Friday, May 25, 2018

Worry into Worship - Battles into Blessings

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.  When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.  So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword. Exodus 17:11-13 (NIV)

I have several friends and family members who are facing some tough times and much of it is spiritual warfare. As I was praying this morning God brought to mind the story of the Israelites battling the Amalekites in the Valley of Rephidim. It was the first major conflict the Israelites had experienced since coming out of Egypt. According to Deuteronomy 25:18 the Amalekites attacked Israel from the rear, attacking first those who were weary and worn out from the journey. The enemy often focuses on those who are tired and struggling. 

Moses called on Joshua to choose out some men for battle and go fight the Amalekites at Rephidim, and Moses would go to the hilltop and stand with the staff of God in his hand. As the battle rages, as long as Moses holds his hands in the air, the Israelites have the upper hand. But when his arms get tired and his hands are lower, the Amalekites have the advantage. Moses is joined by his brother Aaron and another man, Hur. When they realized what was happening, Aaron and Hur brought a stone for Moses to sit on and they stood one on each side and helped him keep his hands in the air. As a result, Joshua defeated the Amalekites at Rephidim. 

As I was reading the story again, it hit me that raised hands are often a sign of praying, worshiping, and praising God (see Nehemiah 8:6, Psalm 134:2, 1 Timothy 2:8, and others...) As long as Moses' hands were raised, God's people were winning the battle, but when the hands dropped, the enemy gained control of the conflict. As long as God's people are praying and praising God we are winning the battles, but when we stop praying and praising we begin to be defeated by the enemy. 

In this world, we will have trouble. We have been set free from the Egypt of our sin and we are journeying to a Promised Land of eternal salvation, but for now we live in a world infected by sin and infested by an enemy who seeks to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10). There will be battles, and they will come when we are weary, tired and worn out from the journey. The key to victory in the battles is to pray, worship and praise the Lord until the victory comes. 

Sometimes we will grow tired in the battle, and we will need some "Aarons" and "Hurs" to help us. We were never meant to fight alone, so don't resist help from God's people. And sometimes it will you who need to be an Aaron of Hur for someone else; don't let those opportunities pass you up - others need you too. 

By the way, though the Amalekites were defeated that day, that wasn't the last time the Israelites had to fight them. But God made a promise that one day He would "completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.” (Ex. 17:14) The battle you are going through now won't be the last one you will fight; the enemy will continue to harrass and attack as long as he can; but we have a promise from God that one day the enemy will be removed and will never disturb the people of God again (Revelation 20:10). Until that day, fight the good fight of faith, and use the weapons pf prayer, worship and praise to experience the victory God has promised you!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Do What You Can While You Can

 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15-16 (ESV)

Recently a good friend of mine passed away. We worked pretty closely together for about 15 years, and spent a lot of time laughing, crying, praying and talking together. One thing my friend often said was, "I wish I would have..." or sometimes "I should have..." Looking back on life my friend realized there were some things left undone. 

All of us probably do the same thing. I turned 53 in April, and for me birthdays are generally a time of reflection. I thought about where I am in life - spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically, relationaly, etc. - and I recognize that there are a lot of things I wished I had not done, or done differently. I hear people sometimes say, "I don't have any regrets..." Not me. There are several things I did as a child or young person that have affected me for the rest of my life; some things I wish I could undo, un-say or un-see. But I can't so I have to live with them. Many of them I have grown beyond, but some still haunt me. 

I have also realized there are a lot more things that I wished I had done earlier in life; things that would have benefited me in many ways: spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, relationaly, financially and more. Looking back I see things I could have done that would have improved my life dramatically. In some ways, I would like to have a "do-ever", an opportunity to redo somethings in my younger years. Of course I realize that we rarely get a do-over in life. Once something is done, seen or heard, it is impossible to completely undo. 

The good news is that while there aren't any do-overs in life, there is new beginnings. God is a God of new beginnings; His mercies are new each morning, and if we are in Christ we are a new creation. We can't go back and change the past, but we can begin where we are to have a different future. Where we are is not where we have to always be. 

In writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul encourages the believers to pay attention to how they are living. He says, "Be careful then how you walk..." The first word in the verse is the Greek word “blepo” and it literally means “look” or “watch.” It has to do with the eyes, but in this sense it means to look in order to evaluate, or take an inventory. So Paul is saying, “Take a look at your life. Do a little self-examination. What are the things you are living for? What are you giving yourself too? What are you spending your time on?" 

Year ago I was at a lunchtime Bible study being led by Dr. Randy Davis, currently the executive director of the TN Baptist Mission Board, and he was talking about priorities. And he said something that really convicted me. He said, to determine a person’s priorities, we need to look at only two books: the datebook and the checkbook. What you give your time to and what you give your money to are what your priorities are.

Paul says we are to “look carefully” how we are living. Some people read that and see the word "carefully" and think think "be safe"or "don't take any risks." There are some people who are always living their lives on the defensive. Instead of striving to accomplish their purpose or goals, they’re just trying not to make too many mistakes. They don’t want to try anything new. They don’t want any change. They just want to live in their comfort zone. In fact they never attempt anything out of their comfort zone. Their motto is “Just don’t rock the boat.” Consequently their life is dominated by fear rather than by faith. They think “look carefully” means never take any risks. 

But the word Paul uses that is translated "carefully" is the word “akribos”. It means to be precise, diligent, perfect, etc. It is related to the word from which we get "acrobat." When I think of an acrobat, I don't necessarily think of one who plays it safe or does nothing. I think of someone who is active and precise. A good acrobat is one who trains and takes every precaution for safety, but still does their performance. Every time they do, they take a risk, but it is a careful, calculated risk. A person who lives carefully, doesn’t act foolishly, but does live fully!

Paul is saying, "Pay careful attention to how you are living your life." In other words, do some self examination; are you living your life to the fullest? Are you giving yourself to the things that matter most? Are you leveraging your time and resources for that which will make the most difference in the future? Are you doing what you should do while you have the opportunity to do it? You can't go back and change the past, but you can begin today to do what will make the future different. Pay attention to how you are living your life. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Spiritual Warfare: Prison, Prayer and Praise (Pt 3)

Sunday afternoon was a beautiful day and I thought I would take advantage of the nice weather and sit out on the carport to read. Unfortunately the nice weather also brought the bees out. Several large yellow jackets flew into the carport, and began to hover close to the ground near where I was sitting. I looked around to see what I had to defend myself, and found a can of bug killer. When I sprayed it, it came out as a fog so it was hard to make a direct hit on the bees. I noticed though, that some of the bees continued to hover close to the ground as the fog came over them. In just a short time, the spray covered their wings and body and they went to the ground where they were easy prey for my flip-flop. However, some of the bees didn't stay close to the ground; as soon as the fog began to encroach upon them they flew upward and out of the carport to the safety of a tree. 
         As I was thinking about why some immediately flew away to safety while others lingered near the ground till they were covered and killed, the Spirit spoke to me in that still, small voice - those who linger too long near the ground end up being covered by the spray and destroyed, while those who fly upward get to safety. In the same way, those who are under spiritual attack and linger too long trying to fight the battle in the fog are defeated and sometimes destroyed. But those who fly upward as soon as they sense the attack coming are safe. In spiritual warfare, those who "fly upward" do so in prayer and praise to the Lord. As we praise the Lord, He lifts us above the fog of the enemies attack. 
       In our study of this section of Acts 16 we have noticed some of the weapons of the enemies warfare - intimidation, incarceration and isolation. In a physical sense, he tried all three on Paul and Silas, and in a spiritual sense he continues to use those weapons against God's people. But, as with Paul and Silas, God gives us weapons to fight back with...

1. Prayer - v.25a
The Bible says in v.25, at midnight Paul and Silas are praying. If I’m Paul or Silas I’m emotionally and physically and spiritually spent. I’m drained to the last drop. I’ve got nothing left to give. Their backs are bleeding from their beating. They are black and blue all over. And they had to be ticked off. I’ve never had a mob form against me, but I’m guessing that’ll set you off emotionally. And to top it off they land in the maximum security cell in stocks! It just doesn’t get much worse than that.
       But instead of complaining or just crashing, Paul and Silas are praying to God. Why? Because they understood that spiritual strength comes from communication with God. There is power in prayer. Prayer connects you to the Creator of the universe, and opens the floodgates of His spiritual power in your lives. Paul and Silas had no strength, they had been accused, abused and beaten - they had no strength, so they drew on a power beyond their ability, they were praying to God. 
Prayer connects you to the greatest person and the greatest power in the universe. The writer of Hebrews says,  "Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." - Hebrews 4:16 (NIV)
        The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God, and one of the greatest weapons we have is the weapon of prayer. But for prayer to be effective, you have to utilize it, and you have to do it even when you don’t feel like it, even when you don’t have ideal circumstances, even when you are under spiritual attack or oppression. When you fail to pray because you don’t feel like it, or because your circumstances are hard, you’ve just handed the enemy a victory in your life, because he has gotten you to disconnect from the Person and power that can rescue you from your prison. Give attention to prayer, especially when it is hardest to pray. 

2. Praise - v. 25b
Not only were they praying, but they were praising God. Through praise, we acknowledge the power of God. Praise focuses our attention away from our problems to God's sovereign power. It causes us to be reminded that God is on His throne and that He is in control. Through praise, we are enabled to surrender to His divine purpose and abandon ourselves to His sovereign will.
        Praise is also a declaration of faith by which we declare the greatness of our God. Charles Swindoll has said, "Every problem is an opportunity to prove God's power. Every day we encounter countless golden opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insurmountable problems."
       Through prayer we can tell our God how big our problem is; and through praise, we can tell our problems how big our God is. Through praise, I testify to my faith in an all-powerful God who is worth serving, despite the problems I face, because I know that His power is greater than any problem, and that His purpose for my life transcends any difficulty I might encounter. As Paul write in Romans 8:18: "Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later." (NLT) 

3. People - vs. 27-32
       Rather than thinking only of themselves, Paul and Silas concerned themselves with those around them who could be influenced by their testimony in their time of trouble. In this case, it was not only the other prisoners, but the jailer and his family.
      Notice how Paul and Silas were concerned for both the jailer's safety (vs. 26-27); but his salvation (vs. 28-32). In times of trouble, there are many who concern themselves with the safety of their fellow man. And, certainly, the Christian should be concerned for the physical well-being of others. But if that is the limit of our concern, we will have failed to effectively bear the witness that is needed. We must also be concerned about their salvation.
       Difficulties have a dramatic way of causing people to think about eternal things. As Christians, we also must be alert to matters of eternal significance and take advantage of every opportunity we have to urge others to make sure they are prepared for eternity; and to also testify to them about how a personal relationship with God can see you through daily difficulty and troubles in this world. We have a mission given to us by God, to get the gospel to the lost, and we need to be aware of that mission regardless of the circumstances. 

       In spiritual warfare, your internal attitudes are more important than your external circumstances. I think there are two basic types of people in the world: complainers and praisers. Complainers can always find something to complain about. Praisers can always find a way to worship God regardless of circumstances. Worshiping is taking our eyes off of our external circumstances and focusing on God. We stop focusing on what’s wrong with us or with our circumstances. We start focus on what’s right with God.
Worship is refocusing on the fact that two thousand years ago, Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin. It’s refocusing on the fact that God loves me when I least expect it and least deserve it. It’s refocusing on the fact that God is going to get me where God wants me to go. It’s refocusing on the fact that I have eternity with God to look forward to in a place where there is no mourning or sorrow or pain. Worship releases the power of God in our lives and restores the joy of our salvation. 
Is it easy? Absolutely not. Nothing is more difficult than praising God when everything seems to be going wrong. But one of the purest form of worship is praising God even when you don’t feel like it because it shows God that your worship isn’t based on circumstances. Worship is based on the character of God.
        One of the best books ever written is Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Everything was taken away from these prisoners. They were stripped of their clothing, their pictures, and their personal belongings. They even took away their names and gave them numbers. Frankl was number 119,104. Everything was taken away except one thing. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
         I’m absolutely convinced that the most important choice you make everyday is your attitude. Your internal attitudes are more important than your external circumstances. The outcome of your life will be determined by your outlook on life. If you have a critical or complaining spirit you’ll complain till the day you die. Your life will get worse and worse because you’ll accumulate more and more negative experiences. But if you have a worshipful spirit life gets better and better. Why? Because you accumulate positive memories. At the end of the day, one way or the other, your focus determines your reality!
        Paul and Silas were in prison. Their bodies were chained. But you can’t chain the human spirit. That’s what Victor Frankl discovered in the concentration camp. That’s what Paul and Silas modeled over two thousand years ago. Their bodies were chained, but their spirits soared.   And when you worship God in the worst of Circumstances you never know what is going to happen. Worship sets the stage for miracles! Worship causes spiritual earthquakes that can change the topography of your life. It may or may not change your circumstances. But it will change your life.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Spiritual Warfare: Prison, Prayer and Praise (Pt 2)

And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. Acts 16:23-24 (ESV)

In my last post I began talking about spiritual warfare. Whenever we act in obedience to the Lord and pursue Him and His will for our lives, we are going to encounter opposition from the enemy. That truth is clearly seen in the account of Paul and Silas preaching in Philippi where they ended up in prison.

This is sometimes hard for us to get our mind around because we live in such prosperity gospel culture, but when you follow Christ, and when you live out the mission, you will experience opposition. It may be in the form of persecution by people, but more than likely the opposition we experience will be spiritual and circumstantial. What I mean by that is that the enemy will seek to use our circumstances to oppose us and hinder our ministry for the Lord.

From the story of Paul and Silas, we see some of the methods the enemy uses in his battle to hinder or stop our obedience to the Lord. In the last post I talked about the enemy's Intimidation - planting negative thoughts and self talk in our minds. Looking at the rest of the passage we see two other methods the enemy uses.

2. Incarceration (locking,binding)
v23 “they cast them into prison” Again, don’t think in terms if a physical prison; there are many other types of prisons we find ourselves in.
  1. Some people are imprisoned by their past. Something has happened to you, or you’ve done something and that event has defined you. You may have committed a grievous sin, or you may have been in an abusive relationship, you may have endured a divorce, and the enemy is always reminding you of that event. In fact he is trying to define you by your past, he’s saying this isn’t just something you’ve done, or something that has been done to you, this is who you are and you will never be better than your past. You are imprisoned by your past.
  2. Some are imprisoned by pain. You’ve experienced great emotional pain in your life, and you can’t seem to overcome it. The pain may come out of a broken relationship, or the loss of a significant person in your life. It may come out of a dream that has been shattered or never fulfilled. The hurt is real, but the enemy wants you to keep dwelling on the loss. He wants to keep the wound fresh, he wants you to dwell on the pain because it paralyzes you, it imprisons you and keeps you from living out the purpose for which you were created. He wants you to stay in a prison of pain.
  3. Some are imprisoned by fear. It may be the fear of failure, you’ve attempted something in the past and it didn’t work out and now the enemy has convinced you that you can’t do anything. You’ve failed once, you will probably fail again so you just don’t try. It may be a fear of success, you’re afraid to succeed because then you think more will be expected of you, and you don’t want that pressure. You are afraid of expectations, so you just don’t have any or try to live up to any.
There are many prisons that the enemy tries to incarcerate us in to keep us from serving the Lord.

3.Isolation (separation)

v24 “the inner prison”  This may be the enemy’s greatest tactic. When he wants to hinder you from serving God and fulfilling the mission God has called you to, he seeks to isolate you from others in the body of Christ. The enemy is described as a roaring lion, and when lions hunt they isolate their prey from the rest of the pack and then devour them. And the devil works the same way - he gets you in a funk and gets you to withdraw from the body to isolate you.

In my nearly 30 years of ministry, one of the first indicators of spiritual attack and oppression on a Christian, is a regular absence in the weekly assembly. The thing is, God created us for community, He created it in such away that we can’t fulfill His purposes for our lives apart from the body of believers. God calls us to love Him and then love one another, we can’t do that apart from community. But the enemy wants to isolate us in order to have his way with us.

Intimidation, incarceration and isolation are tactics of the enemy that he uses to oppress us and hinder our ability to serve the Lord. He means to use these things for our harm; but God causes all things to work together for our good;even those things that don’t seem good at the time.What the enemy intends for harm, God can use for good. The enemy has Paul and Silas arrested and thrown in jail; he’s trying to stop them from sharing the gospel and seeing people saved, but did it work? No, because Paul and Silas didn’t respond the way normal people would respond. Normal, unsaved people would respond in anger, frustration, and pity. But the Bible says that at midnight Paul and Silas are praying and singing praises to the Lord.

Next time we will let’s look at what we can learn from Paul and Silas response to their prison situation. God's design is for Christians to bear testimony in troubled times to the difference God makes. And God uses our "tests" to allow us to present a "testimony." But how? Let's see what we can learn from the example of Paul and Silas. To bear testimony in troubled times . . .