Saturday Morning

By Michael W. Raley

The allure of a Saturday morning

Is where I find my spiritual retreat.

The house is quiet.

The coffee is brewed.

The pressures of life lift off of my shoulders

As I reconnect to the moment

And shut out the clatter.

I seek the voice of the Spirit,

The Ancient of Days,

That still, quiet voice,

Who will serve as my guide

And lead me through this life.

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Gideon: God’s Unlikely Leader

The results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election literally shocked the world. All of the data from political experts, pollsters, and pundits indicated a victory for Hillary Clinton. However, Donald Trump was able to win a resounding victory. Though these results unsettled the financial markets, God was not caught off guard by this or any other election. I believe God in His sovereignty would use either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump to fulfill His purposes.

In my lifetime, I do not remember an election that featured two such polarizing figures, whose personal, financial, moral, and political failures were well documented, yet both candidates rose above all party challengers. I am neither a prophet nor can I speak definitively concerning the next four years. However, I like other Christians believe that Jesus Christ is still on the throne regardless of who sits in the White House or any other presidential palace or government building.

During this election cycle, like others, questions arise as if a particular candidate looks, acts, or sounds “presidential.” All of us like to think that we can spot a leader or know what qualities a leader should have, but God tends to call up unlikely leaders. The story of Gideon comes to mind. During this particular scene in the Book of Judges, the Israelites were being oppressed by the Midianites and they cried out for deliverance.

Gideon was hiding wheat in a wine press when he encountered an angel. God used the angel to speak to Gideon’s potential as a leader, though he was hiding wheat from the Midianites.

“When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12, NIV).

Gideon then questions God and dismisses his own ability to lead.

“‘Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all His wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.’” (Judges 6:13, NIV).

“The Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?’” (Judges 6:14, NIV).

Gideon once again questions God.

“’Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the least in my family.’” (Judges 6:15, NIV).

“The Lord answered, I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” (Judges 6:16, NIV).

After confirming His will through multiple signs, God put Gideon in charge of 32,000 men. However, God decided Gideon had too many people and eventually narrowed down the army from 32,000 to 300. Gideon and his 300 men defeated the Midianites and freed Israel from oppression.

The point of the story is that we truly do not know who or how God will use someone for His purposes. The Bible, history, and everyday life are full of examples of God using ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. David was a shepherd who became king. David’s fighting men were men on the fringes of society, yet they became a formidable force. Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, tax collectors, and other everyday people. God speaks to our potential. We have to seek Him to find that potential. God has gifted each of us for specific purposes. God positions people for purposes as well. As we go forward with the new direction of the United States and the world, let us remember to seek God’s will. We may not have all of the details nor we may not have all of the resources we had at the beginning, but God will work it out. God bless you all.

Do Not Dwell on the Former Things

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. While we can look back fondly on childhood memories and the “good ol’ days” in general, nostalgia often clouds our judgment of past events and can be exploited by others. In the United States, politicians and political movements rise because of nostalgia. In a world of increasing technological, social, and political change, these politicians play upon the fears of people, speaking in general terms of how if elected, the country will go back to a simpler time, before all of these changes happened. In essence, they will turn back the clock twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years.

Nostalgia is also big business. One of the constant complaints about Hollywood is “They’ve run out of ideas. It’s all sequels, reboots, and comic book movies.” Of course, not every film will be financially successful, but marketers know that if there is a built-in audience for a movie, that audience will go see it and maybe bring along the next generation. It becomes a vicious circle when audiences reject movies with new and different themes or stories, so Hollywood then has to go back to what makes money. For me personally I too am film nostalgic, as I grew up in the late 1970s/1980s and watched the original Star Wars trilogy over and over. To this day, I can almost quote the movies word for word and I look forward to the new movies in the upcoming years.

If we are not careful, we can fall victim to a “spiritual nostalgia,” where we long for our days before Christ. I know in my personal life the circumstances that brought me to Christ seem less daunting today than what I have gone through with Christ. I do not long to go back to a time when Christ was not in my life. If you are honest with yourself, was high school really that great? Do you really want to go back to the days of brokenness, pain, addiction, hopelessness, and frustration? Probably not. In your “BC” days, you were comfortable in your slavery to sin. Satan had you where he wanted you.

The Israelites complained about how they had it better in Egypt, they had food and water, and how Moses led them out to the desert to die. While the Israelites complained about their current situation, their nostalgia glossed over the fact they were slaves back in Egypt. For over 400 years, the Israelites and their ancestors broke their bodies building monuments of Egypt’s power and glory. Everyday served as a reminder of “We’re great, you’re slaves.” Why would they want to go back to that? Keep in mind that these are the same people who crossed the Red Sea. We must not allow nostalgia for the past to override the present moment. Even in your days before Christ, God’s prevenient grace allowed you to get through the hard times and you will get through this. Once we have crossed our Red Sea, there is no going back to Egypt.

The Apostle Peter fell prey to spiritual nostalgia. John 21 tells the story about how Peter decided to go fishing. Some of the other disciples joined Peter. Keep in mind that this event occurs after Jesus’ resurrection and previous appearances to the disciples. The Bible does not give us details about Peter’s inner dialogue, but maybe it went something like this:

This whole thing with Jesus was nice while it lasted. I left my livelihood and gave up three years of my life to follow Him. What am I supposed to do now? I failed. I failed miserably. I denied Him just like He said I would. One time He even told me ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Maybe I’m not cut out for this whole ministry thing. I’ll go back to being a fisherman. If nothing else, I know how to fish.

However, Peter had an encounter with Jesus and his life and the world has not been the same since. Just weeks after seemingly giving up, the Holy Spirit empowered Peter to preach a sermon that led to 3,000 people to Christ. Peter was also the first apostle to share the Gospel with the Gentiles.

As Christians and as the Church, we must understand that while God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He also does not want to get caught up in the religious bondage of man’s past traditions. We must be spiritually attuned to God’s voice and what He wants to do today. God’s methods may change, just as Jesus did not always heal people or raise people from the dead the same way every time.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV).

As we go forward with God, let us not long for the past nor fear the future at the expense of the current moment. Let us be mindful and present as to what God is saying to us now. God bless you all.

Book Review: The Practice of the Presence of God

In an ongoing series, I will be reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

If you desire to be a better athlete, musician, public speaker, writer, artist, chef, or anything else in life, you need continuous practice. Natural ability and talent can go so far, but to further hone one’s skills, one must take the time to practice. Brother Lawrence in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, humbly and brilliantly shows us how to increase God’s presence in our lives through our daily practice of living.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691) was born Nicholas Herman and served God as a lay-brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France. The Practice of the Presence of God is a combination of conversations, letters, and spiritual maxims Brother Lawrence had with various people and was compiled and published after his death by his friend, Joseph de Beaufort.

Brother Lawrence states, “The presence of God is the concentration of the soul’s attention on God, remembering that He is always present.”[1]

The principles put forth are so simple and profound, we can easily overlook them in the overly busy, overly frustrating, and overstimulating days that make up our Twenty-First Century lives. You do not need advanced theology to understand that God is omnipresent, always with us, but do we take the time to acknowledge Him during our day?

“Brother Lawrence insisted that, to be constantly aware of God’s presence, it is necessary to form the habit of continually talking with Him throughout each day. To think that we must abandon conversation with Him in order to deal with the world is erroneous. Instead, as we nourish our souls by seeing God in His exaltation, we will derive a great joy at being His.”[2]

No matter if he worked in the monastery kitchen, the monastery shoe repair shop, or just going into town to get supplies, Brother Lawrence dedicated everything He did to God. It was out of his love for God that Brother Lawrence sought to please God, not to be rewarded, but to show adoration for God’s grace in his life.

“He [Brother Lawrence] was content doing the smallest chore if he could do it purely for the love of God.”[3]

We often think that we need to do great things for God in order for Him to love us. However, Brother Lawrence insisted that we can bring God and ourselves joy in the simplest of chores. Imaging cooking for your family and how often that is a thankless chore we can come to dread. But, what if we were to view cooking for our family as a way to show God thankfulness for the family that we have? What if we were to take a lesson from Brother Lawrence and thank God before we began a chore and thank Him afterwards for the opportunity?

“Brother Lawrence declared that he felt much closer to God in his day-to-day activites than most people ever believed to be possible.”[4]

Another way Brother Lawrence practiced God’s presence was to speak to Him openly and frankly, as if he was talking to his best friend. It was said that Brother Lawrence went to God in all matters great and small and discussed them with Him.

Of course we know our modern world is full of distractions- smart phones, the Internet, television, movies, video games, and other sources of entertainment. These distractions, if we allow them to, will take our energy and focus away from enjoying God’s presence. According to Brother Lawrence, we must direct our thoughts toward God and God’s presence. If we do get distracted, we can simply repent and begin again. Overall, The Practice of the Presence of God shows a tremendous spiritual depth at the relationship between the Lord and Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence describes how God had blessed him so much when he made the habit of seeking God’s presence out of love and devotion. What if we were to praise God just because He is God and has saved us? Are we capable of seeking God without the hope of a material reward? If we practice God’s presence, God will give us the grace and strength we need to overcome life’s difficulties.

Brother Lawrence’s book concludes with the three blessings we receive from God’s presence:

“The first blessing that the soul receives from the practice of the presence of God is that its faith is livelier and more active in our lives. This is particularly true in difficult times, since it obtains the grace we need to deal with temptation and to conduct ourselves in the world…Second, the practice of the presence of God strengthens us in hope. Our hope increases as our faith penetrates God’s secrets through practice of our holy exercise…The third blessing is that this practice causes the will to rejoice at being set apart from the world, setting it aglow with the fire of holy love. This is because the soul is always with God, who is a consuming fire, who reduces into powder whatever is opposed to Him.”[5]

For anyone who is seeking a deeper relationship with God or is starting out in a relationship with God, I would encourage you to read Brother Lawrence’s words because they, like Scripture, have much to say regarding a more spiritual life. God bless you all.

 

[1] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. New Kensington PA: Whitaker House (1982): 67.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 21.

[5] Ibid, 71-72.

The Holy Spirit our Comforter

In the hours leading up to his arrest, trials, flogging, and death on the cross, Jesus shared a Passover meal with His disciples commonly referred to as “The Last Supper.” Jesus took this precious time to teach many things to His disciples. One of the topics Jesus taught – the role of the Holy Spirit- is what makes Christianity unique among world religions, where God comes to live inside of us and we can have a relationship with God. Jesus taught many things about the Holy Spirit, and we will examine the comforting aspect of the Holy Spirit.

In His discourse, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “The Comforter.” The Greek word for comforter is Paraklietos (Strong’s #3875), which means “intercessor, consoler; one summoned or called to one’s side.” Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit by stating:

“If ye love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever. Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him; but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” (John 14:15-17, KJV, emphasis mine).

What comforting words that because we know God, God comes to dwell in us and is always with us. Religion gives us a checklist of things to do and maybe, just maybe, God will approve of us. For Christians, we only have to believe.

Life can be lonely. Even when we are surrounded by our families, friends, and the beauty all around us, our trials and our grief can isolate us. We become adept at putting on a front, fooling the outside world, while inside it feels like our spirits are being torn to shreds by a savage beast. The pain is real. The struggle is real. God may be silent, be He has not left you, as Jesus states:

“I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” (John 14:18, KJV, emphasis mine).

The Greek word for comfortless is the word Orphanos (Strong’s #3737), which means “fatherless or orphaned.” God does not leave us to fend for ourselves. Our Savior did not stay dead in the grave, He is alive! His Spirit is within us. The world may abandon you, but God never will.

“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:26-27, KJV).

When we remember God’s Word and everything we have been through, we can have peace in the worst of circumstances. Inner peace is a choice as happiness and contentment are choices. We can make these choices easier when we come to the revelation that God is by our side.

“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with Me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27, KJV).

Jesus goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth:

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you. And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment…Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come. He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you.” (John 16:7-8, 13-14, KJV).

The deeper you go into a relationship with someone, the better you get to know them. This principle applies no matter whether the relationship is romantic, familial, or friendship. You learn the person’s voice, habits, appearance, and their likes or dislikes. If someone were impersonating your spouse, child, or friend, you could spot the impostor. As Christians, we have that same opportunity with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit regarding learning the truth, knowing God’s voice and His Word. Though the temptation is always there when times get rough, to run away from God and everyone else, we can go a different route. We can refuse to listen to Satan’s lies and listen for God’s truth.  We can unload our troubles on God like we can a phone call to our best friend or a conversation with our spouse. God knows you are hurting. Let Him comfort you. You may not get an explanation in this life as to why events have unfolded the way they have, but we can be guided by Christ through the Holy Spirit. We can have peace in the midst of pain; joy in the midst of sorrow; comfort in the midst of tragedy. God bless you all.

John the Baptist and Doubt

It is perfectly normal to have our doubts about people and situations. If we face a difficult life decision such as a career change, getting married, or seeking help to overcome a problem, we can and will have our doubts as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. Doubt, if it is allowed to run free in our minds can be crippling and lead us to indecision and inaction. Doubt is corrosive like an acid that eats away at our faith.

In matters of faith, doubt can make us think and say such things as “Have I missed God’s call on my life?” “How can I be sure the Bible is God’s word?” “If I took a stand for God, why am I going through this?” If you have ever struggled with these questions or others like it, you are in good company.

John the Baptist was one person who struggled with doubt. John the Baptist reached a point in his life where he even began to doubt who Jesus was. John the Baptist was imprisoned for speaking out against the relationship of King Herod and his wife, Herodias, who was the former wife of Herod’s brother. Old Testament law forbid one brother from marrying another brother’s wife while that brother was alive. It was while John was in prison that he began to doubt.

“After Jesus had finished instructing His twelve disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Matthew 11:1-3, NIV, see also Luke 7:18-20).

“Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of Me.’” (Matthew 11:4-6, NIV, see also Luke 7:21-23).

Throughout the Old Testament, there are miracles recorded, but not miracles on the scale of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus did not condemn John for his doubt, but reminded him of all that was taking place. The Gospels record only a small portion of Jesus’ miracles, but they are sufficient to make anyone believe that Jesus was the Messiah. John the Baptist was later executed by King Herod (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, and Luke 9:7-9), but let us examine John’s life prior to his imprisonment:

*John preached repentance and baptized people in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:1-6, Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:1-17).

*John criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees for their religious hypocrisy (Matthew 3:7-10).

*John said the Messiah was coming after him (Matthew 3:11-12, Mark 1:7-8, John 1:15, John 1:19-28).

*John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and witnessed the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus and heard the voice of God (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22).

*John stated that his ministry would lose influence when Jesus came on the scene (John 3:27-36).

*John declared Jesus to be the Messiah (John 1:29-34).

John’s disciples posed his question as Jesus was ministering. Think for a moment the impact this question would have had on the crowd. “John the Baptist is having his doubts?” “Is this Jesus really the Messiah?” However, Jesus used this moment to confirm John’s ministry as the forerunner to Jesus as the Messiah.

“As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way before you. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he…And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.’” (Matthew 11:7-11; 11:14-15, NIV).

Notice that the Scripture says as John’s disciples were leaving, meaning there is the possibility they overheard Jesus talking about John the Baptist. John’s disciples relaying not only Jesus’ miracles but His statements about John would have encouraged John’s spirit and confirmed John’s ministry.

Jude 1:22 says to “Be merciful to those who doubt.” (NIV). When we come across a doubting brother or sister, do not belittle what they are battling. If John the Baptist can have his doubts, then no one is immune from doubt. However, we must remember that doubt and faith cannot co-exist. If we come to God with doubts while we pray, we will be what James calls “double-minded” (James 1:6-8).

Just as Jesus told John’s disciples to tell of the miracles, so too we must remember the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed in our lives: our salvation. What has God already done in your life? What does God’s Word say about you? (I would encourage you to read Ephesians). If we feed our faith, we will starve our doubt. Meditate on the goodness of God and place His Word in your heart. God bless you all.

 

Are You Perceiving God’s Voice?

Have you ever had a one-sided conversation with someone? Have you ever tried to start or maintain a conversation with someone who seemed disengaged from what is going on around them? Have you ever spoke from the heart about something important and the other person just brushed you aside and did not listen or hear anything you said? Have you cried out for help and felt ignored or slighted? Did the exchange or the lack thereof change the dynamics of the relationship? Have you ever felt that away about God? Be honest.

The old adage “perception is reality” holds true in these instances. How we view the world around us is colored with our thoughts, senses, relationships, beliefs, biases, and unfortunately, any prejudices we have developed. In the midst of an ongoing or series of trials, we can become so caught up with ourselves that we miss the clues about God and the people around us. We may perceive that someone blew us off, but could it be possible that person has had an extremely bad day or they are dealing with their own trial? Of course, that does not excuse any malicious ill-mannered behavior, but it is something to keep in mind.

If we are not careful, our relationship with God can be hampered or altered by our perceptions. For example, a believer may think that God does not answer prayer because they prayed for a sick loved one who eventually passed away. Or how about going through a severe financial trial after years of being generous with giving? Or how a parent dealing with a rebellious child who was raised in church? When we think God is silent or does not care our trials will feel that much more difficult. However, all we have to do is listen.

Job was a righteous man who had to endure a series of trials- the loss of ten children, the loss of his financial livelihood, sickness, his wife told him to let go of his integrity, his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar all claim that his suffering is a direct result of some secret sin he has committed. Just having to endure one of these trials would be enough to shake the faith of some people.

Job does not blame God for his trials, but maintains he has committed no secret sin. Job longs for an audience and mediator with God because God has been silent in all of this (Job 9:33-35; 10:2-22; 16:19-21; 23:3-9). After the discussion of Job and his three friends ends, a young man named Elihu comes along and helps correct the wrong perceptions Job has had during these trials. In fact, Elihu maintained that God was trying to speak to Job, but Job was not perceiving it.

“Why do you complain to Him that He responds to no one’s words? For God does speak- now one way, now another- though no one perceives it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrong doing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.” (Job 33:14-18, NIV).

Elihu goes on to further state: “Or someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones, so that their body finds food repulsive and their soul loathes the choicest meal. Their flesh wastes away to nothing and their bones, once hidden, now stick out. They draw near to the pit, and their life to the messengers of death.” (Job 33:19-22, NIV).

What Elihu states is that God has been trying to get our attention- we are not listening. For anyone who is going through “a famine of the Word,” consider, what have you been dreaming about lately? Where has the Holy Spirit directed you to in God’s Word? What are your fellow believers in Christ saying to you? Have you gone through any sicknesses that may be a sign to change your lifestyle? Of course, this may not be the case in every situation, but we must be alert to what is going on around us and with us. When we go through trials, we expect God to show up and talk to us directly as He did with Job (Job 38-41), while ignoring the still small voice Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:12). There are also times when we expect God to speak to us the same way as He did before, but maybe God is trying a new method of getting our attention.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV).

We must remember that our lives are not our own because we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. God is sovereign over all His creation, including our lives. Though God spoke to Job, Job never received an answer as to why he suffered the way He did. God is always faithful to us and we must continue to be faithful to Him, even in the midst of the most severe trial of our faith. Grace and peace be with you all.