The Shadow of Death (Prayer Devotional for the week of August 30, 2015)

I have shared in previous posts that my testimony has a lot to do with overcoming fear – namely, the fear of death. I have attended more funerals than I can count, and my experience with death began at an early age. Even though I no longer fear death, I still don’t enjoy having it thrown in my face, which is why I don’t really care for crime scene shows, the zombie craze, Stephen King books, or realistically violent movies.

 

Psalm 23, one of King David’s poems, is often read at funerals with the intention of comforting people, but to be honest, I always found it a bit creepy: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …” (v. 4, NJKV). It conjures up images in my mind of something sinister lurking behind a bush, waiting to jump out and snatch me. Shadows are menacing. After all, how many horror movies are set in broad daylight?

 

It took me many years to come to the realization that the “shadow of death” can be a comforting shade, not a threatening omen, to the believer in Christ. Think about it … how do we gauge parking spaces in the summer heat? The best spaces aren’t judged by distance from the front door, but by proximity to shade! Shade is simply a shadow, and we love it, in that context. Or, consider the story of Jonah, chapter 4 – God allowed a plant to spring up suddenly to provide much-needed shade for Jonah, and he was grateful (v. 6).

 

The “shadow of death” does not have to frighten us. As followers of Christ, we can find comfort in our mortality because to be apart from the body is to be in his presence for all eternity (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). When life tries to beat us up, we can “take refuge in the shadow of [God’s] wings,” as David wrote in Psalm 36:7.

Impending Death … and Hope (Prayer Devotional for the week of March 15, 2015)

I received some devastating news this week about an old mentor and kind friend. As things stand now, it looks like she has advanced pancreatic cancer that has spread to her liver. I am terribly sad, and yet I feel a strong sense of peace for her. She loves the Lord, she adores her family, and she cares about her fellow man. She is passionate about justice, and not just the kind that penalizes criminals for wrongdoings, but the kind that rights the wrongs in the world. She is an advocate, a brilliant thinker, and a confidante.

 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unless Jesus returns to take us home before then, there is a 100% chance that you will die. How does that make you feel? Does the notion of dying fill you with dread or joy? Like it or not, as James 4:14 and Psalm 103:15-16 point out, our lives are like a mist puffed into the air or a dandelion blowing in the wind – only temporary.

 

While imprisoned for the gospel, Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He had a very matter-of-fact view about death: if he lived, then he had more opportunity to serve the Lord. If he died, then he got to be with Jesus. Win-win!

 

For a long while after my brother died, I had peculiar feelings that could only be described as jealousy. I hesitated to share it, because I didn’t want anyone mistakenly thinking that I was suicidal. It’s just that the more I thought about him being in the very presence of God in heaven, it felt like I got the short end of the stick. I/we were left behind to grieve and cope, to continue living in this broken world of sin and despair and problems, while he was free from such entanglements. How I long to be with Christ!

 

Easter is just around the corner, and it is my absolute favorite holiday. Sure, I love the festivities of Christmas, and I enjoy the spirit of Thanksgiving, but wow – Easter! Easter is a reminder that this world is not our home (Philippians 3:20). Easter is about the resurrection, newness, eternal life, victory, and HOPE.

 

It is with this everlasting hope in my heart that I can say to my sweet friend: Go in peace. Go to Jesus, relish in his presence, and enjoy the reward for your labors. I will always cherish having the opportunity to know you and call you my friend.

Looking Behind, Moving Ahead (Prayer Devotional for the week of February 1, 2015)

It rained last night for the first time in several weeks, and it was still sprinkling when I left the house this morning. On the drive to work, I glanced in my rearview mirror and noticed a bright rainbow in the distance. I could only look at it for a moment, since I was driving, and I started thinking about how God gives us glimpses of his promises – not necessarily for us to stare at and dwell on for a long period of time, but a quick reminder to prod us as we move forward.

 

We first read about rainbows in Genesis 9, when the Lord illustrated his promise to Noah that he would never again destroy the earth in a flood. Rainbows are lovely, but they don’t linger very long. They come and go with the rain. This is speculation on my part, but I wonder if God chose a rainbow purposefully, as a periodic reminder.

 

You’ve probably heard the cliché, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” In my experience, oftentimes, he may show me the window, but I have to get up off of my rump and open it myself. We can’t go through life expecting easy answers. Sometimes, you just have to keep walking in faith until God reveals the next turn.

 

It’s important to keep that rainbow in our rearview mirror, though. We need to remember God’s faithful promises. He assured us that he will never abandon us (Deut. 31:6 & Hebrews 13:5). His mercies are new every morning, and he is faithful (Lamentations 3:23).

 

Perhaps your life feels like you are driving in circles right now. I encourage you to hold on to the promises of God. Spend time in the word, reading your Bible and renewing your mind with scriptures (Romans 12:2). Commit verses to memory, so that you can easily recall them in times of distress. Pray scriptures over situations and people in your life. Put you own name into the Psalms, for example, and pray for yourself. When you aren’t sure which step to take next, keep your focus on God’s word and remember his faithfulness.

Breaking the Lineage of Pride (Prayer Devotional for the week of December 21, 2014)

I conscientiously avoid activities that make me feel inferior, dumb, or inept – like crossword puzzles, swimsuit shopping, and contact sports. Instead, I tend to stick with things that make me feel comfortable with myself and my abilities. The problem is that when we get too comfortable, pride can creep in.

 

The book of Obadiah is only a chapter long, merely 21 verses. It is tucked between Amos and Jonah in the Old Testament. Scholars believe the text was written around 845 B.C. or 586 B.C., but the groups mentioned in the book (Edom and Judah) fought a lot in those days, so it’s difficult to determine an exact date. At any rate, Obadiah was a prophet with a somber message for the people of Edom, and the root of their problems could be traced back to pride. In fact, that lineage of pride could be traced all the way back to the founding father of the Edomites, Esau. You might remember Esau from stories in Genesis 25 and following; he’s the one who haphazardly traded his birthright to his slightly younger twin brother, Jacob, for a bowl of stew & bread (v. 34). Apparently, his descendants inherited his cocky attitude.

 

The Edomites had gotten pretty cozy with their hill country vista, which was also advantageously located along the main caravan route from Egypt to Babylon. They had begun to feel pompous and invincible, so Obadiah warned them about the message he received from the Lord (v. 3-4):

“The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,” declares the Lord.

Obadiah’s prophecy went on to say that the house of Esau would be ransacked, and their snazzy cliff dwellings would be reduced to rubble. Something tells me their property values were about to take a nosedive.

 

We can avoid putting ourselves into the Edomites’ perilous situation in a couple of ways: first, we need to remember Colossians 3:23 and focus our talents on serving the Lord, rather than bringing undue attention to ourselves. Second, we could step out of our comfort zones every now & then and get involved in service and ministry that may not be tops on our to-do list. After all, it’s not about us. Pride may make us feel powerful in the short run, but as Proverbs 16:18 and Psalm 149:4 remind us, humility is the victor over pride.

How long, O Lord? (Prayer Devotional for the week of December 14, 2014)

At least 15 times in the book of Psalms, the author asks a prayer along the lines of, “How long, O Lord?” Sometimes, the psalmist is referring to rescue from his enemies, but other times, he is crying out for God’s attention in his own life – for forgiveness and mercy.   If I’m completely honest, I have prayed numerous “How long, O Lord?” prayers in the years since my two nephew-sons joined my household: How long will their grief manifest in anger? How long until they can understand and manage their emotions in a healthy way? How long will it take for their own tragedies to become tools that will equip them to minister to others? How long until it feels like I’ve done the right things for them as a parent? Those aren’t rote prayers that I recite, but the questions have been on my heart for a long while.   Well, I learned this week that one of them was asked to be desk buddies with a new kid in his class. The new boy had a traumatic situation in utero and suffers from physical and cognitive challenges. He’s in a mainstream class but needs extra help. My son came home positively bubbling over and raving about how excited he was to be asked to help. As I listened to him share and sensed his compassion and kindness toward his new friend, it felt like those prayers that I’ve lifted up for years were coming to fruition.   In the psalms mentioned previously, the author tends to conclude with an account of God’s goodness. In Psalm 35, David writes, “My tongue will proclaim your righteousness, your praises all day long” (NIV). The author of Psalm 79 declares, “Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will proclaim your praise” (NIV). Psalm 94 declares, “But the Lord has become my fortress and my God the rock in whom I take refuge” (NIV). After crying out to the Lord for who knows how long about enduring certain trials, the writer remembered to go back to the source with praise.   Each of us has a different faith-journey, and the challenges in my life will look different from the trials in your life. Yet, one thing remains constant: We serve a great and mighty God, and he will never leave you stranded (Deuteronomy 31:6, Matthew 28:20). I also believe that he’s got a big enough lap for his children (that’s you & me!) to climb into his arms and cry out, “How long, O Lord?” when life feels like it is beating us up. I am confident that he can handle our tough questions, but we need to be like the psalmist and lavish him with praise when we witness the answers to those prayers.

Outgrowing Habits (Prayer Devotional for the week of May 25, 2014)

What are some of your habits? Brushing your teeth twice a day? Checking your smartphone at stop lights? Sitting in the same spot at the dinner table or church? Going to the gym after work? Kicking off your shoes when you get home? Watching certain TV shows? I reckon that most of our daily habits are simply routines that we’ve developed over time.

Other habits, though, can be detrimental to our health – not only physically, but also spiritually. We don’t care to admit such habits to ourselves, much less talk about them openly. These are the ones we go to when we’re upset, when we want to escape, when we feel down … the things we expose to our bodies, our eyes, our minds, under the guise of making us feel better, if only temporarily … or the things we say, do, and think when we feel threatened, hurt, or entitled.

God calls us to a better life than this, dear friends. As we grow closer to Christ, we need to break the habits that used to ensnare us. Check out what Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3:8-10, ERV): “But now put these things out of your life: anger, losing your temper, doing or saying things to hurt others, and saying shameful things. Don’t lie to each other. You have taken off those old clothes—the person you once were and the bad things you did then. Now you are wearing a new life, a life that is new every day. You are growing in your understanding of the one who made you. You are becoming more and more like him.”

I would be lying through my teeth if I claimed to have mastered all of this. I have too many habits that I still struggle with, and I’ve been a believer for nearly 30 years. If eliminating poor choices was easy, then we’d all be fit, no one would struggle with addiction, gossip would be unheard of, husbands and wives would model Christ in their marriages, kids would obey their parents, and we’d all manage our tempers and finances.

If it sounds too good to be true, remember that the objective isn’t necessarily perfection. Reread the verse from Colossians above. We are growing; we are becoming more like Christ. Change doesn’t always happen overnight, but as the poet wrote in Psalm 119:55, we choose every day whether to follow God or revert back to our old ways: “Lord, in the night I remembered your name, and I obeyed your teachings.”

Make Me New Again (Prayer Devotional for the week of December 29, 2013)

Whether you make annual New Year resolutions or not, there’s something about another January rolling around that causes us to think about changes. My eldest asked the other day if I had any resolutions this year, and I simply said, “Graduate.” I’ve been working toward this goal for the past four years, although it feels like decades when I’m stumped on part of my research. Graduation is a tangible result – a date, a ceremony, a fancy robe and a piece of paper to prove what I’ve accomplished.

Not all goals are so concrete, though. Some goals we strive toward our whole lives and never quite see the end result. Take your spiritual journey, for example. I reckon if you asked any champion of faith if they have reached the ultimate goal of their Christian walk, they would probably say no. In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul (definitely a big name in church history!) wrote that he was still striving for the finish line.

I love the repeating stanza that the songwriter wrote in Psalm 80 (NIRV): “God, make us new again. Let your face smile on us with favor. Then we will be saved.” Is there anything greater that we could achieve than to experience the Lord’s favor? Everything else seems to pale in comparison.

Our faith journey is not like graduation, where you receive a diploma and call it done. Again and again, we need to be renewed. Over and over, we need to refuel our efforts. As Paul stated in Philippians 3:20, we are citizens of heaven, and until the Lord returns to stamp our eternal passports, we have work yet to do. Let’s make the most of it in the coming year.