Acts: The Praying Church

(Well, I goofed yesterday. I took the day off to spend with my husband for his birthday and forgot it was Monday. I missed the Acts study. I apologize and offer it a day late.)

What do you do when life seems to go completely off the rails? After Jesus’ ascension, the bewildered disciples returned to Jerusalem. And there they set the character of the church. The first congregation was a “praying church” as the disciples and followers of Jesus met together after His ascension (vs. 12-13). Verse 14 says that “They all joined together constantly in prayer.” Now, this doesn’t mean that they all sat in the same room for a prayer meeting. The phrase “constantly in prayer” means “to be steadfastly attentive unto, to give unremitting care to a thing.”

I attended a church where the deacons (which my husband was) and wives (that was me) went to mandatory prayer meetings every Sunday night.  We often sat behind one couple who played games on their phones the whole time. Another woman sat at the end of our row thumbing through a magazine while her husband reverently bowed his head and slept. The same handful of people prayed out loud every week, waxing elephants with their piety. I never felt less spiritual in all my life.

Luke says that all these people were together in one place with one mind and one heart, praying with one purpose – the coming of the Holy Spirit. They believed that Jesus would fulfill His promise (1:4-8) and so they waited in faith and prayer.  By the way – the fact that women were present is shocking for the day as the Jewish traditions kept men and women apart for any religious activity. The fact that his brothers were there is also incredible.  These were the same brothers who scoffed at Jesus and denied His claim to be the Son of God. Now they were crowded together, putting their lives on the line for a truth they had long eschewed. I posed a question at the beginning of this devotional: “What do you do when life goes off the rails? Jesus’ followers turned to prayer and faith while they waited for Him to do what He promised. There have been more than a few times I felt like everything had fallen apart in my life. I’m learning to follow their example. Beloved when everything goes wrong you can too. Pray in faith and wait.

When Joy Prays

Photo by Joy’s mommy, Ashley Andrews

God has taught me so much in a thousand different ways. Certainly, His Word is my highest and best teacher. But I’ve also learned some valuable life and spiritual lessons through my cat, an overflowing coffee pot, a nasty garbage can, a wrecked car, an old barn, my kid, and a buzzard in the road. Yesterday my granddaughter became my teacher, which is not unusual. God sends so many lessons through that little girl, probably because He knows she gets right to my heart.

It was supper time and she was doing everything but coming to the table.  We were all getting frustrated with her and it was turning into a battle of the wills. Finally, an unhappy Joy climbed into her seat with her bottom lip protruding as we extended hands to pray the blessing. In our house, Poppy prays first and she will follow with her own version. She’s done this since before she had words. You really should listen to a little kid’s prayer sometime – it will bless your heart so much. I love to hear her pray and I am sure God does too. But when she’s upset she will decline to pray. Except last night.

Poppy finished his part and Joy’s mommy asked her if she was going to pray. Big little-girl sigh. “I don’t want to pray because I’m aggravate (her exact word), but I can pray.” Out of the mouths of babes . . . When do I feel less like praying? When I’m aggravate. When I’m frustrated. When I’m angry. When do I most need to pray? When I’m aggravate. When I’m frustrated. When I’m angry.

She was a real-life example of Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica: “Be Joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-18). By the time she rambled her way to “Amen” the tone at the table had softened dramatically.

Here’s what I learned from my pint-sized teacher: if I only pray when I’m in the mood to pray, I will rarely pray. You know it’s true for you too. Look at Jesus. He prayed in the hardest moment of His life just before He went to the cross. His prayer was honest and God didn’t chastise Him for His raw feelings.

So pray Beloved – no matter how you feel. Good or bad. Happy or sad. It’s always a good time to pray. Even when you’re aggrevate. Especially when you’re aggrevate.

Dig a Ditch

This is a word to someone besides me. But first a Bible study lesson. Under the Lord’s direction, three nations – Israel, Judah, and Edom – joined forces to do battle against a common enemy, Moab. After days of marching the three armies were out of water – a very dangerous situation. They called on Elisha, the prophet of the Lord who said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Make this valley full of ditches. You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle, and your other animals will drink.” This is an easy thing in the eyes of the Lord; He will also hand Moab over to you.” (2 Ki 3:16-18).

In the morning, every ditch overflowed with water. The animals and people were refreshed and the army was encouraged by the hand of the Lord. But that’s not all. When the early morning sun hit the water it appeared red to the Moabites in their camp across the way. They thought the three armies had killed one another and filled the valley with blood. They took off to gather the plunder, unprepared for the ambush that followed. Not only did God provide water to aid the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom, but the water became a trap for the Moabite army.

What does that mean for you and me? I’m so glad you asked. When we come to God seeking His help and favor, don’t think He will reject us or begrudge our asking. Instead, we should dig ditches to prepare for His blessing. We shouldn’t limit God’s ability to overcome our difficulties. We should expect that He will “do immeasurably more than all we ask or image, according to His power” (Eph 3:20).

I’ve seen Him do some amazing things just this week. Makes me wonder what He would’ve done if I’d dug my ditches a little wider. I don’t know what your need is today – water, funds, hope, strength, healing, peace, wisdom, or a full-blown miracle. Here’s my advice, Beloved, grab a shovel and start digging.

Give Careful Thought

I love deep Bible study, taking verses one at a time, researching the words and context, and mining for treasure. I’m in a writing group that is working through the biblical text in small sections to allow us to notice every word. The insight we’ve gained and shared is remarkable. But there is also a lot to be said for taking on bigger chunks of Scripture. Like the little book of Haggai. Grab your Bible first and read this book in its entirety – it’s only two chapters and 38 verses – then come back.

Haggai is set in post-Babylonian captivity. When the Hebrew people returned to Jerusalem they set to work first rebuilding the city walls (see Nehemiah), then began restoring the Temple – the house of the Lord (Ezra 1:2-6). But they faced opposition from their enemies and struggled with their own issues and needs. They were also discouraged because the new structure was much smaller than the original Temple built by King Solomon. Eventually, lethargy, disappointment, and interference brought the work to a halt. The Jews turned their focus from God’s house to build their own homes.

Enter the prophet Haggai to proclaim God’s message of gentle chastisement and strong encouragement. I found one phrase five times in this little book: “Give careful thought” (1:5,7; 2:15,18 twice). Guess what that means (you’ve heard it from me before)? “Pay attention.” He said, “You plant much, but harvest little,” (1:6). “You earn wages, and it falls through the holes in your purse” (v. 6). “You expect much, but it turns out to be little,” (v. 9). “What you bring home I blow away” (v. 9). Why? In their depressed state, they gave up on the work of the Lord.

Now, I’m not some great theologian or prophet, but I think it’s pretty clear that the church today needs to “give careful thought.” Our ministry efforts are failing. Evangelism is ineffective. Teaching and preaching are weak. Why? Because the attacks of the enemy and the culture have discouraged God’s people and we have turned our attention back on ourselves. And we’re focused on our own issues and needs. Like the Jews, we’re sitting at home licking our wounds while the church goes lacking.

But, God says when we give careful thought to our ways, when we make His priorities our priorities, when we humble ourselves under His authority, He “will grant peace in this place” and He “will bless you – from this day on” (2:9, 19). The Lord is calling His people back to Himself. Beloved, it’s time to put down the phone, turn off the t.v., and pay attention.

Be Patient

I ran across a quote I had posted several years ago that is tugging at my heart this morning. It is by Adel Bestavros, an Egyptian lawyer, teacher, scholar, and preacher:

Patience with others is love.

Patience with self is hope.

Patience with God is faith.

I love this. It is so simple and yet so profound. Love for others is expressed in patience. Hope comes when we are patient with ourselves and our struggles. But I was most intrigued by the last of the three statements: “Patience with God is faith.” But I’ve always taught that faith, by definition, is a belief that leads to action. Faith in God caused the Israelites to step between the walls of water and walk on dry ground. Faith had Joshua and the people march around the walls of Jericho to bring them down and take the city. Jesus said that “Faith as small as a mustard” can move mountains (Matt 17:20). Yes! That’s the kind of faith I want!

But then I looked more closely at the Scriptures and I discovered that faith also involves a lot of waiting. Noah waited in the ark. Abraham waited for God’s promised child. David waited for his throne. The disciples waited for the Holy Spirit. And they waited because they had faith. But faith in what? The psalmist said: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope” (Ps 130: 5). They waited for the Lord. They had faith in Him. They had patience with God.

Now I’m not by nature a patient person. I hate red lights. I tell the microwave to “Hurry up!” I tap my foot impatiently at the coffee pot. And when my laptop drags, and it does it a lot, I get very aggravated. But I’m learning to be more patient and my teacher is my granddaughter. She is in the “I want to do it myself” stage, and so I wait while she fumbles with her shoes and slowly climbs into her car seat and takes forever to do the things that I could do in a matter of minutes. I wait because that is how she learns, and it’s how you and I learn too.

We learn that God is trustworthy and faithful. We learn that He is good and kind. We learn that He is mighty and perfect in all His ways. And we learn most of all that He loves us. And that is why we can wait for Him. Beloved, do you have faith in God? Then be patient.

Child of the King

The Queen knew that her people were in danger and only the king – her husband – could undo the evil plan against them. But no one dared to approach the throne without a summons. Not even Esther. If she did, and it displeased him, she would be put to death. It was a risky proposition, but it was necessary. She prepared herself and put on her royal robes and when the king saw her standing in the court, he welcomed her. Esther’s bravery (and her God) saved the lives of all the Jews in Persia.

I’ve often envisioned myself standing outside the doors of God’s throne room, my heart hammering in my chest. I see myself dressed, not in royal robes, but in the torn, tattered rags of my sinfulness. I come with a heavy burden and a desperate need that is almost always the result of my own sin and foolishness. Do I dare push open that door and approach the holy and pure God of heaven and earth?

According to Hebrews 4:16, that is exactly what I am invited to do. The author said, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:16). With these shakey knees? Yes. Because the confidence I have to come before God isn’t something inside of me, but it is because I am accepted in the blood of Jesus. While I see myself clothed in dirty rags, God sees me clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I see the mud of the world clinging to my hands, but God sees the “clean hands and pure heart” (Ps 24:4) of one who has been redeemed by His Son and cleansed from sin. I may see myself as a stumbling, sinful woman, but He sees me as His beloved child. Imagine that. I am a child of the King of the universe. Timothy Keller said: “The only person that dares wake up the king at 3:00 a.m. for a glass of water is his child. We have that kind of access.”

What do you need today? Encouragement? Hope? Provision? Healing? Help? Forgiveness? Peace? Joy? Your broken heart mended? Beloved, lift up your head and step into your Father’s presence. He will not only receive you but He will throw open His arms wide to you. That’s His promise. That’s your confidence. That’s your place as a child of God.

Show Them You Love Them

I prayed for someone dear to me: “Jesus, he needs You. His life is such a mess. He is so angry and he makes so many foolish choices. Lord, he just needs You to straighten his life out.”

Very quickly the impression came upon my heart, “He needs Me for salvation not just to change his behavior. He needs me for eternal life, not for a better life.”

Paul declared, ” . . . but we preach Christ crucified . . .” (1 Cor. 1:23). But are we? Are we preaching the Gospel – or “Your best life now?” Are we concerned because our loved ones are making wrong decisions or because they are heading in the wrong direction? Are we telling them they need to “straighten up” – or they need salvation? This one hits home for me: Are we praying for our sons and daughters and grandchildren to behave or be saved? Do we want an easier relationship with them or a right relationship with God? Are we offended by their language or grieved because they are lost? Let’s branch out wider: Are we praying for revival in our nation because we don’t like the way it’s being run or because people are lost and bound for hell?

Maybe the reason evangelism is waning is because we are not drawing lost souls to Jesus, we’re telling people to change their ways. We are preaching a “gospel” of behavior modification, not salvation and eternal life. And maybe that’s the reason so many reject the message – in their estimation, they are behaving just fine thank you. But Jesus didn’t die so that we would be better people – He died so that we would be saved people – redeemed sinners bound for heaven.

At the heart of the Gospel is the honest truth that we are all condemned sinners separated from God and destined for hell, not because of our behavior but because of the sin nature we inherited from Adam and Eve. Jesus – the Son of God – shed His blood to cleanse us of our sin nature – and make us acceptable to God. That is the Gospel.

Your lost loved ones need a Savior, not a divine life coach. Beloved, what will you tell them about Jesus?

Scars

“I was afraid if you saw it, you would run away. I thought if you ever knew you wouldn’t want me anymore” Those are the words of the sweet heroine in a book I read years ago. The bride is crying to her groom because she has revealed an ugly scar on her back from a childhood of abuse. Her husband draws her closer and assures her that this slight imperfection does not diminish his love for her, but makes him want to protect her from further harm. The scene is endearing, but the girl’s words stuck with me. “If you ever knew . . .”

I think that so often when I receive your kind words about my writing and teaching. “If you ever knew . . .” If you knew the places I’ve been, the foolish, sinful things I’ve done, the stupid mistakes I’ve made – I’m not sure you’d ever trust me again. To say that God has done a work of grace in my life is a vast understatement. I understand David’s testimony of praise for the One who “redeems [my] life from the pit and crowns [me] with love and compassion” (Psalm 103:4). I have been in some deep, dark pits. But God . . .

Truth be told, we all have that thing (or several things) that we want to keep well hidden from the world. Maybe it is a physical issue, an emotional matter, a blot in our family history, or a regret from our past – whatever it may be, we believe it marks us as imperfect. Unlovable. Undesirable. So we cover it with make-up or long sleeves – we hide it behind a mask or a brave face. “If you ever knew . . .”

We may be able to hide it from others, but there is One who sees what we try so carefully to conceal. He knows us completely, warts, scars, hang-ups, and all. Nothing is concealed from His all-seeing eyes. That’s a scary thought. Jesus sees you – the real, raw, imperfect you. And yet . . . HIs heart is not repulsed. His eyes are not averted. His love is not diminished. Scars – whether physical, emotional, or spiritual – are nothing new to Him. Beloved, He who bears the scars of thorns and nails and spear understands yours and loves you still.

Acts: The Church is Born

I have long wanted to do a series on the history of the Christian Church. Church History was my favorite class in my undergrad studies. The Holy Spirit burns bright and strong through the mighty, humble, and devout men and women of Christian history. We’ll start in Acts, where the Church was born, then we’ll move on beyond the record of Scripture with our eyes on the movement of the Holy Spirit. I hope you’ll forgive me if I get a little excited and giddy from time to time. If you thought we took a long time with Hebrews, hang on because the story of the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit never ends.


But first let’s set the foundation: Acts was written by Luke, the same Luke as the gospel, and was intended to be a continuation of it: Luke/Acts. It was written to “Theophilus” an unknown Greek who may have provided financial support for Luke’s work. Luke used the same investigative style in both accounts and so we have rich records of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit at work. Luke often connects the story of the church with the events of world history, giving us time markers that support the validity of the claims. But Acts is more than history, it is also solid theology. It was well received and respected by the early church fathers.


Acts begins after Jesus’ resurrection when the Lord showed Himself to His followers to prove that He was alive (1:1-3). He promised them “a gift” from His Father – the Holy Spirit that would empower them to do all that Jesus told them to do (v. 4-8). Matthew recorded Jesus’ marching orders: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). In Acts, He gave them direction: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We will see them take these precise steps as they respond to circumstances that send them far and wide with the gospel. Mind you, the church has yet to reach “the ends of the earth,” so the mission continues to this day.


After Jesus; words, Luke reports that He “was taken up before their very eyes . . .” (1:9). This is the ascension and it is crucial to the work of the Holy Spirit. The church was born – but not yet empowered. 

Turning a Wreck into a Thing of Beauty

The old white car sat on the side of the road, pushed out to the edge of the property. The tires were gone and its front end was buckled from some sort of impact. I passed it every morning on my way to work – it wasn’t a pretty sight. That is until the early spring. One morning I noticed green vines had begun to curl out from the crumpled hood and around the back end. A tiny sign of life in the dead vehicle. Day by day the vines progressed taking over more and more of the broken-down car. Then came the flowers – bright purple blooms swarming over the vines and covering the car until it became a beautiful sight to behold. I would look over at the lovely mound of flowers lifting their faces to the sun and I’d smile.

Your life may feel like a wreck today. It may be choices you made or a series of circumstances you couldn’t control. It might be something you did or something that was done to you. A health crisis, the loss of a loved one, a financial disaster, or a foolish mistake. The result is the same. There you sit – broken, pushed aside, feeling like a useless mess. What could you have to look forward to? What can you possibly contribute to the kingdom of God?

A lot, actually, because God specializes in calling life from death (Rom 4:17) and bringing beauty from ashes (Is 61:3). He turned a lowly shepherd into a king (2 Sam 5:4) and outcast women into evangelists (Jn 4; 20:10-18). He took fishermen and tax collectors and made them proclaimers of the good news (Mat 9:9; Mk 1:16-20). Church history is filled with stories of the transforming power of Christ.*  

There is no one – not even you – who is beyond God’s touch.  If you will allow Him, His love will turn your broken-down life into a garden of splendor. I know it’s true because He did it for me. Beloved, won’t you let Him make your life into a thing of beauty today?

*Watch for a new series about the history of the church starting January 31st.