The Posture of Prayer

We’ve all had that friend who is never heard of lest there be a need we may somehow support.  As surely as the phone rings and the caller ID has identified the suspect, we know in fact that they need something; otherwise they would not be calling.  Perhaps nothing is more offensive to a relationship than being only used as a ‘resource’ by those we consider friends.

It makes one ponder how often God may have made this judgment concerning our conversation to him.  Of course, prayer is and should be the means by which we make our requests known to God.  Jesus said as much in his ‘model prayer’ in the Sermon on the Mount, noting that we should ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.”  But before the call for help and the plea for forgiveness, that same model prayer also postures us properly that our entire prayer life not be like the friend who only calls when they need something.

Jesus said, “9  Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’” (Matthew 6:9-10 (ESV))

Before anything else is the recognition of whom exactly we are addressing.  We are seeking the author of life to whom all belongs; he who is “hallowed” by his very name.  “Hallowed” comes from the Gk. hagiazo, “holy” or “venerated.”  When we call on his Name, we call not on the ‘man upstairs’ but the judge of our every act and thought who by grace alone in his provision of Christ alone has received us to his ear as his beloved children instead of his enemy.  When we call on HIS name, it’s something far different from “hey, Steve – pass the salt” and much more akin to what our attitude should be when speaking in front of a judge – guilty as charged – yet finding the leniency of the court.

The second phrase of Jesus’ model prayer further establishes our posture before this great God.  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Truly knowing that it is the author of life with whom one speaks, how can the first thing out of one’s mouth be essentially, “stop everything you’re working on and give me a hand here, would ya?”

It is at this point that the profound nature of prayer is revealed in Jesus’ words.  While prayer is commonly valued as the means by which we ask God for what we want, it should rather be understood as the means by which we ask God to reveal what He wants.  That’s not to say that our desires are not to be voiced, but they are to be voiced from within the context of the subject speaking to the King, whose concern for His Kingdom will always – rightly – overshadow any and all further noise.

There are far too many supposed “prayer books” on our Christian bookstore shelves enticing people to attempt to manipulate the only one in the room who knows better.  Our King does not answer prayer because one has learned the proper phrasing with which to send it.  He answers prayer out of his regard for his own sovereignty over his creation and the implementation of his will.  Thus, John says, “14  And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 John 5:14 (ESV))

Our posture before God as his servants is paramount for us to be in the right mind to pray wisely and God (by his own Word) to be pleased in hearing it.

I shudder at the thought that if God were like one of us, He might rather roll his eyes upon seeing my name on his caller ID.

The Right Decision

[Originally published in The Fort Bend Herald]

 Perhaps the most common question a pastor is asked counsel on is simply, “what should I do?”  Many decisions that life throws at us are difficult.  Options have widely varying potential outcomes.  How can one know what the results of a decision will be?

While this is a complex issue this article has not enough space to answer fully, I’d like to focus on the very first question that should always be asked when making a difficult decision.  Many times, this one question is all that need be asked; as it will render null and void all further potential circumstances.

That question is simply, “is this really my decision?”  What is meant by the question is, “do I already have instructions on what I should choose (that perhaps I’m actually trying to avoid)?”

Christians overwhelmingly claim to have a biblical worldview and follow a biblical model of faith, practice and morality.  Yet, I’m surprised how often I’m asked about a decision that has already been made for those of us who claim such a position.  My experience is that people sometimes seek counsel because they are looking for “permission” of sorts, that they may in fact make the wrong choice with the blessing of someone else.  However, if I have a clear scriptural teaching on a subject, the answer to question one, for me, is “no.”

We who claim allegiance to Christ accept his terms that “if you love me you will keep my commands.”  In short, we have the overwhelming volume of God’s Word which already answers so many of life’s decisions very plainly.

“Should I misrepresent my marital status on my tax forms to save money?”  “Should I lie to someone when asked a question, which when answered, might make them upset?”  These are not my decisions.  They have already been made for me as one who bears Christ’s name and trusts his previously-given instructions.

In short, if there is a clear, biblical, “right” or “wrong” to follow, my decision should be already made.  I should to what is right.  No further consideration is needed.

While most believers agree in principle with this sentiment, they tend to begin to weigh outcomes rather than to act in faith when doing the right thing might cause some personal harm or inconvenience.  “What if doing the right thing gets me fired?”  “What if the right thing costs me a relationship?”  The truth is, we are temporal beings with no vision of the future.  We simply cannot know with any degree of certainty what the outcome of any decision will be.  We might do what we think will cause the best outcome only to be surprised that it did not turn out as expected.  Believers are not given the burden of such considerations when a clear biblical right and wrong are at stake.  We are called to choose what is right and let God sort out his own results.

Such is the nature of the lives of those who we consider heroes of our faith.  In Acts 7, Stephen died for doing the right thing; as did Christ himself in the gospel accounts.  And, in both cases, even though the right action brought about an undesirable temporal consequence, I never hear anyone preach a sermon on “how Jesus may not have died” or “Stephen’s big mistake.”  It is clear to us that it was God’s plan for these events – both the results of a right action – to bring further glory to himself; even though quite undesirable at the time.

Paul noted in Philippians 3:8 (ESV),
8  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

This same Paul died at the hands of Nero for his unyielding faith.  We consider him a foundational example of what it means to serve Christ to the fullest.  Why should we necessarily expect a story book ending to our own cause of serving Christ?  On the other hand, after being imprisoned for his faith, Peter was miraculously freed (Acts 12). One simply cannot know what God has in store for a faithful decision.  But that result is His alone.  That, frankly, is what it means to have faith in God: not that He will do what we want – but that He will do as He wants.

Obviously, not every decision in life involves simple “right or wrong” as potential choices.  But sometimes it truly is that straightforward.  If scripture teaches a clear right and wrong in a given context, then for me, question one should be considered as “answered.”  This is not my decision.  It has already been made by He who I claim to trust and follow – to whatever end may come.

Jonah’s Misdirected Message

[Originally published in The Fort Bend Herald]

 Perhaps no Old Testament narrative receives quite the beating Jonah does by those who are unable to accept its account.  It is, after all, the story of a great miracle.  Strangely enough, most of those who reject it as truth are denying the wrong miracle altogether, as Jonah’s story is not the commonly cartooned account of a man making s’mores inside the belly of a whale by campfire.

The key issue of the account by most who reject it seems to be oriented around the fact that a man cannot live for three days in the digestive system of a great fish.  Of course, that which cannot be done – yet is – is the very essence of a “miracle.”  Yet, the real miracle of Jonah has nothing to do with a man living in a fish.  It is, for the doubter, actually much worse.

If one looks carefully at the Hebrew text of the story, the book in no way depicts a man “living” in a fish for three days, but rather a man dying and being resurrected three days later.    The miracle of Jonah is resurrection, not extreme survival “fish edition.”

The gist of the story is commonly upheld correctly:  Jonah, in disobedience to God’s call to preach to Nineveh (a large Syrian city, Israel’s greatest enemy of the time), flees by ocean in the opposite direction where he is cast overboard and swallowed by a great fish.  He prays to God and is three days later regurgitated onto dry ground by the fish, after which he returns to complete his mission.  Jonah was alive when cast from the boat.  He was alive when he was regurgitated onto dry ground.  The incorrect assumption is thus that he was alive for the duration of the ordeal.  He was not.

Chapter two accounts that Jonah, “prayed to the LORD…from the belly of the fish.”  In fact, Jonah was in the belly of the fish, but his account goes on to inform the reader that his body was in fact quite dead there while his spirit went to the “place of the dead.”  Verse 2 notes Jonah’s prayer (after the fact), “out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”  Sheol is the Hebrew name for the spiritual abode of the dead.  While the term can be used metaphorically, continued reading of this text informs us that a literal usage of Sheol is in fact what Jonah intended.  Verses 3-5 note Jonah being surrounded by flood waters, which “closed in over me to take my life” (v5) and that weeds (which would be on the bottom of the sea) “wrapped about my head.”  Finally, in verse 6 he notes “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit.”

“The pit” is translated from the Hebrew term shahat (shakh’-ath), which is another term related to Sheol in the Old Testament (Ps 55:23, Isa 51:14).  It is where the spirits of dead people went; the “place of the dead.”  Jonah clearly depicts his condition as that of having drowned, then having been swallowed by a fish, and then having been “brought up from the pit,” or resurrected at some point (likely immediately) before being spit out onto dry ground by the fish.

The story of Jonah is that he died and was resurrected on the third day.  Any other understanding misses the whole point of what Jesus later said to the Pharisees:

(Matthew 12:39-40 (ESV))  …“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus did not build a campfire and make s’mores in the grave any more than Jonah did.  He was dead and raised, just as Jonah was dead and raised.

The message of Jonah is one of resurrection from death.  For this reason alone it was a worthy archetype for Christ to fulfill in full view of his generation of unbelieving Jews.

May our generation understand that denying one miracle – especially in light of Jesus’ own acceptance of it – is to deny the power of the same God who performed the latter as its fruition in Christ.

To deny Jonah because of its miraculous claims is to deny Christ of his.  But if one can believe Christ was dead and three days later raised to life, one should have no problem with Jonah – whose story Christ referenced as his own script.

Hidden Treasure

[Originally published in Fort Bend Herald]

 It seems we all have pursuits in our lives which honestly are of no measurable eternal consequence.  Simply put, we collect things that we perceive to enrich our lives in some tangible way, but that will most certainly be left behind for others to fight over when we depart from this Earth.  From the time of our first job a wish list is started of things that we will pursue and draw satisfaction from owning, using and maintaining; with the latter being the most difficult commitment of product ownership of all.

The fleeting nature of “stuff” has been recently illustrated to me through a classic Robalo boat.  I’ve been around boats all my life and from young adulthood have continually either pursued or endured boat ownership.  My current claim is a twenty five year old vessel that has truly surprised me with its quality, durability – and constant upkeep.

Being a salt water boat, rust is a constant enemy.  I recently acquired and rebuilt a trailer to haul the thing around at great expense of both finance and time invested.  That trailer has now been to the water three times and is already showing that faint, tell-tale sign of fresh rust on the springs, which I coated exceptionally well in a rust-blocking agent.  The clock is ticking.  I have three years before redoing the suspension.

If the trailer were the only maintenance concern I would probably gain two years of livelihood by the end.  But, the fact is that every single portion of this blessed mission of mine deteriorates with a vengeance.  Trailer lights are rewired every few years due to salt water infiltration destroying the copper wiring.  The exterior of the boat must be regularly deoxidized, waxed and repaired from sun damage, nicks and scrapes.  The gauges take turns in monthly increments giving up the ghost while the engine could write its own factory service manual at this point.  The simple fact is, I actually plan out – to the best of my entirely ignorant reckoning – what I expect to break next and how I will have the funding, time and knowledge to repair it when it does.  If I were not a bit of a masochist, actually enjoying my labors on this eternal project of a possession, I might be inclined to let her win quickly and just sink her to the bottom of the ocean.

It is no wonder to me that Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)

There exist irreconcilable differences between every atom in this created universe and our own eternal nature and calling.  As it has wisely been stated, “you can’t take it with you,” we might also consider the question, “why would we want to?”  The scriptures teach us that we who are in Christ will one day be resurrected to new bodies, impervious to degradation or death.  We will be ushered into an eternal dwelling place likewise equipped with interminable wealth requiring no maintenance whatsoever.  Until then, Jesus informs us that we have the privilege of storing up true treasure for that day.

When the gospel is shared, eternal treasure is built.  When we serve others in Christ’s name, every hour spent yields countless benefit compared to beating our heads against our temporal projects.  How ironic that so often we find ourselves serving our Lord in ministry capacities only if we perceive ourselves “to have the time” from our pursuit of fretting over that which perishes.  May we rather pursue first that which is eternally rewarding, and only then “if we have time” turn our attention to that which we bother to hang onto for a little while. (Mat 6:33)  May our desires be to keep those things – and our true treasure – in their proper perspectives.  The stuff we can take with us is all that will matter on that day – even while others haggle over the remnants of our rotting possessions left behind.

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