Listening in prayer
Ecclesiastes 5: Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear.
Some folks think God wants to hear us pray in the language of the King James Bible: “Almighty God, Thou Who art from everlasting to everlasting….” To them, prayer is a rather formal event that ought to be filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance. Sometimes, as I’m reminded here, I’m better off to pray without words at all and let God be in charge of what happens next. It does make sense. God is always the “first mover.” After all, the Bible doesn’t start off with “In the beginning man…”! So, rather than coming to prayer in what might be called “automatic mode,” in which every prayer is pretty much a copy of the one before, or with a sense of formality, I want to come to him humbly and honestly; not saying what I think he wants to hear, but in a genuine desire to hear from him. If I let him lead the way my prayer time will be more satisfying to both the Lord and to me. Prayer is just as much a matter of listening as it is a matter of talking.
Take Away: Being still before the Lord is a legitimate approach to prayer.
Leadership, not dictatorship
Proverbs 16: A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit.
Solomon knows a lot about leadership. He’s watched his father, David, lead Israel for many years. Then when he becomes King he asks God for wisdom that he might lead His people. In all this he comes to understand leadership dynamics as well as anyone who ever lived. In the passage before me today I get just a taste of his philosophy of leadership. The guy who says these things isn’t some pastor with an all-volunteer staff of church people who might just walk off if they don’t like the way things are going. Rather, he’s King of Israel. He has “off with their heads” authority. In other words, if he wants he can order the direction and everyone has to follow. However, Solomon has learned that dictatorship isn’t leadership. He says his job is to motivate people to move together in positive directions. He says he isn’t supposed to promise what can’t be delivered and he isn’t to get people to do what he wants just to get something for himself. Honesty, unselfishness, persuasiveness — these are leadership qualities Solomon brings to my attention today.
Take Away: Dictatorship isn’t leadership.
Telling it like it is
Job 3: Why didn’t I die at birth?
All of my life I’ve heard people speak of the “patience of Job” and, frankly, I don’t get it. Just a quick read through chapter 3 reveals that Job doesn’t stoically accept his condition. He’s miserable and he wishes he’d never been born. “May those who are ‘good at cursing’ curse the day of my birth,” he says. As I look at this miserable man I can’t help but appreciate his stark honesty. This guy isn’t given to platitudes. Instead, he tells it like it is, and at this moment in his life, life isn’t worth living. Somehow Christians have gotten the idea that we ought to behave as Job does in chapter one when he sincerely declares “God gives, God takes.” We read that and make it our model for dealing with pain and suffering. However, we need to keep on reading. Soon we find this same man crying out against his own life. Beyond that, to excuse Job as being “out of his mind” in pain is such a horrible put-down of Job. Yes, he’s in agony but he’s still thinking and the things he says reflect exactly what he believes. When we deny ourselves (and Job) the right to be absolutely honest about how we feel we destine ourselves to continue in a shallow relationship with God. You see, when I’m going through a trial God isn’t interested in seeing me put on a brave front and hearing me say all the right things. It’s honesty that he wants and sometimes that includes our telling him, and others, how miserable we are. Such honesty opens the way for God to work in our lives at levels we didn’t even know existed.
Take Away: There’s never a time to pretend things are different than they are before the Lord.
Praying when in pain
1Kings 19: Elijah, what are you doing here?
More than a month has passed since Elijah fled Jezebel and asked God to take his life. During this time the angel of the Lord has ministered to him and he’s traveled 40 days across the wilderness to Horeb which is the mountain range that includes Sinai where Moses met God and was given the Law. In other words, Elijah has retreated to holy ground. Here, even as Moses encountered God, Elijah has an encounter of his own. This meeting though, starts very differently. For Moses, there were earthquakes and thick smoke. For Elijah, things start with God asking him a question, “So, Elijah, what are you doing here?” With that, Elijah begins to state his discouragement, loneliness, and fear. The big stuff is still coming but I’m taken with just this today. I know that prayer should generally start with words of worship and reverence. Sometimes, though, we’re so broken and confused that we can hardly bring ourselves to pray at all. Sometimes we have to travel out into the wilderness for a while possibly ending up at some place that’s significant to us. And then, it isn’t us but God who starts a conversation that doesn’t begin with “Our Father who art in heaven” but instead with words of pain. Know what? That’s okay with God. Take note of just who it is that asks the opening question here.
Take Away: Our prayers are going nowhere if they don’t come from an honest heart.
Let’s make a deal
Deuteronomy 25: Don’t carry around with you two weights.
This portion of Deuteronomy is a grab bag of varied topics. Some of them are pretty hard to read as they deal with stuff like fluid emissions, forced marriage, and rape. Others strike me as mostly curious. The prohibition against plowing with an ox and a donkey yoked together and the one against wearing clothes of mixed fabrics comes to mind. Then there are the practical ones like what to do if a farmer finds his neighbor’s ox loose and wandering around, rules for charging interest on loans, and the prohibition on carrying differing weights. This is a simple call to honesty. An individual doing business isn’t to have two weights that he claims are the same but are actually different. A dishonest person might reach into bag and grab the heavier weight when purchasing, say, some silver. Then, when selling it, he might use an identical, lighter weight to measure the weight of the silver. That way he gets more silver than he paid for, and then cheats the buyer by selling less than what is shown on the scales. The Lord says, “don’t do that – instead, be honest in your dealings with everyone.” Some of the stuff in these chapters feels dated and even a bit weird. However, a call to honesty in business speaks to every person who’s ever filled out a tax return or sold a used car. In all of business God’s people are free to make the best deal they can; that is, so long as it’s an honest deal.
Take Away: Honesty is the best (and blessed) policy.
Just do it
Deuteronomy 23: If you don’t make a vow in the first place, there’s no sin. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.
Reading through the middle part of Deuteronomy causes me to feel like I’m back in Leviticus with all of its rules and regulations. Still, there are some gems to be found along the way. When talking about vows, the words of Moses feel a bit more like one is reading in the books of Wisdom than the Law. Here, I’m reminded that it’s easier to make promises than it is to keep them. I’ve heard young people make big claims about what they’re going to do. One said she was going to be a lawyer and another said he was going to enter the ministry. They had big plans and I believe they were sincere about them. However, they first had to work through the smaller details like getting out of bed and going to class each day. I understand that Moses is talking about vows made to God here but I see that to great extent even vows made to God are first vows a person makes to oneself. “This is worth doing, and I’m going to do it.” That works whether I’m talking about doing something for the Lord, or pursing some life goal, or living in harmony with those around me. The council here isn’t against making promises. Instead, it’s about making promises worth keeping and then keeping them.
Take Away: Don’t avoid making promises, just be sure the promises are worth keeping.
An old wrestling injury
Genesis 32: He deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Jacob has a lifetime of taking advantage of people and Esau is the one who has lost the most to him. Hearing that Esau’s coming with a band of 400 men Jacob fears for his life and the lives of all those with him. He shrewdly prepares for the encounter, sending wave after wave of gifts to his brother and instructs his servants to identify Jacob to Esau as “your servant.” Having done all he can do, Jacob retreats to a place where he can be alone. As he considers his life he finds himself in a wrestling match with a man. Now, all his life, Jacob has struggled with people. His very name means “heel grasper” and he’s lived down to that name, tripping up others to his own advantage. However, this unknown opponent can’t be beat and they struggle through the night. Finally, his opponent reaches out and throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. At that, the wrestling match is over because Jacob can fight no longer. Still, he holds on, refusing to let go. Now, it may be that Jacob knows what’s going on from the beginning or at least through the night he realizes that this battle is of a supernatural nature. As he clings to his opponent he insists on a blessing. In forcing Jacob to say his name his opponent is making him admit that his whole life has been about “heel grasping” – cheating and taking unfair advantage of others. Once Jacob does that he receives the blessing he requests. His days of “heel grasping” are over. From now on, he’ll be known as “Israel” — a man who knows how to get hold of God and hang on. While I understand that Jacob has wrestled with the Lord through that night, I think he was really wrestling with himself. Finally, the Lord had to bring real pain to him to cause him to realize he can never win unless he confesses to himself and to God who he is. What does it take for us to admit our sin and failure? Restoration starts with confession.
Take away: Sometimes the best victory possible for us is admitting our failures and yielding in defeat.
No Scripture abuse allowed here
Romans 16: Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and pieces of the teaching you have learned.
The first theology book of Christianity is being concluded. The final pages are more about words of greeting than theology. Now, almost an afterthought, the Apostle warns his readers about the danger of taking “bits and pieces” of the truth and using them in such a way as to create an untruth. Some people, Paul warns them, are pretty good at doing this bad thing. They take true statements and then twist them to their own purposes. He tells his readers to stay away from people like that. As I read this warning I can’t help but think that one of the best ways for me to avoid this trap is to study God’s Word, making the effort to know what it really says. Another thing that comes to mind is that I don’t ever want to be one of these troublemakers who abuse the Bible, making it say what I want it to say. I can’t help but think that had Paul seen the future and how it would be his own words that would most often be abused in this way that this particular admonition would have been given a more prominent place in this letter. It might have been placed on page one, written in capital letters, rather than being shoehorned between words of greetings here on the final page.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t take it lightly when people abuse Scripture.
Malachi 3: Return to me so I can return to you.
If my relationship with God is strained or even broken today there’s a remedy. When, like the Prodigal Son, I come to my senses, rise, and return to my Father I find that he’s been waiting for me all along. What a relief it is to know that the Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against me. Rather, he patiently reaches out to me, calling me to himself. When Malachi states this spiritual fact of life to his congregation, someone asks for more information on this “returning” business. Exactly how do they do that? The prophet has an answer ready. A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal is honest with himself and with his father. He’s messed up and he wants to make things right. He knows he doesn’t deserve re-admittance into his father’s household as a son, so he’ll take what he can get. That, my friend, is honesty. In this passage, Malachi points out that they’ve been dishonest with God in the stewardship of their possessions. He tells them that, for them, honesty with God means admitting their failure in this matter. This business of bringing sick and blind animals for sacrifice has to be stopped, confessed, and made right. Their practice of shortchanging God with their tithes has to end and be corrected. That’s what repentance is all about: confession and change. Through his prophet, the Lord says, “If you’ll return to me in repentance, I’ll return to you and bless your life in wonderful ways.” When a nation as a whole makes things right with God, Malachi says, it’ll be voted “Happiest Nation” and be known as a “country of grace.” That’s a good place to live.
Take Away: A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part.
Telling it like it is
Habakkuk 1: Why are you silent now?
The complaint of the prophet to God is startling. He comes to the Lord and lays it all on the table, confessing his confusion and disappointment. He knows God to be righteous and loving but what he sees happening has none of that in it. The godless army of Babylon is destroying God’s chosen people and that doesn’t make sense to Habakkuk. Not only that, but his prayers go unanswered. Why, of all times, does the Almighty choose this dark hour to go silent? Where is God when evil is winning the day? Does God’s use of unrighteous people to achieve his purposes make God, himself, unrighteous? Habakkuk writes more on this topic, including a report on how God finally responds to his questions. However, today I’m taken with how he goes into the presence of the Lord to state his fear and disappointment. There’s something refreshing about Habakkuk’s approach to the Lord here. Habakkuk isn’t irreverent toward the Almighty, but he openly expresses his disappointment in how the Lord is doing (maybe better, isn’t doing) things at this point. I know I’m called to trust the Lord no matter what, but if I’m having doubts the Lord wants me to bring them to him. To pretend I believe when I don’t does me no good and is dissatisfying to the Lord as well.
Take Away: Better to victoriously march on in overcoming faith but when there is doubt we can be frankly honest with the Lord.