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The Acid Test

A hand holding a test tube and eye dropperSuppose you inherited a necklace from your great-aunt. You’ve admired it all your life, but you’re uncertain of its value. It looks like gold, but you’re not sure. How can you tell if you’ve got the real thing? You could try this simple test—placing a drop of nitric acid on it. If the acid starts bubbling or fizzing when it hits the surface, too bad, because it’s not gold. If the metal is unaffected, then it’s the real deal. This little procedure is known as the “acid test.”

Let’s try another acid test. This time it’s about you, not a piece of jewelry. But don’t worry—we’re not going to use nitric acid on you. We aren’t going to test for gold either, but for the precious presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.

Paul Tripp points out that what we say and how we say it tell a great deal about what’s controlling us. “Words are spoken,” he says, “that should never have been uttered. They are spoken at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or with emotions that are raging out of control. Words are spoken when silence would have been a more godly, loving choice. They are more driven by personal desire and demand than the purposes of God or the needs of others.”1

We know that self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It’s an indicator of how much we are being controlled by the Holy Spirit. So out-of-control speech problems are a kind of acid test that reveals who or what is driving us. As Tripp points out, “If my words don’t flow out of a heart that rests in his [the Holy Spirit’s] control, then they come out of a heart that seeks control.”2 It’s as simple as that.

When it comes to the way we speak, not one of us is perfect. But all of us are being perfected, assuming, of course, that we are daily submitting our lives to Christ. Join me today in praying for one of the most forgotten fruits of the Holy Spirit—the quality of self-control.   More

1. Paul Tripp, War of Words (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), 230.

2. Ibid., 71.

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The Peace of Deliverance

Door handles chained and padlocked shutI was praying for a friend’s brother the other day, a man unable to break his addiction to alcohol. As I prayed, the Biblical story of the demon-possessed man who was unrestrainable and who lived among the burial caves came to my mind (Mark 5:1-4). It felt as though the Holy Spirit was highlighting this passage so I would know how to pray. The man I was praying for isn’t psychotic, nor is he living in a cemetery. But like the man described in Mark’s Gospel, he is incredibly isolated, having little contact with family or friends.

Instead of being alarmed by the story, I felt encouraged. Why? Because I know that what Jesus did for the man in the Bible can still happen today. It was precisely in a place of isolation, bondage, and death that Christ reached out and delivered a man no one else could help. The devil must have thought he had a lock on this guy’s life. But then Jesus showed up and changed everything.

As I prayed, I could almost hear the Spirit saying, “See what I am capable of! I can reach the most unreachable person, changing a place of death into a place of life.” That’s how I am praying for my friend’s brother.

Chances are you have a few hopeless cases on your own prayer list, people whose lives seem to be hurtling toward physical and spiritual death. If that is the case, read Mark 5:1-20 and let the Holy Spirit build your faith, shaping the way you pray.   More

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Mother’s Day

An affectionate kiss between a mother and her toddler sonPerhaps you have heard the story of how Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” On November 18, 1861, after reviewing Union troops near Washington, DC, she awoke in the night with the words of the hymn firmly in mind. “So, with a sudden effort,” she explained, “I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Remember the first verse?

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

Despite the militancy of that hymn, in 1872 Howe organized a Mother’s Day for peace in New York City, which was repeated in Boston for about ten years. She and others across the country wanted to establish a special day each year in which mothers could unite to help prevent future wars. Finally, on May 8, 1914, the US Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The next day, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day as a day for Americans to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.

Today as we consider the many wars that rage throughout the world, let us do what we can through prayer and action to bring peace to our world.   More

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Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul

A man looking up to heaven (blue sky above)Perhaps you know that observant Jews pray at least one hundred prayers every single day. Called berakah, these prayers offer continual thanks to God for his many blessings. There’s a blessing to say when you get dressed, before you eat, after you eat, when you survive danger or illness, when you hear thunder, when you see a rainbow, and even when you encounter a particularly beautiful person. I especially like the blessing you say when you wake up in the morning. It’s one of the first prayers a Jewish child is taught. Here’s how it goes:

I am grateful before you, living and eternal King for returning my soul to me with compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.

Imagine praying this simple prayer with intention every day for seventy, eighty, or even ninety years. Wouldn’t that shape the course of your life, helping you to be mindful of God, aware that he is the Keeper of your soul, the Creator who calls you to rise up and enjoy another day of life?

Perhaps you think praying all these prayers would be tiresome. But what if such prayers trained you to always be looking in the right direction, proclaiming God’s faithfulness throughout the day? What if they prevented you from acting as though everything depended on you and nothing depended on God? What if they made you realize you are never alone?

As Christians, we could benefit from adopting a similar practice. Our prayers don’t have to be long, but they do have to be intentional, peppered with praise and thanksgiving. This week, why not consider praying the Modeh Ani, the Hebrew name for the prayer above, before you even step one foot out of bed? As you pray, remember that one day you will awake to pray it with a resurrected body that will never be touched by illness or death.   More

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A Mission For Your Mouth

tongueStop it!” I screamed, threatening violence if she did it again. An instant earlier, my mouth had been munching contentedly on a peanut butter cookie. Now it was launching ballistic missiles. What happened? I had been standing in the kitchen, balancing precariously on crutches after a recent foot surgery, when one of my children snuck up behind me and began tickling me. Not what I needed! But, really, did I have to threaten violence, overreacting to her little prank?

Our mouths can get us into so much trouble, propelled by emotions that move at lightning speed, unleashing primal urges. Why is it that most of us can control every muscle in our bodies but one? No wonder James likens the tongue to a flame of fire or a dangerous poison (see 3:6-8). According to Jesus, the tongue is unique because it is connected to the heart. Of course, when the Bible speaks of the heart, it is not talking about muscle tissue but about the very core or center of human beings.

The only remedy, then, for dealing with a tongue problem is to attend to the heart problem. We need more of God’s Spirit transforming us on the inside so that what comes out of our mouths will build up and not tear down.

In his book War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles, Paul Tripp makes the vital point that we are Christ’s ambassadors, his primary representatives on earth. Because of that, he says, we need to understand that God has a mission for our mouths.

What is the mission God has for your mouth today? Ask the Holy Spirit to shape your heart with his presence so your words will fulfill his purpose.  More

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Praying For Your Children

Silhouette of woman holding child at sunsetBecause of her many books on the topic, Stormie Omartian has become well known for her confidence in the power of prayer. But what many people don’t know is that as a young girl she was physically and emotionally abused by a mother who was mentally ill. Her book Stormie is the account not only of the pain she suffered but of the gracious God who reached through her brokenness and brought healing to her life.

Because of the abuse she suffered, she was terrified that she, too, might become an abusive mother. When her first child was born, she developed tremendous fears for his physical and emotional safety. Though never abusive, she was always anxious, filled with fear that something might happen to her son. One day she cried out to God, saying, “Lord, this is too much for me. I can’t keep a twenty-four-hours-a-day, moment-by-moment watch on my son. How can I ever have peace?”1 One of the answers to her agonized plea was a sense that she and her husband should cover their son in prayer.

Since that time, she has experienced countless answers to prayer and has taught thousands of people to pray, one of whom is her daughter, Amanda. Here’s what Amanda had to say when she was just thirteen years old about how prayer made a difference in her life:

“At my school, I had a classmate who was very mean and I never wanted to go near her because she scared me. When I told my mom, she decided we should pray together for this girl. I thought that was a good idea and so we prayed nearly every day until school was out and through the summer too. The following school year, a miracle happened and that girl changed completely, and she became one of my best friends. It affected my life and it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.”2

What a privilege it is to be able to pray for and pass on the practice of prayer to the next generation. Prayer reminds us that, though we have a role to play, our burdens ultimately belong to God, who graciously listens as we cry out to him.  More

1.  Stormie Omartian, The Power of a Praying Parent (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995), 16.

2.  Ibid., vii.

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Gratitude, Sharp and Sweet

A field of purple and yellow crocusesIf you live in a northern climate, you know there are few joys as sharp and sweet as spring, unfolding slowly into lush abundance at the end of a long, harsh winter. The sunshine, the colors, the smells—everything conspires to make you glad.

Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we’ve lost it for a time, like the woman who walked into her doctor’s office complaining of a pain and walked out knowing something might be seriously wrong. “I walked out feeling stunned,” she said. “Yet I walked out into the street and it shone like the New Jerusalem. . . . Houses, shops, pavements, bare winter trees, were all incredibly beautiful to me that morning. Everything was transfigured. Even the fishmonger’s smile, when he handed us two cod fillets, seemed beautiful and very precious, as if it was a gift. In fact everything seemed to be an astonishing gift on that bleak morning when I wondered whether I was being asked to give it back again.”1

Life can bring such joy and pain, a contrast of light and darkness. If we let them, the losses we suffer can be a filter through which we see the ordinary gifts of life in sharper relief—the ability to breathe, walk, hear, sing, pray, hold another’s hand. All these can be occasions for gratitude, even when life is difficult.

Today, let us focus not on our losses but on all we have been given. Let us live with eyes wide open to God’s many blessings.  More

1. Jo Farrow, quoted in Christine Whitmire, Practicing Peace (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 110.

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Touching

A tiny red pet snake in a girl's hand.My daughter kept pestering me for the pet of her dreams—a snake. Ugh! The last thing I wanted in the house was a slimy, slithery snake. “But snakes aren’t slimy,” Katie insisted. “They’re cute.” She kept showing me photos of snakes in a hopeless quest to convince me of their attractiveness.

For several years the dialogue went something like this:

“Mom, can I get a snake?”

“Yes, as soon as you move into your own apartment.” (She was six when we first began the conversation.)

“But, Mom, snakes make great pets, and I really want one.”

“Yes, and think how great it will be to have your very first snake in your very own apartment.”

Since one of Katie’s virtues is not giving up, we had the same conversation several times each year. Eventually, I caved. We visited a local pet store with a large inventory of Katie’s dream pets. I was looking for the smallest and most mild-mannered. Did they have anything that would grow no longer than three to five inches with a short life span? No, came the reply. Think more in the three- to five-foot range with a life span of ten to fifteen years. Bad news! Still, I could hope that my daughter would soon tire of the snake. With that in mind, I asked the clerk, “Any market for used snakes?”

“Maybe,” he said. “Some people will take a full-grown snake, but nobody wants a snake that hasn’t been handled. If your daughter is serious about getting a snake, she’ll need to spend time with it.” Apparently snakes that are never touched become ornery, prone to biting.

A few days later, we took home a tiny red corn snake that Katie promptly christened Rico. Since then, Rico has fit into the family fairly well. He’s actually kind of cute and not a bit slimy.

My experience with Rico reminds me of the importance of touching and being touched. If even snakes need regular handling to calm them down and keep them civilized, how much more do we need the touch of another human being in order to maintain our own sense of calm and well-being?   More

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Take Off the Mask

A man holding a white mask away from his faceJohn Ortberg makes the point that many of us are afraid to reveal who we really are, especially in church. The very place that should be a refuge for us, a safe place to reveal ourselves, is too often the place where we put on masks. But even the most carefully constructed mask will eventually slip. Ortberg tells of being in a store one day with one of his children who was pestering him for a toy. Finally, in exasperation, he responded, “No, I’m not going to get you that toy. I’m not going to get it for you today. I’m not going to get it for you tomorrow. I’m not going to get it next month or next year. I am never going to get it for you! Do you understand? When you’re seventy and I’m a hundred years old, I’m still not going to get it for you!”

Just then the clerk looked at him and said, “You look awfully familiar. Do you teach at Willow Creek Community Church?”

Ortberg recounts what happened next: “I said, ‘Yes, my name is Bill Hybels.’ I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. I wanted to hide. It was awful.”1

The problem with hiding is that we miss out on the benefits that come from true community. Why? Because God doesn’t build on falsehoods. Neither will he build up a congregation where everyone is intent on projecting a false self. As Ortberg observes, “It’s possible for people to attend the same church . . . year after year, without anyone ever knowing them. . . . Nobody knows their marriage is crumbling, their heart is breaking. Nobody knows they are involved in a secret pattern of sin that is destroying their soul. This is not God’s plan. It’s a mockery of community.”2 Church is meant to be a place where people are healed. It’s a hospital, not a set for filming a major motion picture.

You needn’t reveal your deepest secrets to everyone you meet in church. But you should have at least a few people who know you well and one or two you can talk to about your trials, temptations, and failings.   More

1. John Ortberg, Laurie Pederson, and Judson Poling, Groups: The Life-Giving Power of Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 50.

2. Ibid., 52–53.

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The Peace of “Hearing” God

Stained glass image of Martha listening to JesusThe Hebrew word shema is translated “listen” or “hear,” as in “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). As is often the case, this Hebrew word packs more punch than its English equivalent. Instead of merely referring to perceiving sound through our ears, it also means perceiving sound through our hearts. But what does that mean? Simply that the word shema contains within it the idea that we have to understand and respond appropriately to the words our ears perceive.

Long story short, what this passage from Deuteronomy and many others in the Bible are saying when they use the word hear is “listen and obey.”1 This is the winning combination that will bring more peace to our lives, even if what God asks is difficult. By living out this deeper meaning of shema, we will remain in God’s will, which is always the safest place to be.

Interestingly, this connection between hearing and obeying is also borne out in Latin. Wayne Muller tells of learning about this from his friend Henri Nouwen. “Henri,” he says, “insisted that the noise of our lives made us deaf, unable to hear when we are called, or from which direction. Henri said our lives have become absurd—because in the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means deaf. In our spiritual life we need to listen to the God who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear in our hurried deafness.”

Muller goes on to say, “Henri was fond of reminding me that the word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means ‘to listen.’ Henri believed that a spiritual life was a pilgrimage from absurdity to obedience—from deafness to listening.”2    More

1. An excellent discussion of the meaning and significance of shema can be found in Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 31–41.

2.  Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 84.

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