would you do that?

 

There’s the Rub

I really don’t have the energy to write long today. My emotional fuses are blown. I feel like I’m plugged into so many sockets (not just over-committment but too many “good” things) that my circuitry is fried. Do you know what I mean? In fact, Patrick and I have been discussing joining a small Life Group at church for more intimate connections and spiritual growth. Personally, I have several small group connections with Christian women, but Patrick doesn’t get any of that with other Christian men. However, as I look forward into the week or months and consider which group we can commit to, I panic. The last thing I want or can handle is another emotional connection. That sounds terrible, but it’s true.

That said, as I mumbled and humbled to God about this today, another training similarity came to mind. Somehow, I want someone to just give me the answer. I want someone I trust, or God, to just say, “Abby, here’s the group you and Patrick need to join. You’ll be so glad you did. You’ll both grow together and in Christ by leaps and bounds.” or “Abby, sit tight. God is working right now in your heart and life and marriage. Don’t try to assume one more thing that you think will be ‘good’ for you to do.” But no one is telling me anything – even if it isn’t what I want to hear.

There’s the rub. When it comes to working out, no one can do it for you.  You can’t ask you best friend to do crunches for you. You can’t lose weight and improve endurance by watching your husband go for a morning run.

There’s a gentleman that comes to South Run RECenter that has earned the nickname “Flash” by the front desk staff. Flash comes to the gym daily and contrary to his name, paces slowly up and down the aisles between the equipment and down to the water fountain. No one has ever seen Flash do a single exercise. And Flash looks like he’s put on a few pounds.

In the same way, unfortunately for me, no one can do the tough stuff for me. No one can say, “No.” No one can pick up the Bible study and attend on a Tuesday night for me. There’s the rub. For growth – muscular or spiritual – you have to put in the hours, the effort, the sweat and tears by yourself. However, there is the other side of the coin. You, Yes YOU, will also enjoy the increase – muscularly and spiritually.