April 30, 2016

Job 16:19-21 Even now my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high.
My intercessor is my friend
as my eyes pour out tears to God;
on behalf of a man he pleads with God
as a man pleads for his friend.

One of the most remarkable things about the whole Book of Job is Job’s conviction that he had an intercessor on his side in heaven. After all that happened to him, and then his friends heaping pious platitudes on him instead of providing real comfort, he is still convinced that he’s got someone on his side in heaven. That had to be a divine revelation, because nothing else makes real sense. It’s not until Jesus’ resurrection and ascension that we have clear theological basis for such a conviction, but now we know that Jesus is at the Father’s side interceding for us. (Hebrews 7:25) Even if we go through trials that rival those of Job, if we have that assurance we can make it through. The hymn, It Is Well With My Soul expresses that beautifully, and it indeed arose from just such a tragic situation. That hymn perfectly illustrates Paul’s words of encouragement to the Corinthians: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) God doesn’t waste anything, and His ultimate motive is always love, even in trials such as Job’s. If we can get that truth down into the depths of our being, then we can make it through anything.

Objectively speaking, my trials have been pretty light, however they felt at the time. They have never come close to what my brothers and sisters in Muslim countries endure for their faith. That said, all suffering is subjective, to the point that it is only as bad as we think it is. That is to say, having a pity party actually makes my suffering worse! I recall people’s reactions when I was hospitalized for surgery for a fairly good-sized skin cancer. They expected me to be all distraught, and I was like, “It’s just a basal cell carcinoma, so cutting it off is all I need. I won’t even need radiation or chemotherapy.” For me, it was something of a vacation, really, and interesting interaction with former nursing school students. I have found that the more I am aware of how blessed I am, the more I am able to enjoy those blessings and get through the rough spots.

Father, I deal with people all the time who are convinced their problems are terrible, and they suffer proportionately. Help me speak Your truth, Your comfort to them without putting them down, so that they may see themselves and their situations from Your perspective and rejoice in You, for their blessing and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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April 29, 2016

Nehemiah 6:9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”
But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

I like Nehemiah! Prayer was such an integral part of his life that he didn’t bother with formalities at all. The NIV supplies, “But I prayed,” in brackets, but that’s not part of the original text. I get the impression this book was written somewhat like a diary, with him recording day by day what had gone on. As he wrote down the efforts of their enemies to stop them, his immediate response was to ask God for strength. He was operating in the style of people of God down through history, people who have been totally aware that God is present, He is interested, and He is in control. We tend to slip up on one or more of those points a great deal of the time. When we don’t feel God, we tend to think He isn’t there, but that’s a mistake. Any failure there is on our side. Psalm 139 is a magnificent exposition of this point by David, who certainly knew it first hand. But then, many people are so wounded by their life experiences that they have trouble believing God really cares. Such people are never to be condemned, but they need people around them to be “Jesus with skin on” to demonstrate God’s concern in ways they can recognize it. Finally, practically all of us, at one time or another, have trouble believing God really has the power to deal with everything that is going on. God has had to deal with that in His people countless times throughout history, from Abraham (Genesis 18:14) to Moses (Exodus 4:10-12) to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:27) to Mary (Luke 1:37) and many more. It is only when we get those three factors firm in our hearts and minds that we can walk in the peace and joy that God intends for us.

This is my struggle as well. Like Nehemiah, I pray at all sorts of times in all sorts of ways, aware that God hears everything I say, either verbally or in my heart. I enjoy that, and wouldn’t give it up for a moment. However, I still have times of distress and even depression, when I look too hard at the temporal world around me. For example, I very strongly want a candidate for president that I can vote for in good conscience, but from a human perspective that is looking less likely. Letting that depress me is foolish, because God is still God! In her devotions just yesterday my wife wrote a Word from the Lord for me, about keeping my focus on the Lord rather than on human newscasters and analysts. My concern is the very real possibility that America is under God’s judgment, and so will receive again the leader they are asking for, as they did eight years ago. I pray that is not the case, but even if it is, God is still God, and I need to trust Him. There are other issues closer to home, but there too God is still God, and I must never forget it. He has made it clear to me that He wants me to rest, relax, and rejoice, so failure to do so is disobedience.

Father, I ask Your forgiveness for my anxious heart. You have given me every reason to trust You, and yet I waver. Thank You that You don’t waver! Help me keep growing in faith and obedience, to be and do all that You desire and intend, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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April 28, 2016

Nehemiah 4:9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

In some ways the Book of Nehemiah reminds me of the Letter of James in the New Testament, because it is both spiritual and intensely practical. The focus is on God, but human responsibility and activity are clearly stated. In this particular case, people who ignore God would have just set a guard, and people who over-spiritualize would have just prayed. Nehemiah did both. It’s like James asking what good faith is if it doesn’t lead to action. (James 2:26) We tend to make things into either/or questions when actually they are both/and. A major rift in the Church down through the centuries has been social action versus evangelism. Today there are evangelistic organizations that tend to ignore physical needs, and there are social welfare organizations that are strictly non-religious. One shining example of an organization that combines the two is Samaritan’s Purse. They have one of the highest ratings in the world of converting donor funds into actual aid, and they do it unapologetically in the name of Jesus Christ. Muslim countries would like to exclude them because of the second factor, but often accept them because of how very good they are at getting physical help where it is needed. I have no doubt that many in that organization are going to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” when they stand before God’s throne. However, the matter of combining the physical and the spiritual applies to every area of life, and not just disaster relief. If we are genuinely spiritual, then we will be actively obedient to God in practical ways. In God’s economy, there is no dichotomy.

I feel like I tend to lean to the spiritual side to the detriment of the practical at times, and that’s not good. At the same time, the pleas for money for this and that “good cause” are literally endless, to the point that I tend to delete email the moment I hit any mention of money. That’s not good either. I need to make the use God intends of all that He places in my hands, without being whipped around by various humanistic motivations. That calls for more wisdom than I have! However, if I will be active in my obedience to God, He will manifest His wisdom through me in spite of myself, and people will be blessed and He will be glorified.

Father, thank You for this Word. Thank You for making it clear that I’m to preach from James 2 on Sunday! Help me be more and more accurately and effectively a representation of my Lord Jesus Christ, not just on Sundays but every day of the week, so that more and more people may be drawn to repentance and faith, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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April 27, 2016

Nehemiah 2:4-5 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.

I have heard this particular incident described as a “telegraph prayer.” However, in current society it might be better called a “Twitter prayer,” since many people have never encountered a telegram in their lives. It was an emergency prayer, more emotion than words, but very focused on the reality that if God didn’t help out, he was in deep trouble. Nehemiah was obviously a liked and trusted member of the court, but Artaxerxes was an absolute monarch, and displeasing him was often fatal. As the Bible records, the results of this prayer were very good indeed. God gave Nehemiah the words to be clear and bold, and he softened Artaxerxes’ heart to respond well. The point is, our prayers don’t have to be long and involved all the time, but they need to be real. It is a blessing to be able to spend a long time in prayer, but length is no guarantee of either sincerity or success. When Jesus taught specifically on prayer He said, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matthew 6:7-8) That’s why Nehemiah’s prayer was so effective. Probably it was along the lines of, “Lord, help!” We don’t have to spell things out because God already knows what we need. At the same time, specific prayer often crystallizes in our hearts and minds what it is we need. That’s why Jesus so famously told us to ask, seek, and knock. (Matthew 7:7-8) All of this comes down to recognizing our dependence on God and being active in our submission to Him. If you think you can do it on your own, you aren’t going to pray in the first place.

As I am grateful to remember, I was raised in a home where prayer was as natural as breathing. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve been 100% in relation to prayer ever since. Sadly, at times I have prayed more to be heard by the people present than by God. Jesus said that was empty. (Matthew 6:5) At times I have failed to pray, trusting what I’d already been given rather than asking for a fresh supply. That too is a recipe for disaster. I seek to lead others into a vital prayer life, but I tend to take it for granted myself. How foolish! I need to make full use, as called for, of emergency prayers, detailed prayers, and simply resting in my Father’s presence. Particularly, as I try to get across to others, I’ve got to remember that prayer isn’t a monologue; I need to listen to what He says to me even more than I rattle to Him. One of the very few times I have heard Him in what might have been an audible voice, He told me to shut up! I had been asking Him, nonstop, to speak to me, and He said, “Well then, shut up.” I was flabbergasted, but then I laughed at my own foolishness. I am to make full use of the privilege of prayer, and even more use of hearing what God has to say to me.

Father, thank You indeed for prayer. It defies all reason that You would want intimate communication with me, but Your Word and my experience both proclaim that very clearly. Help me never take that lightly or for granted, but operate always in full gratitude and obedience, so that Your will may be done in and through me for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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April 26, 2016

Nehemiah 1:8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses.”

Like many other people recorded in the Bible, Nehemiah is praying God’s words back to Him. It’s not that God forgets what He has said, or that He could, but rather that we can pray with total assurance when we are standing on His Word, rather than on our own imaginations. However, this must be done in all humility, with no trace of our trying to hold God accountable. (It’s amazing how often that seems to happen, but God pointed the fallacy in such an attitude out to Jeremiah, comparing us to clay and God to a potter. [Jeremiah 18:1-10) Nehemiah had confessed the sins of Israel, including his own direct ancestors and he himself, just before this, so there was no pride in this at all. Just recently I read an article about the Biblical illiteracy of American Christians. Though 80% of American households have at least one Bible, they don’t read it and don’t really know what’s in it. The average American Christian couldn’t pray God’s words back to Him if they had to! That is tragic indeed. In contrast, believers in China in many areas still have a real shortage of Bibles, so they copy them out by hand and memorize large chunks so that they can’t lose them. The situation in Japan isn’t much different from America among Christians, though the percentage of households with Bibles in the general population is much lower. Bibles are taken out on Sundays, if then, and there is very little familiarity with what is really in them. If God’s people would take in His Word and pray it back to Him, the world would be a very different, and much better, place.

This issue is very personal to me. I grew up in a home where the Bible was loved, read, and absorbed, but at church, any time it was read in Sunday School or a worship service the page number was given. That helped complete novices find the passage, yes, but it didn’t help anyone really become familiar with the Bible. I have known people who had been Christians for over 30 years and still couldn’t find a verse just from being given the reference! It is no wonder they had little assurance and power in their lives. As a pastor I have steadfastly refused to give page numbers, and have taken some flack for it. I don’t even require uniformity in the translation used, which is shocking to some. We have a young man in the church who delights to serve each Sunday by putting bookmarks in our “lender” Bibles at all of the passages I plan to use in the message. Sometimes that means a lot of bookmarks! At least he is learning how to find Scripture references! I keep encouraging the believers to have regular devotions, to take in the Word and let it operate fully in their hearts and lives, but the response is spotty. You would think that people would see the lives of those who do feast on the Word and desire to do likewise, but our lying enemy still manages to deceive so many. I must never give up, but continue speaking the truth in love, so that people may be set free.

Father, thank You for the message this past Sunday and for the good response to it. I pray that people would indeed experience You through Your Word and respond accordingly, so that the works of the enemy may be destroyed and Your kingdom come in their hearts and lives, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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April 25, 2016

Ezra 8:21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.

This story is one that benefits from footnotes to the text, because we don’t have a grasp of the units of weight mentioned. It boggles the mind that they were taking nearly 30 tons of gold and silver with them. Considering the general public safety of the day, that was like an open invitation to be slaughtered! Ezra had the right answer, even though it would be ridiculed even today: pray. I happen to be a proponent of concealed carry (and would do so if I lived in the US) but this is far more important. Weapons can be entirely appropriate at times, (Luke 22:36) but they aren’t the ultimate answer. Right now the world is a dangerous place indeed, on many levels. Prayer is essential! Perceived weakness can be very dangerous, and perceived strength can be a source of safety. Probably one thing the Lord used in keeping this group safe was the fact that they were clearly a Persian entourage, and Persia was far and away the greatest military power of the day. That probably contributed to bandits not wanting to mess with them. That said, it was no guarantee, as Ezra well knew, and prayer was certainly called for. There is a difference when you are facing a rival and when you are facing a genuine enemy. With school sports competitions, for example, it is entirely appropriate to pray for protection from injury and that every player would be able to do their best and the team coordinate well, but praying to trounce the opponents is out of place. However, that’s not the picture when it comes to enemies like ISIS, or even the home invader who’s after your stuff. We aren’t to be paranoid, but we must remember where our safety lies, and depend on Him.

I am very blessed that Japan has some of the best public safety in the world, but at the same time we are entirely in reach of North Korea’s missiles. That’s not something I can protect against, personally, but I can pray. My children and grandchildren are in the US, where I can’t be to protect them by any physical means, but I can pray. I am not where I can touch my brothers and sisters across the globe who are being persecuted for their faith, but I can pray. I need to remember that I am never helpless, because God is my Helper. To receive His help, I’ve got to be humble before Him, as Ezra knew. I am to make appropriate use of all that He places in my hands, but know that the necessary wisdom and strength are all His, and ask Him to impart them to me as needed. If I will do that, I indeed have nothing to be worried about.

Father, thank You indeed for Your protection. Keep me from stepping away from that protection by my willful disobedience. May I be humbly, gratefully obedient to You at all times, so that all of Your plans for me, and none of the enemy’s, be fulfilled, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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April 24, 2016

Ezra 6:10 “…so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.”

Even a heathen king like Cyrus wanted to be prayed for! He had perhaps heard stories about this “God of Heaven,” and thought it wouldn’t hurt to be on His good side. He was evidently not obsessed with wealth for its own sake, because he didn’t hesitate to make a very considerable financial investment in this project, returning all the gold and silver items that had previously been taken from the temple and also committing to the continuing expenses not only of construction but of the upkeep of the temple activities. Actually, God had prophesied Cyrus’ activities years earlier through Isaiah. (Isaiah 45) That said, God’s work in him certainly included this desire to be prayed for. Offering to pray for people can be a very good way to open their hearts to the Gospel, but if you offer, you had better follow through! Actually, praying on the spot for people can have a huge impact, but it had better be genuine prayer and not “boilerplate.” If we are sincere, then the Holy Spirit will guide us as we pray, and we may well find ourselves as God’s “mouthpiece” to that person, touching them profoundly.

I will always remember Dr. Cal Guy, one of my professors at seminary. In a place like that, people are always talking about prayer in one way or another, but if someone asked Dr. Guy for prayer, he stopped right there, wherever he was or whatever he was doing, and prayed. That might be walking across campus, in the middle of class, or in a store in town. That was a marvelous example to me, and fit in perfectly with the environment in which I was raised, where prayer was as natural as breathing. He helped me overcome any feelings I might have had of embarrassment at doing something so “politically incorrect” as praying in public. This was and is very different from the Pharisees “praying on street corners” that Jesus talked about, (Matthew 6:5) because the purpose is not to be seen; rather, whether you are seen or not is irrelevant. I have tried to follow Dr. Guy’s example, and God has used that many times. Today, I pray for my students at the beginning of each class period (since I teach in private schools it’s not forbidden) and many students have responded quite well. The difficulty there is in keeping it fresh, avoiding the “boilerplate” already mentioned. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit’s help, (Romans 8:26) so I need to seek that and accept it. If I will do so, the Spirit’s words through me will accomplish more than I could dream.

Father, thank You again for the privilege of prayer, and specifically of praying for others. It is a marvelous thing to be Your instrument of blessing! May I never draw back for any reason, but press forward more and more so that Your Word may go forth through me to accomplish everything for which You send it, for Your glory. (Isaiah 55:10-11) Thank You. Praise God!

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