Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Courage & Confidence

God's Word is just so amazing. It is so clearly evident that every word, every verse, every chapter, every book - from Genesis to Revelation - belongs as part of one unit. Though God inspired so many different authors over a wide span of time to pen so many different types of writings, they all work together to paint the same picture and tell the same gospel story.

One of the ways this has become most evident for me is by reading systematically through several different parts of the Bible at the same time. All at the same time, I am doing a Bible study in Matthew on my own and also teaching that to my teen Sunday School class, reading Proverbs and Exodus with my kids, and reading and studying 1 Samuel with my small group study/fellowship group.

Several weeks ago we started digging into 1 Samuel 1 and its about a woman named Hannah who is upset because she has no children. Although she is favored by her husband, he has another wife who has borne him children and she loves to rub this in Hannah's face. For years Hannah has made the annual trip with the family to the tabernacle to worship and sacrifice to God. On this occasion, "in bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord." She vowed to God that if he would bless her with a son, she'd give him back to the Lord in service at the temple.  She kept on praying in her heart; her lips were moving but she was not using her voice. The priest saw her, thought she was drunk, and told her to get out.  She corrected him: "I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord." The priest tells her to go in peace and may God grant her request. At this point she has no guarantee that God will answer her request yet "she went on her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast."

Why she was no longer downcast when she left? Her prayer had not yet been answered. The Bible doesn't say that God told the priest that it would be. If you read on, you see in the next chapter that her prayer does get answered and she has Samuel. Chapter 2 includes her amazing prayer of praise and thanks to God in response.  That prayer not only reveals truths about who God is but reveals the kind of woman of faith she is and the close relationship she has with God to know those things about Him to be true. Still, going back to Chapter 1, it does not explicitly say why her frown turns upside down after she leaves the tabernacle that day.

Fast forward a few days and I was reading Matthew 15:21-28 (and same story in Mark 7) where Jesus takes his disciples outside of Israel for the first time to Tyre. A woman who is not a Jew but has obviously heard about Jesus came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession!" Jesus doesn't say anything but his disciples urge him to send her away because she kept crying out after them. Jesus responds to her that he came first to the Jews, but she falls/kneels before him and begs for him to help her. He again responds as a Jew would that she was asking for something that was the first right of the Jews. She responds that she wants it too and she should have access to what they have rejected. He then commends her for her great faith and tells her that her request has been granted and her daughter was in fact healed.

I struggled at first with Jesus' response to the woman in Matthew 15. Why did he not respond at first, and then tell her twice that he came first to the Jews, knowing she was not one. It didn't seem like his typical compassionate response. Through their conversation, Jesus clearly confirmed that he was the promised Messiah to the Jews. Although he did come to them first, many of them rejected both his claim to be the Son of God and his message of repentance and forgiveness through faith in him. He did, and still does, offer his love and forgiveness to anyone (Jew or not) who believes in their heart and confesses with their mouth that he is Lord. She proved that. But that wasn't what I really got out of this passage.

Something else hit me that helped me make sense of Hannah's situation in 1 Samuel 1. By waiting to respond the way she wanted him to, Jesus allowed her to demonstrate her faith that was strengthened the more time she spent with him and talking with him. She was not afraid to initially approach him crying out and then continued to stay in his presence kneeling before him. Granted, he did immediately grant her request because of her faith so she would have left his presence happy about that. So why did Hannah also leave happy when her request had not yet been granted? The common denominator was time spent in the presence of God, a sad heart that was poured out to Him, and desperation mixed with faith.

Having faith does not mean you never cry or experience the emotions of your situation. Who had the kind of faith that God responded to? These women who had the courage to go to God and pour out their hearts to him. One wept much and prayed in her heart when the words wouldn't come out. One cried out loud to him. One stood up and the other kneeled in his presence. They both praised him as Lord. They both purposely went to God and spent time with Him. Both were deeply troubled and full of faith. Both were encouraged because of their time spent with their Lord and both were rewarded for their faith.

If you're in need of courage and confidence then go to Jesus in prayer. Be emotional in his presence. Spend time pouring out your eyes and your heart to Him. All while praising him as Lord and believing that He will do what you ask in His name. May your face no longer be downcast, whatever the future may hold.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

True Fasting: A Perspective on Lent

I've never actually observed Lent. I mean, as Easter approaches I sometimes do a little bit more reading in the Gospels of the events leading up to the death of Christ. But the whole 40 days and giving things up - never done it. It was never a tradition in my home nor strongly encouraged in any churches I've attended. I'm leery of church traditions. Always have been. My mom set an example for me growing up to not practice traditions established by men without first finding reasons to do so in the Bible. That's why I still don't care about Christmas Trees! I'm grateful for the ways my mom encouraged me to question holidays and traditions.  Has God commanded us to observe/celebrate this? Are there traditions he has prohibited? Is this holiday/celebration or this tradition going to be helpful for me in appreciating what God has done or in showing Him my love?

I've found myself reading more about Lent each year lately, seeing how others celebrate it - not as a tradition - but how people really take it to heart. I'm curious about it. I'm on the fringe of doing something with it. But I don't want to unless God is really laying it on my heart. I'm so cautious about getting caught up in something for the sake of tradition. Most of what I've read does focus on giving something up as a sacrifice to Jesus because of what he gave up and suffered for me.

Well I literally stumbled upon a chapter in the Bible this morning that gave me a great fresh perspective on Lent. I have a book called "Setting Their Hope in God: Biblical Intercession for Your Children" by Andrew Case and it is filled with prayers that Andrew wrote but that come straight from scripture. I've found it very helpful in praying God's truth and will for my kids. This morning's prayer came from Isaiah 58 and 60. All I could think as I read and prayed it was that it felt "Lentish" - so I looked up Isaiah 58 to read more. The heading for the chapter in my Bible is "True Fasting."

It's a little bit long but I have to just include the entire chapter for you here. Bolding is mine own highlighting.

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

God placed this chapter in my life at just the right time (I love how he always does that). Right as I'm questioning if I might fast from something and if so - what, and how? Am I tempted to dive into a short season of "humility" and self-sacrifice on one hand while with the other hand I'm oppressive, judgmental, and/or greedy? I like to think I'm not those things actively - but I am passively if I'm not intentionally acting against them. What's the point in giving up one of my own luxuries or excesses if I'm not practically meeting someone else's needs?

If nothing else, I simply feel more compelled to be a Repairer of Broken Walls and a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. And not just for Lent, but that this season of focus would be a springboard to a life that is more marked by those things.  Jesus commanded us to take care of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, unclothed, sick and imprisoned in Matthew 25:44-45. "‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

Isaiah 58 also ties in perfectly with my pastor's recent sermon series from Luke where Jesus, on several occasions, speaks out against the Pharisees' hypocrisy.  In Mark 7:8, Jesus says, "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions." Lent is the perfect time to "close those gaps" that exist when we fast for a season out of tradition while the rest of our life is marked by indifference to injustice, eyes that are blind to those who are physically suffering around us, tongues that speak bitterly and fingers that point in judgment. Closing those gaps is the kind of fast that God has chosen for us to participate in. And it also happens to come with some pretty amazing promises - God will go before and behind us, answer when we cry to Him, turn our darkness into light, and bring us healing.

I really love how Isaiah 58 ends too. After basically telling the people to not even bother with their fasting traditions until they do something about the rest of their life, God reminding them of the importance of keeping the weekly tradition of the Sabbath. It's like that little "by the way" at the end - "that traditional of setting aside one day a week as holy, to honor me and delight in me and not do your own thing - yeah, keep doing that still."
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