Monday, July 22, 2019

That roller coaster is still going down

Last week we noted that once a new beginning of any kind in our spiritual lives is made, we should expect the opposition from the devil to start.
I promised you some new characters in our story. And we have met them. They were members of the Compromisers Club. Did you know they also had founding memberships in the Tattletales United Club, too?
Let's dive in!

Just like we see happening in our world today, the people in the land were using their power and privilege to stop something they didn't like.
First they started a "whisper" campaign; talk went around that was designed to discourage the Jewish remnant. Next, they bribed officials; they employed fear tactics; and then they went for the big guns -- they lobbied the king to stop the building project.
Hmmmmm. Looks a LOT like today, I believe!
Let's look at the Word:
Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. (Ezra 4:4)
The devil often uses the tool in his kit called "discouragement." We don't know specifically how the locals did this. But I'm betting it was both vocal and a whispered effort. To their faces, they probably smiled at the people of Israel and said, "Awww, kids, why are you working so hard? And you won't let us help, either. You know, if you build this back, it might just get torn down again!"
Behind their backs, they may have been telling all the surrounding tribes that "thousands of people are going to be flocking to the city of Jerusalem for all of those feasts and worship times they have! Surely you understand what that is going to much traffic! All of the problems that come with increased population! They need to build somewhere else, or not build at all."
I'm guessing that if it were our world, today, there would be a vigorous Twitter campaign, and many would post opposition on their other social media platforms of choice. Not to mention groups that would protest outside the city hall about environmental impact.

Satan loves to use his tool of discouragement. It's one of the least strenuous efforts that he employs. Human nature being what it is, he can simply start the whispers and talk and then walk away. He whispers to us (or he uses someone else who says this to us) "you know, you're working SO hard. What you are doing won't make any difference in this world. Definitely won't affect anything in eternity!"
Or, "those people don't appreciate your efforts. Why bother with that?"
Or, "why are you trying so hard to make changes? Just quit and enjoy yourself. You worry too much."
He tries to discourage individuals. He tries to discourage pastors. Anytime that he sees someone working hard to make a difference, and to bring glory to God; anytime he sees someone making a new beginning with God -- that's his signal to pounce.

And there is another tool in his kit; it's secured to the belt, right next to discouragement. It's called "fear." It says they set out to "make them afraid to go on building." (v 4)  When we are discouraged, fear has an opening to creep in. And boy, oh boy, can fear take over and run our lives! Many a believer has wrestled with thoughts like these:

               "What if they tattletale to my boss?"
               "Wonder if I will lose my job?"
                "How many people have they told that lie to?"
                "Will my friends and church members believe them, or me?"
                "I'm so tired of trying. What does the future hold for me?"

The people in the land were unhappy with being rejected. They tried every way they knew how to thwart the building efforts.

Have we made a new beginning with God? Has someone that we know made a new start?

We must be prepared for the fact that Satan's attempts to stop us will be unrelenting. That he will use discouragement and fear as his "first round" of obstacles. That he will then ramp up the opposition. We will see this when we study again tomorrow. . . .

Friday, July 19, 2019

Friday slowdown

Often I post vibrant, exuberant songs of praise here on the blog. Sometimes the Spirit moves me to post a reverent song. Today is one of those days.
I've been driven to my knees recently by life. I've been hurt in my soul. I've had people on my heart that I've been crying out to God for. I've seen the darkness that is deepening in this world.
I'm on fire to tell more people about Him.
He is the only One Who can save.
He is the only One Who is worthy of all blessing, glory, and honor.
I hope this song blesses your heart. It helped me.

Do you feel the world is broken? (We do)
Do you feel the shadows deepen? (We do)
But do you know that all the dark won't stop the light from getting through? (We do)
Do you wish that you could see it all made new? (We do)

Is all creation groaning? (It is)
Is a new creation coming? (It is)
Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst? (It is)
Is it good that we remind ourselves of this? (It is)

Is anyone worthy? Is anyone whole?
Is anyone able to break the seal and open the scroll?
The Lion of Judah who conquered the grave
He is David's root and the Lamb who died to ransom the slave

Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
Of all blessing and honor and glory
Is He worthy of this?
He is

Does the Father truly love us? (He does)
Does the Spirit move among us? (He does)
And does Jesus, our Messiah hold forever those He loves? (He does)
Does our God intend to dwell again with us? (He does)

Is anyone worthy? Is anyone whole?
Is anyone able to break the seal and open the scroll?
The Lion of Judah who conquered the grave
He is David's root and the Lamb who died to ransom the slave
From every people and tribe
Every nation and tongue
He has made us a kingdom and priests to God
To reign with the Son

Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
Of all blessing and honor and glory
Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
Is He worthy of this?
He is! He is! 
Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
He is! He is!
He is worthy! He is worthy!
He is!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Headed down to the bottom of the hill

After our two-day study on praying for salvation and relationship renewal for others, we are changing gears!
Back to Ezra!
We are in chapter four.
On Monday, we learned that the word had gotten around. Folks had begun hearing about the captives who'd returned and were trying to rebuild the Temple. This new beginning was of interest, but not for positive reasons!
Look at these verses:
When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”
But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” (Ezra 4:1-3)
Awwwww, how nice!
They want to help!
This is one of the tricks from Satan's toolkit.
A new beginning can be so awesome! We're up at the top, scooting along just fine. Then the devil tries to mess up our new beginning - and he has all kinds of ways to do this. And if we're not careful, we will go rolling down to the bottom of the hill. "The slough of despond," was the way John Bunyan described it in Pilgrim's Progress.....
So what is this tool from the devil's tool-belt? It's called compromise.
And it sometimes is disguised by cooperation.
On the surface, this seems really nice. Seems like they are being super nice. Here, let us help you with this big job here. We'll get this done in no-time-flat.
And it would have been really easy to not look much further and think, "Wow, this could be a way to have an outreach program!" Or, "we can befriend our neighbors and build relationships with them while we work together!"
Kinda leaves us wondering why Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the heads of the families turned 'em down. Did they have so many workers that they didn't need any help? Nope.
Were they just having a bad day?
I mean it. Their answer sounds kinda rude!
But we need to go back some in history, and figure this out. Then we'll understand.....
So that this post doesn't get too lengthy, I'd like to ask you to go and read II Kings 17:24-41. Will you do that for me?
Come back when you're done, OK?
Now, let's dive in -- these locals who were volunteering to work (but who really were disguising their true motives by wrapping up in the pretty paper of cooperation) were people who had moved into the Northern Kingdom after its fall in 722 BC. They had been moved there by the king of Assyria in a sort of "this-land-is-a-mess-why-don't-you-move-in-and-fix-things-up project.  When they first started living there, they didn't fear the Lord. He sent lions into the land, and some of the settlers were killed.
They assumed that the problems came from not knowing the customs of the god of the land. They told the king about it, and he said for a priest from Israel to be brought back. He was to teach them about God. The priest led the people in sacrificing to the Lord, but the people also continued worshiping their own gods from Babylon and other lands: Sukkoth Benoth, Nergal, Ashima, and many more.
So, as II Kings 17:41 sums it all up:
Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did.
These people (who were the forefathers of the New Testament Samaritans) blended false religions with the worship of the one true God. They just added God to their list -- they never dropped their idols. If they had worked together with the returned exiles, God's people probably would have fallen into spiritual compromise and mingled idolatry with the worship of YAHWEH.
The danger here was that it was appealing to think that these people were fellow worshipers of God. Their words were, after all, not absolute lies. They were partially true: they did worship God and sacrifice to Him. The problem was, they didn't worship God ALONE!
I wonder if some of the remnant accused their leaders of being too hard on the locals. "They believe in God, just like we do!"
Why not make peace with them and let them help?
Because if you know some water has only a little bit of poison in it, you don't drink it! It will poison you!
There are lots of pressures on churches and on individual believers nowadays. We are pressured to joining with those who believe the gospel but perhaps add things to it. Or those who believe the gospel except for one or two things they take out.
If we add or subtract from the gospel of God's grace, we have compromised it. We've changed it for our own purposes. Who are we to add or take anything away?
We must be careful to be witnesses, but not to be compromisers.

The people in Ezra chapter 4 resisted the enemy's subtle approach. We will soon see that the devil shows his true colors by using more aggressive opposition. He will do that in our lives, too, if he can.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. (II Corinthians 2:11)
and do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:27)
The remnant did OK this time . . . not to reveal "spoilers," but there's more coming from the devil and the people living around the re-builders.
I'm afraid they are headed down the long hill to discouragement.

More on that next week!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Prayer requests, day 2

Yesterday we were looking at the first chapter of Philippians, and talking about some steps that Paul told us would be helpful in our prayers. We're talking about prayers for salvation and for renewal of relationship in believers. We noted that we first need to be thankful for what He has done in our friends and loved ones' lives, then to remember that God will complete His work in their lives -- and that we need to mentally hand over the reins to Him. Lastly, we discussed the fact that both we (the praying peeps) and they (the peeps being prayed for) are on the same footing: we are both in need of God's grace.

Now we are ready to actually address the needs of our loved ones! Here is what Paul says:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Now we can begin to pray for what we think they need.  We know what they need, right? That's why we got on our knees.....
Here's the thing: what we think they need is often different from what God knows they need. Check out those verses up there. Paul wasn't praying that the Philippians would have sweet, cushy lives here on earth. He wasn't praying for the fun and the easy. He wasn't even addressing any specific needs that he was aware of -- any health needs or financial, or stuff like that.
Paul was praying that their love would abound more an more; that they would increase in knowledge and discernment, and that they would be pure and filled with the fruits of righteousness. We've studied some of these concepts previously; in its simplest definition, discernment is just the ability to decide what is truth and what is error -- what's right and what's wrong. Knowledge, as we have studied before, is based on God's Word and following His ways to receive wisdom from Him:
For the Lord gives wisdom;From His mouth come knowledge and understanding; (Proverbs 2:6)
Purity -- so many things tied up in that package -- to be morally clean. Not just in the meaning of sexual purity, but purity of mind and heart, too. Our speech, our conduct, our thoughts . . .
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. (I Timothy 4:12)
And then Paul prays for them to have the fruit of righteousness in Christ. He wants to see all of them overflowing with the results of a Christ-filled life. In other letters he details love, kindness, patience, long-suffering, and more. He encourages the reaching out to witness to others. All of these are the fruit that he prays his listeners (or readers) will have.
What an example for us as we pray for our loved ones. What a great standard for us to achieve as we pray for our friends. To ask God for these things in addition to our requests for health, for healing, and more.
Is this a hard one for us to handle? It can be. I know; I'm experiencing this right now, as some others are, too. I just want to cry out to Him (and I do, and I cry) to "fix this!" and "now!" But I know in my heart that it isn't up to me. He wants what is best for them, too. And I find it easier to handle when I remember that what is happening in my loved one's life can serve to advance the gospel. It can bring the kingdom nearer, both in the world and in their own lives. Let's look at three more verses:
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Paul has certainly received wisdom from God. In these verses, he is talking about how his own trials - his beatings, his imprisonment, and more - are serving to advance the gospel. What do we mean "advance"? Not just "move forward," but to "aid the growth and progress of."
I just bet that sometimes Paul received letters from friends; maybe even family would write or send messages. His mom might have sent word that she was worried about him . . . Paul was saying, "It's OK. These trials will advance the gospel. It will grow. More people will know our Lord."
I can't say that I've received the measure of wisdom that Paul had; but it helps me to remember that trials can bring our Christian loved ones CLOSER to God and help to teach and mature them. Trials can bring our un-saved loved ones TO God. Perhaps if we try to keep that in our focus, it will help us deal with what they are going through.

In verses fifteen through part of eighteen, Paul inserts a message about some who have preached of Christ for impure motives. That's a passage for another day - let's skip down to the latter half of eighteen, and then verse nineteen:
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.
Paul gives us encouragement here, in a ringing endorsement of the power of prayer and the work of the Spirit. We may not be able to do everything that we would like to do, what we long to do, to help our loved ones. There's no magic here, whether "real" or imaginary. We can't snap our fingers (or wiggle our noses) and have all of our loved ones' problems disappear and have them turn to Christ in wholehearted relationship. But we can pray for them, and we can know that it makes a difference. Paul says "I know" that this "will turn out for my deliverance."

Intercessory prayer is a privilege. I'm honored every day to join folks in prayer for their loved ones and their friends. God uses our prayers for the good of the ones that we love. We may not know exactly how the Lord works, but we don't need to! All we need to know is that God asks us to pray and somehow our prayers affect things - not just in the lives of the ones we are praying for, but also in our own lives.

Are we praying for loved ones who are not yet saved? I found this article to be both helpful and inspiring, and I would encourage you to utilize the "praying the Scripture" tips at the bottom. I researched this pastor and I feel he is a good resource.

Are we praying for saved loved ones who need to get closer to God? To renew their relationship? I think the key here is to treat a sheep that knows the shepherd and knows His voice, like the sheep in Matthew - go and try to find them, and coax them back! I've always thought the rhyme about Bo-peep was just terrible....leave them alone and they will come home! Nonono! Reach out to the friend or the loved one. Tell them of your love and your concern. And pray and pray. They may tell us to "buzz off." That's OK. Respect their wishes if they say they don't want to hear more.....but NEVER stop praying!
After asking God to reach out to His stray child, let's pray that the back-slidden one will have the ability to receive God's grace. What do I mean? Well, they may have truly gone astray and done things that they are sorely ashamed of.  Pray that they will be able to accept God's forgiveness, and then they would be able to forgive themselves. They may not feel worthy of His taking them back; ask the Spirit to comfort their hearts and to woo them.
If there is something in our loved one's life that is taking the place of God -- and yes, this is a tough one -- pray that it would be removed from their life. Pray that a spiritual hunger will be felt, and they will remember what it was like when they were in fellowship with God.
Pray one of the verses that promises we can expect our Father to "hedge about" and protect believers from the devil.
It make take many years. Or it could happen tomorrow.
Many, many years, possibly.
But God promises He will hear and will answer.
Today, as we close this two-day study, let's get on our knees and pray for our loved ones. Won't you join me?

(To those precious people who have asked me to pray with them for the salvation of a loved one, or for one who is back-slidden, please rest assured that you and your dear ones are in my prayers each day. I thank all of you who have, in turn, lifted up my loved ones that I'm praying for.  Let us not grow weary.....)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Prayer requests

I think that it was last week at prayer request time that we talked about prayers for health. I'd like to talk this week about prayers for salvation of a loved one, or for that loved one who is saved but not close to the Lord; prayers for that one to renew their relationship with Him.

Let's look at some verses that will help us:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, (Philippians 1:3-5)
Paul gives us a great example of how to pray for others. The first thing he does is thank God for what He has already done in their lives. I know in my own prayer-life, it's usually the worrisome things that I bring up first. (Grin) I dwell on what I'm concerned about, and I ignore the things I can be thankful for. How about my loved ones' good health? The fact that they are gainfully employed? That they have others besides me to enrich their lives with love and encouragement? And much, much  more. God has already worked in their lives, and we should be thankful for those things.
There's so much we can dwell on that isn't good. After all, that is why we are concerned. That's why we are lifting them up in prayer. But Paul tells us that thankfulness is the first step.

Next, recognize that God is a "finisher of projects." As a quilter and hobbyist, I'm tempted many times to start projects before I finish what I'm already working on. That's why I have some of what quilters call UFOs in my cabinet -- unfinished objects. But God doesn't work that way!
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
So often we forget that it's not us beginning the good work and then needing to complete it. It's not our department, as my grandma used to say.  In spite of her good advice, I sometimes still find myself doing things I don't need to do: worrying, fretting, and doing whatever I can to control the situation that I'm concerned about.
I need to remember that God is the One in control, and that He will finish the job! So the second step is all about remembering that, and trusting and thanking Him for Who He is, and for His faithfulness.

Because of the second step, I can do the third one: mentally give up the control to God. No, this step isn't detailed as the first two were in the verses. This is one that is just a logical outcome of the first steps. Thanking God for what He has done in our loved ones' lives, and realizing afresh that He is a Finisher of projects, it becomes obvious that we need to give up control.  Of course, we aren't really giving up control, because we never had it in the first place! (Grin) We just thought that we could fix things, move obstacles, complete projects, and resolve situations, because we WANT TO SO BADLY!!  We are actually giving up the illusion of control. And it helps if we realize that and we mentally hand those reins over to God.

There's another step that helps us keep things in perspective as we pray for those we love, and for those we care about: it's to keep in mind that we are all recipients of God's grace. Check out verse seven....
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (v7)
Sometimes when we pray for family members, friends, and acquaintances, we subconsciously think of ourselves as the wise, mature ones. We think of the others (the ones we are praying for) as the ones who really need God in their lives.
Whooooaaaa, pardner!
Even if we are more mature (and believe it or not, that is not always the case), we are all on the same footing. You can say that we are all on the level playing field.
NEWS FLASH!! We ALL need God's grace. We are all recipients of His mercy. Why does Paul remind us of this? I think he said it because it makes their situation seem less dire. It's less desperate. It's not us up here on the hill and them down in the muddy valley. (Grin)  It's more like us on the raft, and them paddling like mad in the stormy seas.....pull them up onto the raft -- but we both need God to still the storm! We both need His grace.

The Spirit has some more to teach us all about praying for our friends and our loved ones. We'll talk more tomorrow. Hope you'll be here!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Ezra 4 - bottom of the hill

For this next two weeks of study, I'd like for everyone to read the fourth chapter of Ezra.
You'll do that?
We're going to meet some peeps we know pretty well now, like Zerubbabel and the Jewish people. We're also going to meet some "nosy" neighbors, some tattletales, and a gullible leader -- and we will see how they are used by the devil -- and we'll see how the devil can make some messes in our lives, too!
Hang on, OK?
It may be a bumpy ride!

Have you ever heard the expression (in some form or another) that talks about progress as being "two steps forward (or three, or four) and one step back"?  That sounds like the book of Ezra, does it not? God moved the idol-worshiping ruler, King Cyrus, to decree that the Jewish people should return to their land and rebuild. Huzzah! That's one step forward . . .
Thousands of Jews respond, and give up their established lives in Babylon to journey back to the land. Huzzah! Another step forward!
Wow! They rebuild the altar and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, and even lay the foundation for the new temple! Huzzah yet again! A third step in the right direction!

Then the enemies hit them.
The work on the temple stops. One step back.
The work stopped for sixteen years. Another step back.
They are still in the land, but there is no center of worship in Jerusalem.
The people are intimidated by their enemies and they settle into a routine. Lives that get along without temple worship or praise of YAHWEH.

Then when they are so low, God stirs up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Things will get moving again!
You know, we discussed new beginnings with God. They are filled with grace and hope, and we are excited. But many times our new beginnings hit setbacks. Bumps in the road. Potholes. The spiritual high is followed by an extremely deep spiritual low, if we aren't prepared. Do we really want to ride the roller coaster back up? After all, when you get to the top, there can be another really sharp drop . . . we are tempted to settle into mediocrity. It's uneventful. It's safe.

That's what happened to the people in Ezra, chapter 4.
How can we apply this to our lives? Whenever we make a commitment to the Lord, we must be prepared for the enemy's work to set us back.
Then aggressive.
In Ezra 4:1, we read:
When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, (v 1)
Whoaaa, it doesn't take long.
We can't start a new beginning with our Lord without the devil hearing about it. He's prowling about, remember? Looking. Searching. Observing.
And he hates it when we start afresh and anew, and close to Christ. He will be relentless in his opposition. We cannot assume that since we are close to the Lord now, things will go well from here on out. We must be vigilant to see when the enemy will hit.
And we must be aware of the tricks the devil has in his toolkit.
More on this, this week!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Friday slowdown

Some of us are dealing with some really tough issues in our lives.
Right now.
I know from corresponding with some of our readers. And I know from my own life.
When we are praying, tears in our eyes, it's hard to remember that His love is always with us.

Because our hearts are breaking and we want Him to take it all away.
We want Him to solve the problem.
We KNOW He can.

Even if He doesn't, it doesn't mean His love stops.
It doesn't mean He no longer cares.

Hang in there, believer.
Reach out for His hand.
Don't let go.