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Tom Stuart

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:16 (ASV)

Being a time conscious person, I have always liked this verse.  The idea of being exhorted to make the most of my time just resonates with me.  This important advice is given in the context of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to his readers to live a holy life.

Using the contrast of deeds of darkness versus deeds of the light, he challenges all of us to live in the light. “Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)  He goes on to say “So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.” (vs. 15)  

Then he proceeds to tell us how to be wise and gives us four nuggets of wisdom for redeeming our time and making the most of every day.

1.  PREVIEW – Start your day with Jesus.  Don’t just plunge thoughtlessly into the demands and busyness of each day.  Take some time upon arising to pray and dedicate your day to Him so that He will guide you through your day and help you “understand what the Lord wants you to do.”  (vs. 16) 

If you are going to make the most of the opportunities that God wants to give you each day you must first recognize them.  Taking time to commit your day to the Lord by asking for His direction, and His priorities makes a huge difference in how you respond to the unfolding of your day.  Beginning the day with prayer and study of His Word prepares you as nothing else can to redeem the time.  Be with Him and listen before doing.

2.  CUT OUT EXCESS – Don’t give in to self-indulgent time wasters.  The specific reference here is to not get “drunk with wine because that will ruin your life.” (vs. 17)   In essence, drunkenness can be excessive indulgence in anything – the internet, email, Facebook, cell phones, TV, even multitasking etc.  Drunken excess leads to loss of perspective and a needless, wasteful squandering of precious resources.  Making the most of our time requires being vigilant against such time and life robbers. 

3.  SING – Depend on the Holy Spirit throughout the day.  Being filled with the Spirit happens when we fully yield ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus in our lives.  Going through the day with a repeated consciousness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and asking Him to lead and guide comes with intentional awareness. 

Paul reveals one of the secrets to gaining and maintaining this awareness of the Spirit’s presence and power.  It’s singing!  Yes literally “singing…spiritual songs…and making music in your heart.” (vs. 18)  Of course, a great way to facilitate this is through listening to worshipful music as your are able via radio, internet, iPod etc.

4.  REVIEW – Close your day with Jesus.  Take time before retiring to review the day.  As you recall each event of the day, pause and thank the Lord for His presence and guidance through each aspect.  Ask and receive forgiveness where you have sinned.  Give Him the glory for your victories and commit to Him your trials and defeats.  “And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (vs. 20)

OK – try it – go do your day with Jesus!

How to pray through

Recently I made a commitment to up my prayer life.  It is easier said than done.  Putting the time in is one thing, but being earnestly engaged and getting into a place of praying effectively is quite a challenge.  To do so requires battling through lethargy, distractions, rote babblings and just plain old unbelief and doubt. 

I have realized afresh that to be effective in prayer one must be committed to doing what the saints of old called “praying through.”  In essence praying through means praying until something happens.  You might call it the PUSH method of praying – Pray Until Something Happens. 

That “something” does not have to be the actual answer to the prayer and in most cases it is not.  But that “something” is invariably the assurance that you have been heard.  That assurance is the evidence that you have prayed yourself into to a place of faith. (Hebrews 11;6)  There is a release in one’s spirit that comes when you know that God has heard because we know that when He hears us, an answer is on the way. (1 John 5:15) 

Isaiah likens earnest prayer and intercession to the travail of labor in giving birth.  Praying through is like that.  It is hard work and it requires an engagement of ones entire being in bringing forth the desired result. 

While there are many different ways to pray, praying through is not a quiet, contemplative, sweet lullaby, by and by type of praying.  It is most often forceful, loud, emotion filled, physically taxing, a heart wrenching type of praying.  Advancing the kingdom of God often requires such “forceful” prayer.  Jesus’ reference to this literally means to “eagerly claim for oneself.” (Matthew 11:12)

Here are some examples of individuals who knew how to pray through.

  • Jesus – “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7)
  • Jacob – “He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor.” (Hosea 12:4)
  • Hannah – “Hannah was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the LORD.” (1 Samuel 1:10)  Her prayer that the Lord would give her a child was so demonstrative that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. 
  • Elijah – “Prayed fervently.” (James 5:17)  He prayed seven times that it would rain “bowed low to the ground and prayed with his face between his knees.”  (1 Kings 18:42-46) 
  • Hezekiah – “Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD.” (Isaiah 37:14) What Hezekiah did here when threatened by King Sennacharib of Assyria was literally lay it all out before the Lord. In so doing he cast his burden fully on the Lord. (Psalm 55:22) 

Do you see the picture of praying through that emerges here?  As a result I have moved my place of prayer from my study to the basement so I can let it rip.  Can you imagine if we prayed more like that we just might get the same results they did.

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It never ceases to amaze me how God uses the simple practice of following a daily scripture or devotional reading plan to speak a timely word of encouragement.  Yesterday was no exception.  It was a big day for me as I had to report to the hospital at 5:30 AM for surgery to remove a cyst from my neck.  Despite being in a time crunch Susan and I took a few minutes together to read to one another our respective appointed readings for June 28. 

Amazingly, my assigned text in the Bible reading plan I have been using was Isaiah 53.  That chapter describing the suffering Messiah contains the most powerful passage of scripture on healing in the entire Bible.  Faith leaped within me as I read “surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” and “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)  What better message and encouragement can a man receive prior to surgery than that one? 

And the devotional book Susan has been following had an entry for June 28 on this verse “Now the Lord of peace himself, give you peace always by all means.” (1 Thessalonians 3:16a)  Again, it was a word in season for both of us.  As Susan and I prayed together, an incredible peace settled over us and took root in our souls. 

I can honestly say that the impartation of faith from those two readings cocooned me in God’s healing love throughout the entire day.  Prior to the surgery the doctor told me that I would have to stay in the hospital over night; but things went so well they released me before noon.  Joy of joys, I was entrusted to the best nurse in the world, – also referred to as my “responsible person” by hospital staff –  and to home health care.

The practice of reading prescribed texts using scriptures, meditations, prayers etc. is an established spiritual discipline dating all the way back to the founding church fathers in the first centuries after Christ.  Those who make it a daily practice position themselves to hear God speak to them and strengthen themselves in their faith.  It gives God an opportunity to tangibly impart direction, correction and comfort. 

Many people feel as though they do not hear God speak to them.  But most of the time it is because they are not taking advantage of the means He has established to do just that, by reading His Word.  May I encourage you in this regard today? 

If you have not already done so, please consider making a commitment to a daily reading plan and stick with it for at least 30 days.  I can guarantee that it will make a positive difference in your life.  Check out these two blog posts for more on this topic:  “No Bible No Nothing” and “Devotional website favorites.”

Optimization refers to choosing the best element from a set of available alternatives.  It is a popular internet term related to search engine optimization of websites. The byproduct of such optimization is improved performance.

I found myself praying this morning for an optimization of my life.  More than ever before I am longing to spend my life in busying myself with only the best God has to offer.  There are endless alternatives to choose from – many of them good things, but not God’s best.  Worse, many of them are Ishmaels and not Isaacs.  They are things that will sidetrack us from God’s best.  (See Genesis 16-17 and my blog post “If life is short, how should I live.” pt. 5)

I have given birth to enough Ishmaels in my life to know what a destructive diversion they can be.  Side-track involvements not only drain away time and energy, but worse, they keep us from investing that time and energy in the things we really should be doing.  Our lives should be spent in doing things that more perfectly match who we were created to be and in the end will count for God and give Him glory.

And so I made a fresh commitment today to live an optimized life.  From a Biblical perspective, the optimized life is a life that chooses the very best God has to offer in terms of who He has created me to be and employs it in doing, to the best of my knowledge, what He has called me to do.

Quaker author Parker Palmer terms this congruence of being and doing as the harmonizing of soul and role.  Our soul is that unique blend of intellect, emotion and motivation imbued  in us by God from birth that frames our inner life.  Our role is representative of the things we find ourselves doing in our outer life.  Optimization happens when the God-given motivations of our inner life can be authentically expressed through our outer life – when soul and role are one.

Only when soul and role meld together in this way is life truly optimized.  It is then and only then that we find an inner peace that brings both fulfillment and fruitfulness in life.  And most importantly, I believe it is then and only then, that we bring genuine pleasure and glory to God who created us.

What separates an ordinary life from an extraordinary life?  One word – extraThe “extra” added to ”ordinary” makes something “extra”-ordinary.  That is true in anything that we do, on the job, in relationships, and in life. And it is should be especially true in Christianity. 

When we see something that is extra-ordinary, like a beautifully landscaped yard, we are awed by the extra thought, creativity, effort, time, money and yes, extra love and passion that went into making it something way beyond the ordinary.  It’s that “eXtra”  factor that makes it so extraordinary.

We were created to have extra-ordinary lives.  And most people want their lives to be marked by having that “eXtra” factor.   But all too often when we look at our lives we see the ordinary and not the extra-ordinary.

When Jesus came to earth declaring the good news of salvation with the purpose of establishing His church, He was not coming to establish something that was ordinary.  He came to take the ordinary and transform it into the extraordinary.  Everything about Jesus life and ministry was extraordinary. The things He said and did were off the charts of what might be considered the norm or average or ordinary.

And Jesus was always looking for the extraordinary responses in people.  He was looking for extraordinary perseverance, extraordinary love, extraordinary generosity, extraordinary obedience.  Those are the things that caught His attention.  Those are the things that he found remarkable; things he commented on and encouraged others to emulate. 

There is a select group of people in the Gospels who Jesus declared extraordinary.  Included in that elite group were the centurion who besought Jesus to heal his servant, the one leper who returned to give thanks, the widow who gave all she had,  the Gentile mother pleading for healing of her daughter and the woman who broke the alabaster jar anointing Jesus right before His death.  (Luke 7:9, 17:18, & 21:3; Matthew 15:21; Mark 14:9)

What made them so extraordinary?  It was “eXtra” factor of faith and love.  Paul describes it as ‘faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)  Their love for Jesus and for those they brought to Him activated their faith that moved them to do extraordinary things.  They made extraordinary requests and trusted God for extraordinary results.

Ordinary Christianity is really an oxymoron.  Extraordinary Christianity should be the norm.  Christianity is the miracle of God taking the ordinary and transforming it into the extraordinary.  The “eXtra” factor of faith and love is the empowering secret.  If we are willingly yielded to Him, put our faith in Jesus and love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; then He will take us and make our lives extraordinary. 

When Jesus comes into an ordinary person’s life through the power of the Holy Spirit, that person is transformed through faith into an extraordinary person.  

Loving those who love you, that is ordinary love.  Loving those who don’t love you, that is extraordinary.  Trusting God when thing are going fine is ordinary.  Trusting God when things are not going fine, that is extraordinary.  Giving when you know that you can afford it, that is ordinary.  Giving when you don’t know how you can afford it, that is extraordinary. 

Is your Christianity ordinary or is it extraordinary?

In reading through the book of Ruth this morning the character of the widow Naomi riveted my attention.  What was it about her that caused her daughter-in-law Ruth to love her so?  It is a love that is described as “better than that of seven sons.” (Ruth 5:15)

Naomi, by her own admission declares herself unlovable and rejected by the Lord. (Ruth 1:13)  In effect Naomi insists her fate is so dire that any continued association with her will bring no good thing.  As is often the case those who feel rejected, tend to reject others.  She is feeling like a LOSER with a big “L” on her forehead. 

Have you ever felt like that?  Can you identify?  What can anyone who has ever felt like that possibly expect from God?  Nothing, nada, zilch!  But to the contrary, here we find a wonderful encouragement of God’s love and acceptance nonetheless.

When Naomi decides to return to her native land, Israel, she urges her two widowed daughters-in-law to stay behind in Moab.  In a classic contrast of “like” versus ‘love” responses, Orpah kisses Naomi but Ruth clings to her.  Kisses can be patronizing but true love clings.  Aren’t you glad true love clings?  That is God’s kind of love.  He clings to us no matter what.  No one shall ever snatch us out of His hand. (John 10:28)

And then we see a remarkable thing.  God’s love and purpose to bless the seemingly unloved Naomi are manifested from an unlikely source.  This woman, a foreigner, albeit a non-Jew, from a different generation and culture, declares her love and loyalty to return to Israel with her.  And even more remarkable than that, Ruth does so in terms deemed befitting of the marriage covenant between a husband and wife.

The two salient features of Ruth’s covenant love declaration are the quintessential model for every truly loving relationship.  First she asks Naomi to accept her as she is and not reject her. “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.” (Ruth 1:16)  Unconditional acceptance of another is the mark of God’s kind of love, covenant love; and necessary for any enduring relationship.

And second, Ruth says to Naomi that she is also willing to change for her.  This is also a mark of genuine love – the willingness to adjust our lives to please another.  In this case it means a change of plans, change of place, change of people and ultimately a change of profession of faith.  “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

What was it in Naomi that called forth from Ruth such a covenant love commitment – a commitment that ultimately led to her marriage to Boaz, the birth of Obed, and being grafted into the genealogical lineage of Jesus the Messiah?

Was it that Naomi was so lovable?  No, that is not the point here.  Rather it is the demonstration of God’s unconditional love for the unlovable.  That is why and how God loves all of us.  (Romans 5:8)  And we need to be alert to the unlikely people through whom He does that. 

How and through whom is He expressing His love for you today?