Monday, November 23, 2015

Prayers and plans are potent partners

When the king asked why his face was sad, Nehemiah was very much afraid. You just didn’t come into the king’s presence with anything but a smile; it could ruin your whole day. So Nehemiah did what was his practice in good times and in bad: he prayed. You would be mistaken if you did not connect this silent arrow prayer to his previous four months of intense prayer. Prayer is not to be an event but a way of life. You also must recognize that Nehemiah’s arrow was aimed at a good target: the God of heaven. In point of fact, the cry for help was directed at the only One who could answer. Perhaps you have seen pictures of Hindus with bloody legs punishing themselves by walking for miles on their knees to get to the temple, thinking that they will be heard for their suffering. But there’s no one home at the end of those prayers. You may remember the story of the 450 prophets of Baal who were challenged by Elijah to a “prayer-off,” and may the best God (only God) win. The Baal enthusiasts prayed, and cried out and eventually cut themselves until the blood gushed out. But the final word in the text says it all: “No one answered; no one paid attention.” Nehemiah did not pray to himself or to gods who do not exist except in man’s imagination. He prayed to the God of heaven. He also planned.

Nehemiah had worked out a single fixed goal and a plan to make it happen. His goal was to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem. I read a story recently about Yogi Berra, the famous catcher for the New York Yankees in the 1940s and ’50s, and Hank Aaron, who at that time was the famous power hitter for the Milwaukee Braves. The two teams were playing each other in the World Series, and as was his habit, Yogi kept up his banter with the batters when they came up, in an attempt to distract them. Hank Aaron came up to bat, and Yogi said, “Hey, you’re holding the bat wrong. You’re supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark.” Hank Aaron didn’t say anything; he just hit the first pitch into the left field bleachers. After rounding the bases for the home run and stepping on the plate, Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, “I didn’t come up here to read.” He knew his goal, and he didn’t let Yogi Berra distract him. Nehemiah also had a single, fixed, attainable goal, and he had worked out a plan to make it happen.

Careful planning and faithful prayer won the day. Nehemiah knew he needed official papers from the king to pass through the region beyond the Euphrates. He also knew he needed lumber with which to rebuild the wall. The king granted his request for both. Too often we Christians try to spiritualize everything to the point where we say, “I believe God told me to do so-’n-so.” Then someone says, “What do you need to do to make that happen?” And our response sounds like this: “Oh, I don’t know. I guess God will make a way where there’s no way.” It is true that God does that, sometimes, but God most often works through means of grace that He has given us. Like prayer. Planning. And good old fashioned, hard work. Let’s remember that dependence on God does not eliminate our need for all of these means of grace.

Prayer and planning are powerful partners.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Giving honor where it is owed

I was born too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam. Though the prediction in the early 70s was that children not yet born would fight in Vietnam, thankfully, that was not to be. When I became eligible for the draft in 1975, there was no need for my services. At the time, I could not have been happier that I was headed to Chapel Hill and not Da Nang. But as I got older, I often regretted not serving my country in the military. I have always been, and will forever be grateful for those who have done so.

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Tim Lee speak at Liberty University. In 1971, Lee stepped on a 60-pound box mine in Vietnam and lost both of his legs. “One last step, and then it happened — my boot landed squarely on what felt like a miniature volcano. A deafening blast rammed through my body. As Earl Lewis, the fifth man in formation later testified, I disappeared in the sudden eruption. As a cloud of black smoke shot into the sky, hot fire surged through what remained of my legs ... Corporal Lee Gore knelt down and picked me up in his arms and braced my back on his knees. He began to pray out loud. I was shaking terribly and literally covered in my own blood.”

It was a miracle that Lee survived, and there were times during his recovery from 13 major operations that he did not want to live. Since then, Lee has spoken around the world from his wheelchair about his service, his suffering, and his Savior. One of the first things he said to the thousands gathered in the Vine Center on Liberty’s campus was, “Some of you may be offended by what I say to you this morning as I speak honestly about Jesus Christ. But that’s OK. I didn’t travel ten thousand miles to another country and lose my legs just to come back here and be politically correct.”

As we honor veterans this week, I am thankful for men like Tim Lee. There are many more like him, men and women who have served their country in the armed forces. One of those was my uncle.

This summer I attended the funeral of William Conrad Fox, who died at the ripe old age of 90. The last time I had seen him, Conrad was living in a healthcare facility in Greensboro. He was in his wheelchair and all dressed up that morning, wearing slacks and a buttoned-up long sleeve shirt, ready to go play bingo down the hall. I asked him if he always dressed up like that and he laughed and said that’s the only way he knows how to dress. I didn’t want to keep him from his bingo game, but Uncle Conrad waved his hand and said there was always another game tomorrow. He told me about joining the Army and serving in the 75th Infantry Division during World War II. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, where the temperatures reached a bone-chilling 20-below zero on the battlefield, and the snow was two feet deep. He joked that the men in his battalion said they wouldn’t have to go to hell, since they had already been there. When he returned home, Conrad couldn’t feel his feet for six months.

The Bible says we are to give “respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Tim, Conrad, and the millions of others who have fought for our freedom, we honor you.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Do the first things first

His job was not to set the table and to make sure that everyone had a cup. No, the cupbearer to the king was a drink-bodyguard. That’s what Nehemiah did. His job was to choose and to taste the wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned before bringing it to the king. It was a risky job, but one which allowed him to live in relative comfort and have a measure of influence over the king he served.

When the story opened, Nehemiah was 1,000 miles from Jerusalem, and he was serving a foreign king in what is now Iran. He got word that the people who were left behind during the conquest were living in the rubble of a city whose walls were broken down. This is where we really start to get to know the man, Nehemiah, and what he was made of. When Nehemiah heard about the suffering of his people, he sat down and wept and prayed, so moved was his heart for the suffering of the people of God.

When I read this in preparation to start a new series in the book of Nehemiah, I was reminded of our men’s retreat a few weeks ago. We were gathered on Saturday morning, praying corporately through Psalm 34, when we got to verse 17: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Scott began to pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world who are being persecuted for their faith, in a manner that I think mirrored Nehemiah’s passion for his brothers and sisters many miles away. The room was silent as 40 men and young men entered into his prayers and his tears. Scott cried out to God for the men and children who are being tortured and beheaded because they will not bow the knee to Islam and will not renounce faith in Jesus Christ. He prayed and cried for the women and girls who are being subjugated and treated as sexual slaves for the same reason. There was no pretense to his prayer, no attempt to “sound good” or to teach something. Scott was simply broken over the suffering of others. It was a powerful, holy moment for all of us.

Back in Persia, then, we find Nehemiah weeping and praying. You could argue that he was the most trusted man in the kingdom, as he was willing daily to lay down his life for the king. He could have rushed to the king with the news and immediately asked for a plan of action to be put in place. But instead, the very first thing he did was to go over the king’s head to the highest authority of all.

Don’t get me wrong, dear reader. Nehemiah was a man of decisive action, as you will see if you read the book. But we betray our misunderstanding about prayer when we say things like, “Let’s pray and then we will get started.” As if prayer is an optional extra, as if it doesn’t really matter, as if we are not “doing” anything when we pray. A.J. Gordon said that you can always do more than pray after you have prayed, but you can never do more than pray until you have prayed. And EM Bounds said, “What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations, or more novel methods; but men (and women) whom the Holy Spirit can use — men of prayer, men mighty in prayer.”

Start with prayer. Do first things first.

Monday, November 2, 2015

You can learn to pray

John Piper said, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”

I read that quote recently and it convicted me down to my toes. And, to my knees. The typical experience of Christians is that they read their Bibles weekly and pray weakly. Or rarely. Or not at all.

Hudson Taylor said, “We must never forget three important statements: There is a God. He has spoken to us in the Bible. He means what He says.” And even a cursory glance at the Bible will make it clear that he invites us to talk with him. We pray because we were made by God and called to God and are here for God until we can go to be with God. We pray for the same reason we breathe: because He is our life. The Bible is filled with people who prayed and also with people who chose to consult mediums or their friends or the darkness of their own counsel. It could be argued that Jesus’ life, was one prayer meeting after another, and in between He healed diseases, cast out demons, raised the dead, and taught. That’s why His disciples never asked Him how to heal diseases or cast out demons or raise the dead or even to teach: they asked Him how to pray. They knew the source of his ministry was his intimacy with his Father.

We pray because we are in a battle. Every moment of every day. John Piper said, “Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den. ... Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for: Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission.”

I would recommend an excellent book that will take you an hour or less to read, and quite possibly may revolutionize how you pray. “Praying the Bible” by Donald Whitney makes a strong argument that the reason most believers don’t pray is because they are bored with it. They pray “the same old things about the same old things.” He tells the story of a little girl who was taught to pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep” every night before going to bed. One night she thought, “Why does God need to hear me say this again?” So she recorded herself reciting the prayer and then just played it back each night before going to sleep. We can smile at that, but let’s admit it: we have prerecorded prayers in our heads that we pray every day. Jesus warned against this, saying, “do not heap up empty phrases” in prayer, thinking we will be heard for our many words.

Whitney teaches a simple and profound solution: praying the Bible. I cannot adequately explain it in a column, but the gist of it is this. Pray Scriptures, particularly the Psalms. Pick one of the five Psalms that corresponds to the date (as I write this, on Oct. 26, the five Psalms are 26, 56, 86, 116, 146). Then read a verse or two, and pray whatever comes to mind in response. If nothing comes to mind, skip it and go to the next verse.

You will find that your prayer life, and your relationship with the Lord, will be refreshed.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Frances knew her shepherd

I met Jerry and Frances in 2006 when I got a hand written letter in the mail. Frances read my column every week and asked me to come by and talk to her husband about the Lord. Jerry had questions about salvation. That day I had the privilege that every Christ-follower dreams of, to lead a man to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Have you ever reached out to take a fully ripened apple from a tree and have it fall into your hands at the slightest touch? That’s what it was like that day with Jerry. He was ready. All I had to do was explain to him what the Bible means when it says, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Jerry’s life changed for eternity in a moment. It was a moment in my ministry that I will always cherish, right along with baptizing Jerry a few months later in a cattle trough at Antioch Community Church. He shot out of the water with arms raised and a huge grin.

Frances was always the quieter of the two when I visited. Jerry and I would be engrossed in a wild story about some deal he was involved in, and Frances would just sit in her easy chair and laugh. For the last several years since Jerry died, it has been the same. Except it has been her son Jay telling me some crazy story about the history of Elon or the South or the Jesse James clan, and Frances just enjoying it all and laughing. But what I remember most about Frances are her questions. She thought about things deeply.

Often when I walked into the living room the first thing I saw was Frances reading the newspaper, or sleeping with it in her hands. She knew what was going on in the community and in the world, and she asked me great questions about current events, about the Bible, and about faith.

Just a few days before Frances died, I visited her at Hospice and it was like old times. She was happy and at peace. I kidded her about how much she had enjoyed a piece of cake she had just eaten, and the hamburger she sent Jay to find for her at 2am the night before. We visited for a while, and as I left I told Frances I loved her and that I would see her later. But when I came back on Friday, her last day in her temporary home, she was fast asleep. Her son Jeff was there, and as we talked, he mentioned Psalm 23 as his favorite Psalm, and Jay did the same just a few days later. It fit their mom’s life so well, as it begins with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Frances knew her shepherd and knew that she could trust Him, even in her last days. The Lord had always led her beside still waters and in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. As she walked into the valley of the shadow of death those last few weeks, she did so with a childlike innocence that God gave her through her faith.

I still miss Jerry. And now I miss Frances, too. But I am so thankful that one day we will be together and our fellowship will never come to an end. Because of Jesus, the Shepherd.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Set up your monuments

After God parted the Jordan River and Joshua led the people across into the Promised Land, God had them stop and build a monument and said, “That this might be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them ...” The monument was a visible reminder of the grace of God.

Vance Havner used to tell the story of a little town in Alabama where the main livelihood was cotton. Then tragedy struck in the form of the devastating boll weevil. All of the cotton was destroyed and it looked as if the farmers were headed for the poorhouse. But they didn’t despair. One man decided to plant peanuts instead, because boll weevils hate peanuts more than a mom whose son has a peanut allergy. Another farmer planted a different crop, and another and all of the farmers did the same. Before long, peanuts and other crops took over for cotton. The town later became known as Enterprise, Ala. And do you know what they did to commemorate that year? They erected a monument to the boll weevil!

Vance Havner wrote this: “Sometimes we settle into a humdrum routine as monotonous as growing cotton year after year. Then God sends the boll weevil; He jolts us out of our groove, and we must find new ways to live.” Financial reverses, great bereavement, physical infirmity, loss of position — how many have been driven by trouble to bring forth finer fruit from their souls! The best thing that ever happened to some of us was the coming of our boll weevil.

What should we do? Build monuments as a visible reminder of the grace of God in our lives.

Monuments are often found hanging on our walls, as we put up pictures of our children, or we have videos of their baptisms and the family events that we celebrate and don’t want to forget. We have Bible verses framed on the walls, the Word of God set there to remind us daily of his grace, as frontlets before our eyes. We have marked out our lives, as a reminder to ourselves and our children and grandchildren that our God is real, and that we belong to him. But we shouldn’t just build monuments to great successes. Write down what you learn from your crop failures. Your sickness and surgery.

The loss of a loved one. As CS Lewis said, “God whispers in our pleasure, but he shouts in our pain.”

I recently heard an interview of Terri Roberts, whose son Charlie was the man who walked into an Amish schoolhouse in 2006 and shot ten children, killing five. Terri Roberts heard the sirens while on lunch break at her job at Sight and Sound Theater that day, and then got the news that her son was the murderer and had taken his own life as well. Can any of us imagine hearing that news about our son?

Could any of us imagine doing anything upon hearing that news besides crawling into a hole and never coming out again? But God’s grace was poured out on those parents immediately through the Amish neighbors who came to their house to say they loved them and forgave their son.

Terri has just written a book called “Forgiven,” in which she talks about the tragedy and how God brought the community together through it. What a powerful monument to our God who brings hope through great pain.

What monuments to God’s grace have you set up?