January 15, 2017

2 Thessalonians 3:5 May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

This is a very succinct but potent blessing/prayer. The more we know and grasp God’s love, the more we will be lifted out of the swamp of this world’s values and temptations. However, that can be a “long row to hoe,” as the old expression has it. That’s why we need Christ’s patient endurance. Jesus may have been on the earth physically less than 34 years, but He still put up with a great deal. As it says in Hebrews, that’s why He can intercede for us so accurately. (Hebrews 4:15) Life in Christ has joy and peace and many other good things that can be had no other way, but even so, sometimes we just have to “grin and bear it,” to use another old expression. Jesus Himself famously said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) We miss out on a great deal when we fail to hang in through to the end. The movie of Shusaku Endo’s book, Silence, which is about Christian persecution in Japan, has just come out. The novel is historically based, but to me the whole story is tragic in ways a non-believer can’t understand. The persecution in Japan was the most successful, from the standpoint of the persecutors, of any persecution in Christian history, because it drove the believers so far underground that for many, their faith became unrecognizable from a Biblical perspective. Everywhere else, persecution has caused the Church to grow as it has stripped away all the nonessentials. I can’t be sure, but my impression is that the difference in Japan was that people saw salvation from too much of a temporal perspective. There were certainly many who valued Christ more than their physical lives, but too many saw things the way a major character in Silence did. According to the story, a missionary priest apostasized in an effort to spare his flock from physical suffering. Endo saw that as very noble, but to me it is tragic. That priest, and too many of the Japanese, didn’t believe that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) It indeed takes a great deal of faith to see being tortured to death as “light and momentary,” but from an eternal perspective, that’s what it is. Jesus chose to see His own crucifixion that way, and Paul is here praying that his readers would be able to do the same.

I’ve done my share of grousing about transient circumstances, so I have no high horse from which to look down on others about this. I too need more of the love of God and the patient endurance of Christ! I know without question that God makes available everything we need, whether it’s material, emotional, or spiritual, but we have to be open and available to receive it. God seldom supplies very much ahead of time, because if He did, we’d tend to think what we hold was ours and not His, and so forget our dependence on Him. This whole issue of endurance under persecution reminds me of the tradition of Peter’s martyrdom. We are told that, not only did he consider himself unworthy to die in exactly the same way as Jesus, and so at his request was crucified upside down, he also had to endure seeing his wife crucified before he was. To me, that would be the greater torture. It is said that he cried out to her, “Remember Jesus!” He was not about to place anyone’s physical situation above or ahead of their eternal salvation. I need to maintain that perspective myself, exercising patient endurance because I know the love of God.

Father, I’ve let some really minor things make me irritable recently. Forgive me. Thank You for making it clear to me what I’ve been doing. Help me indeed exercise the patient endurance of Christ so that Your love may flow through me unhindered to all around me, for their blessing and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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January 14, 2017

2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.

I don’t remember now how many years ago it was, or who was the speaker, but I’ll never forget having it pointed out that this verse records an answer to prayer. In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 it says, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” Paul was writing to the very same people, so here he is pointing out that God had answered his prayer for them. Recording answers to prayer can be an important aid in strengthening our faith. Not too often, but sometimes I go back and read devotional notes from even years ago, and I’m always touched by the faithfulness of God. If our memories were better, we’d have a stronger grasp of just how faithful He is. Actually the term, “answers,” isn’t entirely accurate. What we mean when we use it is, “affirmative answers.” Sometimes God’s answer is, “No, that’s not in your best interest at this time.” We don’t like that answer! The key to getting more affirmative answers is getting our hearts in line with God in the first place. David understood that when he wrote, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4) That’s what Jesus was talking about when He spoke of our being in Him and praying in His name. (John 15:7, 16:23-24) When we ask God for things in line with our relationship with Him and in keeping with the character of Christ in us, then the response is going to be affirmative every time. That said, we need to remember the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed earnestly to avoid the cross and all it meant, but His even stronger desire was that God’s perfect plan be accomplished, whatever that meant. (Matthew 26:39) Sometimes God’s plans look horrible for us in the short term, but the end result is always blessing and glory. (Jeremiah 29:11)

When I look back over the 60+ years since I was baptized there are literally countless examples of affirmative answers to prayer, but there are also many examples of negative answers. I am more grateful for some of those negative answers than for some of the affirmative ones! From all of that I have gained an assurance that God is listening, and for that I am hugely grateful. I talk about prayer fairly frequently in this church and I try to encourage people to pray, and I am mystified that so little prayer actually seems to take place. There are those who absolutely panic when asked to pray in public. There is a very real factor of not wanting to be embarrassed, especially in Japanese culture, but that being a factor shows a fundamental lack of understanding of prayer. I obviously can’t get it across by my wisdom and persuasiveness, so I’ve got to depend on the Holy Spirit. A few days ago the Lord was indicating that it would be helpful for me to study Paul’s pastoral prayers, but I haven’t done that yet. Often God’s answers to our prayers depend on our follow-through. I am not to bemoan anything or accuse anyone, but examine my own heart and life, seeking to be fully faithful and obedient to my Lord.

Father, You’ve been shining a light on some of my shortcomings recently. Thank You. Help me not gloss over any of that, but allow You to grow and shape me as You know needs to be done, for the sake of the Body of Christ and for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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January 13, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

This whole last section of 1 Thessalonians is loaded with “sound bite” teachings which are widely known and loved. However, just because something can be said compactly doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, and these three verses are certainly illustrations of that. They have been set to music multiple times, but just singing them doesn’t mean we are necessarily doing them. They call for two things: our will, and the power of the Holy Spirit. There are circumstances in which it is easy to be joyful, but there are also circumstances in which it is humanly impossible. Jesus famously spoke to that when He said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) We can be joyful when we are fully focused on Christ and what He has done for us. If we are focused entirely on the world around us, joy will be sporadic and entirely circumstantial. Praying continually sounds good, but the world is loaded with distractions, and few people really pray very much at all. We “run out of things to pray for,” when actually every detail of our lives and the world around us is a fit subject for prayer. Again it’s a matter of focus. There’s an old hymn that says, Did You Think to Pray? The problem is, all too often we don’t. And then there’s the matter of giving thanks. The NIV says, “in all circumstances,” and the Japanese says, “about everything.” We need to be careful to note that this doesn’t say to give thanks for everything. We aren’t to be thankful that the Islamic State is teaching young children to saw through the necks of living prisoners, for example. However, even there we can be thankful that God is still God; His justice will ultimately prevail, and the eternal destiny of anyone isn’t dependent on how they die. The Lord told me personally that He’s not pleased with many things in the world today, and we can be thankful for that fact in and of itself. It all boils down to faith and trust. If it is God’s will for us, as Paul says, then we are to apply ourselves to obedience.

This is remarkably close to home at the moment. All sorts of things are pressing in on me, and if I fail to pray and give thanks, I allow the devil to steal my joy. That benefits no one! Just thinking about everything involved in setting up an assisted living facility, not just the construction but particularly the red tape, and then everything involved in actually running it, is enough to make me want to run and hide. However, that accomplishes nothing. I need to put feet to these extremely familiar words and choose to do what God desires of me in Christ Jesus. Frustration and resentment simply tear me down, and they have repercussions for those around me as well. I am to rest, relax, and rejoice in my Lord, choosing to accept the faith and trust that He offers me, so that His plans may be fulfilled in and through me for His glory.

Father, thank You for this strong reminder. It’s not like I didn’t know it, but I need help in staying on track. Help me indeed put into practice Your truth that is in me, so that I and those around me may be set free from the traps of the enemy, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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January 12, 2017

1 Thessalonians 3:8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.

This verse uses a phrase that is a standard part of Japanese but doesn’t exist as an English idiom, so the English doesn’t seem as natural as the Japanese. The NIV renders it as “we really live,” but the meaning is more like, “we have a reason to live,” or “we get satisfaction from living.” The point is, pastoral ministry can be a thankless task (which is an English idiom that doesn’t exist in Japanese). I don’t think anything energizes a pastor more than for those under his care to grow spiritually, becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul is talking about here. Baptizing people is a joy, but even some of those fall away. The proof of the pudding (to use another idiom) is in how they live out their commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. The best gift a church member can give their pastor is to get into the Word and live it out, in prayer, praise, and proclamation. Even one such spiritual child can make a great deal of labor worthwhile.

I’m certainly talking about myself with this one! Ministry in Japan doesn’t produce the numbers that ministry does almost anywhere else in the world, but when even a few believers really take hold of the truths in the Word and stand on them it makes it all worth it, just as Paul says in this verse. Few things are as distressing to me as when someone I have worked for and with falls away, even for a time, and that has happened far more times than I like to think about. My “payback” comes through those who center in on Christ and serve Him with their whole hearts. The interesting thing is, sometimes those are the same people! Sometimes people fall away for a while and then come back, and having tasted what it’s like to turn their back on God they never want to do it again. Those people are who give me hope in dealing with those who haven’t waked up yet. Pastoral ministry is a constant struggle for spiritual maturity, in myself first of all but certainly in those to whom I minister. God is the judge of my level of maturity, but it certainly gives me a thrill when I see evidence of maturity in my spiritual children.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You indeed for those who are pressing in for more of You. Help me remember that I can’t force anyone to grow, and trying to do so wears me out and makes them mad. Continue to grow me in prayer and love, so that my words may stimulate, encourage, and heal, rather than wound. Help me remember that all these people are Your children far more than they are mine – even my physical children. Help me release each one to You fully, while being Your agent to nourish and guide them, for their blessing and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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January 11, 2017

1 Thessalonians 1:3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m sure I’ve written on this verse multiple times before, because it hits so many important points – faith, love, hope. The thing is, faith is going to work. Paul himself famously proclaimed that we are saved by faith and not by works, (Ephesians 2:8-9) but faith is not passive; if we believe, then we are going to act accordingly. It is said that Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker of the late 19th Century, was one of the first to walk across Niagara Falls. As part of his performance he pushed a wheelbarrow across. He then asked the assembled crowd if they thought he could do it again with a person riding in the wheelbarrow. There was an affirmative roar, but then he asked for volunteers! True faith will “get in the wheelbarrow,” so to speak. Faith will act, but love will go so far as to labor. We even have the expression, “a labor of love.” Paul made it very clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is the purest motivation for labor; without it, that labor means very little. But then we come down to the nitty gritty matter of just hanging in there. Endurance is celebrated in some sports events, but it is very necessary for the simple matter of living in this world. Jesus said very clearly, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) We cannot “tough it out” without hope, but when our hope is fixed on Christ we can get through anything. 1 Corinthians 13:13 puts these three in different order, but it rightly says that they are what remain when everything else is swept away. With them we can stand strong and be effective. Without them, we are done for.

This is certainly applicable! I need to be careful my faith isn’t merely academic, but active. I need to let love motivate me to give my all. I need to remember that no matter how dark or difficult the moment, in Christ I am going to get through to the other side, and by His grace that other side is glorious. The past month and a half has been another training period, but the Lord has taken me through many such in the past, and I will go through many more. I am to rejoice that He considers me worth working on and with, and keep my heart open to receive His lessons and do as He indicates, so that His kingdom may come as His will is done in this earth.

Father, thank You for Your truly amazing grace. Thank You that as I drove home yesterday, when I fell asleep in the tunnel on the expressway we drifted over so gradually that when we hit the side we didn’t even stop, but just scraped the van up a bit. That certainly woke me up! Thank You for the reminder both that we exist only by Your grace, and that the schemes of the devil will not succeed against us. Today I will go to the Prefectural Office again about our plans for an assisted living facility. I pray that their reception will be as You want it to be and that we will be able to move forward on Your schedule, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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January 10, 2017

Colossians 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.

Here we have a description of a true pastor. Epaphras was physically separated from his flock, but he was still laboring for them in one of the most important ways. Every pastor prays for their flock, but not all do so accurately or consistently. Too often “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and people are prayed for only as they become problematical to the pastor. This is a major problem with “needy” Christians. Everyone has needs, but some people make a business of it, demanding attention at every turn. That not only wears the pastor out, it distracts him from pastoring the whole flock. It is quite true that Jesus told the parable of the 99 sheep vs. the one that wandered, but that’s not the same as a sheep that demands attention. Every pastor needs to seek the Lord for His ministry priorities, understanding that he can’t do the job on his own, much less meet every need for every individual. What he can do is labor in prayer, just as Epaphras did, so that the Holy Spirit will have free rein to do in each individual and in the flock as a whole exactly what the Father knows is needed. That doesn’t mean that other physical action isn’t called for, but it is to say that prayer is the foundation and the most important facet of pastoral ministry.

Ouch! It’s always interesting when the Holy Spirit stomps on my toes through what I write! I pray a lot, but my prayers tend to be the “squeaky wheel” type, focusing on the crisis of the moment rather than laying groundwork for what God wants to do in each life. I need to be deliberate and intentional in my prayers, not just going on the whim or crisis of the moment. I enjoy prayer, but I need to learn better how to labor at it rather than take it as automatic or some sort of side issue. The daily morning prayer times we’ve been having for the past few weeks have been very good, and I need to make the most of them. I’m on deck for tomorrow morning, and I need to be open ahead of time for what the Lord wants to say and do through me so that we may all continue to grow in prayer.

Father, thank You for this clear Word. Thank You for this time at this conference. In a number of ways it has been disappointing to the point of being frustrating, but You have been working nonetheless. Thank You for the tract You have prompted me to write. Help me follow through with that as You intend, to reap the results that You intend. Thank You for what You’ve said to me this morning about prayer. Help me be faithful about that as well, and not just slip back into my old ways. May I keep pressing forward for more of You, so that You may be manifested more and more in and through me, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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January 9, 2017

Colossians 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

A major advantage to reading the Bible in more than one language is the different nuances that come out. Where the NIV says “Devote yourselves to prayer,” the Japanese here says, “Pray without giving up.” The “giving up” here is the same phrase used in Isaiah 40:31 where the English says, “run and not grow weary.” To be honest, we get tired of praying, especially for the same things. Most often that’s from a lack of faith. When we don’t see the results we’re looking for immediately, we just give up. Jesus spoke to that directly in Luke 18:1-8, and Luke starts out his narration by saying, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1) Prayer is a mystery, because why should the Creator of the universe listen to us anyway? However, the Bible and experience both tell us clearly that He does listen, so we must never think otherwise. There are many kinds of prayer, but all of them, to be valid, have to be directed toward God in sincerity, or we’re just talking to ourselves. The interesting thing is, even then God is listening. I’ve had Him answer me very distinctly when I wasn’t praying consciously, but just thinking something. When God listens to us that closely, we have all the more reason to pray and not give up.

This could hardly be more applicable to me. After 35 years of ministry with few visible results, the temptation to give up is very real. At the same time, God has been doing some remarkable things recently, with the potential for many more. I am not to abdicate my responsibility or the authority I have been given in the name of Jesus, but rather exercise that authority to fulfill my responsibilities with joy, giving back to God all that He has placed in my hands. That means praying with faith and anticipation, expecting God to do something in keeping with His character even if it isn’t what I ask from my decidedly limited perspective.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for the early morning prayer meeting that came in the middle of my writing this, with several of the participants in the conference gathering to focus on You outside in nature in the predawn darkness. Thank You for having me proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the wind and the waves when I walked down to the beach. Thank You for Your power that is infinitely greater than we can imagine. Help me keep my focus on You and walk that fine line between faith and presumption, not being passive or “entitled,” but trusting You completely, with full participation in what You are doing, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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