This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Earnest Prayers- Psalm 63


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

EARNEST PRAYERS – PSALM 63
Lesson 13 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 63, read by Lana Elder, with Petzold/Bach’s “Minuet in G Minor,” played by Eric Elder

In the play The Importance of Being Earnest, a man named Jack pretends to be a man named Earnest–a name he has chosen for himself whenever he wants to hide his real identity. Ironically, a woman falls in love with him and, believing his name to be Earnest, tells him that she loves his name so much she can’t imagine marrying a man who wasn’t named Earnest.

And so begins a journey of discovery for the man who is pretending to be Earnest, on his way to learning the importance of being Earnest (in more ways than one).

In our prayer lives, it seems that God is wanting us to do the same: not just pretending to be earnest, but truly being earnest, truly seeking Him from our hearts.

As I look through Psalm 63, I see David doing just that: earnestly seeking God from his heart:

“God, You are my God, earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You, my body longs for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (v. 1).

In the heading for this psalm, it says that David wrote it when he was in the desert of Judah. For many of us, we speak of being in a desert figuratively, when times are tough or circumstances are dry. For David, he was literally thirsty and his body was literally longing for refreshment, for he was truly in a dry and weary land where there was no water.

How amazing then, that David came to God with his thirst and his longing, intentionally remembering from where his help would come. David lifted up his hands to God and sang:

“I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld Your power and Your glory. Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You. I will praise You as long as I live, and in Your name I will lift up my hands” (vv. 2-4).

Here’s a man who knows the importance of being earnest. He lifts his hands to God, knowing that God is the one who can answer the prayers on his heart.

God wants us to do the same. He wants us to lift up our hands to God, intentionally remembering that He is the one who can answer the prayers on our hearts. He is the one to whom we can express our thoughts and desires, our hopes and our dreams, and our belief that He will answer us when we call to Him.

It takes great faith to come to God in this way, to pour out our hearts to Him. Yet great faith is what pleases God the most, when we come to Him believing that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. As it says in the book of Hebrews:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

What about you? Do you believe that God exists? Do you believe He rewards those who earnestly seek Him? It’s okay if you can’t answer those questions right away. It’s okay if it takes some time to think them through and come to your own conclusions. But in the end, know that it is your earnest prayers that God wants the most, your earnest seeking of Him, and your honest belief in Him.

I was reminded yesterday morning of God’s actual presence once again–not His far-off, distant, presence somewhere “out there,” but His manifest presence, right here with me in the very room where I’m writing this message.

I had been pondering a thought yesterday morning that I wanted to send to a friend. So I wrote it out and included a quote that was given to me by another friend 25 years ago. I sent it off.

When my friend wrote back, I had to get down on my knees and praise God. Why? Because my friend had been reading a book at that very moment which included the quote that I had just sent… a quote I had only heard in passing 25 years ago and have never seen in print before or since! To me, it was a sign of God’s manifest presence, a sign that He was right there, right then, right with me in my room. My only response was to drop down on my knees and say, “Thank You, Lord. Thank You for being right here with me, right now. Thank You for speaking to me, speaking through me, and speaking to yet another believer in the process.”

When David came to God, he came earnestly. He came full of faith. He came knowing that God was there, and that He was the Only one who could truly quench his deep thirst, truly satisfy the longings on his heart. David said:

“My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise You. On my bed I remember You; I think of You through the watches of the night. Because You are my help, I sing in the shadow of Your wings. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me” (vv. 5-8).

David held on tight to God, and God held on tight to him. What a rich picture of a very rich relationship! I long for that kind of relationship with God, too!

I was thinking of this idea again earlier this week, about the importance of being earnest, as I watched one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies with my kids. There’s a point in the third movie where, in order to make something happen, someone must speak these words to a woman named Calypso: “Calypso, I release you from your human bonds.”

When one of the characters does so, nothing happens. Another character says, “He didn’t say it right. You have to say it right.” So this second character leans over to Calypso and whispers in her ear as if to a lover: “Calypso, I release you from your human bonds.” He used the same words, but with an entirely different tone. And when he did, all kinds of things began to happen!

I’m not saying that you have to say just the right thing in the just the right way to move the heart of God. But I am saying that God wants you to come to Him full of faith, truly believing that He’s there, that He cares, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. Because He is there. He does care. And He does reward those who earnestly seek Him.

How do I know? Not only because the Bible tells me so, but because God Himself has confirmed it’s so–over and over and over again–as I’ve come to Him with my own earnest prayers.

I know He’d love to confirm it to you, too. Come to Him with your earnest prayers, and discover for yourself the importance of being Earnest.

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for letting us come to You, anytime day or night, with those things that are our on hearts. I pray that You would hear our prayers today, answering them as You see fit, giving us a strong sense of Your presence as we do. Lord, we come to You today in faith, truly believing that You exist and that You reward those who earnestly seek You. And Lord, we  pray now that You would satisfy those longings on our heart, longings which perhaps only You truly know are deep within us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

Here’s the link again to today’s psalm if you’d like to listen:
Psalm 63, read by Lana Elder, with Petzold/Bach’s “Minuet in G Minor,” played by Eric Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan for the book of psalms:
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

(Eric will return next week as he continues his special series.)

The Superhero in You
The Truth about Your “Secret” Identity

by Nate Barbour

There was a man who owned a Great Dane. Now this Great Dane was an extremely large and ferocious dog–definitely not the kind of dog you want jumping up in your lap. One day, as the man was walking his Great Dane down the street, he saw another man across the street who was also walking his dog–a little bitty dog with short legs no tail and no hair. It was an ugly dog and, frankly, it looked terribly sick.

Suddenly the Great Dane saw the little ugly dog across the street and decided he hated that dog. He broke free from his owner’s leash and dashed across the street on the attack. The owner of the Great Dane yelled to the man, “Look out! My dog is on the loose and he’s liable to kill you and that dog of yours! You had better run!”

But the little ugly dog turned around, bared its teeth, and when the Great Dane attacked, that little dog proceeded to grab hold of the Great Dane at the foreleg and began to eat that big dog up. It ate right up the leg, right up the throat, ate its head, right down through its body, right across the tail, right down the back legs, spit out the bones, and smacked its lips-and that was the end of the Great Dane, just like that.

Well, the owner of the Great Dane was absolutely astonished by what he had just witnessed. “Man, what kind of dog is that?” the man exclaimed. “I’ve never in my life seen a little dog that could do something like that!”

“Dog? Dog?” the other man said. “Before he got his nose run over by a truck and his tail cut off by a train, this used to be an alligator!”

You may feel like a puppy dog on the outside, but inside, you’re an alligator. You have the power of God at your disposal to do mighty things. And tonight we’re going to talk about your superpowers and the Superhero in You, the truth about your secret identity. Can you leap tall buildings in a single bound? Are you faster than a speeding bullet? Are you more powerful than a locomotive? You may not have the abilities of Superman, but you possess the power above all powers, the power of God.

II. Your Secret Identity

1 John 4: 4 “4 You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

You’re a world overcomer. I love this. You’ve got something inside of you that makes you greater than any evil henchman or villain. You’ve got something inside of you that makes you stronger and more powerful. You have a “secret” identity. On one hand, you’re a mild mannered person, on the other, you’re Super So & So, with the capacity and power to defeat anything that comes your way.

Who is it that’s in you that gives you these super powers? What is your “secret” identity? The reality is that if you’ve made Christ your Lord, then He lives on the inside of you. Jesus Christ is the one pumping the power through your veins.

Before you accepted Him as Savior, you were just an ordinary Clark Kent, a regular Joe, and you got your nature from Adam, the first man, but when Jesus came inside of you, you were changed from being in Adam to the In-Christ man. So that’s your “secret” identity. The secret is that when Christ died on the cross, your old identity, the Adam man, died there, too. The only you that lives is the In Christ you. You are found in Christ and Christ is found in you.

The Distilled Bible says in Galatians 2:20 “I consider myself as having died and now I’m enjoying a new existence, which is simply Jesus using my body.”

Christ is your “secret” identity. He’s the one on the inside of you, giving you the power you need to face the day. What kind of powers are you talking about, Pastor Nate? You really do have SUPER POWERS. Let’s look at a few of them.

III. Your “Super” Powers

We’ve established that Jesus is on the inside of you providing the power. Well, wouldn’t it be true that you have the same power that He did? Yes. Let’s look at His power, that is now YOUR power.

Matthew 10:1 “1 And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.”

You have the POWER to cast out demons.

You have the POWER to heal.

Jesus did. If he didn’t have the power to do it himself, he couldn’t have given it to the disciples. Look at Mark 5:1-8.

1 Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. 2 And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, 3 who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, 4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. 5 And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.

6 When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. 7 And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”

8 For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!”

If you’ll read on, you’ll see that the spirit obeyed Jesus and went out of the man into a herd of pigs. Why did the spirit obey? Because he had the power to cast out demons. You’ve got the power to do that, too. That doesn’t mean you have to carry around your crucifix and bottle of holy water, looking for little girls who puke all over the place and spin their heads around. No, it means that should a demon or devil torment you or someone you know, you have the power to get rid of it. I’ve never had to do this, but I know that I can. I’ve heard stories upon stories of ministers meeting up with demon-possessed people, some are scary because the minister didn’t know what to do. Others define the Power to cast out demons because the minister knew about his power and used it.

You also have the POWER to heal.

Mark 1:40-42 “40 Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.”

41 Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” 42 As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.”

Jesus had this power as was evident in His ministry. Everywhere He went, He was teaching, preaching and healing all who were oppressed of the devil. Everywhere He went, He was healing people. And everywhere you go, you can do the same thing. You have the POWER to heal. We’re not talking about the power of Wolverine. We’re talking about the Power of Jesus, the power that’s IN you!

We saw the power of God in demonstration last Tuesday when Dr. Dufresne was here. We saw person after person healed instantly because of Dr. Dufresne’s “super” powers. We can see that very same thing when you use your “super” powers.

Mark 16:17, 18 “And these signs will follow those who believe: they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

You have the power to heal.

A friend of mine had kidney stones about two years ago. I don’t know if you know what kidney stones are, but a kidney stone can develop when certain chemicals in your urine form crystals that stick together. The crystals can grow into a stone ranging in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. Small stones can pass through the urinary system without causing problems. However, larger stones might block the flow of urine or irritate the lining of the urinary tract.

Well, my friend had stones that were about the size of a dime, and he had to wait for them to pass through his urinary system. Needless to say, it was extremely painful for him. He had these stones for well over three weeks. Well, during one of our band practices, I asked for prayer requests and his problem was one of them. We would split up the prayer request so each band member could pray and I asked my bro to pray for this particular deal. So when it was Gregg’s turn, he and another one of the band members got up and laid hands him. Within a matter of days, my friend had passed all of his kidney stones and had completely recovered. You have the power to heal.

You also have the POWER to create.

If you look at Genesis 1, you’ll see that God formed the earth with the Words He spoke. God is in you, right? If He has the power to create things with His words, don’t you have that same power? Yes.

Proverbs 18:21 “Life and death are in the POWER of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

You have the power to create. You create your world, you frame your world with the words that come out of your mouth.

If you talk power, you’ll have power. If you talk healing, you’ll be healthy. If you talk prosperity, you’ll never lack. If you talk love, you won’t be hating. If you can say it, you can have it.

Around this time last year, I was waiting on a job. It had a few days since I graduated from college and I had been looking for a job for about 3 weeks. The school I went to was a Baptist college so I would go the Baptist Student Union office and look through their lists of churches that were looking for youth pastors. I wrote a few down that I thought were interesting, but I kept saying I don’t want a job at a Baptist church and I would continually say out of my mouth, “I’m getting a job at a non-denominational church like Grace Christian Church,” which is the church I was a member at, and where I had interned the summer before.

Well, I didn’t know where to start. I decided to talk to our Pastor, Pastor Wyatt Brown, and see if he had any connections anywhere. I didn’t get the chance to talk to him, but the next week, Rev. Steve Morin, who is one of their Associate Pastors came up to me and asked me what I was doing after graduation. I told him my intentions of becoming a youth pastor and he said I know a church, and one thing led to another and I ended up at the right place, here at Good News Church, pastoring you guys.

The reason I got this job was because of the words of my mouth. If I would have said, “I’m never getting a job at a good church.” Well, I wouldn’t have. But I didn’t say that. I said what I wanted and I got it. You have that same power. The power to create. So create what you want with that power, not a world that’s full of depression and lack. Say what you want and use your power for good.

You also have the POWER to increase.

Luke 9:10-17 “10  And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. 11 But when the multitudes knew it, they followed Him; and He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing. 12 When the day began to wear away, the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding towns and country, and lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.”

13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men.

Then He said to His disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of fifty.” 15 And they did so, and made them all sit down.

16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude. 17 So they all ate and were filled, and twelve baskets of the leftover fragments were taken up by them.”

Jesus took 5 pieces of bread and two fish and fed more than five thousand people. He didn’t break these pieces of bread and fish into five thousand itty bitty pieces so that each person could have just a nibble. No, he fed these people SO much that they had 12 baskets of leftovers. Jesus took the little bit that the disciples had and multiplied it. He increased it from a little to a lot just like that. And you know what? He lives in you. He’s using your body. He has the Power to increase. YOU have the power to increase.

There is power on the inside of you to take the little that you have and turn it into a lot. A couple of years ago, Kristen and I were a car accident with a friend of ours. Kristen had some minor neck and back pain, but I was banged up pretty bad. I was knocked unconscious and had to be taken to the Emergency Room because I had taken a pretty good hit to the head. After all was said and done, I had about $2,000 worth of hospital bills and I was violently sick for about 3 days. Well, a few days go by and I get a call from this insurance guy. He was from our friend’s insurance company and he wanted to meet up with us and give us some paperwork. So we met him and he said that our medical bills would be taken care of and that we could be compensated for our pain and suffering. I never thought I could get paid for being in a car accident, but after negotiating with this insurance company for 5 or 6 months, they wrote me a check for $10,000. I had never seen so much money in my life. I wrote my tithe. I paid the medical bills. And I put half of it in a Savings account, which eventually paid for the down payment on our house. You see, God wants to increase you. He put the power to increase on the inside of you. You have faith that when you give, God will give back to you pressed down, shaken together, and running over, so that you’ll have MORE THAN ENOUGH. You have the power to increase.

IV. A Hero or a Villain?

Galatians 6:9-10 “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Use your “super” powers and go save your world. Go cast out demons. Go heal people. Go create your world. Go increase yourself and others.

You see, in you, is also the power to hurt, the power to tear down, the power to kill, the power to steal, the power to destroy, and the power to decrease. The choice is yours, will you use your powers for good or evil, will you be a hero or a villain?


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

(Eric will continue with his series in two weeks)

Perseverance And Prayer

by Alan Perkins

God values perseverance very highly. Why?

 You and I live in an era of unprecedented speed. Technologically, the pace of change is almost beyond comprehension. A rule of thumb called “Moore’s Law” states that the speed of computer chips doubles every 18-24 months. My first PC, which I purchased in 1985 to write papers for seminary, was rated at six megahertz [never mind what a “megahertz” is]. The PC’s sold today operate at over a hundred times that speed. [Unfortunately, my mind still operates at the same speed as it did in 1985.] And the incredible speeds of those little semiconductors make possible all kinds of exotic applications, such as biometrics. For example, the police can now use video cameras to scan the faces of people walking through an airport, or sitting in the stands at a football game, and instantly compare those digitized images against thousands of photos of known terrorists. Or a computer can compare a fingerprint from a crime scene against the millions of fingerprints in the FBI database in a matter of seconds.

Not only that, but everyday activities which used to take days or weeks, we now expect to happen instantly. Federal Express delivers packages overnight. LensCrafters makes eyeglasses in an hour. At Walgreens, you can get film developed in an hour. Applying for a loan used to take several days; now banks are advertising loan approvals in thirty minutes or less. In fact, it’s difficult to identify any area of daily life that hasn’t been accelerated. Think about it. Microwaves. ATM machines. E-mail. On-line stock trading. America’s involvement in World War II lasted almost four years. Yet only a few days after we started bombing in Afghanistan, journalists were already referring to it as a “quagmire” and asking “how much longer is this war going to drag on?”

My point is that we’ve gotten used to having all our desires instantly gratified, and as a result we’ve become impatient. We’ve grown intolerant of any kind of delay. We expect to get what we want, when we want it. Now. Now. Now. Faster, faster, faster. Have you tried to use a rotary-dial phone lately? It’s torture! You’re waiting for that little dial to spin back around, and you want to yell, “hurry up, hurry up, hurry UP!” Or how about this one — what’s the smallest interval of time scientists have so far identified? No, it’s not a millisecond or a nanosecond. It’s a “honkisecond”. That’s the amount of time between when the light turns green and the driver behind you honks his horn. We have the attention span of a gnat. Have you ever noticed, when you watch an old movie, that they used to put the credits at the beginning? Not any more. These days, no one would sit through five minutes of credits before the movie. And have you ever noticed how much time the people in those old movies spent talking? Not doing anything, just talking? Not any more. We don’t have the patience for it.

Which explains why the Biblical virtue of perseverance is so rare today. Because perseverance runs directly counter to this mindset. Perseverance takes a long-term perspective. It focuses on the future, rather than the immediate present. Perseverance is patient. It keeps waiting, and believing and trusting, even when things take longer than expected. It keeps working, and seeking and striving, even when things turn out to be more difficult than anticipated. It remains faithful, even when there are ample opportunities to throw in the towel, to give up and move on. Perseverance means sticking with something for as long as God calls you to do so, no matter how long it takes, no matter how difficult or painful it becomes, no matter how many discouragements and disappointments and obstacles you encounter along the way.

Why is perseverance so important? Because it takes time to discover the true nature of things. As the old proverb states, “truth is the daughter of time.” For example, it takes time to know if a project or enterprise is going to succeed. Appearances can be deceiving. In fact, as we search the Scriptures, and study the history of God’s dealings with His people, we see that He has often been pleased to bring success and victory out of apparent failure and defeat. He likes to demonstrate his power and might by turning around seemingly hopeless situations. And so if we give up too soon, we may miss the blessing. The supreme example of this is the crucifixion of Christ. By all appearances, his mission had failed miserably. What could be more hopeless than a dead savior, a lifeless leader? But three days later came the resurrection. And that changed everything.

By the same token, it takes time and testing to reveal a person’s true character. Many people begin well, but relatively few finish well. In fact, when it comes to the issue of faith in Christ, perseverance is so important that only the one who finishes well, only the one who continues to the end, will be saved, because perseverance is of the essence of faith. John the apostle, referring to those in his day who had left the church and denied the gospel, writes,

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” — 1 John 2:19

In other words, these people had never been genuine believers, although for a while it must have seemed that they were. During the time they had been a part of the fellowship, they likely gave every evidence of possessing genuine faith in Christ. They were baptized. They knew all the religious terminology. They could give a convincing testimony of their “salvation” experience. But when they left, the truth was finally revealed. Their leaving showed, not that they had lost their faith, but that they never had true faith to begin with. Their failure to persevere revealed the emptiness of their profession. Listen to the words of Christ: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

And listen to what the author of Hebrews teaches: “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. . .We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (Hebrews 3:6, 14) Notice that He doesn’t say, “We will share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end.” He says, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end.” In other words, if we hold on to the end, if we persevere in faith, it will prove that what we have now is real and genuine. Our remaining in the faith demonstrates the authenticity of our faith. And likewise, if a person abandons the faith, it shows that they never truly had it to begin with.

Not only does perseverance reveal the truth about situations and people, it also reveals the truth about God. It’s through perseverance that we come to know Him as He is. So if we abandon hope when trials come, we will never experience God’s power to sustain and strengthen us in the midst of suffering. If we yield to sin, we won’t experience God’s grace as sufficient for us to resist temptation. The only way to know God’s grace is to persevere in a situation in which we need his grace. If we flee, we may avoid the pain, but we will also be avoiding the chance to know God. If we give up on Christ too soon, then we will only see the tragedy of the crucifixion, and never the victory of the resurrection.

You may remember Joseph in the Old Testament. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, he was unjustly accused by his master’s wife and thrown into jail, he was betrayed and forgotten by one of his fellow inmates, Pharaoh’s cupbearer. Finally, through a series of unlikely events, he was made ruler over all Egypt; and he saved the whole nation from starvation, as well as his own family. But it was only by persevering in faith that he came to know God’s as good. In fact, God was good to Joseph all along; God was working out his good, and wise plan from the beginning. But if Joseph had given up, he would have never known that. He never would have seen how all his trials were working together for good. Joseph had to persevere in faith through years of what appeared to be God’s indifference and even hostility, before he could finally see that everything he had come through was a part of God’s good plan, for him and his people.

As Paul tells us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) If we continue in following Christ, we will reap a harvest. We will find his grace and mercy to be sufficient. We will find his rewards to be worth all the suffering, and sacrifice, and labor, and tears. But we must not become weary and turn aside from following Him, or else we will never know God as He truly is. Perseverance in the midst of trial reveals who we truly are. It also reveals to us who God really is.

Let’s take another example. Marriage. God insists that marriage is a lifetime commitment; that with a few exceptions, once a man and woman take their vows, they are obligated to persevere with one another. Why? Well, obviously God knew that there would be many difficulties, many disappointments, many reasons to quit, many opportunities for both the husband and wife to persuade themselves that a mistake had been made, and they would be better off starting over with someone else. He knew that without that lifetime commitment, we sinful people would be very unlikely to stick it out, very unlikely to voluntarily weather the storms and persevere through the pain. He knew that sometimes the vow is all that keeps people from taking the next bus out of town.

But I think there’s something else going on. I think God wants us to persevere with one another because that’s the only way to get past the garbage to the glory. You have to be willing to stay together through the revelation of your sin, through the process of learning to forgive and ask forgiveness, learning to repent, learning to serve instead of being served, learning to bear with one another’s weaknesses — you usually have to go through a lot of difficult, painful, unpleasant stuff in order to get to the really good stuff. To get to the place where you and your husband or wife, are loving one another as God intended, and serving Christ together, where you can truly appreciate one another, instead of just tolerating one another. As with most things in life, it’s only by persevering through the trials and troubles that you can enjoy the deepest blessings and pleasures of marriage.

Is perseverance easy? Of course not. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be perseverance. No one talks about “persevering” through a hot fudge Sundae. Sports fans don’t need “perseverance” to make it through Monday Night Football. We don’t need God’s grace to “persevere” in the things we enjoy. The Bible exhorts us to persevere because God knows there will be times we want to quit. Perseverance implies difficulty. But it’s difficulty with a purpose, and that purpose is godly character, and hope, and joy.

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” — Romans 5:3-4

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” — James 1:2-4

What’s the end result of persevering in faith? What’s the goal of continuing to follow and obey Christ? Spiritual maturity. Christlikeness.

I don’t want to give the impression that perseverance is a matter of grim determination; that following Christ means a lifetime of joyless toil and drudgery; that we get up every day and grit our teeth and clench our fists, trying somehow to brace ourselves for the misery and pain the day is certain to bring. If you’re approaching perseverance in that way, you will fail. You won’t be able to continue, because that’s not what God intended. We need to understand, first of all, that perseverance isn’t a matter of self-reliance. The power to persevere doesn’t come from ourselves, it comes from God.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” — Philippians 2:12-13

And second, remember that God intends the life of faith to be a life of joy and contentment. This is true even in the midst of difficult circumstances, even when we are struggling and suffering; because our joy doesn’t come from our circumstances. It comes from the Holy Spirit. What did Jesus say?

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30

And Paul also reminds us, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

For the Christian, perseverance is not an unbearable burden. It’s not a matter of just trudging along, day after day, bowed down by grief and sorrow. On the contrary, by faith, our hearts can always be lifted up, because we’re not bearing our burdens alone; Christ is bearing them with us and for us. As Paul prays for the Roman Christians, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

Now, I’d like to talk a bit about how these general observations on perseverance apply to prayer. I said that perseverance is important because it reveals the truth, about us and about God. And this is certainly true in prayer, because our perseverance, or lack of it, will reveal how much faith we have that God will answer. If we pray about something a few times, and then give up, it shows that we never really thought God would answer in the first place. It was worth giving prayer a shot — why not, after all? What’s the harm? But after a while, when we don’t receive what we’re seeking, if we have little or no faith, we abandon the effort as a waste of time. And God doesn’t answer that kind of half-hearted, faithless praying. As James tells us,

“But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” — James 1:6-8

God answers the prayer of faith. And perseverance in prayer is a sign of faith. Perseverance says, “Lord, I know you can do this. And I’m going to keep asking until you do.” But when we give up praying, we’re saying, in effect, “Lord, I never thought you would do it anyway.” In fact, if you don’t have faith, I predict that you won’t be able to persist in prayer. Over time, you just won’t be able to discipline yourself to do something that, deep down, you think is useless.

By the same token, persistence in prayer reveals the truth about God. It reveals him to be a powerful, loving, wise, and good heavenly Father who hears and answers our prayers. But we can only know and experience him as a prayer-answering God if we persevere in faith and persevere in prayer.

“Keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks. You parents–if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” — Matthew 7:7-11, NLT

Perseverance in prayer also shows that we value the things we’re asking for. God wants to give us the things we really desire, the things we’re serious about. God isn’t likely to answer prayers that are nothing more than passing fancies, just the idle musings of our minds. If we pray about something once or twice and then forget all about it, it probably isn’t something we really care about. If God were to grant that prayer, we might not even remember having asked for it. On the other hand, if we persevere; if we come to God over and over again with our request, it shows that this is something that really matters to us. And that’s the kind of “good thing” that God delights in providing. And one more thing: if there’s something good that we know we should want — like humility, or patience, or holiness — then praying for it with perseverance will help increase our desire for it. In other words, the more we want something, the more we will ask for it. And the more we ask for something good, the more we will desire it.

In closing, let me encourage you to persevere in faith. Remember, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). Persevere in prayer. Keep praying when you’re discouraged; keep praying when it seems God isn’t listening; keep praying when your faith is weak; keep praying when you want to give up; keep praying when it seems that there’s no hope. But whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t stop believing and don’t stop praying. Remember that Joshua and the people of Israel had to walk around the walls of Jericho every day for seven days before the walls finally fell. And remember that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). The purchase price for all of God’s blessings has already been paid. All we have to do to receive them is to keep believing, and keep praying.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Strong Prayers- Psalm 62


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

STRONG PRAYERS – PSALM 62
Lesson 12 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 62, read by Lana Elder, with J.C.F Bach’s “Anglaise,” played by Kaleo and Karis Elder

Sometimes you just need to lean on God’s shoulder; you just need to feel the strength of His power; you just need to rest in the fact that no matter what comes your way, everything’s going to be okay, because you know that God is holding you close.

When I read Psalm 62, it helps me to do just that: It helps me to lean on God’s shoulder; it helps me to feel the strength of His power; it helps me to rest in the fact that no matter what comes my way, everything’s going to be okay, because I know that God is holding me close.

I love the way David begins this psalm:

“My soul finds rest in God alone;
My salvation comes from Him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
He is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”
(Psalm 62:1-2, NIV).

God’s so strong that when we lean on Him, we can truly find rest. He’s our rock. He’s our salvation. He’s our fortress. We will never be shaken.

As a man, I love being independent: making a way where there is no way, leading the charge through life and helping others whom God has entrusted to my care. That’s how I’m wired. Yet, I also realize that I have limits, that I can’t do everything on my own, and that there are times when I need–and I want–someone else on whom I can rely, someone else to whom I can turn, someone else in whom I can place my trust. And that “someone else” is often the God who created me–the God who built the rocks on which I stand.

As one man said to another on a TV show called When Calls the Heart: 

“You’re a self-made man, Mr. Coulter, and you should be proud of that. But no one does it alone. We all need help at times.”

We do all need help at times. David was strong. David was a leader. David took hold of life with a passion. Yet, David realized his limits, too. And when he did, he knew where to turn to find someone stronger than himself. He turned to the God who created the rocks on which he was standing.

I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases David’s opening words in Psalm 62 in The Message version of the Bible:

“God, the one and only–
I’ll wait as long as He says.
Everything I need comes from Him,
so why not?
He’s solid rock under my feet,
breathing room for my soul.”
(Psalm 62:1-2, MSG)

I was reading these words three years ago while sitting on a beach in Cancun–a rare treat for me. I was there for just 48 hours, but they were 48 hours in which I knew I was going to need God’s help. It was my 25th wedding anniversary–and I was taking the trip alone.

My wife had passed away just over a year earlier. I didn’t know how I would handle it, being all alone–being afraid I might capsize under yet another wave of grief.

But sitting there on the beach, all alone on my anniversary, I came upon Psalm 62. I read David’s words, written at a time when he could have easily capsized, too. I took heart when I read how, at such a tenuous time in his life, David leaned on God.

“God, the one and only–
I’ll wait as long as He says.
Everything I need comes from Him,
so why not?”

In that moment, I realized that everything really did come from God–even my dear wife whom I had lost and was missing so much. I realized that if  God was able to provide a wife for me all those years ago–not to mention every other blessing I had ever enjoyed in my life–that I could trust Him to provide anything I might need now or ever in the future.

I wrote in the margin of my Bible:

“Father, thank You for reconnecting me with this truth; that You are the one and only; that everything I need comes from You–even Lana came from You. You are my source and my strength.”

Instead of the wave of grief I had feared, I was overwhelmed by a wave of peace; a wave of love; a wave of rest in the fact that I knew that I knew that I could trust God with this, too.

It’s hard to wait on God, I know. It’s hard to wait when there are bills to pay, people depending on you, or a doctor’s report that hasn’t yet come in. It’s hard to wait when a baby’s on the way, a life mate hasn’t appeared, or a job offer hasn’t been forthcoming. It’s hard to wait in a checkout lane, at a traffic light, or for dinner to get done. It’s just plain hard to wait when there’s so much living to do!

But David knew he could trust God still–“in the waiting.”

“I’ll wait as long as He says.
Everything I need comes from Him,
so why not?”

If you’re facing something today that you’re afraid might overwhelm you, I’d like to encourage you to say some “strong prayers” of your own to God, prayers where you truly lean on His strength, rest confidently in His love, and know that He is with you, for you, and is solid as a rock. Take heart from the words of David, which continue in Psalm 62, that what God was able to do for him, He is able to do for you:

“Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
My hope comes from Him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
He is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
He is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in Him at all times, O people;
Pour out your hearts to Him,
For God is our refuge.”
(Psalm 62:6-8, NIV).

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for having such strong shoulders upon which we can lean. Thank You for letting us come to You today and rest in Your arms once again. Thank You for being there for us when we come to the end of ourselves. Take over, Lord, and take us beyond where we could have taken ourselves on our own. Help us to trust in You, to wait on You, and to enjoy this time of waiting while we are with You. You are our rock, our fortress, and our salvation. Help us to never be afraid, knowing that You are for us and with us, now and until the end of the age. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

Here’s the link again to today’s psalm if you’d like to listen:
Psalm 62, read by Lana Elder, with J.C.F Bach’s “Anglaise,” played by Kaleo and Karis Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan for the book of psalms:
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Cleansing Prayers- Psalm 51


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

CLEANSING PRAYERS – PSALM 51
Lesson 11 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 51, read by Lana Elder, with J.S. Bach’s “Prelude In C,” played by Lucas Elder

Sometimes we think our sins are too big for God to forgive.  But Jesus didn’t die for only the sins that we feel are “petty.” He died for all our sins, even those which we feel are the most grievous. A sin that leads to death might seem too hard for God to forgive, but if Jesus didn’t die for those, He wouldn’t have had to die at all.

In Psalm 51, David pours out His heart to God in prayer over what are perhaps the most grievous sins he had ever committed–his adultery with Bathsheba, who was another man’s wife, and the subsequent cover-up and murder of her husband.

The consequences David had to face from his actions were real, as the child born to him and Bathsheba died. But the cleansing that God poured out on him was real, too, as David poured out his confession to God. Listen to David’s heart as he begins his prayer:

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are proved right when You speak and justified when You judge” (Psalm 51:1-4).

David pleads for God’s mercy. He acknowledges the evil of what he’s done. And he acknowledges God’s right to judge him accordingly. Yet he pleads for God’s mercy nonetheless.

One of the reasons I find the Bible to be so trustworthy is that it doesn’t gloss over or try to cover up the sins of some of the most heroic figures contained within it. If I think of some of my own sins that are most grievous to me, and if you think of some of your own sins that are most grievous to you, can you imagine having them recorded in a book for everyone to see? Yet I am so thankful that David’s sins were recorded in the pages of the Bible, giving me hope that the same God who forgave David can also forgive me. If I thought that God could only forgive sins that I thought were petty, or if the Bible only recorded sins that seemed trivial, I might think that I could somehow pay the price for my sins myself, doing a few more good deeds, or giving more generously, or in some other way. But David’s words remind me that this is not what God wants. He wants our hearts, broken and contrite:

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (vv. 16-17).

That is exactly what David offers to God. That is exactly what I offered to God on the night that I put my trust in Him for everything in my life. And that is exactly what every one of us can offer to God, whenever we sin, to whatever extent that we sin, even for those sins which we might feel are the most grievous.

As you pray to God, come to Him and ask for forgiveness for even your biggest of sins. Then let Him forgive you, since the price for those sins has already been paid when Jesus died on the cross in your place. To not accept God’s forgiveness–and the joy that is possible from that forgiveness–would be like leaving an Easter basket filled with candy on the counter at the store, a basket for which your father has already paid and which truly belongs to you.

But sometimes we leave our baskets of forgiveness sitting on the counter. We don’t pick them up and truly enjoy the healing that forgiveness can bring because we don’t feel like we deserve it. We don’t! But our Father didn’t buy it for us because we deserved it. He bought it for us because He loves us. He doesn’t want us to die. He knew we would need it one day, so we could once again feel loved and accepted, cleansed and forgiven– otherwise we might melt in a permanent puddle of shame and regret and guilt, never to rise up again.

None of us has a perfect moral scorecard. But God wants us to know that He will gladly forgive us of any and all of our sins if we will simply acknowledge those sins before Him; pour out our broken and contrite hearts to Him; and trust in Him, that He truly has bought our forgiveness at the price of His Son on the cross.

Don’t leave the basket of forgiveness and cleansing and true joy on the counter. That’s not why He bought it for you. He bought it because He loves you. He adores you. And He doesn’t want you to die. By faith, through prayer, God will give to you what He has already purchased for you: forgiveness, cleansing, and true joy.

When David came before God, he acknowledged God’s ability to forgive. David said:

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (vv. 7-9).

Then David called out to God to do a mighty work in his heart; a work that he knew he couldn’t do on his own; a work that only God, the creator of his heart, could do:

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will turn back to You” (vv. 10-13).

If you need a clean heart today, whether it’s the first time you’ve asked God to do this mighty work in your life or the hundredth time, I’d like to lead you in a prayer of cleansing–a prayer straight from the words King David prayed after committing some of the most grievous sins of his life.

Will you pray with me?

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are proved right when You speak and justified when You judge… You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise… Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will turn back to You” (Psalm 51:1-4, 16-17, 7-13). In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

Here’s the link again to listen to today’s psalm:
Psalm 51, read by Lana Elder, with J.S. Bach’s “Prelude In C,” played by Lucas Elder

And here’s the link to follow along with our reading plan to read through all of the psalms this year.
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Selah Prayers- Psalm 46


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

SELAH PRAYERS – PSALM 46
Lesson 10 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 46, read by Lana Elder, with Christian Petzold’s “Minuet in G,” played by Josiah Elder

If your life is chaotic and you need a little peace, listen to God’s advice from Psalm 46:

“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a).

This is perhaps one of the most calming verses in the Bible–and it occurs in the middle of a very tumultuous psalm. So much is going on here that by the time you get near the end, those calming words are a welcome respite.

Here are a few of the verses that lead up to those climactic words:

“…we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (vv. 1-3).

“Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; He lifts His voice, the earth melts…”(v. 7).

“Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations He has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear, He burns the shields with fire” (vv. 8-9).

And then comes the verse everyone is waiting for:

“Be still, and know that I am God” (v. 10).

It’s almost like a scene from the musical Hamilton, as a whirlwind of chaos swirls around Alexander Hamilton at a critical point in his life. The rest of the actors circle around him, picking up chairs and desks and papers, twirling the objects around him and holding them high. Chaos abounds.  Then…everything stops.

Hamilton sings, “In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet for just a moment…” And there is quiet all around as he sings the rest of the song for the next two and a half minutes.

I love the imagery of that scene. Unfortunately for Hamilton, in that quiet moment he looks inward, decides to put his trust in his own strength–and it destroys him.

The writers of Psalm 46, however, look upward, decide to put their trust in God’s strength–and it delivers them.

How can you “be still” with God in a moment like that? How can you experience His presence when life around you is so chaotic? For me, it comes by literally stopping what I’m doing–whether it’s for just a few seconds or just a few hours–but long enough to “Be still, and know that He is God.”

Ever since taking a typing class in high school almost 40 years ago, I’ve always been a fast typist. And I’ve just gotten faster since then as I’ve worked on computers my entire adult life.

But when I spend quiet time with God, I do it “the old fashioned way.” I take out a pen and a journal. I hand write my notes to God. I try to take notes on what I feel He’s impressing on my heart from His Word and from His Spirit.

I try to write slowly–but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I rush, and my letters and words become illegible. But the very act of taking out a pen and a journal to record my thoughts are one way for me to slow down–to “Be still, and know that He is God.”

There’s also a mysterious word that appears in the psalms which helps me, too. It’s mysterious because Bible scholars haven’t found a well-defined translation of it in the ancient world.  But from the context in which it is often used, as best as they can tell, the word means, “stop and listen.” It’s the word, “Selah.” It’s a beautiful word, even without any meaning attached. (It’s so beautiful that one of my friends named their daughter “Selah.”)

The word “selah” occurs 74 times in the psalms (and only 3 other times in the whole Bible, in the book of Habakuk), and it occurs 3 times in today’s psalm, Psalm 46. This psalm is clearly a song, for the Hebrew text at the top of it says, “For the director of music….A song.” The word “selah” then appears 3 times, at the end of verses 3, 7 and 11.

For me, whether it means, “Stop and listen,” or as the Amplified Bible translates it, “Pause, and think of that,” whenever I see it in the Bible, it causes me to take a few extra moments to reflect on the words that precede it.

I say all of this to encourage you in your own prayer time with God to “stop and listen,” to “pause, and think of that.” Or as verse 10 says in this psalm, without having to guess at the original meaning of the words, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

I’d like to give you a chance to do this right now. I know you’re busy. I know you’re trying to get through the day and get on to whatever you have to do next. But if you’re able, take a few extra moments sometime today and read through Psalm 46.  Each time you see the word “selah,” stop and listen; pause and think of that; be still, and know that He is God.

Psalm 46
For the director of music, Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth (also likely a musical term). A song.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
He lifts His voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come and see the works of the Lord,
the desolations He has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
He burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for letting us be still and know that You are God. Help us to pause throughout our day and throughout our week–especially when things are so chaotic we can’t think straight. Help us to know what it means to “stop and listen,”  to “pause and think of that,” to experience those “selah” moments, even with all of the mystery that this word conveys. We love You, Lord, and we thank You for letting us be still and know that You are God again today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. I’ve received all I need to travel to Trinidad and speak at the men’s conference at the end of June on the topic of “Attacks on the Souls of Men.” Thanks to all who have helped and prayed for this event.  I’m hoping to record the messages and post them online after the event.

Here’s the link again to today’s psalm if you want to listen to it with music (the introductory text and the word “selah” is not spoken aloud in this reading):
Psalm 46, read by Lana Elder, with Christian Petzold’s “Minuet in G,” played by Josiah Elder

And here’s the link to the reading plan we’re using to go through the whole book of Psalms this year. There’s still plenty of time to read them all!
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Deep Prayers- Psalm 42


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

DEEP PRAYERS – PSALM 42
Lesson 9 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 42, read by Lana Elder, with music by George Frederic Handel, played by Bo Elder

Psalm 42 begins with the words of one of my favorite worship songs when I first became a Christian:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1).

The reason this was one of my favorite worship songs was because it spoke to the deep places of my heart. As a new Christian, I just wanted more and more of God. Thirty years later, I still do.

When you read Psalm 42, you can feel David’s deep hunger, his deep thirst for God.

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (vv. 2-3).

And as you continue reading, you find out that his deep thirst is borne out of the deep pain in his soul:

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon–from Mount Mizar” (vv. 4-6).

The beauty of these verses is that it not only describes the problem David is facing, but also the solution he found to his problem: putting his hope in God; praising Him still; and remembering Him from the place where he had taken refuge.

It’s the same solution to the problems we’re facing. I heard from a friend yesterday morning whose week was filled with more than a few problems: a flooded basement, electrical issues, a tax problem, getting sick–all of which led to feelings of stress and loneliness. But like David, my friend found the solution in the simple act of turning to God, of actively hoping in Him and trusting in Him. He took away the feelings of despair. While the circumstances hadn’t entirely changed, my friend’s heart and mind changed–by trusting in Him.

Last year, I was able to visit the area in Israel where David most likely wrote this psalm, for he says in verse 5: “I will remember You from  the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon.” At one point, we stopped along the trail where we were walking, as we had come to a pool of water where it was easy to picture deer coming and quenching their thirst.

We sang, “As the deer panteth for the waters, so my soul longeth after Thee…” And we called out to God from the depths of our hearts to the depths of His. It was a sweet time of intimacy with our God who has the solutions to all of our problems.

At another point, we saw the raging headwaters of the Jordan River, one of the three tributaries which give birth to that significant river that travels the length of the country. As the water crashed in upon itself, it was easy to see how the waves turned into a metaphor for David’s song, describing both the tumult that was going on in his own heart, as well as the peace he found through prayer:

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs His love, at night His song is with me–a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:7-8).

I don’t know what problems you might be facing this week. I don’t know what troubles my be besetting your soul. I don’t know what waves and breakers are sweeping over you. But I do know what can help you through them. I do know Who can satisfy that deep thirst in your soul. I do know what can change your heart and your attitude so you can keep pressing forward, as it changed the heart and attitude of David 3,000 years ago, and of my friend yesterday morning. David summarized the problem–and the solution–in the final words of his psalm:

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:11).

David spoke to his soul. He asked why it was so downcast and so disturbed. Then he spoke to it again, offering the solution that God is offering you today: Put your hope in God. Sing your praise to Him, your Savior and your God. Bring your deep prayers to the One who knows best how to answer them.

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for letting us pour out our hearts to you, from the depths of our hearts to the depths of Yours. Thank You for providing the solutions to our problems, the answers to our prayers. Thank You for giving us Your peace even when the breakers and waves are sweeping over us. We pray that You would bring us that peace again today, right now, throughout the day, and in the days that follow. Help us to keeping putting our hope and trust and faith in You, for You are worthy of it all. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. I’ve received $275 from several of you this week to go towards my $700 travel expense to speak at a men’s conference in Trinidad at the end of June. Thank you!  I’ll be speaking on the theme of “Attacks on the Souls of Men,” and am hoping to record the sessions and post them online for others to see after the conference. If you’d like to help offset the cost of this trip, or cover the remainder in full ($425), that would greatly help with this unplanned expense. Just use this link. Thanks!
Click here to make a donation

Here’s the link again to listen to today’s Psalm:
Psalm 42, read by Lana Elder, with George Frederic Handel’s “Rigaudon,” played by Bo Elder

And if you’d like to read through the entire book of Psalms this year with us, here’s the reading plan we’re using. It’s not too late to catch up!
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Delighted Prayers- Psalm 37


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

DELIGHTED PRAYERS – PSALM 37
Lesson 8 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 37, read by Lana Elder, with music by Ludwig van Beethoven, played by Marilyn Elder Byrnes

Psalm 37 contains some of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, such as this one in verse 4:

“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

What I love about this verse, and about this psalm is that it talks about the benefits of delighting yourself in the Lord, of enjoying His presence, of enjoying your time with Him. A friend of mine says that when he spends time with the Lord, he often comes away with a smile on his face, even if he didn’t enter into his time with the Lord with one. It’s like spending time with a dear friend.

Changing a frown into a smile is just one of the benefits, though. God goes further and promises that if you’ll delight yourself in Him, He will give you the desires of your heart.

I was sharing with someone yesterday about the first time I fasted and prayed for a period of several days. On the second day of my fast, I was praying for a woman I had dated in college, but we were no longer dating. She was trying to make a decision about a job, and I told her I would pray for her during my time of fasting and prayer that week.

On the second day of my fast, as I was praying for her, I suddenly had an image of her, not in the job that she was praying about, but married and living a different life than the one she was currently living. It struck me that God didn’t want her to take that job, but He did have a man in mind for her to marry. I changed my prayers and said, “Yes, Lord, give her a husband.”

Before I had even finished saying that prayer, these words came into my mind as clear as any words I had ever heard from Him before: “Why don’t you marry her?”

I was stunned! That’s not what I was praying about at all! I was just praying for direction for her life–not mine!

I closed my journal and decided I must have been getting delirious from having not eaten. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her and didn’t love dating her. I did. But at the time, I just didn’t feel it was right for us to keep dating. It turned out that during our time apart, we both fell in love with Christ and gave our lives to Him, in separate cities, in separate ways. We were now both fully committed to Him first and foremost, and we were beginning to live new lives for the first time.

Maybe God really was speaking to me. Maybe He really did want me to consider that question: “Why don’t you marry her?” We lived over 1,000 miles apart and over four hours away by plane. It didn’t seem practical. But the question wouldn’t leave me for two weeks. I began to pray more intensely, setting aside the next three months to pray about the question, not telling her anything about it.

By the end of those three months, I could hardly think of anything else but marrying this woman! God had put such a love for her in my heart like I had never felt before.

At the end of the three months, I called her to see how she was doing. She said, “I feel like God wants me to quit my job, so I’m going to quit in the next few months. But I have no idea what I’m going to do next.”

I could hardly keep my heart from leaping out of my chest. “I have an idea,” I said. I told her what I felt God had spoken to me when I was praying for her three months earlier, and how much I would love to get back together with her again–for life. Now she was the one who went into shock!

She liked her new life in her new city. She liked the new friends she was making. She liked the church in which she had gotten involved.  And she liked me, but she wasn’t sure she was ready for getting married just yet. Over the course of the next few months, it began to look more and more doubtful that we would ever get together again. But then I read a verse in the Bible, a verse that gave me hope. It was from another Psalm, but with the same theme as the one I quoted above:

“May He give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God. May the Lord grant all your requests” (Psalm 20:4-5).

As I read those words, they became “living and active” within me, as the Bible says about itself in Hebrews 4:12. Those words filled me with faith that it was okay to ask God for something I wanted, and that if He did ever see fit to answer my request, I would shout for joy! I would lift up my banner in the name of my God! Although I was afraid it might sound a little childish, I prayed, “God, I know I don’t deserve it, and I know you won’t force someone to do anything against their own free will. But if there was only one gift I could ask from you in my life time, it would be to marry Lana.”

The prospect of marrying her still looked very bleak before I prayed, and my heart was still very heavy, but in that moment, it lifted. I knew I could trust God with the outcome, whatever that may be. And I knew I would indeed rejoice fully if it ever did come to pass.

As both of us prayed and sought the Lord more and more over the next few months while we were apart, God seemed to just keep bringing our hearts together, closer and closer. A year later we were married, on April 29th, 1989–28 years ago yesterday. (Here’s our engagement picture, in a field of Texas bluebonnets.)

As I read through Psalm 37 again this week, I was reminded of how true God’s Word really is.

“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

I had set aside time to fast and pray for the first time in my life, “delighting myself in the Lord,” and one of the results of that prayer was that God spoke to me: He put a desire in my heart that I wasn’t even considering. He literally “gave me the desire of my heart.” He put that desire within me, and then He fulfilled that desire on our wedding day.

I’m not saying that we will always get everything we want. I’m not saying that our lives won’t be filled with hard things and hard times. I lost my precious wife to cancer four and a half years ago. But I am so thankful that I delighted myself in the Lord that day when I was praying and fasting. I am so thankful that I asked Him to give me the desire of my heart. I am so thankful that God gave me the 23 years of marriage that we did have.

And that gives me renewed confidence to keep asking Him to give me the desires of my heart again today–whatever He desires and wants to put on my heart.

This is just one of the benefits of delighting yourself in the Lord, of spending time with Him. Others are listed all throughout this psalm:

– “He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (v. 6).
– “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (v. 9).
– “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous” (vv. 16-17).
– “In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty” (v. 19).
– “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be blessed” (vv. 25-26).
– “Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace” (v. 37).
– “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; He is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in Him” (vv. 39-40).

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for giving me the desire of my heart, 28 years ago. Thank You for encouraging me again today to keep delighting myself in You, and to keep asking You to give me new desires of my heart, new answers to prayer for the days ahead. Help me to keep delighting in You in prayer, keep delighting in You throughout my days, keep delighting in you even when I’m having to wait patiently for Your answers. I ask all of this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. I’ve been asked to speak at a men’s conference in Trinidad at the end of June. The topic for the weekend will be “Attacks on the Souls of Men.” I’m hoping to record the sessions and post them online for others to see after the conference. Would you consider making a donation to help me offset the cost for this unplanned expense? The group that has invited me can cover my costs while I’m there, but I’ll need to cover the cost of my travel to get there (about $700). If you would like to help with part (or all!) of this special need, please use this link. Thanks!
Click here to make a donation

Also, here’s a link one more time to listen to today’s psalm:
Psalm 37, read by Lana Elder, with Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Sonatina in G,” played by Marilyn Elder Byrnes

And here’s our reading plan for the book of Psalms this year, if you want to read through all of the psalms with us as we go through this series:
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Sweet Prayers- Psalm 34


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

SWEET PRAYERS – PSALM 34
Lesson 7 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 34, read by Lana Elder, with music by Christoph Graupner, played by Eric Elder

I love chocolate chip cookies. I especially love them when they’re fresh out of the oven, warm and chewy, with the chocolate melting into strands when you pull them apart.

But I know I wouldn’t like them as much if a few of the ingredients were missing. If there were no butter, they’d just be a clumpy mass of dough. If there were no baking soda, they’d flatten out on the tray. If there were no salt or vanilla or sugar, they’d be almost tasteless. It takes all of the ingredients, mixed together, to make that delicious, mouth-watering moment when they come out of the oven.

Life does have some very “tasty” moments, but to bring them about, it requires mixing all the right ingredients together. And to be honest, some of those ingredients don’t taste so great on their own. I wouldn’t want to eat a stick of butter. I wouldn’t want to eat a cup of  of flour. I wouldn’t want to eat a spoonful of salt or vanilla, or even a cup of sugar, as sweet as it is, without the other ingredients mixed in.

But sometimes that’s what life gives us; the ingredients come to us one by one, then we get frustrated and wonder what in the world is going on. “This isn’t what I asked for! This isn’t what I prayed about! This isn’t the way things were supposed to go!” The beautiful thing about God is this: He mixes all of it together for good. Notice the word “together” in Romans 8:28:

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV).

God takes all things and works them together for good. He’s a Master Chef, and that means  He can make something good out of anything that life throws our way, even those things that we might think are initially bitter or totally useless on their own.

In Psalm 34, David experiences one of those mouth-watering moments, when everything is mixed together just right. His cookies have just come out of the oven, and he can’t help himself from bursting into song, at one point singing:

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him” (Psalm 34:8).

But what makes this moment so sweet, so mouth-wateringly delicious, are ALL the ingredients that went into it. David sings God’s praises because he realizes that only God could turn everything he had gone through into something good.

The heading of Psalm 34 tells us what had just happened:

“Psalm 34. Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.”

David had been on the run from King Saul, who was trying to kill him. Then David found himself in the presence of another king–an enemy–who might have also tried to kill him.

Thinking quickly, David pretended to be insane:

“So he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard.”

King Achish [his proper name, also called Abimelek as in Psalm 34, which is his title] said to his servants:

“Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?” (1 Samuel 21:13-15, NIV).

And it worked! Abimelek sent him away. Then David burst into song. Victory never tasted so sweet–which is why he probably sang, “Taste and see that the Lord is good…”

Individually, some of the ingredients that went into David’s song were pretty bitter. Facing death from one enemy only to find himself facing death from another. But God worked it all together for good, giving him a way of escape (and eventually making David king over all the kings in that land). David got a taste of the sweetness of God that day–and he savored every bite.

There are times in our lives when things come together just right, even for a moment, and we could burst into song as well. My encouragement to you today is this: go ahead and burst into song! Pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God for working all things together for good.

Savor every bite. Sing a song of praise. Pour out your heart to Him in thanksgiving. You may not be totally out of the fire yet, as David still had obstacles in his way until he finally became king himself. But take time out along the way to give God praise for what He’s brought you through so far–for what He’s already worked out for good in your life.

I had one of those mouth-watering moments myself yesterday, where I had some time to sit and think before I picked up my kids from an activity. I decided to go to a nearby park, sit on the grass, and write in my journal.

As I sat on the grass, I read through this Psalm again. I began to thank God for all the things that He had worked out recently in my life: I had been driving a car that kept breaking down, but now I had another car that I had found at a reasonable price; I had been working on a new book that has been challenging for various reasons, but now I had already finished three-fourths of it so far; I had been going through a long winter here in Illinois, but now I was enjoying the spring breeze and the scent of blossoms in the trees; and I had been hungry for a little something right before I came to the park, and I had found a vending machine in the park which had a small packet of M&M candies in it–Dark Chocolate Mint M&M’s at that, a rare treat–and I was savoring them slowly, one or two at a time while I prayed.

That didn’t mean that everything in my life was going the way I wanted it to. It wasn’t. And it didn’t mean that I didn’t still have obstacles ahead that I would have to overcome. But in those moments, I was able to taste and see that the Lord was good. Yesterday, His goodness happened to taste like Dark Chocolate Mint M&M’s.

What are you going through today that God might be mixing together for your good? Maybe you’re still having to eat all of the ingredients one at a time, and they don’t taste so good. But maybe there are other parts of your life that have already been mixed together for good, and which could taste sweet if you took the time to stop and think about them for a few minutes. It wasn’t so sweet when I blew a tire on the freeway a few months ago on a cold winter morning, but somehow that experience made yesterday’s spring breeze feel even better as I rolled the windows down on my replacement car. What had been bitter a few months ago turned into something extra sweet on what might have been an otherwise “ordinary” day yesterday.

If you need help thinking through the things God may have done for you lately, take a closer look at David’s psalm of thanksgiving, Psalm 34. Take a look at some of the things in the second half of the sentences below that God saved David from that made the victories so sweet when they did come. Maybe you’ll find a few things about which you can burst out into song today, too.

I sought the Lord , and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. (v. 4)
Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. (v. 5)
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. (v. 6)
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. (v. 7)
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry… (v. 15)
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (v. 18)
A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all… (v. 19)

Will you pray with me?

Thank You, God, for mixing ALL things together for good. Thank You for the victories You’ve given us, and for the ingredients we need to make those victories so sweet. I pray that You would help us to have Your perspective on our lives, not only the sweet times, but the bitter, so that we can enjoy them even more when they all come together.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. Here’s a link again to today’s psalm:
Psalm 34, read by Lana Elder, with Christoph Graupner’s “Intrada,” played by Eric Elder

And here’s our reading plan for the book of Psalms this year, if you want to read through all of the psalms with us as we go through this series:
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

Easter

by Dale Martin

 
There is a picture, drawn by Clive Chislett which is mounted on one of the original Norman pillars of our Church here in New Romney. It is on the pillar closest to the war memorial. In the picture, Faust is engaged in a competitive game of chess against the Devil. And at first glance, it looks like Faust is losing. His opponent stands there grinning smugly. Satan thinks he has won. He is gloating. You can almost hear the devil thinking: “Checkmate! Game’s over! I win!” However, a person with a keen eye – and who knows the game of chess well- will see that the match is over – but not in the way the Devil envisaged. Because Faust has one move and one move only – that will give him the victory!

The picture has a very real meaning to us as Christians because it is a parable of the good news of Easter.

Think of it. When we look at the Cross on Good Friday, it looks (at first glance) like evil has won.

It looks like the defeat of righteousness.
It looks like goodness is dead and buried forever.
It looks like Jesus has been silenced and conquered.
But then, Easter Sunday morning reveals God’s greatest “checkmate” move of all time.

Christ comes out of the grave and into our lives with power and victory.
Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

The Russian Orthodox Church has this wonderful acclamation made three times on Easter Sunday The Priest says: “He is risen” And the congregation reply: “He is risen, indeed”

But how do we know it true?

Professor Charlie Moule, the famous NT theologian once said:
“the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church … remains an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself – the resurrection.” (C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament).

Most Sundays we profess our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead when we say the words of the Creed: ” I believe ……in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord who was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried He descended into Hell, The third day he rose again from the dead” (The Apostles Prayer – BCP)

The Resurrection is a major pillar of our faith

Paul put it like this: “..if Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile” (I Cor. 15: 17)

Paul, a first Century witness, records the importance of the Easter story.

He wrote this in 1 Corinthians “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
i) that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
ii) that he was buried,
iii) that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and
iv) that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve

After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

Paul records 513 (five hundred and thirteen) men as having seen the risen Lord.  Have you ever therefore wondered why?

John mentions only four post Resurrection appearances of the Risen Jesus.

In this Chapter, John 20 we read of three of these.

He appeared
i) to Mary Magdalene
ii) to all the disciples except Thomas and finally
iii) to Thomas

And in the following Chapter, John 21 we read of Jesus appearing to seven disciples including Peter, James and John, Thomas, Nathaniel and two unnamed disciples and his having breakfast with them.

Surely if the resurrection is such a big deal, why didn’t John add many more of the stories of these encounters?

At the very least – why didn’t he simply catalogue when, where and who had seen the risen Christ.

Surely that would make interesting reading.
1. Have you ever wondered what the reaction of James -Jesus’ brother – was – when the risen Jesus appeared to him.
And what did he say?
2. I wonder if Jesus appeared to Nicodemus – the Jewish rabbi who had sought him out that night as recorded in Jn 3.
It was the same Nicodemus who had helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus

The reason John doesn’t record more post Resurrection encounters is because it didn’t fit in with the aim of his book. What do I mean?
John summed up the aim of his Gospel as follows: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, John is not writing a history book as we know history books but a book to awaken faith.

And so these three post resurrection stories of John 20 have been recorded to awake faith in us.

For John, I believe, is saying: “You are either going to believe or you are not going to believe – and I have given you enough evidence to believe.

Further stories, however interesting, aren’t going to bring you to convince you, if these stories – that I record – don’t.”

So what is so special about these three stories?

I would like to suggest that each story shows a barrier to faith – which can be overcome by the presence of Jesus.  And they are all barriers that we as Christians will experience at some time in our lives.

1. The first of these barriers to faith was GRIEF and this was overcome by hearing the voice of Jesus Mary Magdalene, in last week’s Gospel reading, couldn’t see Jesus for her grief. It was only when she heard him call her name that she realises that He was risen. Jesus spoke to her – and by speaking released her from her grief. There are going to be times when we suffer from grief. We may grieve for the loss of loved ones.
And it is at times like this that we need to listen for Jesus’ voice calling us.

2. The second barrier to faith was FEAR – and this was overcome by experiencing the presence of Jesus The disciples in today’s Gospel reading were gathered behind closed doors in fear. Jesus had been crucified – and were they next on the list? And so Jesus comes to them and speaks words of peace. He showed them his crucified hands and St. John records: “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (Jn 20:20) Fear can cripple us at times. It can make us irrational. And at those times, we need to seek Jesus’ presence in our lives- and it is His Presence that will bring us peace. When I get stressed out with worry and fear – I find wonderful comfort in the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn form me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Mt 11:28-30)

3. The third barrier to faith was DOUBT and this was overcome by the touch of Jesus. Thomas seems rather unfairly to have had a bad press for the last 2000 years. His name has even entered into the English language. (You might call someone who doesn’t believe something a “Doubting Thomas”) But you have to remember that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when they saw Jesus. He didn’t have the benefit of what they had seen. He couldn’t believe that Jesus was risen – it was something outside his experience. Our faith is not an unreasonable faith. St Peter tells us for example “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Pet 3:15) God has given us minds and wants us to use them. Thomas in rather flowery language says: “I’m not going to believe until I can stuff my hand actually into his side.” That’s the force of what he is saying.
Our faith has to be based on a firm foundation – and Jesus realized that Thomas needed that confirmation. Once Thomas got the evidence he needed he simply said: “My Lord and my God” What Thomas asked for was very reasonable and so Jesus gave him what he needed for his faith. There are times when we need a special touch from God. It is not a sin to be skeptical. What is sin is to go on disbelieving when you are given the evidence.

Conclusion

Jesus deals with each person’s needs differently. He treats us as individuals.

Mary simply needed to hear Jesus’ voice and her grief was healed.
The disciples needed to receive the peace of Jesus into their lives to release them from their fear.

Thomas needed to see the Risen Christ. He wanted to put his hand in Jesus’ side before he would believe (Actually there is no evidence that he actually did so).

Each of us has different needs – we all ask different questions – but there is only one solution – a touch from the risen Lord.

May this Easter Sunday morning be a time when we look for and receive a touch from the risen Jesus – a touch that will transform us into his true loving disciples.  It did in AD 29 that first Easter Sunday morning and it can still do – if we are willing to come to him

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father , we all come this morning to Church with different needs, with our different agendas. We ask that we can deposit this all at the foot of the Cross and receive a touch from you today so that we can take up your Agenda for the world around us Give us a love for one another through which our town will be attracted to you. We ask this in Jesus Christ’s name Amen


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon

Today and next Sunday we will be blessed by sermons from two “visiting” pastors.  The following Sunday thereafter, Eric will return with his special series from Psalms.


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

The Pathway of Palm Sunday

by Dennis Lawrence

Read Matthew 21.1-11

If we ask people to describe life, most will depict it in the same way- as a path or a road. The reason is simple: life is like a journey. It’s a voyage from one experience to the next – from one tribulation to triumph and back again. It’s a journey from birth to death and beyond.

Once again, we have gathered together and have been granted the privilege to travel down the road of our Savior’s life. We traverse a specific street today because we’re in a special weekend in the annual celebration cycle of the Christian church. We can call today’s street THE PATHWAY OF PALM SUNDAY. As we walk with our Savior we can see that this is 1) A Familiar Road; it’s one we’ve walked before. Yet, our traveling companion is Jesus, which means this is always 2) A Unique Journey.

A Familiar Road

It was a familiar road the disciples found themselves on that first Palm Sunday. It was the road to Jerusalem and they had walked it many times before. They knew, as they reached the town of Bethany, they would soon turn round the Mount of Olives, and see the city of Jerusalem suddenly sprawl out before them. They had traveled this way with Jesus before. They would again come to the city, which, at this time, would be swelling with millions ready to celebrate the Passover.

Jesus knew the road as well. He’d traveled it before, from very young to now. Mary and Joseph brought him to Jerusalem for the feast every year. It was a magnificent road, a wonderful road to the pilgrims who traveled it. It was especially breathtaking, when, after not seeing the city for the whole journey, you came around that mountain, and there it was! You would see the temple glistening in the afternoon sunlight, and you’d see the magnificent, towering gates; you’d remember the great history of it all: how King David first took that parcel of land as God’s city, and how Solomon first built a glorious temple there. Then you’d recall years of sorrow, when it lay in ruin during seventy years of captivity, until Nehemiah rebuilt its walls.

The road itself was known and loved. But the journey of that Palm Sunday was completely different. The road would not change, but the things along the way, and the end result, would be different than any other trip ever made to Jerusalem.

Today, a donkey’s colt would be found tied up outside, and used as a mount for Jesus to enter Jerusalem. Today, throngs of people would go ahead and behind Jesus saying, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The road was familiar. The road did not change; but the journey was unique. The disciples knew the road; Jesus knew the journey. He knew what lay along the road, telling them, “You will find a colt, untie it.” He knew what answer they needed to give: “the lord has need of it, and will bring it back shortly.”

Have you ever ridden a donkey? Most of us haven’t. Let’s think about what he rode that day. It was a young donkey colt, which had never been ridden before. This was a beast of burden, not a riding beast. This animal offered a good ride for baggage, not for people. The Gospel writer, Mark, records one important fact.

Mark 11.2- this animal had never been ridden. It wasn’t ever used. This is in line with Old Testament Law. Anything offered to God for a sacred purpose was to be new, never used for labor. The Lord only uses the new, the fresh, and the untarnished. He uses things that have never really been used for anything else. He accepts and uses the little, the small, even the insignificant, but He doesn’t like leftovers or second hand offerings. Note well that if we really want to put something to the Lord’s use, let’s remember little things, small things, fine things — but used, left over things? — Don’t expect he’ll do much with it.

The disciples went and found things exactly as Jesus said. They answered the owner just how he said to answer, and came back with the donkey. Then they put their cloaks on it, and Jesus rode it. Now this sounds like a recipe for disaster, especially if you’ve ever tried riding an unbroken horse. Most of us haven’t, I’m sure, but we’ve seen movies often enough to know what happens, at first. Donkeys are more stubborn than horses. Here Jesus had an unbroken colt, with a crowd of onlookers shouting “hosanna!” And now, Jesus was going to ride this thing through that crowd? This appeared to be a recipe for disaster, indeed! But there’s not even a hint of trouble as Jesus rides this humble animal into Jerusalem. He enters the city as the Lord and King and sacrifice. This small animal must have known: “this is my creator, the Savior of the World, the Son of God, upon my back…I’ll let him have an easy ride!”

As He rode, Jesus knew where the journey would end: today, crowds shouting Hosanna! By the end of the week, crowds would be yelling, “crucify.” Today, we see crowds laying palm branches before him. By Friday, women follow behind him with tears, his blood and sweat dripping as he toils under the cross. Jesus knew the journey. Still, he went forward. The crowds also went before and they followed behind him. They called him the One who comes in the Name of the Lord. They knew Jesus brought God’s Kingdom, the eternal Kingdom promised to King David. They believed he came as the promised Messiah, or deliverer. They called out “Hosanna,” which means, “Lord, save us!” And they knew that he would.

So what does this have to do with us today? First and foremost, we have another opportunity to see our Savior and King in action. He did all this for us. He walked this road and endured the journey for our salvation. We see Scripture fulfilled- the King comes gently, and riding on a donkey, just as Zechariah foretold (Zech.9.9). We see Jesus’ gentle nature as a king. We see his humility: He’s the Lord! The earth and everything in it is his by divine right, and yet he rides in humility on a tiny, lowly beast of burden.

2) A Unique Journey

We learn more as we travel this pathway this morning. As we walk the pathway of Palm Sunday we realize that all of us walk down a road in this life. Each path may be a bit different, and although we know the roads of our lives, Jesus knows the journey- we don’t.

Let me repeat that: We may know the roads, but Jesus knows the journey. And it’s really HIS journey; it’s his journey into our hearts, and into the hearts and lives of others. It’s a matter of his Kingdom coming, not ours.

There are too many people in this world who think that their life is all about themselves. “It’s my life,” the teenager screams at her parents, “I don’t care what you say. I’m going to do what I want!” A patient diagnosed with cancer cries, “Why is this happening to ME?” We often forget that our lives are not just about ourselves. Our lives have something to do with our friends, our family, our wives, our husbands, our children, our parents, our neighbors, our coworkers, our acquaintances, and yes, even our enemies. No one’s life is all about me, or you, or him, or her.

Self-centered and selfish- it’s part of the sinful human nature. And it can easily turn us in on ourselves, and turn us from each other and from the truth of the matter. The truth is that my life is not about me, but it’s about Jesus Christ. Your life is not about you. It’s about the one who died for you. It’s about what he will do in your life, for your life, and through life. Now, we’re often the main characters in the life God has given us, but let’s face it, what is your life or my life? As sinners who were condemned to hell, we had thrown true life away. But Christ redeemed us- each one of us. He bought us back. As the Bible says, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price,” (1 Cor.6.19-20). The life you live right now, Jesus paid for it. He paid for its sins; he earned its blessings. That’s what it means to be a disciple, a follower, a Christian, a lamb, a sheep of the Good shepherd. That’s a perspective that’s important to maintain.

Often, we’ll talk about life as a journey or a road. There are roads we may well know. We walk them day after day, year after year. There’s the road of a student: you know where you’ll go on Monday. You’ll get on the school bus, or get a ride from mom or dad, or carpool, to school. You’ll be there for several hours, go to this class, that class, recess, maybe softball, football, or track practice, and then its back home at night. There’s the road of someone’s daily life: you get up, get ready for work, drive the highway, punch in for eight hours, and head back home. Most of those roads we’ve traveled again and again, and will continue to travel. Jesus has gone with you every step of the way, though. Tomorrow and the next day it’ll probably be the same road, but who knows about the journey? What strange thing will appear along that road? When will a detour take place? We know the roads; Jesus knows the journey.

He gives us the right answers to all our questions and complaints in his Word. Oh, that we’d trust those answers more, and pay more attention to them! And as odd and confusing, as his words may seem to us, let’s not say: “I don’t understand you Jesus, so I won’t accept what you say. I can’t repeat it. You’re too hard to follow!”

When we put God’s Word aside, to come up with our own answers to challenges, and when we look for things that sound better to us than the Scriptures, then we end up losing hold of the little donkey he sent us to fetch. Then his whole intended ride into another heart, another life, is put off for another time. Let’s not be ashamed of the Scriptures, and the simple answers of faith. Jesus taught them to us. He knows the journey, and knew it ahead of time, before we ever walked the road.

Our lives, the roads we walk, lead us to either follow behind Christ, singing his praises, or to go before him, laying palm branches and cloaks. Missionaries go ahead, paving the way as Jesus rides into hearts by His gospel. Then pastors, teachers, and congregations follow behind, praising God for his kingdom that has come. As a congregation, we have our part, too, in cutting down palm branches, and laying down our cloaks. That’s what our offerings are about. God certainly doesn’t need our money, our time, or talents, but those are things that we give to honor Christ, to provide him a smooth path into other lands, other towns, and into the hearts and lives of other people.

Jesus may have taken you down a familiar road, but does something different. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? You think it’s just another journey to work, but he’s got in mind a humble ride into the heart of one of your coworkers, with you to going ahead, or following behind. You think it’s just another family get together or reunion. Jesus has a humble ride in mind for you; a humble ride through a simple conversation about church, faith, and forgiveness. Maybe it’s a conversation that’s happened before, but who knows? The road is the same: but today, the journey may be different. Jesus knows it, and will well provide the answers. Christ knows where and when to send us to fetch the humble never-before used gentle answer, which he will ride into another heart.

At the heart of Palm Sunday is a path. It’s the path our humble Savior rode on in majesty, and lowly pomp, as he went on to suffer and die for our sins. It’s about the path Christ humbly rides into our hearts today through His Word. Let’s share that Word daily, and remember that our roads, our journeys, really aren’t just about us. They are about Christ Jesus, and his salvation. Our lives are about his Kingdom- his rule in our hearts and in the hearts of others through faith. You may not be the main character of your life, but you and I and all believers are the ones who benefit from Christ’s work and from his journeys. So, ride On, Lord! Be with us always on your journey to save!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Rejoicing Prayers- Psalm 30


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

REJOICING PRAYERS – PSALM 30
Lesson 6 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 30, read by Lana Elder, with music by Franz Joseph Haydn played by Marilyn Elder Byrnes

Today’s psalm reminds me that there are seasons for everything. Here in Illinois, summers are hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit many days. Winters are cold, often below 32 F for many days, with snowstorms that block us in our homes for hours.  Spring and fall are beautiful, with budding flowers and blossoming trees in the spring, and changing leaves and crisp, cool nights in the fall.

As George Carlin says (in what is probably the most accurate weather forecast of all time):

 “The weather will continue to change on and off for a long, long time.”

The seasons in our life change, too. And as much as I sometimes wish things would never change, there are definitely times when I wish they would: like living through the pain of losing my wife to cancer, for instance. Thankfully, God promises that the hard times we go through won’t last forever, that the pain we may be facing now can one day be behind us.

As King David said in Psalm 30:

Sing to the Lord , you saints of His; praise His holy name. For His anger lasts only a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning”  (Psalm 30:5).

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but it’s true: “Rejoicing comes in the morning.”

When I first went through the book of psalms five years ago, looking for ways to pray more effectively, my wife was going through her cancer treatments. Things looked bleak, and they turned out even bleaker, as she passed away just nine months after her initial diagnosis. I couldn’t see anything in the future other than blank, gray days of nothingness. There was nothing that I could imagine ahead for me if she were to die.

As I read this psalm back then, I wrote some notes to myself:

“God says that weeping lasts for but a moment, and in light of eternity He’s right, even if it seems longer than a moment here.  Rejoicing comes in the morning. Wailing turns into dancing.”

I couldn’t see far enough ahead at the time to know what was going to happen or to know if that would ever be true for me. But it’s been five years now since I first took those notes, and I can look back now and see how true those words were. God was right. He really did bring back my joy. He eventually turned my wailing into dancing.

But in the midst of that painful season, I didn’t even want to think about rejoicing some day. I didn’t want to think about dancing some day in the future, or any time in the future. I just wanted things to go back to the way they were before tragedy hit, before our lives were turned upside down.

At that time, I was asked if I would be willing to film an interview to give people hope who were facing terminal illness. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to talk about it. I frankly didn’t know what I could say. Saying anything was like admitting that the prognosis in our case was, in fact, terminal. But I felt God wanted me to do it, so I did, and the film team called the short interview Eric’s Hope. A few months later, and two weeks before my wife died, a couple more people from the team came to our house to film another interview, this time with our whole family. They called it Lana’s Hope. (You can watch both interviews online by clicking their links).

One of the things I remember distinctly at that time was a conversation with the woman who asked me to do the interviews. She was writing a screenplay for a feature film they were going to be making in Hollywood based on a fictional story of a woman facing terminal cancer. She asked me if I wanted to know what happens at the end of the movie. I said, “No, I really don’t.”

She said, “It’s good. You might want to hear it.”

I said, again, “No, I really don’t.”

I didn’t want to hear that someday everything would get better for the husband in the movie, or that he got married again or something, and that somehow, some way, everything turned out to be okay. I didn’t know how the movie was going to end, but I didn’t want to know, because whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be better than it was for me and our family before my wife got sick. I couldn’t imagine having to live in this world without her, and I didn’t want to have to think about it.

But you know what? That Hollywood movie came out last fall in theaters, and online just a few weeks ago, so I watched it Friday night. There were still moments that were hard, but you know what? I realized I no longer had that stabbing pain I once had. And the ending was touching, sweet, and hopeful, even if things would never be the same as they were before. (The movie is called New Life, and you can stream it from iTunes or Amazon by clicking on their links, or you can get the disc from a variety of stores.)

My life isn’t the same as it was before our lives took that turn. And it never will be. But I have seen God turn my weeping into rejoicing, my wailing into dancing. Things do change, and sometimes, very thankfully so. As Mark Twain is credited as saying:

“If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

I sometimes wish things would never change. But that’s as unlikely as wishing the weather would never change.

When praying, keep in mind there are seasons in life, too. Too hot? Just wait. Too cold? Hang on a bit. Weeping?  Rejoicing comes in the morning.  Wailing? God can turn it into dancing.

No, things may not go back to the way they were before. But the truth is that as much as I sometimes wish things would never change, there are definitely times when I am thankful that they do.

Sing to the Lord, you saints of His; praise His holy name. For His anger lasts only a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning”  (Psalm 30:5).

Will you pray with me?

Father God, thank You for the changing seasons, and thank You for the changing seasons in our lives. I pray that You would give us hope today in the fact that some things DO change, that things WON’T always be the same as they are now, and that there are times when that is the BEST way for You to work in and through our lives the way that You want to. Help us to keep putting our trust and faith in You, for as much as things here on earth may change, You never do  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. We’ll be taking a break from the Psalms for the next two weeks, then we’ll return to them again after Easter. Now’s a great time to catch up if you’re behind in reading along through the Psalm with us! Here’s the reading plan for the year:
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms

And here’s the link once more to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 30, read by Lana Elder, with Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Country Minuet” played by Marilyn Elder Byrnes


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Comforting Prayers- Psalm 23


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

COMFORTING PRAYERS – PSALM 23
Lesson 5 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 23, read by Lana Elder, with music by Leopold Mozart played by Kaleo Elder

There are many ways to look at today’s psalm, Psalm 23, which is perhaps the most famous psalm in the book of Psalms, and perhaps the most famous passage in the whole Bible.  Today, I’m looking at what we can learn from Psalm 23 about praying more effectively.

While prayer often involves asking for God’s help or wisdom, struggling to know what to do or how things will work out in a situation, the beauty of this prayer is that it simply invites God into your life to let Him comfort you–to put your whole faith and trust in Him; to let Him take full control of your life and your situations; to allow Him to lead you beside still waters, to lie down in green grass, and to restore your soul; to trust Him that no matter what comes your way, He’ll be with you.

Listen to the words David wrote:

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
(Psalm 23:1-4, NIV).

David was a shepherd, and he knew that good shepherds watch out for their sheep. When David was a shepherd, he had attacked and killed a lion one day and a bear another, all to protect his precious sheep. He knew the care that shepherds take of their sheep. So when he faced troubles of his own, it’s not surprising that he talked to God in terms that he understood well: “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

Sometimes we just need to let God’s comfort pour over us–to slow down long enough to let Him speak His soothing words to our hearts.

One way I’ve found to do this–to slow down and let God speak deeply to my heart–is to take time and savor not just every thought in a portion of Scripture, but every word.

Take the first sentence of Psalm 23, for instance. It has only five words: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” But if you’ll focus on each and every word, you’ll see how God can use a simple sentence to speak volumes to your heart.

Think about the first word: THE. THE Lord is my Shepherd. Not “a” Lord or “some” Lord or “any” Lord, but THE Lord, THE One and Only God, THE Lord of all creation, THE Author and Perfecter of your life. THAT’S your Shepherd. THAT’S the One you’re talking to. THAT’S your Lord. “THE Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Think about the second word: LORD. The LORD is my Shepherd. What’s a lord? A lord is a master, a ruler, a caller of the shots. And if God is your lord, that means that you’re not! He’s got this. And He’s not just ANY lord, He’s THE Lord, THE Ruler over all, THE One Who’s got the whole world in His hands, including you.  He’s totally trustworthy, because He’s THE LORD.

Then think about the third word: IS. The Lord IS my Shepherd. It’s not “The Lord WAS my Shepherd, years ago, when I needed Him to save me, or when He showed up that one time in a special way.” It’s not “The Lord WILL BE my Shepherd, some day in the future when I get my act together or clean things up a bit.” But it’s “The Lord IS my Shepherd, right now, today in the midst of everything I’m going through.” The Lord IS your Shepherd, if He really is. And if He’s not, then there’s no reason to wait even one more minute–you can make Him your Lord today, right now! Then you’ll be you’ll be able to say, like David did, “The Lord IS my Shepherd! I shall not want!”

You’re getting how this works. Let’s do two more, and you can think through them with me.

Think about the fourth word: MY. The Lord is MY Shepherd. What does that say about you, that the Lord is your Shepherd? If He’s your Shepherd, that means He’s actually, truly concerned about you! Not just the world in general, or the people around you, but you! When Jesus told the parable about the good shepherd, what did He say about that shepherd’s heart for the one lost sheep–out of the hundred that He had? He said that the shepherd would go after that one sheep because He didn’t want even one of His sheep to be lost. God really cares about you, personally.  He is your Shepherd, just like He is mine. “The Lord is MY Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Now let’s finish with the last word: SHEPHERD. The Lord is my SHEPHERD. What’s a shepherd’s job? To look after the sheep. That’s their whole job! They take the sheep out to green pastures to get food. They lead them beside still waters to get water. They let them lie down to take a rest. They protect them from wild beasts. And they bring them back home again when the time is right, leading them through the gate when it’s time to sleep. “The Lord is my SHEPHERD, I shall not want.”

We’ve only looked at five simple words in this psalm, but you can see how those simple words can speak volumes when you slowly focus on each one, letting God speak to your heart. And perhaps you can see why David concluded this prayer to God with the words that he did, knowing that the Lord was his Shepherd:

“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6, NIV).

If you ever need comfort from the Lord, take your time, and let Him speak to you. Don’t hurry through it. Come back to Him and His Word again and again, meditating on a few more words, and a few more until the comfort of God pours over your heart.  Let His goodness and love follow you today and tomorrow and all the days of your life.

I think God knew we could all use a bit of comfort now and then. No wonder this is the most famous passage in the Bible!

Will you pray with me?

Father God, thank You for being our Lord and our Shepherd. Thank You for David’s example of coming to You and receiving Your comfort and goodness and love. Help us today as we continue to spend time in Your presence, whatever we do next, to know that Your goodness and love will follow us throughout this day today, and all of our days ahead, if we’ll keep putting our faith and trust in You.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

And here’s the link once more to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 23, read by Lana Elder, with Leopold Mozart’s “Minuet,” played by Kaleo Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan of all of the psalms in the Bible if you want to read along this year:
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Pleasing Prayers- Psalm 19


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

PLEASING PRAYERS – PSALM 19
Lesson 4 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 19, read by Lana Elder, with music by Edward MacDowell played by Josiah Elder

In my previous message, I talked about the value of saying “raw prayers,” prayers that pour out to God exactly what’s on your heart, without regard for whether it sounds pretty, or religious, or even kind. God can take it–and He already knows what’s in your heart anyway. Sometimes you just have to say it.

But in today’s message, I want to talk about the value of saying “pleasing prayers,” prayers that are also honest, but which are intentional about being pleasing to God. As a parent, I’m glad when my kids feel the freedom to come to me and express their raw emotions that they’re feeling on their hearts, without holding back for fear of what I might think. While it might sting sometimes, and their perceptions may not always be right, it helps to know what they’re honestly thinking so we can work through their thoughts together. But I’m also glad when they intentionally take time to say things which they truly believe, and which they know will please me .

Such is the case in David’s prayer today, which he ends with these words:

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

This entire Psalm is filled with “pleasing words,” words which David carefully and intentionally poured out to the God who gave him life.

He starts by talking about how glorious God is, and how His creation declares His glory to the ends of the earth:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4a)

I can see how those words would be pleasing to the God, the Creator, the One who created the earth and everything in it. Then he continues by speaking poetically about how magnificently the sun crosses the sky:

“In the heavens He has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:4b-6).

Then he launches into a carefully worded anaphora, a grammatical technique of emphasizing an idea by repeating that same idea in different ways. The Psalms are some of the first writings in the world to use this technique which has been subsequently used by writers like Shakespeare and speechmakers like Churchill:

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.”
(Psalm 19:7-9).

When I read this Psalm this week, I thought, “Imagine the care and thoughtfulness David must have put into crafting his words of praise to God in this way. He took a topic that was dear to him and dear to God’s heart, and then through repeating phrases, was able to express to God what he was feeling deep inside.”

I wondered what it would do for my prayer life if I could be as careful and thoughtful in my prayers to God as David was in this Psalm. It seemed like so much work, though, so I just continued writing in my journal as I normally do. But what came out of my pen next surprised me! It was a fully formed anaphora of my own!

“A desire for alcohol is not only for alcohol, but for relief from pain.
A desire for a person is not only for that person, but for relief from loneliness.
A desire for food is not only for food, but for relief from hunger….”

My poem went on for several more lines, describing the various things that people crave to bring relief from real pains. I was surprised at how easily the thoughts flowed from my mind to the paper in front of me. At the end of my thoughts, and my conversation with God, I wrote:

“Thank You for my mind and the ability You’ve given me to think. It’s remarkable. Thank You.”

And as I wrote those words, along with my thanks and praise to God for something I saw that He had created–my mind—I felt a touch of what David must have felt when he wrote his words, giving thanks and praise to God for something he saw that God had created–the heavens and His Word. Any father would be pleased to hear his children think and speak about those things in the world around him which the Father had a hand in creating. It shows honor and respect and true thankfulness.

There’s a time and place for “raw prayers,” prayers that just pour out whatever’s on our hearts to God, however they might sound. But there’s also a time and place for “pleasing prayers,” prayers that are carefully crafted to express other truths on our hearts that also bring pleasure and praise to the God who gave us life.

These aren’t words to butter up God to get what we want, but to honestly acknowledge Him for who He is, realizing how good and right and wise and perfect He is in all of His ways, and in all that He’s created–including us.

We can trust Him and trust His Word, even when He says things we don’t want to hear. We can trust Him that He really does know best.

What words could you speak today that would be pleasing to God? What insights has He given you into His ways or His Word or His creation that could bring out your praise for Him that is truly in your heart?

Why not take some time to voice those thoughts to Him, to write them out with a pen and paper, or type them out on a keyboard or keypad, or voice them out in a song or a poem?

Let the words within you flow out from your heart as a stream of praise to Him, as David’s words did when he said:

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

Will you pray with me?

Father God, thank You for letting us see that David not only poured out his pain, but also his praise, in ways that brought pleasure and glory to You. Help us to do the same, being honest and real with our problems and pains, but also with our praise and adoration. Help us to think carefully and intentionally about ways we can bring glory to You, both in our hearts and in our words that flow out of them. Let them be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

And here’s the link once again to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 19, read by Lana Elder, with Edward MacDowell’s “To A Wild Rose,” played by Josiah Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan of the Psalms. There’s plenty of time to catch up–even if you haven’t already started reading!
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Raw Prayers- Psalm 13


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

RAW PRAYERS – PSALM 13
Lesson 3 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 13, read by Lana Elder, with music by Tchaikovsky played by Makari Elder

One of the beauties of reading through the psalms is that it touches on so many emotions that you don’t have to read very far into it to find something that will match what you’re going through. And when you find that something, you can pour out your heart to God in prayer, often using the same words that you’re reading on the pages in front of you.

Within just a few psalms, we’ve already seen David’s emotions range from eager expectation to awe-filled wonder to today’s psalm, in which he pours out some raw prayers full of pain and sorrow. Psalm 13 starts with these words:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide Your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13, 5-6a, NIV).

This is a man in pain, a man in anguish, a man who’s wondering if God is even listening any more. In The Message translation of the Bible, David’s words are paraphrased like this:

“Long enough, God–You’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of Your head long enough” (Psalm 13:, 5-6a, MSG)

Those are some raw words. They’re guttural. And they express the real sorrow in his heart..

Maybe you’ve felt this way before. Maybe you feel this way right now. If so, let me encourage you to say some raw words of your own to God. The pain you’re feeling is real, and it’s really okay to express to God how you’re really feeling. God can take it, and there are times when you just need to say it like David did.

I was speaking to a group of people a few weeks ago who were going through various tragedies in their lives. They had lost husbands or wives, sons or daughters, friends or family members. They were dealing with divorce. They were trying to find their way out of addictions. They were experiencing pain at its worst, and I was asked to speak to them about worshipping God in the hard times. (You can listen to the message here.)

I don’t usually say certain words. They’re not part of my normal vocabulary. But during my talk, in an unscripted moment, I covered the microphone and said out loud what I knew many in the room were feeling. I said, “In some of these dark times, you just say, ‘God, this really sucks.'” Nods of agreement began throughout the room.

When the night was over, one of the leaders of the group told me that my talk had really touched the people. And the one thing they said that impacted them the most was the moment when I covered the microphone and said what I said. In that moment, they said, they knew that I knew exactly what they were going through, and that opened them up to hear the rest of what I had to say.

Sometimes we need to get really honest with God, too–to say exactly what’s on our hearts–even if it’s not “pretty,” or “religious,” or what we think we’re “supposed” to say. Sometimes we just need to just let it all out–lay it all out–before God, who sees our pain and knows what’s on our hearts already anyway.

Sometimes we read the psalms, or sing them in songs, and they begin to sound so holy, so poetic, so “nice,” that we can miss just how raw they really are. Eugene Petersen, who translated the Psalms from the original Hebrew into English for The Message translation, said this in his introduction to the Psalms:

“In English translation, the Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. As literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in moments of anger and praise and lament, these translations miss something. Grammatically, they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translation is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language.”

I can only imagine the types of words David and the 400 men with him used while they were hiding out in the caves of the dessert while the king and his army were hunting them down to kill them. The men with David were described as “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented…” (1 Samuel 22:2a, NIV). I can guess that at least a few of their conversations were far from genteel.

And I can believe that at least a few of David’s conversations with God sounded just as earthy and rough. I can hear it in the English translation, but only if I really think about what he was really going through and how shocking it is that he really said some of the things he said to God. It’s not like David suddenly switched into his “religious” voice when talking to God. He just said it like it was. He told God what He was feeling, in a way that he really felt it.

But then somewhere along the way, while pouring out his pain to God, David begins to praise Him instead. He begins to sing to God that not matter what he’s going through, he still trusts in God’s unfailing love. No matter what happens, he still praises God for having been so good to him. The psalm ends with these words:

“But I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5-6, NIV).

How can a man go from pouring out his pain to pouring out his praise in the matter of a few sentences? We see the same thing happen in the book of Job, where Job, who has just lost nearly everything that was dear to him in a single day, tears his robes and falls to the ground. Yet he didn’t just fall to the ground and lie there. The Bible says “he fell to the ground in worship,” saying:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21, NIV).

Somehow, Job was able to pour out his pain and pour out his praise, nearly simultaneously. Somehow, like David, Job knew he could still trust in God’s His unfailing love–no matter what.

If you’re in pain today–in anguish–or if  things look so bleak you’re not sure how you’ll be able to stand it, let me encourage you to try doing what David did, what Job did, and what I at times have had to do: pour out your pain to God, in words that are real and raw, then pour out your praise to Him as well, trusting in God’s unfailing love for yourself.

You might feel like God is being slow to show up, taking His dear sweet time to answer your prayers. You might wonder if He’s even listening at all, because you feel like the only thing you can see is the back of His head. But the truth is, God is listening. He does care. And He is answering your prayers, even if you can’t see those answers yet, or even for a long time.

Pour out your pain. Keep trusting in His unfailing love. And you might just find yourself like David, pouring out your praise as well, saying, “for He has been good to me.”

Will you pray with me?

Jesus, thank You for giving us David’s example of how to pray raw prayers, guttural prayers, prayers that truly express what’s on our hearts. Thank You for letting us see how David and Job and others have been able to not only fall down when they’re in pain, but to still worship You as they fall. Help us to talk to You like they did, and help us to trust in You the way they trusted in You. Thank You for being so worthy of our trust and praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. Here’s the link to the audio message I mentioned earlier:
Worshipping God in the Hard Times

And here’s the link, once again, to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 13, read by Lana Elder, with Tchaikovsky’s “The Sick Doll,” played by Makari Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan if you want to read through all of the Psalms with us this year:
2017 Reading Plan For Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Magnifying Prayers- Psalm 8


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

MAGNIFYING PRAYERS – PSALM 8
Lesson 2 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 8, read by Lana Elder, with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” played by Eric Elder

I set up a telescope one night to look at the moon and the stars. My kids couldn’t believe what they were seeing: how detailed and three-dimensional the moon looked, hanging there in space; how many stars there were–hundreds, thousands, millions–all glittering in the night sky.

They could hardly believe that each star was like our own sun–some bigger, some smaller, spread all throughout space! Each flicker of light that looked like it was no bigger than the head of a pin was, in fact, full of power, warmth, and wonder like our own sun–and there were a shining multitude of them everywhere we looked!

All this revelation, all this insight, all this awe came from simply holding a type of magnifying glass up to what we normally see on a regular basis nearly every day.

As I was reading through the psalms and looking for secrets of effective prayer, these words from Psalm 8 stood out to me:

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! … When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him?” (Psalm 8:1a, 3-4, NIV).

Something happens inside us when we hold up a magnifying glass to the world around us. It opens us up to seeing the incredible work that God has created in a new way. And that fresh perspective can help us to see our own problems in a new way as well.

King David, who wrote these words from Psalm 8 nearly 3,000 years ago, was struck with the same awe and wonder as my kids on the night I set up a telescope for them. As he considered the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars which God had set in place, he burst out in praise! “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

And that made David look at his own life in a new way, saying, “What is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him?”

Yet David realized that God was mindful of him. God did care for him. In fact, the same God who took such care to create the world that David saw created him with the same care–and not only created him with care, but considered him worthy to take care of the incredible creation around him!

God, it seems, has a magnifying glass of His own. When He looks at us, He looks with such detail that He can count the number of hairs on our head (see Luke 12:7). He cares for us so much that He has created us in His own image, and given us the task of caring for the rest of His whole creation.

If you wonder if God cares for you, just take out a magnifying glass today, literally, and look at one or two things in God’s creation. You’ll get a new perspective on your own life almost immediately.

This is what happened to William Wilberforce, a member of parliament who played a major role in ending the slave trade in England in the early 1800’s. He came to faith one day, not by looking up into the sky, but by looking down into the majesty of his garden. What he saw there so fascinated him that he plopped down on the wet grass to take a closer look. What he saw was the marvel of a spider’s web.

The movie Amazing Grace captures this faith-defining moment in the life of Wilberforce like this, as his butler finds him in the garden and wonders aloud what he’s found:

“It’s God,” said Wilberforce. “I have 10,000 engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here getting a wet arse, studying dandelions and marveling at… bloody spider’s webs.”

“You found God, sir?” the butler asks.

“I think He found me,” Wilberforce responds. “You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.” 

Wilberforce found God by looking closely at a spider’s web, or, as he puts it in the movie, “I think He found me.”

I learned something new about spider’s webs just last week. My son told me that he learned in his biology book that a spider’s web is sticky only on certain strands of the silk it weaves, but that other strands aren’t sticky at all, so that it doesn’t get stuck when scurrying around on its own web. God somehow endowed the spider with the ability to spin different types of silk depending on the need.

I must have missed that fact when I took biology, but it was a little tidbit which enlarged my awe and wonder of God once again. How God instilled in a spider the wisdom and ability to know how to spin a web at all, or which silk to spin for which purpose, made me consider not only how clever the spider is, but how clever the God who created the spider is! And if God did this for a spider, imagine what He’s done for me, whom God says He has created as the pinnacle of all He has created on the earth, made in the very image of God Himself!

That thought makes me want to burst out in praise to God as well: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” And it makes me look at the situations I’m facing in a new way as well.

What loomed large and overwhelming to me at the beginning of my prayers suddenly seems puny in comparison to what God could do in each of those situations.  Heal a cut?  Mend a relationship? Breathe new life into something in my life that has died?

What seemed improbable just moments earlier suddenly seems no problem for the God who placed every star in the sky and knows each one by name (see Psalm 147:4)!

The God who holds creation together can certainly hold my life together as well. By magnifying God and His creation, I can see how small–how manageable–my own problems are in comparison. Whatever I face, God knows how to handle it.

If you’re facing problems today that are overwhelming you, take out a magnifying glass. Literally. Take a look at one or two things around you today–your fingerprint, a flower, or even a spider’s web. Or take out a telescope and look at the nighttime sky. Or just take a look around you at any ordinary object, but look closely to see the colors, the shapes, the details that you may have overlooked before.

Then marvel and wonder at the God who created all that makes up everything you see. Marvel and wonder that the same God who created each of these things created you with the same care–and has believed in you and trusted in you enough to put you in charge of the care of His incredible creation.

Will you pray with me?

Jesus, thank You for your magnificent creation. Thank You for including me in your plans when You created the world. Thank You for Your promise to finish the work You’ve begun in me. Help me to sort out the things I’m facing. Bring order to my world. Bring peace to my heart. Bring wisdom to my mind. I ask all this in Your name, Amen. 

Eric Elder

P.S. Here’s the link again to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 8, read by Lana Elder, with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” played by Eric Elder

P.P.S. And here’s the link to our reading plan if you want to read with us through all of the Psalms this year. There’s plenty of time to catch up. Just pick up and keep reading along! 2017 Reading Plan For Psalms.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Morning Prayers- Psalm 5


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

MORNING PRAYERS – PSALM 5
Lesson 1 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 5, read by Lana Elder, with music by Bach played by Bo Elder

As I was reading through the book of Psalms, I was looking for secrets to having a more effective prayer life. I didn’t get very far into the book when I found one:

“In the morning, O Lord, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3, NIV).

There’s something about morning prayers that make them hopeful. After a night of rest, it’s time to start a new day, a fresh day.

I’ve often prayed in the morning, waking up, taking out my Bible and a journal and a pen, then sitting quietly before God. But what I noticed differently in this Psalm is that the author, David, came to God with a spirit of expectancy.

David didn’t just come to God with a list of requests. He came with hope in his heart, expectant that God would answer. David knew the goodness of God. He knew that God was with Him. He knew that God was for him, just like He is for each one of us.

Our prayers have a purpose–not just because they quiet our hearts or help to organize our thoughts. Our prayers have a purpose because they involve another Person. They involve Someone who knows what you’re facing and who has the wisdom and ability to do something about them.

God really does know what you’re going through. He really does care. And that’s why you can come to God with the pieces of your life and ask God to help you put them together.

I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases David’s words in The Message translation of the Bible:

“Every morning you’ll hear me at it again. Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on Your altar and watch for fire to descend” (Psalm 5:3, The Message).

Those words are so hopeful–so helpful. When I read these words I began doing this in my mind’s eye, with my own prayers. I began laying out the pieces of my life on God’s altar, with expectancy in my heart, then watching throughout the day for God’s fire to descend–just like it had descended in times past when people offered their sacrifices to God’s on an altar.

And I began seeing answers, that very day!

After having just written in my journal about what I should do for the day, I got a text from a neighbor at 7:05 a.m. offering to bring over lunch. Then I received word that an anniversary party was cancelled, which I had been wondering if I should attend or not. Then, after taking a morning walk with my wife and praying with her about a situation our daughter was facing, our daughter texted to say how God had just worked it all out! It was as if God were underscoring the words of David for me about laying out the pieces of his life on God’s altar, then waiting in expectation.

It’s good to pray at night or at the end of a project, as that allows us time to reflect on what God has done and to give thanks for what’s been accomplished. But in order to be most effective, it’s also important to offer our prayers up to God on the front end, inviting Him to speak and to work and to be involved in whatever we’re facing.

Martin Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

God wants to be a co-laborer with you.  He has things He wants to accomplish in and through you. And when you talk about those things with Him up front, He can help you sort them out and let you know what He can do and what you can do. In that way, you can bring it to pass together.

Not every answer comes right away, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t have expectancy in our heart. The past few weeks, my kids and I have been praying every morning for some royalty checks to be deposited in my account for some music I’ve written and produced.  While I normally receive these checks monthly, and they help to pay for the ministry that we do, the checks were delayed because of a new arrangement between the music companies involved. Every morning we’ve been praying, and every day we’ve been hopeful for an answer. At the same time, I’ve been working with the music companies, sending emails and making phone calls and having online chats, trying to help move the process along. I’m doing everything I can, but I’m trusting God with those things I can’t do. So every day we pray for the people involved in this process–the computer programmers, the accountants, and the decision-makers–asking God to give them wisdom as they work out the details.

Then just on Friday night, for the first time in months, I started seeing those deposits coming into my account. One, two, three, four of them! As the night went on, there were more: five, six, seven, eight! The deposits kept coming as the system started working again! I praised God, together with my kids, knowing that relief was on the way!

Come to God in the morning. Sit down with Him and go over your day. Ask Him what He wants you to do. Ask Him to do what you know you can’t do. Then be on the lookout for His answers. They may not come that day, but they might! And they may not come the next day, or the next month, as I had hoped while waiting for my missing royalties.

But even if you don’t see an answer right away, don’t think that God isn’t working on your behalf. Remember what God told Daniel, through an angel that God sent to him twenty-one days after Daniel had begun praying:

“Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them” (Daniel 10:12).

God hears your prayers the moment you utter them. So why not utter them the first thing in the morning? Invite God into your day. Let Him order your steps. Lay out the pieces of your life on God’s altar, then wait in expectation.

Will you pray with me? Then after the prayer, I’d like to share a short thought with you in the P.S. about today’s reading of Psalm 5 that I shared in the link at the beginning of this message.

Jesus, thank You for loving me the way You do. Thank You for caring for me. Thank You for creating me with a purpose in mind, with good works that You want me to do. Help me, Lord, to accomplish those works today. Help me to know that You’ll be with me, working right alongside me, doing what only You can do, while I do whatever I can do. Help me to see the answers to my prayers, whether today, tomorrow, or down the road. Help me to trust You and look to You with a spirit of expectation, knowing that You are good, that You are kind, that You are loving, and that You are ultimately for me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

P.S. When I first contemplated writing this series of messages on prayer, I asked my wife, Lana, if she would be willing to read and record each of the thirty messages I was going to use in this series. Lana had a beautiful reading voice, and she had recorded other Scripture CDs in the past, which I paired with some beautiful music in the background. I had sometimes even invited her onstage with me when I preached, so she could read the passage about which I was preaching, as her voice was so calming and beautiful.

Soon after we planned out the series, Lana was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We were shocked, but we were committed to prayer and to this series, no matter what. Lana went ahead and recorded all thirty passages, plus a few more, knowing that no matter what happened to her, God’s Word, once sent out, would never return without accomplishing that for which God sent it. It’s been almost five years now since Lana recorded these passages for this series. And while her life passed just a few months after she recorded these psalms, like a radiant flower that blooms one day then fades the next, she knew that God’s Word would never fade away. As it says in Isaiah:

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8, NIV).

Here’s the link again to Lana’s reading of today’s psalm, paired with music by Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) played by our son, Bo. I pray as you listen that God will fill your heart with a spirit of expectancy that He will answer your prayers. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Psalm 5, read by Lana Elder, with music by Bach played by Bo Elder

And here’s the link again to our reading plan for this series if you’d like to read read through the whole book of Psalms with us this year: 2017 Reading Plan For Psalms.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Conversations With God


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD
Introduction to Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

I love talking to God. It’s often the highlight of my day.

For some, like my friend Dan Mountney, waking up and talking with God brings focus to everything else that happens in his day. “It centers me,” Dan says.

For some, like Adrian Rogers, talking to God brings clarity to what God wants him to do. When asked by a reporter if God had spoken to Adrian like the reporter had just spoken to him, Adrian replied, “Oh, no! It was much louder than that.”

For some, like Billy Graham, talking with God is like talking with a best friend. “How do you know God exists?” Billy was once asked. “Because I spoke with Him this morning,” he replied.

What about you? How would you rate your conversations with God? As much as I love talking with God, I still feel in many ways that I am just scratching the surface of what my conversations with Him could be like.

Five years ago, my wife Lana and I were talking about prayer. Lana said, “I’d like to learn more about prayer.”

I was stunned. Lana’s prayer life was already deep and rich and full. She prayed continually, in private and out loud, for me, for our family, for our friends, for missionaries, for entire countries. She prayed for breakthroughs and healings and restorations. She prayed for forgiveness and for a greater love for others. Yet with all she had learned about prayer over the years, she still wanted more.

For me, that was Lesson #1 in going deeper in my own prayer life, to simply know that there’s always more.

At that same time, I was wanting to take a closer look at the book of Psalms. What was it about this book that made it one of the most beloved books in the Bible? What secrets did it hold that made publishers often publish it by itself, or pair it as the one Old Testament book to go along with the entire New Testament? Why do people seem to quote so often from the Psalms, as Jesus did, more than any other book in the Bible?

By combining my curiosity about the Psalms with Lana’s desire to learn more about prayer, we took a deeper dive together into this book to see what we could discover in its depths. We learned that the book of Psalms is really a book of prayers; in fact, it’s the oldest prayer book in the world. The word “psalm” means “song” in Hebrew, the language in which the psalms were originally written. And since they are all songs to God, they are often considered prayers as much as anything else–conversations with Him that came from deep in the author’s heart.

We learned that over half of those “conversations with God” were voiced by King David, as specifically noted in the text, with many of the others alluding to his authorship based on the situations described in the psalms. I was personally looking forward to learning all I could from this man whom God described as “a man after My own heart” (see Acts 13:22).

What I wasn’t expecting was that the next year of our lives would take such an unexpected twist: soon after we began this deeper dive into the book of Psalms and the topic of prayer, Lana was diagnosed with cancer. Ten days later, we were told it was terminal. And nine months after that, Lana was gone, having passed from this life to the next.

It crushed me, and it crushed a part of my heart at the same time. If I had known this would happen when we first decided we wanted to have a deeper, richer and fuller prayer life, I’m not sure we would have done it.

But I was reminded of this thought again when a friend was telling me how he had recently made a decision to go deeper in his relationship with God. He began by waking up ten minutes earlier each day to read his Bible and pray. The following week, he woke up ten minutes earlier still. And the week after that, he woke up ten minutes earlier still, continuing this pattern until he was now waking up an hour or more earlier than usual so he could have as much time with God as possible.

He then told me about several things that had gotten increasingly harder in his life during this time: his work situation, family’s heath and his finances.

It reminded me of the difficulties Lana and I had faced soon after we made our decision to go deeper with God. I was tempted to say something to this effect when my friend said something that stopped me:

“I am so glad I decided to do this with God,” he said, “because if I hadn’t, I don’t know how I could have gotten through this time in any other way.” 

My friend was right. He was absolutely right. If Lana and I had not committed ourselves to a deeper walk with God, I don’t know how we could have gotten through what we had to go through, either. And how much better it is to be on the path of going deeper with God before life throws its worst at you, rather than waiting till it hits you full on? The time I’ve spent grounding myself in God, and in my relationship with Him, is the one thing above all else that has helped me through some of the most difficult challenges in my life.

So here it is, five years since Lana and I decided to take that deeper dive into the topic of prayer as seen through the lens of the Psalms, and now I’d like to share with you some of the lessons that I’ve learned. Along the way, I’ll also tell you about some of the miraculous answers to prayer I’ve seen and some of the amazing conversations with God I’ve had, many of which are no less miraculous or amazing to me than those I read about in the book of Psalms. The same God who walked with David through his highs and lows is the same God who has walked with me through mine–and who will walk with you through yours.

I pray God will speak to you in a special way during your time with Him, both while we’re doing this study together, and on your own for the rest of your days. I can think of nothing more incredible than to be able to talk personally with the God who created you, who knows you better than you know yourself, and who loves you like no one else on earth ever could.

I’m looking forward to our time together. I hope you are, too. I’ll share the details of how we’ll work through the book of Psalms in the P.S. below. But first, will you pray with me?

Dear Jesus, I am so thankful that we can come to you each and every day, all day, at any time during the day, and have a conversation with You. You are so loving and gracious, so kind and helpful, so wise and so knowledgable about all things, including me. Help me as I go through this day. Walk me through every situation I face. Help me to learn all that You want me to learn as we walk through this study of the book of Psalms. In Your name we pray, Amen.

P.S. Here’s my plan for going through the book of Psalms:

There are 150 psalms in the book of Psalms, each containing its own particular thought or theme. For this study, I’m going to share some thoughts with you from 30 of those 150 psalms. If you’d like to read all 150 on your own, I’d suggest reading one psalm a day for five days, starting with Psalms 1-5 this week. I’ll be highlighting one of those five psalms every week in my weekly Sunday message. By reading just five psalms a week, you’ll have two extra days per week to take a break or catch up on your reading as we go along. I also plan on taking a break for a week or two every six or seven weeks, which will give you a break and still more time to catch up if you need it. If you follow along with this plan as we go through the study, you’ll have read through the entire book of Psalms by the end of it. For those who like charts and check marks, I’ve typed up my weekly plan for this series, which you can view or print to put in your Bible. Here’s the link to the 2017 Reading Plan For Psalms.

Thanks for reading along with me! Enjoy!

Eric Elder


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon and New Series Coming!

Note from Eric: Would you like to read through the Psalms with me this year? It’ll be easy… we’ll just read one Psalm a day for five days each week. Then once a week, in our regular Sunday messages on “This Day’s Though from The Ranch,” I’ll share with you something I’ve learned from one of the five Psalms from that week.

As we’re reading through the Psalms, I’ll be looking particularly at how to have a more effective prayer life. Psalms is one of the most beloved books of the Bible and one of the most quoted books in the world. Why? That’s what we’re going to find out!

You don’t need to do anything special to receive these weekly messages. Just look for the Sunday message each week, which you already receive as part of your subscription to “This Day’s Thought from The Ranch.”

What you can do, however, is invite someone else to read through the Psalms with you this year! Just forward this email to them and ask if they’d like to sign up for our free daily emails as well. Your friends will get our inspirational quotes each day, just like you do, including this new series on the Psalms on Sundays. Just invite them to sign up for “This Day’s Thought from The Ranch” on the home page of our website at this link: http://theranch.org.

We’ll start with Psalm 1 next Sunday, February 19th. I’m looking forward to this new series. I hope you are, too!

Sincerely,
Eric Elder


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

Receiving God’s Guidance

by Christian Cheong

 
This is the story of how God guided Abraham’s servant to find the wife for his son Isaac. We’re going to learn some principles in receiving God’s guidance.

Our God is a God who guides, and who wants to guide.

• He did that for Abraham – bringing him out from his homeland to Israel.

• He did that for Moses and the people – from Egypt to Canaan.

• He did that for the wise men who wanted to see baby Jesus – so He showed them the way through a star in the sky.

Today, God wants to guide you in your choices – if you allow Him.

2 Chron 7:14 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Rom 10:9 “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

It is not that God do not want to guide us, it is more often the case that we do not want to listen to His advice. We ignore His guidance.

RETURN TO THE CABIN

A flight attendant spent a week’s vacation in the Rockies. She was captivated by the mountain peaks, the clear blue skies, and the beautiful forest. She also was charmed by a very eligible bachelor who owned and operated a cattle ranch and lived in a log cabin.

At the end of this week, after a wonderful time with this bachelor, she has to return home to her job. While on board the place, she was pondering, “Should I go back to the city or return to the woods and stay with this man in the cabin for the rest of her life?” She was struggling but believes that God will give her an answer.

To refresh herself, she went into the rest room and splashed some water on her face. Just then, there was some turbulence, a ‘ding’ sound went off and then a sign in the rest room lit up: PLEASE RETURN TO THE CABIN.

She did – to the cabin back in the mountains.

…Modified from Reader’s Digest [1/81], p. 118.

I hope this is not the way you make decisions in life.

• Making the right choice is a dilemma for many people, including Christians.

• How can you and I be certain that we are in God’s will and that the decisions we are making are the right ones?

• This is an important subject for all of us since we all must make important decisions.

This passage in Genesis 24 deals with this subject and problem.

• In this chapter we not only see God providing guidance to His people in an important matter but we also see the conditions under which that guidance was provided.

• These conditions, which could also be referred to as principles, are what I will discuss today.

There are 4 key principles that can help us.

The 1st principle for receiving God’s guidance: Knowing God’s Word.

[See verses 3-4]

We must know God’s will and purposes to help direct our actions and decisions.

• And that knowledge comes first and foremost from God’s Word.

• God’s Word reveals God’s plan, principles and purposes.

• We need to start with that. Without this knowledge, you might as well do whatever you want.

Abraham knew right at the start what he was looking for.

• He gave very clear instruction to the servant where to find a wife for Isaac – not among the daughters of the Canaanites.

• Boundaries have been set because Abraham knew what was right in God’s sight.

Knowledge of God’s Word is the first step in the right direction.

We see Abraham taking steps to see that God’s plan is fulfilled.

• God promised to make him a great nation.

• Isaac must marry and have children for the covenant blessings to be received.

• Abraham understands this, so he doesn’t sit idly and wait for God’s plan to be fulfilled.

• He does his part and takes appropriate action; in this case he begins to look for a wife for Isaac.

Sometimes we think that if God guides us, it means we do not have to do anything.

• Like people who are out of work and yet refuse to go look for a job because they are waiting for God to provide a job.

• Such thinking is unbiblical. God wants us to do our part, but to do it while being guided by the knowledge of God’s Word.

This was what Abraham did!

• His search for a wife wasn’t based on human standards or desires but guided by his knowledge of God’s will.

• Why did he insist that Isaac’s wife be from his own relatives and not from the local people of Canaan? Why did he insist on this condition?

• Because he knew enough of God’s will to know that God wouldn’t bless a marriage to a Canaanite woman.

God did not tell him specifically, “You cannot take a Canaanite woman for Isaac.”

• Although no specific command, God did reveal to Abraham the wicked character of the people of Canaan.

• And he knew that to marry one of them would not be pleasing to God.

• Although no clear command from God, he did have enough information to make reasonable inferences.

In other words, we apply biblical principles to the situation.

• There are many situations in life that we do not have a specific command in the Bible, but we are to apply the principles we come to know from the Scriptures.

• And make a decision that is in line with the character of God.

So, the first principle for receiving God’s guidance is: Knowing God’s Word.

• Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”

NO LIGHT ON THE RUNWAY

Consider the experience of a friend of mine, who was a recreational pilot when he was younger. On one occasion, he flew his single-engine plane toward his home base at a small country airport.

Unfortunately, he waited too long to start back and arrived in the vicinity of the field as the sun dropped behind a mountain. By the time he maneuvered his plane into position to land, he could not see the hazy runway below.

There were no lights to guide him and no one on duty at the airport. He circled the field for another attempt to land, but by then the darkness had become even more impenetrable. For 2 desperate hours, he flew his plane around and around in the blackness of the night, knowing that probably death awaited him when he ran out of fuel.

Then as greater panic gripped him, a miracle occurred. Someone on the ground heard the continuing drone of his engine and realized his predicament. That merciful man drove his car back and forth on the runway to show my friend the location of the airstrip. Then he let his lights cast their beam from the far end while the plane landed.

…James Dobson shared this about his friend in The New Strong-Willed Child, p. xi.

It is very critical that we know the will of God.

• Jewish proverb: “It is better to ask the way ten times than to take the wrong road once.”

• “For a painter, he cannot do without a brush. For a carpenter, he cannot do without a hammer. For us, our life can do without God’s Word.”

The 2nd principle for receiving God’s guidance: Be Committed to God’s Will.

[See verses 5-6]

We have to DECIDE, right at the start, to keep to God’s plan.

• Abraham was serious about doing it right. It is one thing to know, it is quite another to be completely committed to it.

• It would not be easy to get a wife who is willing to follow the servant back, but he was committed to staying within the boundary lines.

• And it was a success. This story shows us that God guides us when we are committed to His will and not our own.

“If no woman is willing to come to this land (so far), can we just take Isaac back home and settle there?”

• The servant is basically asking: Can we change plan if it doesn’t work?

• Abraham said NO! God has already revealed to him that He is going to give him and his descendants this land.

• So Isaac is not going to leave this ‘promised land’.

Abraham makes it clear that he is totally committed to following God’s plan.

• It makes the servant’s job very difficult, but Abraham is committed to doing it God’s way.

• You see, he is determined to align himself to God’s plan, not the other way around. We don’t change plan and fit ourselves.

King Solomon, the wisest man of all times, wrote Proverb 3:5-6

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

• NLT translates as “Seek His will in all you do, and (then) He (The Lord) will direct your paths.”

• For a person with great wisdom to say this is special. He is so wise, and yet needs to consult God in all ways.

God eventually worked supernaturally to fulfil His plan.

• God will work supernaturally in your life to bring about His plans, but only when you are committed to doing His will.

The 1st principle for receiving God’s guidance: Knowing God’s Word.

The 2nd principle for receiving God’s guidance: Committing to God’s Will.

The 3rd principle for receiving God’s guidance: Trusting in God’s Ways.

[See verses 7-8]

Faith is crucial. You must trust God.

• Without that, you won’t keep to His plan. You don’t believe that it will happen as God promised.

In verse 7 Abraham recounts that God had made promises that included his offspring staying in this land.

Since God made that promise, Abraham expects Him to keep it by supplying a wife for Isaac.
• His confidence is based on God’s promise, not on personal desire.

• God honours those who trust in His Word!

In verse 8 Abraham acknowledges that it may not happen as he expects.

• This isn’t a lack of trust in God – just an acknowledgment that God may provide in a different manner that he expects.

• Whatever it is, “only do not take my son back there.” We are not going to change God’s plan. We must have this determination to stay the course!

• One way or the other God will provide for His will to be done without His people compromising on His Word!

Many people express a trust in God but their trust is that God will provide what they want and desire, according to their own plans

• Abraham really believes that God will provide on this trip, even though it looks extremely remote.

• What are the chances that his servant can travel 800km, meet a qualified woman from Abraham’s own family, and convince her and her family to let her travel to a distant land and marry a man she or the family has never met?

• Human insight or understanding would say, “No chance!”

• Nevertheless, in verse 7, Abraham clearly expects God to do just this by sending an angel to guide and provide.

• He is not trusting in his own understanding or insight but is rather trusting in God’s ways.

King Solomon says (Prov 3:5): “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

Whether the issue is marriage, career, studies, ministry, or some other life issue, we must trust God to supernaturally arrange the circumstances at the right time and in the right way.

That’s the 3th principle for receiving God’s guidance: Trusting in God’s Ways.

The 4th principle for receiving God’s guidance is to pray for God’s Wisdom.

The servant did not assume that he would recognize the woman God had prepared.

[See verse 12] He prayed.

• Notice something – after travelling a 800km journey on camel, the servant arrived at the perfect place to meet a young, unmarried woman at the very time the women would be coming to the well to draw water.

• What a coincidence. No, it’s what providence!

• God had arranged the circumstances perfectly for His will to be fulfilled in this situation.

Abraham’s knowledge, commitment, and trust were not in vain.

• God was working behind the scene.

• God will direct our circumstances so that His will is successfully fulfilled in our lives if we do our part to KNOW His Word, be COMMITTED to His Will, TRUST in His ways, and then PRAY for wisdom.

• I believe many of you can look back on your life and see evidence of God working and guiding your circumstances in remarkable ways!

• It is reassuring to see how powerful and wise our God is in directing our lives.

The servant realizes that this is a divine opportunity, so he prays for success and guidance.

• James 1:5 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

• We miss God’s guidance and divine opportunities because they do not pray.

Often we go through life just making decisions based on our own wisdom.
• We need to recognize that we do not have the wisdom to direct our own paths or to make right choices; we need to pray for God’s wisdom if we are to receive His guidance.

Continuing, James 1:6-8 “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”

These biblical stories are recorded for our practical application today.

We can receive God’s guidance if we have the knowledge of God’s Word, are committed to His will, trust in His ways, and pray for His wisdom.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

But, God

by Richard Deem

 
There are a number of powerful 2-word phrases found in the Word of God. Phrases such as: Healed all; gathered in; cast out; raised up; pulled down. Each of these phrases are used in context with the power of God. However, there is one phrase used 43 times in Scripture that causes my spirit to leap for joy. That phrase is: BUT, GOD!

This small two word phrase communicates a tremendous message to all who will hear. It is God’s response to Satan’s challenge. It is the bottom line. It is the last word. It is all over but the shouting. “But God”, when viewed in relation to the challenges of life, is what up is to down; life is to death; in is to out. “But God” stand diametrically opposed to the negative roar of the world. The world says no – “but God” says yes. The world says can’t – “but God” says can. The world says won’t — :but God” says will. The world says stop – “but God” says go. The world says don’t – “but God” says do. The world says defeat – “but God” says victory!

“But God” climbs the highest mountain; traverses the darkest valley; and sings songs of victory in the midnight hour. “But God” exclaims “I’m going to the enemy’s camp and I’ll take back what he stole from me!” “But God is courageous, confident and conclusive!”

I’m speaking to you this morning from God’s perspective. I’m encouraging you to put on your Kingdom glasses and see things as God sees them. I want you to know it’s not over until God has His say. I’ve come to exhort you to stay for the entire game – wait until the last seconds tick off the clock; until the “home team” has had its chance. Wait until the last out is made! If you quit too soon, you’ll leave before victory is seen. I want to tell you this morning that the jury may still be out in your situation – all the votes are not in — the fat lady has not sung – God hasn’t had His final say. I’m speaking to you this morning on the subject “But, God . . .”

May I tell you this morning that in that book of miracles you hold in your hand, there are many instances where our adversary [Satan] is confounded and confused. There are stories of his elaborate schemes going awry, because he failed to realize that God would have the final say. Poor devil! He had worked so hard to get everything just right, yet just when he thinks he is victorious, he hears “But God!” Let’s look at a few of his defeats this morning.

  1. He Thought He Could Stop the Plan of God . . . BUT GOD [Acts 7:9; Gen 38-44]

And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: BUT GOD was with him,

  1. Pit [Gen 37:22-24]

B. Potifer [Gen 39:1-6a]

C. Prison [Gen 39:7-20]

Echoes of his brothers: “. . .now let’s see what happens to your dreams.”

D. Palace [Gen 41:25-32]

  1. Notice Gen 39:21 & Acts 7:29 “But God was with Joseph!”

II. He Thought He Could Stop the People of God . . . BUT GOD [Eph 2:3-6]

All of us used to be just as they are, our lives expressing the evil within us, doing every wicked thing that our passions or our evil thoughts might lead us into. We started out bad, being born with evil natures, and were under God’s anger just like everyone else. 4 But God is so rich in mercy; he loved us so much 5 that even though we were spiritually dead and doomed by our sins, he gave us back our lives again when he raised Christ from the dead–only by his undeserved favor have we ever been saved– 6 and lifted us up from the grave into glory along with Christ, where we sit with him in the heavenly realms–all because of what Christ Jesus did. [TLB]

A. Perfect [Gen 1:26]

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

B. Putrefied [Eph 2:3]

Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.

Created to be kings, they now find themselves as paupers. Once were friends with God – now are enemies. Mind once filled with thoughts of God, now has become breeding ground for lust and evil. Once were rulers – now are slaves. History’s greatest tragedy.

C. Promoted [2:6] — BUT GOD!

And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:

III. He Thought He Could Stop The Power of God … BUT GOD [Acts 13:28-20]

And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. 29 And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. 30 BUT GOD raised him from the dead:

  1. Pierced [Isa 53]

B. Planted [John 19:38]

And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

For something to bloom, it must first be planted!

C. Powerful [Matt 28:18] – BUT GOD!

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Born in a stable, His mother a virgin, raised in a carpenter shop.  His parents were poor His people were slaves, His friends were a lowly lot.  His chances in life seemed so very slim, He’s expected to be a slave.  But people in darkness saw great light in Him And hope of freedom He gave.  All of the power of heaven and earth God had invested in Him.

He’s to die on the cross, descend into hell, Meet the devil, take the keys from Him.  He yielded Himself to the death on the cross, Cried it’s finished and slumped to die, in the regions of hell the devils celebrated, We’ve destroyed the king they cried!

In the midst of the celebration footsteps were heard Walking through the corridors of hell.  Then the shouting stopped as a voice rang out A voice rang out, a voice that rang like a bell.  Satan then trembled as he recognized Him Who had come to deliver His own.  “Shut and lock the gates”, he cried “Don’t let Him ascend to His throne!”

Don’t listen to the lies and disparaging words of our enemy. Realize that God has the final word! See things from the Father’s perspective. Incline your ear and hear “But God!”  Satan says defeat, but God says victory.  Satan says disease, but God says healing.  Etc.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

Fill Your Pastor’s Joy to the Brim

by Dana Chau

 
This morning, we look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verses 1-4.

Someone has said, “Leaders are not grabbed; they are grown.” In most cases, when you see a terrific wife, husband or young adult, chances are she or he didn’t start out that way. The husband of that wonderful wife has a great deal to do with her inner beauty; the wife of that wonderful husband has a great deal to do with his inner beauty; and the parents of the wonderful young adult have a great deal to do with that young adult’s inner beauty. This is not always the case, but nurture does have its impact on nature.

We have a great impact and a great responsibility in shaping the people God entrusts into our lives, especially those we have regular contact with, our co-workers, our clients, our family and even our church family.

A pastor’s conference spoke of how the congregation begins to take on the likeness of its pastor over the years, so the pastor has no one to blame but himself, if he does not like the congregation after a number of years. I would make another claim, that I believe is true: The pastor that the congregation has after a number of years is not the same pastor who signed the contract many years before, but a person shaped by the congregation.

This morning, we will look at the “why” and the “how” to fill your pastor’s joy to the brim. The “why to fill your pastor’s joy to the brim” actually doesn’t come from this passage, but the “how” does. The “why” comes from Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” So what we will talk about this morning also applies to the Elders of the church. At each of our Elders meeting, we spend a portion of the time asking about and praying for your spiritual well-being.

How many of us would do everything possible to be pleasant with our mechanic or at least avoid arguing with him when we leave him our car for repair? I would want my mechanic to be in a great mood, because an unhappy mechanic can lead to a poor repair job, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Again, how many of us would do everything possible to be pleasant with our surgeon, or at least avoid arguing with her before we go under the knife? Again, I would. An unhappy surgeon can lead to my death, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

But few people think about the importance of having happy or joyful pastor and Elders. Our business is the well-being of your souls. We work to make many opportunities for you and your friends to get to know God, and if you already know God, we work to provide many opportunities for you to mature in your relationship with God. We also work to protect your souls and relationships from being damaged by sin and ignorance.

The next time you go into surgery, pray that God will give your surgeon a joyful spirit. He will do a better job on your body. Furthermore, the next time you meet with your pastor or Elder, pray that they would have a joyful spirit. They will do a better job on your soul.

Paul, the church planter and founding pastor of the Philippi Community Christian Church tells us this morning about three areas of progress in which the Philippians can grow to make their pastor’s joy complete. We saw in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the Philippians to have the same joy. Now he tells the Philippians how they can be involved in filling his joy to the brim!

If you want the best care for your soul, stay awake and learn how you can get involved.

The first area of progress in which you can grow to make your pastor and Elders’ joy complete is the area of reliance upon God. (We read this in chapter 2, verse 1.)

A pastor who truly is concerned about your soul will not find joy in a bigger paycheck. He will not find joy in a plush house. He will not find joy in the compliments he receives from his sermons. A pastor who is truly concerned about the souls of those he shepherds will find joy when the people he shepherds grow to rely on God as their source of strength enough for them to become a giver and not simply a taker.

Paul’s joy begins to be filled to the brim as he assumed the Philippians have encouragement from being united with Christ, that they have comfort from the love of God, that they have fellowship with the Spirit of God, and that all these enable them to express tenderness and compassion toward Paul.

His “if” statements are like that of the father who says to his son, “If you are a man, you would own up to your mistake.” This statement does not question whether his son is a man, but assumes that to be the truth. A mother who says to her daughter, “If you have a nice dress, why not wear the dress to the party?” This statement does not question whether the daughter has a nice dress, but assumes that to be the truth.

The job of the pastor is similar to that of the parents. The parents teach and model a healthy relationship between a man and a woman so that the child can grow up and have a healthy relationship with the opposite sex. That’s why one of the best things you can do for your child is to love your spouse. Similar to a parent, the pastor teaches and models a healthy relationship between a person and God so that the people he shepherds can grow up and have a healthy relationship with God.

When the people have a healthy reliance upon God for encouragement, for comfort and for fellowship, God becomes their source of strength enough to help them become givers and not simply takers.

Let me give you a few examples. When a person can give encouragement to another without expecting in return because she has encouragement from being unite with Christ, then she has found her source of strength in God. Or when a person can comfort someone who is hurting slightly while he himself is hurting badly, because he has his comfort from the love of God, and he has found his source of strength in God. Finally, when a person can offer friendship to those who reject her, because she has the fellowship with the Spirit of God, and she has found her source of strength in God.

We can only find our source of strength in God when we make our goal in life to know God more. Otherwise, we will seek our strength in the wrong places, in money, in prestige, in possession, or in power. These sources not only will not provide the needed strength in life, but they often produce greed and insecurity. Only one who has found his or her source of strength in God can become a giver and not just a taker in life. And the pastor and Elders who see such progress in the people they shepherd will overflow with joy.

The second area of progress in which you can grow to make your pastor and Elders’ joy complete is the area of resolving to be a loving team in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Resolve means to set your mind to doing. (We read this in chapter 2, verse 2 and chapter 4, verses 2-3.)

Paul calls us away from division, not by thinking alike, but by thinking on the same things, the same love, the same spirit and the same purpose. The church at Philippi was not without problems. In fact, Paul gets very specific and begins to name names when he calls other Christians in the church to help Euodia and Syntyche to resolve their conflicts.

The job of a pastor is similar to that of a coach. A coach leads the team by determining the characteristic, the unity and purpose of the team. I forget which baseball coach was quoted saying, “The secret to coaching successfully is to find out which team members like you, which team members hate you and which ones are undecided. Then the job of the coach is to keep those who hate him away from those who are undecided.”

If there is such division in the church, the pastor has to do more than preserve his job. He has to work with the team to possess a loving unity and purpose. While a baseball team might even win with members who hate each other and who hate the coach, the church cannot win when there is no love and no unity in the members and for the pastor and Elders.

Jesus Christ defined for the Christians what winning looks like, when love and unity characterize the resolve of Christians. Even sources outside of the Bible would affirm the power of having the same love and unity as Christ. From the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, we read, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded great empires; but upon what did the creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions would die for Him.”

The purpose of the church is to make the good news of Jesus Christ known to the community, to the country and to the world. This purpose is why we have local ministries, home missions and overseas missions. The good news is that through Jesus Christ, love and unity is possible between one another, even love and unity with God. But unless we are living such a resolve in our own lives, in our own families, or in our relationships with each other, we speak of what we have not experienced. We become like the salespeople who have never used the product – the product of love and unity.

On the other hand, if we resolve, that is set our minds on the same love, unity and purpose as Christ, we not only have good news to tell others about, but we also have good news to show others about and to share with others our experience. And the pastor and Elders who see such progress in the people they shepherd will overflow with joy.

The third and final area of progress in which you can grow to make your pastor and Elders’ joy complete is the area of relating to one another in humility and not in competition. (We read this in verse 3 and 4.)

As the pastor of the church, I am tempted to pretend that I am closest to God, possessing the most important gifts of the church and knowing exactly what I need to do and what you need to do in your life at any given moment. By the grace of God, I sometimes come to my senses or God withdraws Himself from my awareness, and I discover that God is not in my pocket, that I’m not gifted and talented to do all things in the church, and that I sometimes don’t know what God is doing in my life or in your life until afterwards.

God has not called your pastor to model perfection, but humility. You are to see that if God can use someone like me, He can use anybody in this room. To pretend to be something I’m not, or to think that I am better than you are is not only dishonest but will intimidate you from being the person God is making you to become.

A pastor was given an award for humility. A week later, the congregation took the award back because the pastor displayed it in his office. Humility is not mean to be put on display. Humility is also not downplaying one’s strengths and gifts. Humility is not low self-worth. Humility does not think of oneself more highly than he ought to think. Humility is aware of the good and strengths in others.

Competition, on the other hand, sometimes comes from a need to prove oneself, while humility relies upon God. Competition desires to exalt me, myself and I, while humility desires to exalt Christ, the Father and the Spirit. Competition resolves to distinguish the strong from the weak, while humility resolves to direct one’s power for God’s purposes. Competition has many loves, many allegiances and many drives, while humility has one love, one spirit and one purpose, that is to please God. Competition looks to one’s own interests, while humility looks also to the interests of others.

The one who possesses humility possesses godliness. The example set for us is that God humbled Himself in Jesus Christ. The Infinite became limited in time and space to serve and be a sacrifice on our behalf. Christians must learn to descend into greatness, if love, unity and achievement of God’s purpose are to occur in and through the church. And the pastor and Elders who see such progress in the people they shepherd will overflow with joy

Someone tells the story about a boy scout summer camp where the director found an umbrella neatly rolled inside a sleeping bag. The director asked the boy to whom this bag belonged, “Is there a reason why you brought an umbrella? It was not one of the listed items.”

To which the boy replied, “Sir, have you ever had a mother?”

As your pastor and Elders, we don’t try to be your mother, but we are responsible to God for the health of your souls. This morning, the Elders and I have been reminded of our responsibilities. As God gives us the grace and wisdom to do our job, you would greatly benefit from making our joy complete by growing in your reliance upon God, in your resolve to have the same love, unity and purpose, and in relating to one another in humility.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- 3 Stories And A Conclusion


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

3 STORIES AND A CONCLUSION

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 
About seven weeks ago, I saw God work in some remarkable ways. I’ve not shared them until today, because part of me wanted to do like Mary did when she saw God work in some remarkable ways. The Bible says that Mary, “… treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, ESV). 

But I’d like to share these three stories with you today to give you three encouragements: 1) that God is really here, 2) that He really does care about us, and 3) that sometimes He blows our minds with the way He works things out. All three stories took place the first weekend in December.

I had flown out to meet my daughter, Makari, in Vancouver, Canada, as a producer friend of mine had invited her to film a brief background scene for an upcoming episode of When Calls the Heart, a beautiful series on the Hallmark channel which is about to start its 4th season on Sunday, February 19th.

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Makari (right), on set with Emma Jean Mittelberg (left) and Erin Krakow (center)

Makari and I had met the cast and crew last year on the set, but this time Makari was going to be in front of the cameras, not just watching from behind the scenes. We were excited and looking forward to whatever God had in mind.

To my surprise, my producer friend, Brian Bird, and his wife, Patty, invited us to sit with them and their family for various events over the weekend, giving us an amazing view of the events as they unfolded. I was hoping for just a few minutes with Brian sometime over the weekend, as I knew he would be extremely busy with other activities, and here we were able to spend several extended periods of time, not only with him, but also with his family and a few of their friends.

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Eric (right) and Makari Elder (left) with Brian Bird (center) in front of his production trailer on the set

Still, with all of the time we spent together, there was a particular project I have been working on that I wanted to talk to him about. At one point during the weekend, I asked him if maybe we could talk for five minutes about it, so I could give him an update on where it stood. We talked right then, for just a minute or two, but it turned out to be just the minute or two that I needed: a shot in the arm to keep moving forward with my project in the direction I was heading.

I went to bed that night thankful that we had been able to talk about this project, even ever-so-briefly, and for all the other amazing opportunities we had had so far in the weekend. But God was just getting started. I haven’t even gotten to the three stories yet!

The next day, Makari and I ducked out of the activities in Vancouver and took a three-hour bus ride south to Seattle, where another friend had invited us to visit her and see a Seattle Seahawks game with her  the next time we were in the area. She has a special suite in the stadium where she and her family watch the home games, and Makari and I were excited to see her and to see the game from her suite, something neither of us had ever done before.

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Eric and Makari with Debbie Macomber (center) in her suite at a Seattle Seahawks game

When we got to the stadium, we were greeted graciously by my friend, Debbie Macomber, and her family. Although I had corresponded with Debbie various times over the past five years, this was the first time we were ever able to meet in person. She was as delightful in person as she was in her correspondence and on television interviews I had seen of her. (For those who may not recognize her name, Debbie Macomber is a New York Times bestselling novelist with over 200 million copies of her books in print. Her recent book, Sweet Tomorrows, is currently a #1 NYT bestseller, too! I normally wouldn’t point out these things, but it’s important to the story!)

As we were watching the game with Debbie and her family in the suite, a few of other people happened to come into the suite with us to say hello, including Steve Largent and Jim Zorn. (For those who may not recognize their names, Steve Largent was a receiver and Jim Zorn was a quarterback back in the early day of the Seattle Seahawks.)

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Eric and Makari with Steve Largent (center), watching the Seahawks play the Panthers

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Eric and Makari with Jim Zorn (center)

They, too, were gracious and kind to Makari and me, and Debbie asked if we’d like our pictures with them. I texted the pictures to a few of my family and friends back home, two of whom, independently, said, “They’re treating you like royalty,” and “It’s like you’re with royalty.” I felt that way, too, especially when I looked out into the stadium and saw, all around it, a “ring” of words marked “Ring of Honor,” which listed the names of ten Seahawks. The first two names on the ring were Steve Largent and Jim Zorn! And here we were watching the game with both of them on one side of us and  Debbie Macomber on the other!

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The “Ring of Honor,” as seen from the suite where we were watching the game

It was like being with royalty! As I tried to take it all in, I felt like everything around me began to fade away, and God spoke clearly to my heart:

“Eric, if you could see yourself the way I see you, you would know that I see you as royalty. You are my child, and I love you so very much.”

It’s one thing to be in awe of the people around you. It’s another to have the God of the universe single you out and say: “I see you as royalty, too.” But the truth is, that’s the way God sees every one of us. There is an aspect to being a child of His that lifts and elevates us in a way that goes beyond anything people could do to lift or elevate us. And if we can just take that in, that the God of the universe not only knows us, but loves us dearly, and thinks that we’re precious children of His–the King of kings and Lord of lords–it changes everything. It changes the way we see ourselves, our worth, our value–even if our only claim to fame is being one of His children. That alone is amazing enough to warrant being listed on God’s own “Ring of Honor.”

But the story picks up from there. The next morning was the day we were to be on the set back in Vancouver. So Makari and I took a late night bus back to Vancouver after the game, got a quick night’s sleep, and woke up early the next day to meet Brian and a few others to head out to the set where they would be filming When Calls the Heart.

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Eric on the set of When Calls the Heart with Janette Oke, author of the book by the same name which inspired the show

When I got to the lobby, I had a chance to sit with Janette Oke, who was also going out to the set with us. (For those who don’t recognize her name, Janette Oke is the author of over 70 books, including, Love Comes Softly and When Calls the Heart, the book on which the new television series is based which we were shooting. Again, I normally wouldn’t mention these things except that it is relevant to the story!)

I had met Janette a year ago, and at that time was so stunned to meet her in person that I asked her if she would pray for me and sign a notebook that I had with me, both of which she did so sweetly. I was astounded. This time around, I was able to sit with her on several occasions over the weekend, and we were able to talk about a wide range of topics. When I met her in the lobby, we sat down together again, and I told her about a project I was currently working on, pulling out a copy of the book I had written which was the basis of the project. As I was telling her about it, she asked several more questions and was keenly interested. I asked if she’d like to take a copy of the book with her, which she very much wanted to do! Awkwardly, I then asked if she would like me to sign it for her, which she also wanted me to do! As I sat there in the lobby of the hotel, I was stunned once again, this time not because I had met Janette Oke and she had signed a book for me, but because it felt like somehow she had met me! And now I was signing a copy of my book for her!  In that moment, I felt like God was speaking to me again, saying:

“Eric, I know you’re aware of the impact others have on you. But don’t underestimate the impact you have on others.”

And God was right. I often underestimate my own impact on others, even though I can so often see the impact others have on me. And it isn’t because I’m particularly special. My message for you with this story is to not underestimate the impact you can have on others, too.  We all have gifts and talents and a purpose on earth, and if we could only see ourselves as God sees us, we would see how He weaves and uses those gifts and talents and purposes for our benefit and for the benefit of others.

But the next story was the most surprising of all. As we went to get into our cars to go to the set, it was snowing heavily. We were trying to figure out who would ride with who, and it looked like there may not be room for me to ride with someone else, so I was about to look for a way to get to the set on my own, when my friend, Brian, who is one of the executive producers of the show, asked me to sit in the front seat of his car with him! (For those who don’t recognize his name, Brian has written and produced hundreds of episodes for television, including five seasons of Touched by an Angel, and has written and produced an upcoming movie for the same people who produced God’s Not Dead, this one based on the life of Lee Strobel, called The Case for Christ, which will be showing in theaters starting April 7th.)

As I stood there, just before getting into Brian’s car, Brian looked over the top of the car at me and said, “This is really unusual. It hardly ever snows on the coast.”

To anyone else, those words might have been just casual words about the weather. But to me, they were nearly identical to some words I had written a few months earlier and had put in the book I wanted to talk to Brian about, and the book I had just signed and given to Janette Oke! In my story, however, I had written about a snow scene that takes place half a world away from where we were standing. I had written: “It hardly ever snows on the coast. And if it did, that would be a very special day.” In my story, the snow scene that follows becomes one of the key climaxes of the story where the main character is desperately needing to know that God is still there, that He really cares, and that He has a purpose for this character’s life on earth. When Brian spoke those words, it was as if God were magnifying them in my heart, saying:

“Eric, it hardly ever snows on the coast. And that makes this a very special day for you.”

And a special day it turned out to be! I got in the car and began to talk to Brian, and, because of the snow, what should have been a 45-minute drive to the set turned out to be a three-hour drive! It was a delay that could have been problematic for all kinds of reasons, but because of the kind of day that it was, it turned out to be incredible–for me, at least! While I was hoping to get five minutes with my friend that weekend, and we suddenly got three hours–three hours in which we shared stories from each other’s lives, at some points laughing, at other points crying, and at many points noting to each other how God was working through each of them. Because of the weather, the scenes we were going to shoot for the show had to be altered, so our time on set wasn’t as long as we had expected. Afterward, we went out to lunch and I got to talk to Brian for another two hours. Then, because the snow was still falling, the drive back to the hotel took another two hours, instead of the expected 45 minutes. By the end of the day, I had spent seven full hours talking with Brian in the front seat of the car or at lunch, when I had been hoping to get just five minutes for the whole weekend, and just a few days earlier had actually been happy to get just one or two minutes with him! It was a special day indeed!

I felt like the woman in the Bible who told Jesus she would be happy with just a crumb off the table of a king, when Jesus went overboard and miraculously healed her daughter! I would have been happy with a crumb that weekend, when God had in mind a full-day feast! As it says in the Bible, God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” (Ephesians 3:20, NIV). I sometimes wonder how that can be, because I can ask or imagine quite a bit! But that day, and over the whole weekend, God certainly went way beyond what I was ever asking or imagining.

Let me close with this. You are like royalty to God. You have no idea the impact you have on those around you. And, if you’ll keep your eyes and ears open, God has some truly special days in mind for you, wherein He will do more for you than all you can ask or imagine. Let these truths sink deep into your heart. And let God speak to you again today. He has so much that He wants to say. 


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- The Value of Vision (Part 2)


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

THE VALUE OF VISION (PART 2)

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 
Last week, I shared with you about the difference it made in my life to picture myself one year in the future, trying to envision what I could be doing or enjoying differently at the end of the year than at the beginning of the year. This week, I’d like to share about the difference that approach made to my goal setting in the lives of other people as well. Reaching our goals is for more than just getting what we want out of life. As the Bible says:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).  

One of the goals I set at the beginning of last year was to write the complete script and score for a new musical I’m writing called “St. Nick: The Musical.” I pictured myself holding a draft of a completed script and score. As I pictured in my mind what that would look like,  I wrote down this goal:

“I’d like to be holding a copy of a completed script and score for St. Nick: The Musical.

It was an ambitious goal, but one I really wanted to try. By the end of the year, I had completed one-third of the script and one-third of the score! Even though I hadn’t completely finished, this was phenomenal for me!

So I took a picture of myself at the end of the year holding a copy of both the script and score.

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What I had envisioned at the beginning of the year had, at least in part, come to pass by the end, at least.

But what I also wanted to do at the beginning of the year was to help some other people write their own books this year, books that they had just been thinking about, but had never actually written. So at the beginning of the year, I wrote out another goal:

“I’d like to be looking at 3-5 others, whom I have encouraged to write, holding copies of their own stories in their hands.”

I didn’t set this goal for profit or gain for myself in any way. I set it because God has poured into me so much insight and wisdom into the writing and publishing process over the last twenty years–to the point where I’ve written and published nearly twenty books during that time. I wanted to pour out some of that insight and wisdom to others.

So I prayed. I prayed that God would show me 3-5 others that I could encourage to write their own books. And God answered that prayer! I asked several of them this past week if they would send me a picture of themselves holding their own books in their hands, whether they had rough drafts, finished drafts or published books. And here’s the result!

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Jeanette wrote a draft of a book about how God helped her through a health crisis in her family.

Kent wrote a draft of a book on creativity for people wanting to reach their potential.

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Al wrote a draft of a book about his father’s service to our country in the 2nd World War, (which he has been able to work on and share with his father along the way).

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Shelly wrote a draft of a book about her intimate walk with God.

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And Laurie wrote a children’s book about trusting in God, even  when “the lights go out.” (And she got it published on Amazon by January 2nd!)

How did this all work? After talking to God about my goal of helping others in this way, God started bringing people to mind, or bringing people to me in person, each of whom expressed their interest in writing and publishing a book. Whenever the topic came up in our conversations, rather than just saying a few encouraging words or letting those comments go by, I asked if there was anything I could do to help them achieve their goal.

In some cases, it was as simple as pointing them to a 90-minute online class I had taught and recorded a few years ago to show people how I create and self-publish my own books on Amazon. (You can watch it here for free!) Then I would make myself available to answer any questions or help them in any other way I could.

In other cases, I offered some ideas for how they could start their book–by writing down the main point they were wanting to make, coming up with a simple outline of the chapters their book could contain, and offering to read each of their chapters each week or whenever they wrote them. Several of the people found that simply having someone else involved and eager to read their work each week was just the incentive they needed to not only start, but to keep on writing.

And I loved reading what they wrote! Each story was magnificent as it unfolded. I was inspired in my faith, and I learned more about my friends than I had ever known before. It never felt like a chore to help others–it was a true joy.

I share all of this with you as we’re still at the beginning of 2017. We have nearly a whole year ahead of us. Maybe God has poured something into your life that He wants you to share with others–whether it’s a skill, a gift or a talent; an understanding or insight into a topic; a way of working, a way of thinking, or a way of living. Maybe there’s a goal you could put on your own list this year that could help someone else–or several “someone else’s”–by the end of it?

Why not take a few minutes to picture what that would look like at the end of 2017 to see that goal accomplished, then jot it down. Ask God to help you achieve that goal, not only for your sake, but for the sake of others, too. Remember that your vision might be just what others need to help them accomplish theirs.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). 


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- The Value of Vision


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

THE VALUE OF VISION

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

Last year I tried something new in my annual goal-setting. I like the way it turned out, so I thought I’d share it with you today as you look ahead to your own new year. As the Bible says:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).  

This applies to our personal lives as well. Vision is what gives us hope. Vision is what gives us something to “go for.” Vision is what keeps us on track when we’re in danger of veering off.

Last year, my friend, Kent Sanders, in his book, The Artist’s Suitcase, encouraged me to envision myself one year in the future. He wrote:

“Imagine what your life could be like one year from today. How could it be different? Would you look different? Would you have more energy or a better income? What about that book, blog, music, or other project you’re working on? What would it feel like to have it finished? … Write down what you see–your appearance, energy level, success, and the other items that are important to you. This is what your life could be like a year from now.”

I took Kent’s challenge to heart and asked God to help me envision what my future might look like if He and I were to work on it together. I came up with about 15 goals for the year. That was more than I had planned to write down, but not all of them were huge, and not all of them were vastly different from what I was already doing. But by writing them down, I was able to keep them in front of me all year long, which helped me realize all along that I was actually accomplishing my goals for the year, even by doing some of the seemingly ordinary, every day things I was doing.

For instance, this was one of my goals related to my family:

“I’d like to be enjoying rich conversations with my kids (during school, meals, and other activities).”

As I sat with my kids during the year, whether we were talking about their lives, or their schoolwork, or whatever else was on their hearts, I was able to feel good about the conversations at hand, and this was actually one of my goals: to be enjoying rich conversations with my kids! This really helped me as I went through my days, and ensured that I took the time to enjoy those conversations, not just rush through them and onto whatever was “next.”

This goal also helped me, in both small and big ways, to take advantage of the opportunities that arose to spend time with my kids which I might have missed otherwise.

This goal helped me in a small way, when after a dance class one night with my youngest daughter, she asked if we could stop to get something to eat on our way home. She wondered if we could sit down and eat at a particular restaurant. Normally, by that hour of the night, all I could manage was a quick stop at a drive-through so we could get back home because of all the other things that needed to be done. But because one of my goals was “to enjoy rich conversations with my kids,” we decided to stop and order from the menu at a sit-down restaurant–where a waitress actually brought our food to us!  While it might seem like a small thing, when you’re shuttling kids from one activity to another and trying to squeeze as much as possible into every day, taking an hour to just sit and enjoy a meal and a conversation seems costly, time-wise, but is so heavenly, in every other way.

And this goal helped me in some big ways, too. When my oldest daughter mentioned her interest in taking a cruise somewhere, someday, I didn’t give it much thought. Since we normally do things with our whole family, a cruise for a family of seven seemed out of the question. But because of my goal of “enjoying rich conversations with my kids,” I thought about her desire again when her birthday was coming up. I thought, “Maybe I could take just her, and we could go on a cruise together as something special to do, just the two of us.” She happened to call me soon after I had had this thought, telling me about her week, which had been particularly hard. I decided to tell her what I was thinking about the cruise and asked what she thought of just the two of us going. She loved the idea! We found a cruise that we could afford, and we went! And we would have missed it, had I not had this goal of spending time with my kids, and had she not expressed to me one of her own desires.

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I had similar experiences with my other kids. Because one of my daughters is going into acting, I asked a producer friend if it would be possible for her to be in a background scene in one of his shows. To my delight, he said, “Yes!” So we flew to Vancouver for the taping and she was able to be on camera in a background scene. Even if her screen time turns out to be only a few seconds, the extended time we were able to spend with each other on the trip was priceless. I was able to accomplish my goal while also helping her to accomplish hers. It was a win-win for us both.

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The goal continued to take on a life of its own as my youngest kids and I had been planning and saving for a trip to Israel someday, but we had never done it. It, too, seemed like it wouldn’t happen again this year. But because I had made it a goal, I made it a priority to find a way to do it, and we found one! And on the trip, I was able baptize both of them in the Jordan River–what a blessing for them and for me!

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Not all of my goals with my kids involved going places. I was able to do some of them right at home. My oldest son knew that one of my goals was to finish a space in my attic that I wanted to use for reading and writing and praying. I had worked on it several years ago, but when my wife got cancer and passed away a few years ago, I stopped nearly completely. But I put that goal back on my list this year:

“I’d like to be enjoying my fully finished attic.”

So my son offered to help me out each week for much of the year, driving an hour each way to come to my house so we could finish all of the tiling and insulating and drywalling. With his offer, and the help of my other kids, too, we were able to get things almost finished! While we’re not quite done yet, I never would have pressed forward to get to this point had I not had this goal, and have the help along the way. And, by having my kids involved, I was able to spend more time with them, even through the work of it all, meeting my other goal of “enjoying rich conversations with my kids.”

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Not all of these goals were fun and games, and each of them had its own set of challenges, difficulties, and costs. But in the end, anything worth doing takes effort.

While I didn’t accomplish all 15 of my goals for 2016, by having those goals in mind at the beginning of the year–and at the forefront of my mind throughout the year–I was able to stay focused and stay on track as much as possible for the rest of the year.

I’m looking forward now to writing out my goals for 2017. What about you? What are your hopes and dreams and visions for the new year? It’s not too late to sit down and give it some thought. We have a whole new year ahead of us. Why not write down your goals, keep them at the forefront of your mind, and see what God and you can do together?


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- 2017 Daily Bible Reading Plan


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

2017 DAILY BIBLE READING PLAN
by Al Lowry

Note from Eric Elder: If you’d like to join us in reading through the Bible in a year, you can start today with this “guilt-free” reading plan! Al Lowry describes it below, and there are links at the bottom of this message where you can view, print, and sign up for our “2017 Daily Bible Reading” plan. I hope you will! Here’s Al’s message…

With so many great devotionals out there to consider, how does one choose a good one to kick off the year?

I’m not kidding when I tell you I’ve begun dozens, but have often fallen short of completing these New Year’s resolutions.

More times than I like to think about, especially at the beginning of the year, I’ve voraciously dug into some new study and fallen off way too quickly. It’s been a vicious cycle of failures to me, and once again I’d end up getting down on myself for such incessant lack of discipline.

Then, 2 years ago, my friend, Eric, reset my course with a rather unique challenge: to read through the Bible in a year. I almost laughed when he suggested it, as I’ve desired to–and tried–many times before.  I’ll confess to you that my results would have most likely had me discovering my bookmark buried somewhere in Genesis by year’s end.

So why would this reading plan succeed where so many others did not?  Eric handed me a golden egg that gave the project hope where I had not seen it before.

The unique challenge of this yearly Bible read-through was preceded by 2 intriguing words: “guilt free.”

It was hard to grasp the concept when I already felt like a failure, believing that I’d just fall behind and drop out like other times.  Then, he kindly elaborated to me how this “no-guilt” factor actually set the course for a no-fail agenda.

The idea was to break the yearly Bible readings into the usual bite-sized daily diet (no surprise there).  The saving grace was not to be concerned with falling behind and getting frustrated and giving up. Technically, one could not fall behind, for even if that happened, the reader could resume on the appropriate day, and not worry or feel guilty about unread days. Of course, one would have the option of catching up on the missed text, but only if and when desired.

Initially, it seemed a little absurd to my type-A, overachievement gene to leave blocks of text behind, especially from such an important book. But eventually through careful thought, prayer and counsel from my friend, I began to realize that any devotional or even a topical church message could not thoroughly cover every biblical word every single time, and by taking this approach, I was likely to read more of the Bible by the end of the year than I would have ever read otherwise. All spiritual food we take in nourishes us as does the physical food we ingest. We would only starve if we failed to eat at all.

Logically, wouldn’t God reveal what I needed, and when I needed, it through even tiny mustard-sized efforts I offered up?

And so, exactly 2 years ago, I began my first guilt-free sojourn through the Bible, followed by a second year in 2016. Yes, I confess to missing or not focusing on many of the readings. But making it through at all was a major accomplishment in my life…and twice. 😉

What I found along the way for myself, and I suspect would be helpful for some of you, are a few tricks that stack the deck toward really getting into the game–and finishing.

I’d like to share some with you:

1. Listen to the word:

The Bible tells us to do just that, and with so many audible versions available and devices to listen on, it’s pretty darn easy.

That is not to say reading it shouldn’t be done as well, or in lieu of listening, but just try to have a listenable Bible version to help carry you through. Sometimes I would turn it on when I couldn’t sleep and would then doze off.  (Guilty me would accuse myself of cheating and feel the need to listen again. Guilt-free me would praise God in the morning for breaking my insomnia and allowing me much needed sleep.)

2. Write it down:

Jot down some thoughts along the way, and you’ll be as surprised as I was at the clarity it will bring. You may even find times when these thoughts can help others.

Sometimes days or even a week would go by without writing. But then, I would have some inspiration and these reflections, or devotionals, became ways to capture God’s voice. I offered them to others, and I have them still to reflect on.

I actually had no idea how much I had written until I started looking back through my notes. No need to be excellent authors in order to capture and help clarify an idea God gives to us. Rather, simply surrender ourselves to be willing conduits.

3. Don’t go it alone: 

The Bible states that two are stronger than one, and three are like the wrapped cords of a rope, not easily broken.  I found this to be so true, and I can’t state it enough. Before I started, I invited everyone I knew, and strangers alike, to join me on a special Facebook page.

This community became a small group that listened to my thoughts on passages and my prayer requests, and they shared theirs.  We shared a passage that touched us, or frustrations that we were having in our readings or in our lives.

This group need not be a replacement for church or a small group, but I just have to tell you that walking with others and being accountable is how this worked for me. Maybe it could for you too.

That being said, I’m ready to take the plunge again and would like to invite you to come along. Thank you old friends, who have said you’ll join me again. It is through your encouragement and inspiration that I feel confident to give it another go. And I would certainly love it if new readers join our adventure.

So, if you’ve felt God’s nudging to read the Bible in 2017, please feel free to come on board. We’d love to have you.

This year, I’m going to try something new and go straight through the Bible in book order–from cover to cover–from Genesis to Revelation.

Here’s a link to our “2017 Daily Bible Reading” plan (you can click any passage from this link to read it or listen to it in MP3 Audio, OR you can sign up to receive each passage by email every day at about the same time of day that you sign up):
2017 Daily Bible Reading Plan

And here’s a PDF of the same plan which you can print on one piece of paper (if you print it on both sides) to keep in your Bible. You can also click the links to each passage in this PDF if you want to read it online):
PDF of the 2017 Daily Bible Reading Plan

To join our Facebook group and encourage each other as we read along, click this link and request to join:
Facebook Group for 2017 Daily Bible Reading

And if you’d like to sign up for my emails (usually weekly) to encourage you along the way, just visit my website (which I’ve set up specifically for this purpose) and click “Follow”:
Visit Al’s website and click “Follow” for encouragement along the way

May God bless you and your families in the upcoming year. And if it falls onto your heart, let Him bless you in a special way through this Daily Bible Reading… GUILT-FREE!!!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 7 of 7

Wishing you all a most joyous and blessed Christmas celebration!

Greg and Eric for This Day’s Thought from The Ranch


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 7 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
On this Christmas day, I’m posting the conclusion (Part 7) of St. Nicholas: The Believer, a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas. As I mention in the conclusion of today’s message, St. Nicholas would have never wanted his story to replace the story of Jesus in the manger, but he would have loved to have his story point to Jesus in the manger. And that’s why this book was written.

You can read Part 7 below, or listen to Part 7 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4Part 5 or Part 6.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 7

CHAPTER 37

Nicholas stood at his favorite spot in the world one last time: by the sea. Eighteen years had passed since he had retuned to Myra from the council in Nicaea. In the days since coming home, he continued to serve the Lord as he had always done: with all his heart, soul, mind and strength.

Nicholas had come to the shore with Dimitri and Anna Maria, who had brought with them one of their grandchildren, a young girl seven years oldnamed Ruthie.

Ruthie had been running back and forth in the waves, as Dimitri and Anna Maria tried to keep up with her. Nicholas had plenty of time to look out over the sea and as he often did, look out over eternity as well.

Looking back on his life, Nicholas never knew if he really accomplished what he wanted to in life: to make a difference in the world. He had seen glimpses along the way, of course, in the lives of people like Dimitri, Samuel, Ruthie, Sophia, Cecilia and Anna Maria.

He had also learned from people like the ship’s captain that when the captain arrived in Rome, his ship miraculously weighed exactly the same as before he had set sail from Alexandriaeven after giving the people of Myra several years’ worth of grain from it. Reminders like these encouraged Nicholas that God really had been guiding him in his decisions.

He still had questions though. He never quite knew if he had done the right thing at the council in Nicaea. He never quite knew if his later private conversations with Constantine might have impacted the emperor’s personal faith in Christ.

He was encouraged, however, to learn that Constantine’s mother had also made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land just as Nicholas had done. And after her visit, she persuaded Constantine to build churches over the holy sites she had seen. She had recently completed building a church in Bethlehem over the spot where Jesus was born, as well as a church in Jerusalem over the spot where Jesus had died and risen from the dead.

Nicholas knew he had had both successes and mistakes in his life. But looking back over it, he couldn’t always tell which was which! Those times that he thought were the valleys turned out to be the mountaintops, and the mountaintops turned out to be valleys. But the most important thing, he reminded himself, was that he trusted God in all things, knowing that God could work anything for good for those who loved Him, who were called according to His purpose.

What the future held for the world, Nicholas had no idea. But he knew that he had done what he could with the time that he had. He tried to love God and love others as Jesus had called him to do. And where he had failed along the way, he trusted that Jesus could cover those failures, too, just as Jesus had covered his sins by dying on the cross.

As Nicholas’ father had done before him, Nicholas looked out over the sea again, too. Then closing his eyes, he asked God for strength for the next journey he was about to take.

He let the sun warm his face, then he opened the palms of his hands and let the breeze lift them into the air. He praised God as the warm breeze floated gently through his fingertips.

Little Ruthie returned from splashing in the water, followed closely by Dimitri and Anna Maria. Ruthie looked up at Nicholas, with his eyes closed and his hands raised towards heaven. Reaching out to him, she tugged at his clothes and asked, “Nicholas, have you ever seen God?”

Nicholas opened his eyes and looked down at Ruthie, then smiled up at Dimitri and Anna Maria. He looked out at the sunshine and the waves and the miles and miles of shoreline that stretched out in both directions before him. Turning his face back towards Ruthie, Nicholas said, “Yes, Ruthie, I have seen God. And the older I get, the more I see Him everywhere I look.”

Ruthie smiled, and Nicholas gave her a warm hug. Then just as quickly as she had run up to him, she ran off again to play.

Nicholas exchanged smiles with Dimitri and Anna Maria, then they, too, were off again, chasing Ruthie down the beach.

Nicholas looked one last time at the beautiful sea, then turned and headed towards home.

EPILOGUE

So now you know a little bit more about me–Dimitri Alexander–and my good friend, Nicholas. That was the last time I saw him, until this morning. He had asked if he could spend a few days alone, just him and the Lord that he loved. He said he had one more journey to prepare for. Anna Maria and I guessed, of course, just what he meant.

We knew he was probably getting ready to go home, to his real home, the one that Jesus had said He was going to prepare for each of us who believe in Him.

Nicholas had been looking forward to this trip his whole life. Not that he wanted to shortchange a single moment of the life that God that had given him here on earth, for he knew that this life had a uniquely important purpose as well, or else God would never have created it with such beauty and precision and marvelous mystery.

But as Nicholas’ life here on earth wound down, he said he was ready. He was ready to go, and he looked forward to everything that God had in store for him next.

So when Nicholas sent word this morning for Anna Maria and me and a few other friends to come and see him, we knew that the time had come.

As we came into this room, we found him lying on his bed, just as he is right now. He was breathing quietly and he motioned for us to come close. We couldn’t hold back our tears, and he didn’t try to stop us. He knew how hard it was to say goodbye to those we love. But he also made it easier for us. He smiled one more time and spoke softly, saying the same words that he had spoken when Ruthie had died many years before: “Either way we win,” he said. “Either way we win.”

“Yes, Nicholas,” I said. “Either way we win.” Then the room became quiet again. Nicholas closed his eyes and fell asleep for the last time. No one moved. No one said a word.

This man who lay before us slept as if it were just another night in his life. But we knew this was a holy moment. Nicholas had just entered into the presence of the Lord. As Nicholas had done throughout his life, we were sure he was doing right now in heaven, walking and talking and laughing with Jesus, but now they were face to face.

We could only imagine what Nicholas might be saying to Jesus. But we knew for certain what Jesus was saying to him: “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Well done. Come and share your Master’s happiness.”

I have no idea how history might remember Nicholas, if it will remember him at all. He was no emperor like Constantine. He was no tyrant like Diocletian. He was no orator like Arius. He was simply a Christian trying to live out his faith, touching one life at a time as best he knew how.

Nicholas may have wondered if his life made any difference. I know my answer, and now that you know his story, I’ll let you decide for yourself. In the end, I suppose only God really knows just how many lives were touched by this remarkable man.

But what I do know this: each of us has just one life to live. But if we live it right, as Nicholas did, one life is all we need.

CONCLUSION

by Eric Elder

What Nicholas didn’t know, and what no one who knew him could have possibly imagined, was just how far and wide this one life would reach–not only throughout the world, but also throughout the ages.

He was known to his parents as their beloved son, and to those in his city as their beloved bishop. But he has become known to us by another name: Saint Nicholas.

The biblical word for “saint” literally means “believer.” The Bible talks about the saints in Ephesus, the saints in Rome, the saints in Philippi and the saints in Jerusalem. Each time the word saints refers to the believers who were in those cities. So Nicholas rightly became known as “Saint Nicholas,” or to say it another way, “Nicholas, The Believer.” The Latin translation is “Santa Nicholas,” and in Dutch “Sinterklaas,” from which we get the name “Santa Claus.”

His good name and his good deeds have been an inspiration to so many, that the day he passed from this life to the next, on December 6th, 343 A.D., is still celebrated by people throughout the world.

Many legends have been told about Nicholas over the years, some giving him qualities that make him seem larger than life. But the reason that so many legends of any kind grow, including those told about Saint Nicholas, is often because the people about whom they’re told were larger than life themselves. They were people who were so good or so well-respected that every good deed becomes attributed to them, as if they had done them themselves.

While not all the stories attributed to Nicholas can be traced to the earliest records of his life, the histories that were recorded closest to the time period in which he lived do record many of the stories found in this book. To help you sort through them, here’s what we do know:

  • Nicholas was born sometime between 260-280 A.D. in the city of Patara, a city you can still visit today in modern-day Turkey, on the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Nicholas’ parents were devout Christians who died in a plague when Nicholas was young, leaving him with a sizable inheritance.
  • Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and lived there for a number of years before returning to his home province of Lycia.
  • Nicholas traveled across the Mediterranean Sea in a ship that was caught in a storm. After praying, his ship reached its destination as if someone was miraculously holding the rudder steady. The rudder of a ship is also called a tiller, and sailors on the Mediterranean Sea today still wish each other luck by saying, “May Nicholas hold the tiller!”
  • When Nicholas returned from the Holy Land, he took up residence in the city of Myra, about 30 miles from his hometown of Patara. Nicholas became the bishop of Myra and lived there the rest of his life.
  • Nicholas secretly gave three gifts of gold on three separate occasions to a man whose daughters were to be sold into slavery because he had no money to offer to potential husbands as a dowry. The family discovered Nicholas was the mysterious donor on one of his attempts, which is why we know the story today. In this version of the story, we’ve added the twist of having Nicholas deliver the first two gifts, and Dimitri deliver the third, to capture the idea that many gifts were given back then, and are still given today, in the name of Saint Nicholas, who was known for such deeds. The theme of redemption is also so closely associated with this story from Saint Nicholas’ life, that if you pass by a pawn shop today, you will often see three golden balls in their logo, representing the three bags of gold that Nicholas gave to spare these girls from their unfortunate fate.
  • Nicholas pled for the lives of three innocent men who were unjustly condemned to death by a magistrate in Myra, taking the sword directly from the executioner’s hand.
  • “Nicholas, Bishop of Myra” is listed on some, but not all, of the historical documents which record those who attended the real Council of Nicaea, which was convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. One of the council’s main decisions addressed the divinity of Christ, resulting in the writing of the Nicene Creed–a creed which is still recited in many churches today. Some historians say that Nicholas’ name does not appear on all the record books of this council because of his banishment from the proceedings after striking Arius for denying that Christ was divine. Nicholas is, however, listed on at least five of these ancient record books, including the earliest known Greek manuscript of the event.
  • The Nicene Creed was adopted at the Council of Nicaea and has become one of the most widely used, brief statements of the Christian faith. The original version reads, in part, as translated from the Greek: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day He rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” Subsequent versions, beginning as early as 381 A.D., have altered and clarified some of the original statements, resulting in a few similar, but not quite identical statements that are now in use.
  • Nicholas is recorded as having done much for the people of Myra, including securing grain from a ship traveling from Alexandria to Rome, which saved the people in that region from a famine.
  • Constantine’s mother, Helen, did visit the Holy Land and encouraged Constantine to build churches over the sites that she felt were most important to the Christian faith. The churches were built on the locations she had been shown by local believers where Jesus was born, and where Jesus died and rose again. Those churches, The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, have been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, but still in the same locations that Constantine’s mother, and likely Nicholas himself, had seen.
  • The date of Nicholas’ death has been established as December 6th, 343 A.D., and you can still visit his tomb in the modern city of Demre, Turkey, formerly known as Myra, in the province of Lycia. Nicholas’ bones were removed from the tomb in 1087 A.D. by men from Italy who feared that they might be destroyed or stolen, as the country was being invaded by others. The bones of Saint Nicholas were taken to the city of Bari, Italy, where they are still entombed today.

Of the many other stories told about or attributed to Nicholas, it’s hard to know with certainty which ones actually took place and which were simply attributed to him because of his already good and popular name. For instance, in the 12th century, stories began to surface of how Nicholas had brought three children back to life who had been brutally murdered. Even though the first recorded accounts of this story didn’t appear until more than 800 years after Nicholas’ death, this story is one of the most frequently associated with Saint Nicholas in religious artwork, featuring three young children being raised to life and standing next to Nicholas. We have included the essence of this story in this novel in the form of the three orphans who Nicholas met in the Holy Land and whom he helped to bring back to life–at least spiritually.

While all of these additional stories can’t be attributed to Nicholas with certainty, we can say that his life and his memory had such a profound effect throughout history that more churches throughout the world now bear the name of “Saint Nicholas” than any other figure, outside of the original disciples themselves.

Some people wonder if they can believe in Saint Nicholas or not. Nicholas probably wouldn’t care so much if you believed in him or not, but that you believed in the One in whom He believed, Jesus Christ.

A popular image today shows Saint Nicholas bowing down, his hat at his side, kneeling in front of baby Jesus in the manger. Although that scene could never have taken place in real life, for Saint Nicholas was born almost 300 years after the birth of Christ, the heart of that scene couldn’t be more accurate. Nicholas was a true believer in Jesus and he did worship, adore and live his life in service to the Christ.

Saint Nicholas would have never wanted his story to replace the story of Jesus in the manger, but he would have loved to have his story point to Jesus in the manger. And that’s why this book was written.

While the stories told here were selected from the many that have been told about Saint Nicholas over the years, these were told so that you might believe–not just in Nicholas, but in Jesus Christ, his Savior. These stories were written down for the same reason the Apostle John wrote down the stories he recorded about Jesus in the Bible. John said he wrote his stories:

“…that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).

Nicholas would want the same for you. He would want you to become what he was: a Believer.

If you’ve never done so, put your faith in Jesus Christ today, asking Him to forgive you of your sins and giving you the assurance that you will live with Him forever.

If you’ve already put your faith in Christ, let this story remind you just how precious your faith really is. Renew your commitment today to serve Christ as Nicholas served Him: with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. God really will work all things together for good. As the Bible says:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Thanks for reading this special book about this special man, and I pray that your Christmas may be truly merry and bright. As Clement Moore said in his now famous poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas:

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Eric Elder

(If you enjoyed this story and want a copy for yourself or for others, just follow this link to order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon.)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 6 of 7


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 6 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 6 of St. Nicholas: The Believer, a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 6 below, or listen to Part 6 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 or Part 5.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 6

CHAPTER 31

“And you’ve still never told her, after all these years?” Nicholas asked Dimitri. It had been twelve years since Nicholas had gotten out of prison, and they were talking about the bag of gold that Dimitri had thrown into Anna Maria’s open window five years before that.

“She’s never asked,” said Dimitri. “And even if I told her it was me, she wouldn’t believe me. She’s convinced you did it.”

“But how could I, when she knew I was in prison?” It was a conversation they had had before, but Nicholas still found it astounding. Dimitri insisted on keeping his act of giving a secret, just as Nicholas had done whenever possible, too.

“Besides,” added Dimitri, “she’s right. It really was you who inspired me to give her that gift, as you had already given her family two bags of gold in a similar way. So in a very real sense, it did come from you.”

Nicholas had to admit there was some logic in Dimitri’s thinking. “But it didn’t start with me, either. It was Christ who inspired me.”

And to that, Dimitri conceded and said, “And it was Christ who inspired me, too. Believe me, Anna Maria knows that as much as anyone else. Her faith is deeper than ever before. Ever since she met you, she continues to give God credit for all things.”

And with that, Nicholas was satisfied, as long as God got the credit in the end. For as Nicholas had taught Dimitri years earlier, there’s nothing we have that did not come from God first.

Changing subjects, Nicholas said, “You’re sure she won’t mind you being away for three months? I can still find someone else to accompany me.”

“She’s completely and utterly happy for me to go with you,” said Dimitri. “She knows how important this is to you, and she knows how much it means to me as well. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

They were discussing their plans to go to the Council of Nicaea that summer. Nicholas had been invited by special request of the emperor, and each bishop was allowed to bring a personal attendant along with him. Nicholas asked Dimitri as soon as he received the invitation.

The Council of Nicaea would be a remarkable event. When Nicholas first opened the letter inviting him to come, he couldn’t believe it. So much had changed in the world since he had gotten out of prison twelve years earlier.

Yet there it was, a summons from the Roman emperor to appear before him at Eastertide. The only summons a bishop would have gotten under Emperor Diocletian would have been an invitation to an execution–his own! But under Constantine’s leadership, life for Christians had radically changed.

Constantine had not only signed the edict that called for true tolerance to be shown to the Christians, which resulted in setting them free from prison, but he also had started giving them their property back–property which had been taken away under his predecessor. Constantine was even beginning to fund the building and repair of many of the churches that had been destroyed by Diocletian. It was the beginning of a new wave of grace for the Christians, after such an intense persecution before.

As a further sign of Constantine’s new support for the cause of Christianity, he had called for a gathering of over 300 of the leading bishops in the land. This gathering would serve two purposes for Constantine: it would unify the church within the previously fractured empire, and it wouldn’t hurt his hopes of bringing unity back to the whole country. As the leader of the people, Constantine asserted that it was his responsibility to provide for their spiritual well-being. As such, he pledged to attend and preside over this historic council himself. It would take place in the city of Nicaea, starting in the spring of that year and continuing for several months into the summer.

When Nicholas received his invitation, he quietly praised God for the changing direction of his world. While the Great Persecution had deepened the faith of many of those who survived it, that same persecution had taken its toll on the ability of many others, severely limiting their ability to teach, preach and reach those around them with the life-changing message of Christ.

Now those barriers had been removedwith the support and approval of the emperor himself. The only barriers that remained were within the hearts and minds of those who would hear the good news, and would have to decide for themselves what they were going to do with it.

As for Nicholas, he had grown in influence and respect in Myra, as well as the region around him. His great wealth was long since gone, for he had given most of it away when he saw the Great Persecution coming, and what remained had been discovered and ransacked while he was in prison. But what he lost in wealth he made up for in influence, for his heart and actions were still bent towards giving–no matter what he had or didn’t have to give. After giving so much of himself to the people around him, he was naturally among those who were chosen to attend the upcoming council. It would turn out to become one of the most momentous events in history, not to mention one of the most memorable events in his own life–but not necessarily for a reason he would want to remember.

CHAPTER 32

Although Christians were enjoying a new kind of freedom under Constantine, the future of Christianity was still at risk. The threats no longer came from outside the church, but from within. Factions had begun to rise inside the ranks of the growing church, with intense discussions surrounding various theological points which had very practical implications.

In particular, a very small but vocal group, led by a man named Arius, had started to gain attention as they began to question whether Jesus was actually divine or not.

Was Jesus merely a man? Or was He, in fact, one with God in His very essence? To men like Nicholas and Dimitri, the question was hardly debatable, for they had devoted their entire lives to following Jesus as their Lord. They had risked everything to follow Him in word and deed. He was their Lord, their Savior, their Light and their Hope. Like many of the others who would be attending the council, it was not their robes or outer garments that bore witness to their faith in Christ, but the scars and wounds they bore in their flesh as they suffered for Him. They had risked their lives under the threat of death for worshipping Christ as divine, rather than Emperor Diocletian. There was no question in their minds regarding this issue. But still there were some who, like Arius, felt this was a question that was up for debate.

In Arius’ zeal to see that people worshipped God alone, Arius could not conceive that any man, even one as good as Jesus, could claim to be one with God without blaspheming the name of God Himself. In this, Arius was not unlike those who persecuted Jesus while He was still alive. Even some of those who were living then and had witnessed His miracles with their own eyes, and heard Jesus’ words with their own ears, could not grasp that Jesus could possibly be telling the truth when He said, “I and the Father are one.” And for this, they brought Jesus to Herod, and then to Pilate, to have Him crucified.

As a boy, Nicholas had wondered about Jesus’ claim, too. But when Nicholas was in Bethlehem, it all finally made perfect sense to him–that God Himself had come down from heaven to earth as a man to take on the sins of the world once and for all as God in the flesh.

Arius, however, was like the Apostle Paul before he met the Jesus on the road to Damascus. Before his life-changing experience, the Apostle Paul wanted to protect what he felt to be the divinity of God by persecuting anyone who said they worshipped Jesus as God. For no man, according to Paul’s earlier way of thinking, could possibly consider himself to be one with God.

Like Arius, Paul could not believe the claims of Jesus and His followers. But on the road to Damascus, as Paul was on his way to round up and kill more Christians in his zeal, Paul met the Living Christ in a vision that blinded him physically, but awakened him spiritually to the Truth. In the days that followed, Paul’s physical eyes were healed and he repented of his misguided efforts. He was baptized in Jesus’ name and began to preach from then on that Jesus was not merely a man, but that Jesus’ claims about Himself to be one with the Father were completely true. Paul gave his life in worship and service to Christ, and had to endure, like Nicholas had to endure, imprisonment and an ever-present threat of death for his faith.

Arius was more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who, in their zeal to defend God, actually crucified the Lord of all creation. Arius felt justified in trying to gather support among the bishops for his position.

Nicholas and Dimitri didn’t think Arius’ ideas could possibly gather many supporters. Yet they would soon find out that Arius’ personal charisma and his excellent oratorial skills might actually hold sway over some of the bishops who had not yet given the idea nor its implications full consideration.

Nicholas and Dimitri, however, like the Apostle Paul, the Apostle John and tens of thousands of others in the time since Jesus lived and died and rose again from the dead, had discovered that Jesus was, thankfully and supernaturally, both fully human and fully divine.

But what would the rest of the bishops conclude? And what would they teach as truth to others for the countless generations to come? This was to become one of the pivotal questions that was to be determined at this meeting in Nicaea. Although Nicholas was interested in this debate, he had no idea that he was about to play a key role in its outcome.

CHAPTER 33

After a grand processional of bishops and priests, a boys’ choir and Constantine’s opening words, one of the first topics addressed at the council was the one brought forth by Arius–whether or not Jesus Christ was divine.

Arius made his opening arguments with great eloquence and great persuasion in the presence of Constantine and the rest of the assembly. Jesus was, he asserted, perhaps the foremost of all created beings. But to be co-equal with God, one in substance and essence with Him, was impossible–at least according to Arius. No one could be one with God, he said.

Nicholas listened in silence, along with every other bishop in that immense room. Respect for the speaker, especially in the presence of the emperor, took precedence over any type of muttering or disturbance that might accompany other types of gatherings like this, especially on a subject of such intensity. But the longer Arius spoke, the harder it became for Nicholas to sit in silence.

After all, Nicholas’ parents had given their lives for the honor of serving Christ their Lord. Nicholas himself had been overwhelmed by the presence of God in Bethlehem, at the very spot where God made His first appearance as Man in the flesh. Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie had all been similarly affected by that visit to Bethlehem. They had walked up the hill in Jerusalem where the King of kings had been put to death by religious leadersleaders who, like Arius, doubted Jesus’ claims to be one with God.

Nicholas had always realized that Jesus was unlike any other man who had ever lived. And after Jesus died, He had risen from the dead, appeared to the twelve disciples and then appeared to more than 500 others who were living in Jerusalem at the time. What kind of man could do that? Was it just a mass hallucination? Was it just wishful thinking on the part of religious fanatics? But these weren’t just fans, they were followers who were willing to give up their lives, too, for their Lord and Savior.

The arguments continued to run through Nicholas’ head. Hadn’t the prophet Micah foretold, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, that the Messiah would be “from of old, from ancient times”? Hadn’t the Apostle John said that Jesus “was with God in the beginning,” concluding that Jesus “was God.”

Like others had tried to suggest, Arius said that Jesus had never claimed to be God. But Nicholas knew the Scriptures well enough to know that Jesus had said, “I and the Father are one. Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father… Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in Me?”

Even Jesus’ detractors at the time that He was living said that the reason they wanted to stone Jesus was because Jesus claimed to be God. The Scriptures said that these detractors cornered Jesus one day and Jesus said, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

They replied, “We are not stoning you for any of these, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Jesus had certainly claimed to be God, a claim that got Him into hot water more than once. His claim showed that He was either a madman or a liar–or that He was telling the Truth.

Nicholas’ mind flooded with Scriptures like these, as well as with memories of the years he had spent in prisonyears he would never get back again–all because he was unwilling to worship Diocletian as a god, but was fully willing to worship Jesus as God. How could Nicholas remain silent and let Arius go on like this? How could anyone else in the room take it, he thought? Nicholas had no idea.

“There was nothing divine about him,” Arius said with conviction. “He was just a man, just like any one of us.”

Without warning, and without another moment to think about what he was doing, Nicholas stood to his feet. Then his feet, as if they had a mind of their own, began to walk deliberately and intently across the massive hall towards Arius. Arius continued talking until Nicholas finally stood directly in front of him.

Arius stopped. This breach of protocol was unprecedented.

In the silence that followed, Nicholas turned his back towards Arius and pulled down the robes from his own back, revealing the hideous scars he had gotten while in prison. Nicholas said, “I didn’t get these for just a man.'”

Turning back towards Arius and facing him squarely, Nicholas saw the smug smile return to Arius’ face. Arius said, “Well, it looks like you were mistaken.” Then Arius started up his speech again as if nothing at all had happened.

That’s when Nicholas did the unthinkable. With no other thought than to stop this man from speaking against his Lord and Savior, and in plain site of the emperor and everyone else in attendance, Nicholas clenched his fist. He pulled back his arm and he punched Arius hard in the face.

Arius stumbled and fell back, both from the impact of the blow and from the shock that came with it. Nicholas, too, was stunned–along with everyone else in the room. With the same deliberate and intentional steps which he had taken to walk up to Arius, Nicholas now walked back to his chair and took his seat.

A collective gasp echoed through the hall when Nicholas struck Arius, followed by an eruption of commotion when Nicholas sat back down in his seat. The disruption threatened to throw the entire proceedings into chaos. The vast majority of those in the room looked like they could have jumped to their feet and given Nicholas a standing ovation for this bold act–including, by the look on his face, even the emperor himself! But to others, Arius chief among them, no words nor displays of emotion could express their outrage. Everyone knew what an awful offense Nicholas had just committed. It was, in fact, illegal for anyone to use violence of any kind in the presence of the emperor. The punishment for such an act was to immediately cut off the hand of anyone who struck another person in the presence of the emperor.

Constantine knew the law, of course, but also knew Nicholas. He had once even had a dream about Nicholas in which Nicholas warned Constantine to grant a stay of execution to three men in Constantine’s court–a warning which Constantine heeded and acted upon in real life. When Constantine shared that dream with one of his generals, the general recounted to Constantine what Nicholas had done for the three innocent men back in Myra, for the general was one of the three who had seen Nicholas’ bravery in person.

Although Nicholas’ actions against Arius may have appeared rash, Constantine admired Nicholas’ pluck. Known for his quick thinking and fast action, Constantine raised his hand and brought an instant silence to the room as he did so. “This is certainly a surprise to us all,” he said. “And while the penalty for an act such in my presence is clear, I would prefer to defer this matter to the leaders of the council instead. These are your proceedings and I will defer to your wisdom to conduct them as you see fit.”

Constantine had bought both time and goodwill among the various factions. The council on the whole seemed to agree with Nicholas’ position, at least in spirit, even if they could not agree with his rash action. They would want to exact some form of punishment, since not to do so would fail to honor the rule of law. But having been given permission by the emperor himself to do as they saw fit, rather than invoke the standard punishment, they felt the freedom to take another form of action.

After a short deliberation, the leaders of the council agreed and determined that Nicholas should be defrocked immediately from his position as a bishop, banished from taking part in the rest of the proceedings in Nicaea and held under house arrest within the palace complex. There he could await any further decision the council might see fit at the conclusion of their meetings that summer. It was a lenient sentence, in light of the offense.

But for Nicholas, even before he heard what the punishment was going to be, he was already punishing himself more than anyone else ever could for what he had just done. Within less than a minute, he had gone from experiencing one of the highest mountaintops of his life to experiencing one of its deepest valleys.

Here he was attending one of the greatest conclaves in the history of the world, and yet he had just done something he knew he could never take back. The ramifications of his actions would affect him for the rest of his life, he was sure of it, or at least for whatever remained of his life. The sensation he felt could only be understood, perhaps, by those who had experienced it before–the weight, the shame and the agony of a moment of sin that could have crushed him, apart from knowing the forgiveness of Christ.

When Nicholas was defrocked of his title as bishop, it was in front of the entire assembly. He was disrobed of his bishop’s garments, then escorted from the room in shackles. But this kind of disgrace was a mere trifle compared to the humiliation he was experiencing on the inside. He was even too numb to cry.

CHAPTER 34

“What have I done?” Nicholas said to Dimitri as the two sat together in a room near the farthest corner of the palace. This room had become Nicholas’ make-shift prison cell, as he was to be held under house arrest for the remainder of the proceedings. Dimitri, using his now-extensive skills at gaining access to otherwise unauthorized areas, had once again found a way to visit his friend in prison.

“What have you done?!? What else could you have done?” countered Dimitri. “If you hadn’t done it, someone else surely would have, or at least should have. You did Arius, and all the rest of us, a favor with that punch. Had he continued with his diatribe, who knows what punishment the Lord Himself might have brought down upon the entire gathering!” Of course, Dimitri knew God could take it, and often does, when people rail against Him and His ways. He is much more long-suffering than any of us could ever be. But still, Dimitri felt Nicholas’ actions were truly justified.

Nicholas, however, could hardly see it that way at the moment. It was more likely, he thought, that he had just succeeded in giving Arius the sympathy he needed for his cause to win. Nicholas knew that when people are losing an argument based on logic, they often appeal to pure emotion instead, going straight for the hearts of their listeners, whether or not their cause makes sense. And as much as Arius may have been losing his audience on the grounds of logic, Nicholas felt that his actions may have just tipped the emotional scales in Arius’ favor.

The torment of it all beat against Nicholas’ mind. Here it was, still just the opening days of the proceedings, and he would have to sit under house arrest for the next two months. How was he going to survive this onslaught of emotions every day during that time?

Nicholas already knew this prison cell was going to be entirely different than the one in which Diocletian had put him for more than a decade. This time, he felt he had put himself in jail. And although this prison was a beautifully appointed room within a palace, to Nicholas’ way of thinking, it was much worse than the filthy one in which he had almost died.

In the other cell, he knew he was there because of the misguided actions of others. This gave him a sense that what he had to endure there was part of the natural suffering that Jesus said would come to all who followed Him. But in this cell, he knew he was there because of his own inane actions, actions which he viewed as inexcusable, a viewpoint which he felt many of those in attendance would rightly share.

For decades Nicholas had been known as a man of calm, inner strength and of dignity under control. Then, in one day, he had lost it alland in front of the emperor no less! How could he ever forgive himself. “How,” he asked Dimitri, “could I ever take back what I’ve just done to the name of the Lord.”

Dimitri replied, “Perhaps He doesn’t want you to take it back. Maybe it wasn’t what you think you did to His name that He cares about so much, as what you did in His name. You certainly did what I, and the vast majority of those in the room wished they would have done, had they had the courage to do so.”

Dimitri’s words lingered in the air. As Nicholas contemplated them, a faint smile seemed to appear on his face. Perhaps there was something to be said for his heart in the matter after all. He was sincerely wanting to honor and defend his Lord, not to detract from Him in any way. Peter, he remembered, had a similar passion for defending his Lord. And Nicholas now realized what Peter may have felt when Peter cut off the ear of one of the men who had come to capture Jesus. Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and then Jesus healed the man’s ear. Jesus could obviously defend Himself quite well on His own, but Nicholas had to give Peter credit for his passionate defense of his Master.

Nicholas was still unconvinced that he had done the right thing, but he felt in good company with others who had acted on their passions. And Dimitri’s words helped him to realize that he was not alone in his thinking, and he took some comfort from the fact that Dimitri hadn’t completely forsaken him over the incident. This support from Dimitri acted like a soothing balm to Nicholas’ soul, and helped him to get through yet one more of the darkest times of his life.

Although Nicholas was convinced that the damage he had done was irreversible in human terms–and that God was going to have to work time-and-a-half to make anything good come out of this one–Nicholas knew what he had to do. Even in this moment of his deepest humiliation, he knew the best thing he could do was to do what he had always done: to put his complete faith and trust in God. But how? How could he trust that God possibly use this for good?

As if reading Nicholas’ mind, Dimitri knew exactly what Nicholas needed to help him put his trust back in God again. Dimitri did what Nicholas had done for him and Samuel and Ruthie so many years ago. Dimitri told him a story.

CHAPTER 35

Dimitri began, “What kind of story would you like to hear today? A good story or a bad story?” It was the way Nicholas had introduced the Bible stories that he told to Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie during their many adventures in the Holy Land. Nicholas would then begin delighting the children with a story from the Bible about a good character or a bad character, or a good story or a bad story, sometimes which ended the exact opposite way it began.

Nicholas looked up with interest.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dimitri continued, “because the story I have to tell you today could be either good or bad. You just won’t know till the end. But I’ve learned from a good friend,” he said as he winked at Nicholas, “that the best way to enjoy a story is to always trust the storyteller.”

Nicholas had told them that he watched people’s reactions whenever he told stories back home.

“When people trust the storyteller,” Nicholas had said, “they love the story no matter what happens, because they know the storyteller knows how the story will end. But when people don’t trust the storyteller, their emotions go up and down like a boat in a storm, depending on what’s happening in the story. The truth is, only the storyteller knows for sure how the story will end. So as long as you trust the storyteller, you can enjoy the whole story from start to finish.”

Now it was Dimitri’s turn to tell a story to Nicholas. The story he chose to tell was about another man who had been sent to jail, a man by the name of Joseph. Dimitri recounted for Nicholas how Joseph’s life appeared to go up and down.

Dimitri started: “Joseph’s father loved Joseph and gave him a beautiful, colorful coat. Now that’s good, right?”

Nicholas nodded.

“But no, that was bad, for Joseph’s brothers saw the coat and were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. Now that’s bad, right?”

Nicholas nodded.

“No, that was good, because Joseph was put in charge of the whole house of a very wealthy man. Now that’s good, right?”

Nicholas nodded again.

“No, that’s bad,” said Dimitri, “because the wealthy man’s wife tried to seduce him, and when Joseph resisted, she sent him to jail. Now that’s bad, right?”

Nicholas stopped nodding either way because he knew where this was going.

“No, that’s good,” said Dimitri, “because Joseph was put in charge over all the other prisoners. He even helped to interpret their dreams. Now that’s good, right?”

Nicholas continued to listen carefully.

“No, that’s bad, because after interpreting their dreams, Joseph asked one of the men to help him out of prison when he got out, but the man forgot about Joseph and left him behind. Now that’s bad, right?”

Nicholas saw himself as the man who had been left behind in prison.

“No! That’s good! Because God had put Joseph in just the right place at just the right time. When the king of Egypt had a dream and he needed someone to interpret it, the man who had been set free suddenly remembered that Joseph was still in jail and told the king about him.

The king summoned Joseph, asked for an interpretation and Joseph gave it to him. The king was so impressed with Joseph that he put Joseph in charge of his whole kingdom. As a result, Joseph was able to use his new position to save hundreds of thousands of lives, including the lives of his own father and even his brothersthe very ones who had sold him into slavery in the first place. And that’s very good!”

“So you see,” said Dimitri, “just as you’ve always told us, we never know how the story will turn out until the very end. God knew what He was doing all along! You see…

– at just the right time, Joseph was born and his father loved him,
– so that at just the right time his brothers would mistreat him,
– so that at just the right time the slave traders would come along and buy him,
– so that at just the right time he would be put in charge of a wealthy man’s house,
– so that at just the right time he would be thrown into jail,
– so that at just the right time he would be put in charge of the prisoners,
– so that at just the right time he could interpret their dreams,
– so that at just the right time he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams,
– so that at just the right time he would become second in command over all of Egypt,
– so that at just the right time Joseph would be in the one place in the world that God wanted him to be so that he could save the lives of his father and brothers and many, many others!

“All along the way, Joseph never gave up on God. He knew the secret of enjoying the story while he lived it out: he always trusted the Storyteller, the One who was writing the story of his life.”

All of Nicholas’ fears and doubts faded away in those moments and he knew he could trust the Storyteller, the One who was writing the story of his life, too. Nicholas’ story wasn’t over yet, and he had to trust that the God who brought him this far could see him through to the end.

Nicholas looked at Dimitri with a smile of thanks, then closed his eyes. It would be a long two months of waiting for the council’s decision. But he knew that if he could trust God in that one moment, and then in the next moment, and then the next, each of those moments would add up to minutes, and minutes would add up to hours. Hours would turn into weeks, then months, then years. He knew that it all began with trusting God in a moment.

With his eyes still closed, Nicholas put his full faith and trust in God again. The peace of God flooded his heart.

Soon, two months had passed by. The council was ready to make their final decisions on many matters, including the decision that had landed Nicholas under house arrest in the first placeand Nicholas was about to find out the results.

CHAPTER 36

“They did it!” It was Dimitri, bursting through the door to Nicholas’ room as soon as the palace guard had opened it.

“They did it!” he repeated. “It’s done! The council has voted and they’ve agreed with you! All but two of the 318 bishops have sided with you over Arius!”

Relief swept over Nicholas’ whole body. Dimitri could feel it in his body, too, as he watched the news flood over Nicholas’ entire being.

“And furthermore,” said Dimitri, “the council has decided not to take any further action against you!”

Both pieces of news were the best possible outcome Nicholas could have imagined. Even though Nicholas’ action had cost him his position as a bishop, it had not jeopardized the outcome of the proceedings. It was even possiblethough he never knew for surethat his action against Arius had perhaps in some way shaped what took place during those summer months at that historic council.

Within minutes of Dimitri’s arrival, another visitor appeared at Nicholas’ door. It was Constantine.

The council’s decision about what to do with Nicholas was one thing, but Constantine’s decision was another. A fresh wave of fear washed over Nicholas as he thought of the possibilities.

“Nicholas,” said the emperor, “I wanted to personally thank you for coming here to be my guest in Nicaea. I want to apologize for what you’ve had to endure these past two months. This wasn’t what I had planned for you and I’m sure it wasn’t what you had planned, either. But even though you weren’t able to attend the rest of the proceedings, I assure you that your presence was felt throughout every meeting. What you did that day in the hall spoke to me about what it means to follow Christ more than anything else I heard in the days that followed. I’d like to hear more from you in the future, if you would be willing to be my guest again. But next time, it won’t be in the farthest corner of the palace. Furthermore, I have asked for and received permission from the council to reinstate you to your position as Bishop of Myra. I believe the One who called you to serve Him would want you to continue doing everything you’ve been doing up to this point. As for me, let me just say that I appreciate what you’ve done here more than you can possibly know. Thank you for coming, and whenever you’re ready, you’re free to go home.”

Nicholas had been listening to Constantine’s words as if he were in a dream. He could hardly believe his ears. But when the emperor said the word “home,” Nicholas knew this wasn’t a dream, and the word rang like the sweetest bell in Nicholas’ ears. Of all the words the emperor had just spoken, none sounded better to him than that final word: home. He wanted nothing more than to get back to the flock he served. It was for them that he had come to this important gathering in the first place, to ensure that the Truths he had taught them would continue to be taught throughout the land.

After more than two months of being separated from them, and the ongoing question of what would become of them and the hundreds of thousands of others like them in the future who would be affected by their decisions here, Nicholas could finally go home. He was free again in more ways than one.

To be concluded…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 5 of 7

Note from Eric: Before I share today’s message, I wanted to let you know that we recorded the 4 main sessions of our 2016 Guided Prayer Retreat, which we held this week in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. If you’d like to learn how to pray more effectively, why not take a day away, or a couple hours each night for a few nights, to watch on your own and take time to pray along with us? Each session is just under 2 hours, and you’ll have a chance to hear how others pray, then put those ideas into practice in your own prayer life. In these messages, I also share some of the remarkable ways God has answered my own prayers just this past weekend! To watch now, online, for free, just click this link!

Watch the 2016 Guided Prayer Retreat!

2016 Guided Prayer Retreat - Boardroom


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 5 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 5 of the book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 5 below, or listen to Part 5 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 5

CHAPTER 25

Back when Jesus was born, there was a king who felt so threatened by this little baby boy that he gave orders to kill every boy in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. Three hundred and three years later, another king felt just as threatened by Jesus, as well as his followers.

This new king’s name was Diocletian, and he was the emperor of the entire Roman Empire. Even though the Romans had killed Jesus hundreds of years earlier, Diocletian still felt threatened by the Christians who followed Jesus. Diocletian declared himself to be a god and he wanted all the people in his empire to worship him.

Although Christians were among the most law-abiding citizens in the land, they simply couldn’t worship Diocletian. He considered this an act of insurrection, an act which must be quenched in the strongest way possible. By the time Diocletian had finally risen to his full power, he ordered that all Bibles be burned, that Christian churches be destroyed and that those who followed Christ be imprisoned, tortured and put to death.

While persecution against Christians had been taking place for many years under Roman rule, none of those persecutions compared to that which took place during the reign of Diocletian. Nicholas, for his part, didn’t fear Diocletian, but as always, he feared for those in his church who followed Jesus.

Having such a visible role in the church, Nicholas knew that he would be targeted first, and if he were taken away, he feared for what would happen to those who would be left behind. But Nicholas had already made his decision. He knew that even if he was killed he could trust God that God could still accomplish His purpose on earth whether Nicholas were a part of that or not. It was this foundational faith and trust in God and His purposes that would help Nicholas through the difficult years ahead.

Rather than retreat into hiding from the certain fate that awaited him, Nicholas chose to stand his ground to the end. He vowed to keep the doors to his church wide open for all who wanted to come in. And he kept that vow for as long as he could until one day when those who came in were soldiers–soldiers who had come for him.

CHAPTER 26

Nicholas was ready when the soldiers arrived. He knew that his time for second-guessing his decision to keep the church open was over. Unfortunately, the days for his church were over, too, as the soldiers shut the doors for good when they left.

For all the goodwill that Nicholas had built up with people in his town over the years, even with the local soldiers, these were no local soldiers who came for Nicholas. Diocletian had sent them with demands that his orders be carried out unquestioningly, and that those who didn’t carry them out would suffer the same fate as those who were to be punished.

Nicholas was given one last chance to renounce his faith in Christ and worship Diocletian instead, but Nicholas, of course, refused. It wasn’t that he wanted to defy Roman authority, for Christ Himself taught His followers that it was important to honor those in authority and to honor their laws. But to deny that Jesus was His Lord and Savior would have been like trying to deny that the sun had risen that morning! He simply couldn’t do it. How could he deny the existence of the One who had given him life, who had given him faith and who had given him hope in the darkest hours of his life. If the soldiers had to take him away, so be it. To say that a mere man like Diocletian was God, and that Jesus was anything less than God, was unconscionable.

For all his faith, Nicholas was still subject to the same sensations of pain that every human being experiences. His strong faith did not exempt him from the natural fear that others feel when they are threatened with bodily harm. He also feared the idea of imprisonment, having to be isolated from others for so long, especially when he didn’t know how long his imprisonment might last–or if he would survive it at all.

Nicholas knew that these fears were healthy, given to him by God, to keep out any danger and to protect him from anything that might possibly harm his body. But right now, as Nicholas was being forcefully taken away, he wished he could suppress those fears.

“God, help me,” he called out as the shackles that the soldiers were putting on his wrists cut into them. This was the beginning of a new kind of pilgrimage for Nicholas–a pilgrimage that would last far longer than his years in the Holy Land.

It would be hard to compare these two journeys in terms of their impact on his life, for how could you compare a journey freely taken, where you could come and go as you please and stop the journey at any time, with a journey that was forced upon you against your will, where even venturing out to catch a glimpse of the sun was under someone else’s control and not yours?

Yet Nicholas found that he was able to sense the presence of God in a way that equalled, if not surpassed, all that he had experienced in the Holy Land. As he had learned from other believers, sometimes you don’t realize that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.

Over the course of his imprisonment, whenever the door to Nicholas’ prison cell opened, he didn’t know if the guards were there to set him free or to sentence him to death. He never knew if any given day might be his last. But the byproduct of this uncertainty was that Nicholas received a keen awareness of the brevity of life, as well as a continual awareness of the presence of God.

Nicholas found that by closing his eyes he could sense God’s presence in a way he had never sensed it before. This cell wasn’t a prison–it was a sanctuary. And all Nicholas wanted to do was to stay in God’s presence as long as he could. Soon, Nicholas didn’t even have to close his eyes. He simply knew that he was always in the presence of God.

Of course, his time in prison was also filled with the stinging pain of the worst kind of hell on earth. The soldiers were relentless in their attempts to get Nicholas to renounce his faith. The pain they inflicted ranged from prodding him with hot branding irons and squeezing his flesh with hot pincers to whipping him severely, then pouring salt and vinegar in his wounds. As a result, his back was permanently scarred. The unsanitary conditions of the prison caused Nicholas to experience more kinds of sickness than he had ever experienced before. At times he even wondered if death might be better than what he had to endure there.

It was during one of those times, the darkest perhaps, of the five years he had spent so far in prison, that the door to his cell opened. A light streamed in, but as he looked at it closely, it wasn’t the light of the sun, for as far as Nicholas could tell in his isolated cell, it was still just the middle of the night.

The light that entered the room was the light of a smile, a smile on the face of Nicholas’ young friend, now grown to be a man. It was the light of the smiling face of Dimitri.

CHAPTER 27

Nicholas had seen few faces in his time in prison, and fewer still that gave him any kind of encouragement. To see a smile on someone’s face, let alone a face that Nicholas loved so much, was pure joy.

It hadn’t been easy for Dimitri to find Nicholas. Dimitri had come to Myra knowing that Nicholas had taken a church there. But it had been years since Dimitri had heard from his friend, a time in which Dimitri himself had been imprisoned. Having only recently been set free, Dimitri made his way across the Great Sea in search of Nicholas. Dimitri had to search hard to find Nicholas, but Dimitri had come too far to give up without seeing his old friend and mentor, the first person who had shown him the love of Christ.

Using the street-smarts that he had acquired as a guide in the Holy Land, Dimitri was able to navigate his way through or around most anyone or anything that stood in his way. Dimitri’s tenacity, plus the hand of God’s guidance, helped Dimitri to find his friend, and to find this door which he opened that night for this special visit. It was a visit that, to Nicholas, seemed like a visit by an angel from heaven.

After the door closed behind them, and after an extended embrace, Dimitri sat down on the floor next to Nicholas. They sat in silence for several minutes, neither of them having to say a word. In holy moments like these, words were unnecessary.

The darkness in the small cell was so great that they didn’t even try to look at one another, but simply sat there side by side. Dimitri’s eyes had not yet adjusted to the pitch-blackness enough to see anything anyway, and Nicholas was content to merely know that his friend was right there by him. Nicholas could hear the sound of Dimitri’s breath, a sound which increased Nicholas’ joy, knowing that his friend was still alive and was right there in the flesh.

Nicholas drew in another deep breath and with it he breathed in a new sense of life. It was a breath of life that his friend couldn’t help but bring with him.

CHAPTER 28

“And how are our two young bodyguards doing?” Nicholas asked at last, referring to Samuel and Ruthie. Nicholas had been praying often for all three of them, as he cared for them as if they were his own young brothers and sister.

Dimitri hesitated. He looked at Nicholas but couldn’t say a word. He was eager to tell Nicholas everything that had happened in the years that had passed, about how Samuel and Ruthie continued taking people to the holy places, sharing with others the same good news of Jesus that they had discovered in their days with Nicholas.

Like Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie had to stop guiding pilgrims when the “Great Persecution” came, as it was now being called. All three of them began spending most of their days seeing to the needs of the other believers in Jerusalem, believers who were facing imprisonment and death, just like Nicholas. Since they were not in a high profile position like Nicholas though, the three of them were able to avoid being caught longer than Nicholas. But eventually, they too were imprisoned, being repeatedly questioned, threatened and tortured for their faith.

Samuel and Dimitri were strong enough to withstand the abuse, but Ruthie was too frail. One day, after being treated particularly harshly, she returned to them and collapsed. Although she had obviously been crying from the pain in her body, somehow she had also managed to keep a smile in her heart.

“How can you do it?” asked Samuel. “How can you possibly still smile, even after all that?”

Ruthie replied, “I feel like I’ve been walking and talking with Jesus for so long now that even death wouldn’t really change that. I’ll just keep on walking and talking with Him forever.”

Ruthie smiled again and Dimitri couldn’t help but smile back at her. But her body was giving out and she knew it. She could sense that she was just moments away from passing from this life to the next.

“You can’t go!” said Samuel. “You’ve got to stay here with me! There’s still too much work to be done!” But Ruthie was slipping away.

“If you die, I’ll just pray that God will bring you back to life!” Samuel was desperate now to hang onto her. But Ruthie just smiled again. She had truly found the secret of living life to the fullest, and nothing, not even death, could take that away.

She spoke, quietly now, with just a whisper. “You could pray that God would raise me from the dead, but the truth is, I’ve already been raised from the dead once. When we met Nicholas, and he introduced us to Jesus, I was raised from the dead and given a whole new life. From then on, I knew that I would live forever.”

With that, Ruthie passed through the veil and into the visible presence of God. The smile that adorned her face in life continued to shine on her face in death, and Dimitri knew where she was. She was just continuing to do what she had always done, walking and talking with Jesus, but now face to face.

Nicholas sat in silence as Dimitri told him the story, taking it all in. As much as he thought he would be sad, his heart began to soar instead. None of this was new to him, of course, but hearing about Ruthie’s faith brought his own back to life again as well.

You would think a man like Nicholas wouldn’t need to be encouraged in his faith. He had brought faith to countless others, and he was a bishop no less. But Nicholas also knew in his heart of hearts that it was people like him who sometimes needed the most encouragement in their faith. Great faith, he knew, did not come to those who have no doubts. Great faith came to those who have had their faith stretched so far that it had to grow, or else it would break completely. By continuing to trust God no matter what, Nicholas found that he was able to fill in any gaps in his faith along the way, helping it to grow even further.

As sad as he was for Ruthie’s passing, Nicholas couldn’t help but smile from deep down in his heart the same way that Ruthie must have done on the day that she died. He longed for the day when he could see Jesus face to face, just as Ruthie was now seeing Him. Yet he loved the work that God had given him on earth to do, too.

“We can’t lose, can we?” said Nicholas with a reflective smile. “Either we die and get to be with Jesus in heaven, or we live and get to continue His work here on earth. Either way we win, don’t we? Either way we win.”

“Yes, either way we win,” echoed Dimitri. “Either way we win.”

For the next several hours, Nicholas and Dimitri shared stories with each other of what God had done in their lives during their time apart. But nothing could have prepared Nicholas for what Dimitri was about to tell him next. For Dimitri, it seems, had met a girl. And not just any girl, but a girl Nicholas knew very well by now. Her name was Anna Maria.

CHAPTER 29

In his journey to find Nicholas, Dimitri looked for anyone who might know of his whereabouts. When he got to Myra, he went first to the church where Nicholas had served as bishop. Not finding him there, Dimitri took to the streets to see if he could find anyone who knew anything about him. And who did he find in the streets, but the very girl–now a woman–that Nicholas had found so many years ago, selling her braided flowers to anyone who would buy them.

She was no longer covered in the cloak of poverty. Both her inner and outer beauty were immediately evident to Dimitri. He was so taken by her that he couldn’t help but be drawn into a conversation. And she seemed to be just as taken by him. She couldn’t believe that a man of his stature and faith was willing to talk to her. He was, she thought, the kindest and most impressive man she had ever met.

When Dimitri mentioned his mission, searching for the bishop named Nicholas, Anna Maria gasped. How could this man, this stranger from the other side of the Great Sea, know anything about Nicholas? Dimitri shared the story of how they met, and Nicholas had rescued him from his poverty of faith. Anna Maria couldn’t help but share what Nicholas had done for her family as well, saving her two older sisters from slavery by throwing a bag of gold through the window for each of them on the eve of their 18th birthdays.

But then, Anna Maria’s smile faded. It was now only a few days until her own 18th birthday, but Nicholas had been taken away to prison five years earlier. No one had seen nor heard from him in all those years. She didn’t even know where he was. Although her father had had a change of heart, and wouldn’t dream of selling Anna Maria into slavery, he still had no dowry to offer to any potential suitor. Without a dowry, as Dimitri knew very well, Anna Maria’s future was dim. And with Nicholas in prison, there was no chance he would be able to rescue their family a third time. Anna Maria had taken again to selling her flowers in the street, and although they were more impressive than her earlier creations, she could barely earn enough from their sales to help the family with the cost of food from time to time.

Dimitri listened, and like Nicholas before him, he knew within minutes what God was prompting him to do. He could be the answer to Anna Maria’s prayers, and with much more than just a dowry. But he also knew that these things take time, so he just treasured these thoughts in his heart, buying a flower from Anna Maria, thanking her for sharing what she knew about Nicholas and continuing on his way, promising to get in touch with her if he ever located their precious friend.

On the eve of Anna Maria’s birthday, Dimitri found himself in the very spot where Nicholas had hidden twice before, years earlier, just outside the open window of Anna Maria’s home. The conversation inside was subdued, as Anna Maria and her father prayed, knowing that there was no way for Nicholas to appear again. They put out the lights and headed for bed.

Dimitri waited for what seemed to him like hours, knowing that he couldn’t dare wake them and risk exposing his plan. For he had saved up enough in his years of working in the Holy Land to easily fill a bag with golden coins suitable for a dowry. But he couldn’t just hand them the money, for he had more in mind than just giving them the dowry. He wanted Anna Maria’s father to give it back to him someday, as a wedding gift to him! It was a long shot, and he knew he would need more time to be sure she was the one for him. He also felt this was the best way to make it all work out in the end, even if she wasn’t the one for him. Something told him, however, that she was. And with that thought in mind, he made his next move.

Carefully and quietly, he reached over the windowsill and let the bag drop quietly down on the floor below. No one heard and no one stirred. Having done his duty to God and to his own heart, he set off again in search of Nicholas. Two weeks later, Dimitri had found Nicholas, and was now sharing with him the story of how he had met the woman of his dreams.

The news couldn’t have been any sweeter to Nicholas’ ears. And again his heart lightened and soared, for even though he was locked away from the rest of the world in his prison cell, Nicholas saw the fruit of his prayers–prayers that were answered in the most incredible way imaginable. He could still make a difference in the world, even from here in prison, even when the world tried to shut him down.

Before Dimitri left that night, he embraced Nicholas one more time; then he was gone. He disappeared through the prison door as miraculously as he had entered it.

It would be five more years until Nicholas would see Dimitri again. Diocletian’s grip continued to tighten around the Christians’ necks. But during all those remaining years in prison, Nicholas felt freer in his heart than he had ever felt before. No man could keep Nicholas from worshipping Jesus, and no man could keep Jesus from doing what He wanted done.

When the day finally came for Nicholas to be set free, the guard who opened Nicholas’ door looked in and said, “It’s time to go. You’re free.”

Nicholas simply looked at the guard with a smile. He had already been free for quite some time.

CHAPTER 30

Thinking Nicholas must not have heard him, the guard spoke again. “I said you’re free, you’re free to go. You can get up and go home now.”

At the word “home,” Nicholas stirred. He hadn’t seen his home, or his church, or hardly any other soul than Dimitri for ten years. He stood to his feet and his movements began to accelerate as he responded to the guard’s words.

“Home?” Nicholas said.

“Yes, home. You can go home now. The emperor has issued a decree that has set all Christians free.”

The emperor he was referring to was a new emperor named Constantine. Diocletian’s efforts had failed to constrain the Christians. Instead of quenching their spirits, Diocletian had strengthened them. Like Nicholas, those who weren’t killed grew stronger in their faith. And the stronger they grew in their faith, the stronger they grew in their influence, gaining new converts from the citizens around them. Even Diocletian’s wife and daughter had converted to Christianity.

Diocletian stepped down from ruling the empire, and Constantine stepped up.

Constantine reversed the persecution of the Christians, issuing the Edict of Milan. This edict showed a new tolerance for people of all religions and resulted in freedom for the Christians. Constantine’s mother, Helen, was a devout Christian herself. Even though no one quite knew if Constantine was a Christian, the new tolerance he displayed allowed people to worship whoever they pleased and however they pleased, the way it should have been all along.

As much as Diocletian had changed the Roman world for the worse, Constantine was now changing it for the better. Their reigns were as different as night and day and served as a testament of how one person really can affect the course of history forever–either for good or for evil.

Nicholas was aware, now more than ever, that he had just one life to live. But he was also aware that if he lived it right, one life was all that he would need. He resolved in his heart once more to do his best to make the most of every day, starting again today.

As he was led from his prison cell and returned to the city of Myra, it was no coincidence, he thought, that the first face he saw there was the face of Anna Maria.

He recognized her in an instant. But the ten years in prison, and the wear and tear it had taken on his life, made it hard for her to recognize him as quickly. But as soon as she saw his smile, she too knew in an instant that it was the smile of her dear old friend Nicholas. Of course it was Nicholas! And he was alive, standing right there in front of her!

She couldn’t move, she was so shocked. Two children stood beside her, looking up at their mother, and then looking at the man who now held her gaze. Here was the man who had done so much for her and her family. Her joy was uncontainable. With a call over her shoulder, Anna Maria shouted, “Dimitri! Dimitri! Come quickly! It’s Nicholas!”

Then she rushed towards Nicholas, giving him an embrace and holding on tight. Dimitri emerged from a shop behind them, took one look at Nicholas and Anna Maria and rushed towards them as well, sweeping his children up with him as he ran.

Now the whole family was embracing Nicholas as if he was a dear brother or father or uncle who had just returned from war. The tears and the smiles on their faces melted together. The man who had saved Anna Maria and her family from a fate worse than death had been spared from death as well! And Dimitri grinned from ear to ear, too, seeing his good friend, and seeing how happy it made Nicholas to see Dimitri and Anna Maria together with their new family.

Nicholas took hold of each of their faces–one at a time–and looked deeply into their eyes. Then he held the children close. The seeds he had planted years ago in the lives of Dimitri and Anna Maria were still bearing fruit, fruit he could now see with his own two eyes. All his efforts had been worth it, and nothing like the smiles on their faces could have made it any clearer to him than that.

Throughout the days and weeks ahead, Nicholas and the other believers who had been set free had many similar reunions throughout Myra. Those days were like one long, ongoing reunion.

Nicholas, as well as the others who had managed to survive the Great Persecution, must have appeared to those around them as Lazarus must have appeared, when Jesus called him to come out of the tomb–a man who had died, but was now alive. And like Lazarus, these Christians were not only alive, but they led many more people to faith in Christ as well, for their faith was now on fire in a whole new way. What Diocletian had meant for harm, God was able to use for good. This new contingent of Christians had emerged with a faith that was stronger than ever before.

Nicholas knew that this new level of faith, like all good gifts from God, had been given to him for a purpose, too. For as big as the tests had been that Nicholas had faced up to now, God was preparing him for the biggest test yet to come.

To be continued…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 4 of 7

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This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 4 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 4 of the book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 4 below, or listen to Part 4 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 4

CHAPTER 18

Nicholas’ next step in life was about to be determined by a dream. But it wasn’t a dream that Nicholas had conceived-it was a dream that God had conceived and had put in the mind of a man, a priest in the city of Myra.

In the weeks leading up to Nicholas’ arrival in Myra, a tragedy had befallen the church there. Their aging bishop, the head of their church, had died. The tragedy that had fallen upon the church wasn’t the bishop’s death, for he had lived a long and fruitful life and had simply succumbed to the effects of old age. The tragedy arose out of the debate that ensued regarding who should take his place as the next bishop.

While it would seem that such things could be resolved amicably, especially within a church, when people’s hearts are involved, their loyalties and personal desires can sometimes muddy their thoughts so much that they can’t see what God’s will is in a particular situation. It can be hard for anyone, even for people of faith, to keep their minds free from preconceived ideas and personal preferences regarding what God may, or may not, want to do at any given time.

This debate was the storm that had been brewing for a week now, and which had reached its apex the night before Nicholas’ arrival.

That night one of the priests had a dream that startled him awake. In his dream he saw a man whom he had never seen before who was clearly to take up the responsibilities of their dearly departed bishop. When he woke from his dream, he remembered nothing about what the man looked like, but only remembered his name: Nicholas.

“Nicholas?” asked one of the other priests when he heard his fellow priest’s dream. “None of us have ever gone by that name, nor is there anyone in the whole city by that name.”

Nicholas was, to be sure, not a popular name at the time. It was only mentioned once in passing in one of Luke’s writings about the early church, along with other names which were just as uncommon in those days in Myra like Procorus, Nicanor, Timon and Parmenas. It seemed ridiculous to the other priests that this dream could possibly be from God. But the old priest reminded them, “Even the name of Jesus was given to His father by an angel in a dream.”

Perhaps it was this testimony from the gospels, or perhaps it was the unlikelihood that it would ever happen, that the priests all agreed that they would strongly consider the next person who walked through their door who answered to the name of Nicholas. It would certainly help to break the deadlock in which they found themselves.

What a surprise then, when they opened their doors for their morning prayers, when an entire shipload of men started to stream into the church!

The priests greeted each of the men at the door as they entered, welcoming them into the church. The last two to enter were the captain and Nicholas, as they had allowed all of the others to enter first. The captain thanked the priests for opening their doors to them for their morning prayers, then turned to Nicholas and said, “And thanks to Nicholas for having this brilliant idea to come here today.”

The astonished priests looked at one another in disbelief. Perhaps God had answered their prayers after all.

CHAPTER 19

The captain’s concern about what to do with the grain on his ship dissipated when they arrived at the church as fast as the storm had dissipated when they arrived on shore.

Within moments of beginning their morning prayers, he was convinced that it could only have been the mighty hand of God that had held their rudder straight and true. He knew now for sure he wanted to make an offering of the grain to the people who lived there. God spoke to him about both the plan and the amount. It was as if the captain were playing the role of Abraham in the old, old story when Abraham offered a portion of his riches to Melchizedek the priest.

The captain was willing to take his chances with his superiors in Rome rather than take any chances with the God who had delivered them all. He knew that without God’s guidance and direction so far on this journey, neither he nor his men nor the ship nor its grain would have ever made it to Rome at all.

When the captain stood up from his prayers, he quickly found Nicholas to share the answer with him as well. Nicholas agreed both to the plan and to the amount. The captain asked, “Do you think it will be enough for all these people?”

Nicholas replied, “Jesus was able to feed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish–and what you want to give to this city is much more than what Jesus had to start with!”

“How did He do it?” asked the captain–almost to himself as much as to Nicholas.

“All I know,” answered Nicholas, “is that He looked up to heaven, gave thanks and began passing out the food with His disciples. In the end everyone was satisfied and they still had twelve baskets full of food left over!”

“That’s exactly what we’ll do then, too,” said the captain.

And the story would be told for years to come how the captain of the ship looked up to heaven, gave thanks and began passing out the grain with his crew. It was enough to satisfy the people of that city for two whole years and to plant and reap even more in the third year.

As the priests said goodbye to the captain and crew, they asked Nicholas if he would be able to stay behind for a time. The winds of confusion that had whipped up and then subsided inside the captain’s mind were about to pale in comparison to the storm that was about to break open inside the mind of Nicholas.

CHAPTER 20

When the priests told Nicholas about their dream and that he just might be the answer to their prayers, Nicholas was dumbfounded and amazed, excited and perplexed. He had often longed to be used by God in a powerful way, and it was unmistakable that God had already brought him straight across the Great Sea to this very spot at this very hour!

But to become a priest, let alone a bishop, would be a decision that would last a lifetime. He had oftentimes considered taking up his earthly father’s business. His father had been highly successful at it, and Nicholas felt he could do the same. But even more important to him than doing the work of his father was to have a family like his father.

Nicholas’ memories of his parents were so fond that he longed to create more memories of his own with a family of his own. The custom of all the priests Nicholas knew, however, was to abstain from marriage and child-bearing so they could more fully devote themselves to the needs of the community around them.

Nicholas pulled back mentally at the thought of having to give up his desire for a family of his own. It wasn’t that having a family was a conscious dream that often filled his thoughts, but it was one of those assumptions in the back of his mind that he took for granted would come at some point in his future.

The shock of having to give up on the idea of a family, even before he had fully considered having one yet, was like a jolt to his system. Following God’s will shouldn’t be so difficult, he thought! But he had learned from his parents that laying down your will for the sake of God’s will wasn’t always so easy, another lesson they had learned from Jesus.

So just because it was a difficult decision wasn’t enough to rule it out. An image also floated through his mind of those three smiling faces he had met when he first landed in the Holy Land, with their heads bowed down and their hands outstretched. Hadn’t they seemed like family to him? And weren’t there hundreds–even thousands–of children just like them, children who had no family of their own, no one to care for them, no one to look after their needs?

And weren’t there countless others in the world–widows and widowers and those who had families in name but not in their actual relationships–who still needed the strength and encouragement and sense of family around them? And weren’t there still other families as well, like Nicholas and his parents, who had been happy on their own but found additional happiness when they came together as the family of believers in their city? Giving up on the idea of a family of his own didn’t mean he had to give up on the idea of having a family altogether. In fact, it may even be possible that he could have an even larger “family” in this way.

The more Nicholas thought about what he might give up in order to serve God in the church, the more he thought about how God might use this new position in ways that went beyond Nicholas’ own thoughts and desires. And if God was indeed in this decision, perhaps it had its own special rewards in the end.

The fury of the storm that swept through his mind began to abate. In its place, God’s peace began to flow over both his mind and his heart. Nicholas recognized this as the peace of God’s divine will being clearly revealed to him. It only took another moment for Nicholas to know what his answer would be.

The storms that had once seemed so threatening-whether the storm at sea or the storm in the church or the storms in the minds of both the captain and Nicholas-now turned out to be blessings of God instead. They were blessings that proved to Nicholas once again that no matter what happened, God really could work all things for good for those who loved Him and who were called according to His purpose.

Yes, if the priests would have him, Nicholas would become the next bishop of Myra.

CHAPTER 21

Nicholas didn’t suddenly become another man when he became a bishop. He became a bishop because of the man he already was. As he had done before with his father so many years earlier, Nicholas continued to do now, here in the city of Myra and the surrounding towns: walking and praying and asking God where he could be of most help.

It was on one of these prayerful walks that Nicholas met Anna Maria. She was a beautiful girl only eleven years old, but her beauty was disguised to most others by the poverty she wore. Nicholas found her one day trying to sell flowers that she had made out of braided blades of grass. But the beauty of the flowers also seemed to be disguised to everyone but Nicholas, for no one would buy her simple creations.

As Nicholas stepped towards her, she reminded him instantly of little Ruthie, whom he had left behind in the Holy Land, with the golden flowers in her hand on the hillsides of Bethlehem.

When he stopped for a closer look, God spoke to his heart. It seemed to Nicholas that this must have been what Moses felt when he stopped to look at the burning bush in the desert, a moment when his natural curiosity turned into a supernatural encounter with the Living God.

“Your flowers are beautiful,” said Nicholas. “May I hold one?”

The young girl handed him one of her creations. As he looked at it, he looked at her. The beauty he saw in both the flower and the girl was stunning. Somehow Nicholas had the ability to see what others could not see, or did not see, as Nicholas always tried to see people and things and life the way God saw them, as if God were looking through his eyes.

“I’d like to buy this one, if I could,” he said.

Delighted, she smiled for the first time. She told him the price, and he gave her a coin.

“Tell me,” said Nicholas, “what will you do with the money you make from selling these beautiful flowers?”

What Nicholas heard next broke his heart.

Anna Maria was the youngest of three sisters: Sophia, Cecilia and Anna Maria. Although their father loved them deeply, he had been plunged into despair when his once-successful business had failed, and then his wife passed away shortly thereafter. Lacking the strength and the resources to pick himself up out of the darkness, the situation for his family grew bleaker and bleaker.

Anna Maria’s oldest sister, Sophia, had just turned 18, and she turned a number of heads as well. But no one would marry her because her father had no dowry to offer to any potential suitor. And with no dowry, there was little likelihood that she, nor any of the three girls, would ever be married.

The choices facing their father were grim. He knew he must act soon or risk the possibility of Cecilia and Anna Maria never getting married in the future, either. With no way to raise a suitable dowry for her, and being too proud to take charity from others, even if someone had had the funds to offer to him, her father was about to do the unthinkable: he was going to sell his oldest daughter into slavery to help make ends meet.

How their father could think this was the best solution available to him, Nicholas couldn’t imagine. But he also knew that desperation often impaired even the best-intentioned men. By sacrificing his oldest daughter in this way, the father reasoned that perhaps he could somehow spare the younger two from a similar fate.

Anna Maria, for her part, had come up with the idea of making and selling flowers as a way to spare her sister from this fate that was to her worse than death. Nicholas held back his tears out of respect for Anna Maria and the noble effort she was making to save her sister.

He also refrained from buying Anna Maria’s whole basket of flowers right there on the spot, for Nicholas knew it would take more than a basket full of flowers to save Sophia. It would take a miracle. And as God spoke to his heart that day, Nicholas knew that God just might use him to deliver it.

CHAPTER 22

Without show and without fanfare, Nicholas offered a prayer for Anna Maria, along with his thanks for the flower, and encouraged her to keep doing what she could to help her family-and to keep trusting in God to do what she couldn’t.

Nicholas knew he could help this family. He knew he had the resources to make a difference in their lives, for he still had a great deal of his parents’ wealth hidden in the cliffs near the coast for occasions such as this. But he also knew that Anna Maria’s proud father would never accept charity from any man, even at this bleakest hour.

Her father’s humiliation at losing his business, along with his own personal loss, had blinded him to the reality of what was about to happen to his daughter. Nicholas wanted to help, but how? How could he step into the situation without further humiliating Anna Maria’s father, possibly causing him to refuse the very help that Nicholas could extend to him. Nicholas did what he always did when he needed wisdom. He prayed. And before the day was out, he had his answer.

Nicholas put his plan into action-and none too soon! It just so happened that the next day was the day when Sophia’s fate would be sealed.

Taking a fair amount of gold coins from his savings, Nicholas placed them into a small bag. It was small enough to fit in one hand, but heavy enough to be sure that it would adequately supply the need.

Hiding under the cover of night, he crossed the city of Myra to the home where Anna Maria, her father and her two older sisters lived.

He could hear them talking inside as he quietly approached the house. Their mood was understandably downcast as they discussed what they thought was their inevitable next step. They asked God to give them the strength to do whatever they needed to do.

For years, Sophia and her sisters had dreamed of the day when they would each meet the man of their dreams. They had even written love songs to these men, trusting that God would bring each of them the perfect man at the perfect time.

Now it seemed like all their songs, all their prayers and all their dreams had been in vain. Sophia wasn’t the only one who felt the impact of this new reality, for her two younger sisters knew that the same fate might one day await each of them.

The girls wanted to trust God, but no matter how hard they thought about their situation, each of them felt like their dreams were about to be shattered.

At Anna Maria’s prompting, they tried to sing their favorite love song one more time, but their sadness simply deepened at the words. It was no longer a song of hope, but a song of despair, and the words now seemed so impossible to them.

It was not just a song, but a prayer, and one of the deepest prayers Nicholas had ever heard uttered by human tongue. His heart went out to each of them, while at the same time it pounded with fear. He had a plan, and he hoped it would work, but he had no way of knowing for sure. He wasn’t worried about what might happen to him if he were discovered, but he was worried that their father would reject his gift if he knew where it had come from. That would certainly seal the girls’ doom. As Sophia and Cecilia and Anna Maria said their goodnights-and their father had put out the lights-Nicholas knew that his time had come.

Inching closer to the open window of the room where they had been singing, Nicholas bent down low to his knees. He lobbed the bag of coins into the air and through the window. It arced gracefully above him and seemed to hang in the air for a moment before landing with a soft thud in the center of the room. A few coins bounced loose, clinking faintly on the ground, rolling and then coming to a stop. Nicholas turned quickly and hid in the darkness nearby as the girls and their father awoke at the sound.

They called out to see if anyone was there, but when they heard no answer, they entered the room from both directions. As their father lit the light, Anna Maria was the first to see it-and gasped.

There, in the center of the room, lay a small round bag, shimmering with golden coins at the top. The girls gathered around their father as he carefully picked up the bag and opened it.

It was more than enough gold to provide a suitable dowry for Sophia, with more to spare to take care of the rest of the family for some time to come!

But where could such a gift have come from? The girls were sure it had come from God Himself in answer to their prayers! But their father wanted to know more. Who had God used to deliver it? Certainly no one they knew. He sprinted out of the house, followed by his daughters, to see if he could find any trace of the deliverer, but none could be found.

Returning back inside, and with no one to return the money to, the girls and their father got down on their knees and thanked God for His deliverance.

As Nicholas listened in the darkness, he too gave thanks to God, for this was the very thing Nicholas hoped they would do. He knew that the gift truly was from God, provided by God and given through Nicholas by God’s prompting in answer to their prayers. Nicholas had only given to them what God had given to him in the first place. Nicholas neither wanted nor needed any thanks nor recognition for the gift. God alone deserved their praise.

But by allowing Nicholas to be involved, using Nicholas’ own hands and his own inheritance to bless others, Nicholas felt a joy that he could hardly contain. By delivering the gift himself, Nicholas was able to ensure that the gift was properly given. And by giving the gift anonymously, he was able to ensure that the true Giver of the gift was properly credited.

The gift was delivered and God got the credit. Nicholas had achieved both of his goals.

CHAPTER 23

While Nicholas preferred to do his acts of goodwill in secret, there were times when, out of sheer necessity, he had to act in broad daylight. And while it was his secret acts that gained him favor with God, it was his public acts that gained him favor with men.

Many people rightly appreciate a knight in shining armor, but not everyone wants to be rescued from evil-especially those who profit from it.

One such man was a magistrate in Myra, a leader in the city who disliked Nicholas intensely-or anyone who stood in the way of what he wanted.

This particular magistrate was both corrupt and corruptible. He was willing to do anything to get what he wanted, no matter what it cost to others. Although Nicholas had already been at odds with him several times in the past, their conflict escalated to a boiling point when news reached Nicholas that the magistrate had sentenced three men to death-for a crime Nicholas was sure they did not commit. Nicholas couldn’t wait this time for the cover of darkness. He knew he needed to act immediately to save these men from death.

Nicholas had been entertaining some generals from Rome that afternoon whose ship had docked in Myra’s port the night before. Nicholas had invited the generals to his home to hear news about some changes that had been taking place in Rome. A new emperor was about to take power, they said, and the implications might be serious for Nicholas and his flock of Christ-followers.

It was during their luncheon that Nicholas heard about the unjust sentencing and the impending execution. Immediately he set out for the site where the execution was to take place. The three generals, sensing more trouble might ensue once Nicholas arrived, set out after him.

When Nicholas burst onto the execution site, the condemned men were already on the platform. They were bound and bent over with their heads and necks ready for the executioner’s sword.

Without a thought for his own safety, Nicholas leapt onto the platform and tore the sword from the executioner’s hands. Although Nicholas was not a fighter himself, Nicholas made his move so unexpectedly that the executioner made little attempt to try to wrestle the sword back out of the bishop’s hands.

Nicholas knew these men were as innocent as the magistrate was guilty. He was certain that it must have been the men’s good deeds, not their bad ones, that had offended the magistrate. Nicholas untied the ropes of the innocent men in full view of the onlookers, defying both the executioner and the magistrate.

The magistrate came forward to face Nicholas squarely. But as he did so, the three generals who had been having lunch with Nicholas also stepped forward. One took his place on Nicholas’ left, another on Nicholas’ right and the third stood directly in front of him. Prudently, the magistrate took a step back. Nicholas knew that this was the time to press the magistrate for the truth.

Although the magistrate tried to defend himself, his pleas of fell on deaf ears. No one would believe his lies anymore. He tried to convince the people that it was not he who wanted to condemn these innocent men, but two other businessmen in town who had given him a bribe in order to have these men condemned. But by trying to shift the blame to others, the magistrate condemned himself for the greed that was in his heart.

Nicholas declared: “It seems that it was not these two men who have corrupted you, sir, but two others-whose names are Gold and Silver!”

Cut to the quick, the magistrate broke down and made a full confession in front of all the people for this and for all the other wrongs he had done, even for speaking ill of Nicholas, who had done nothing but good for the people. Nicholas set more than three prisoners free that day, as even the magistrate was finally set free from his greed by his honest confession. Seeing the heartfelt change in the magistrate, Nicholas pardoned him, forever winning the magistrate’s favor-and the people’s favor-from that moment on.

When Nicholas was born, his parents had named him Nicholas, which means in Greek “the people’s victor.” Through acts like these, Nicholas became “the people’s victor” both in name and in deed.

Nicholas was already becoming an icon-even in his own time.

CHAPTER 24

Within three months of receiving her unexpected dowry from Nicholas, Sophia had received a visit from a suitor-one who “suited her” just fine. He truly was the answer to her prayers, and she was thankfully, happily and finally married.

Two years later, however, Sophia’s younger sister Cecilia found herself in dire straights as well. Although Cecilia was ready to be married now, her father’s business had not improved, no matter how hard he tried. As the money that Nicholas had given to the family began to run out, their despair began to set in. Pride and sorrow had once again blinded Cecilia’s father to the truth, and he felt his only option was to commit Cecilia to a life of slavery, hoping to save his third and final daughter from a similar fate.

While they were confident that God had answered their prayers once, their circumstances had caused them to doubt that He could do it again. A second rescue at this point was more than they could have asked for or imagined.

Nicholas, however, knowing their situation by this time much more intimately, knew that God was prompting him again to intercede. It had been two years since his earlier rescue, but in all that time the family never suspected nor discovered that he was the deliverer of God’s gift.

As the time came closer to a decision on what they should do next, Nicholas knew his time to act had come as well. And in order to make it clear that his gift was to be used first and foremost for Cecilia’s dowry, and then after that for any other needs the family might have, he waited until the night before she was to be sold into slavery to make his move.

Once again waiting for the cover of darkness, Nicholas approached their house. Cecilia and Anna Maria had already gone to bed early that night, sent there by their father who had told them not to expect any similar miracle to what happened for Sophia. But somewhere in the depths of his despair, their father still had a glimmer of hope in his heart, a wish perhaps, more than anything else, that Someone really was watching out for him and that his prayers just might still be answered. With that hope, he decided to stay awake and stay close to the window, just in case some angel did appear-whether an earthly one or a heavenly one.

Nicholas knew this might happen, and he knew that Cecilia’s father might still reject his gift if he found out that Nicholas had given it. But he also hoped that perhaps her father’s proud heart had softened a bit and he would accept the gift even if Nicholas was discovered.

Seeing that the house was perfectly quiet, Nicholas knelt down beside the open window. He tossed the second bag of gold into the room.

The bag had barely hit the ground when the girls’ father leapt out of the window through which it had come and overtook Nicholas as he tried to flee. You might have thought that Nicholas had taken a bag of gold rather than given a bag of gold the way the girls’ father chased him down!

Fearing that all his efforts had been wasted, Nicholas’ heart was eased as the man didn’t rebuke Nicholas but thanked him without even looking at who he had caught.

“Please hear me out,” he said. “I just want to thank you. You’ve done so much already for me and my family that I couldn’t have expected such a gift again. But your generosity has opened my eyes to the pride in my heart-a pride that almost cost me the lives of two daughters now.”

The girls’ father had spoken both breathlessly and quickly to be sure that the stranger would hear him before trying to escape again. But when he looked up to see who he was talking to-Nicholas the priest-the shock on their father’s face was evident. How could a priest afford to give such an incredible gift?

In answer to this unasked question, Nicholas spoke: “Yes, it was I who delivered this gift to you, but it was God who gave it to me to give to you. It is not from the church and not from the charity of my own hand. It came from my father who earned it fairly by the work of his hands. He was a businessman like you. And if he were alive today, he would have wanted to give it to you himself. I’m sure of it. He, of all people, knew how difficult it was to run a business, just as you do. He also loved his family, just as you do, too.”

Nicholas paused to let his words sink in, then continued, “But please, for my sake and for God’s sake, please know that it was God Himself who has answered your prayers-for He has. I am simply a messenger for Him, a deliverer, a tool in His hands, allowing Him to do through me what I know He wants done. As for me, I prefer to do my giving in secret, not even letting my right hand know what my left hand is doing.”

The look on Nicholas’ face was so sincere and he conveyed his intentions with such love and devotion for the One whom he served, that the girls’ father could not help but to accept Nicholas’ gift as if it had truly come from the hand of God Himself.

But as they said their goodbyes, the girls and their father could hardly contain their thankfulness to Nicholas, too, for letting God use him in such a remarkable way.

As much as Nicholas tried to deflect their praise back to God, he also knew he did have a role to play in their lives. Although God prompts many to be generous in their hearts, not everyone responds to those promptings as Nicholas did.

Nicholas would wait to see how the family fared over the next few years to see if they would need any help for Anna Maria, too.

But Nicholas never got the chance. The new emperor had finally come into power, and the course of Nicholas’ life was about to change again. Even though Nicholas often came to the rescue of others, there were times when, like the Savior he followed, it seemed he was unable to rescue himself.

To be continued…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Retreat Announcement, and St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 3 of 7

live.theranch.org

Dear friends, we’re just 10 days away from hosting our “2016 Guided Prayer Retreat“! We’ve designed this 3-day event to help make your prayer life as effective as possible. We’ll be broadcasting the retreat online for free for anyone who wants to watch. Just visit the link live.theranch.org to see the daily schedule and to participate with us during the retreat using the online chat feature. From this link, you can also request reminders to be sent to your phone or email when each session starts so you won’t miss a thing. Visit live.theranch.org to request your reminders now!


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 3 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 3 of the book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 3 below, or listen to Part 3 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1 and Part 2.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 3

CHAPTER 12

Once again, Nicholas was standing on a beach, alone. This time, however, it was on the shores of the Holy Land, looking back across the Great Sea towards his home.

In the months following his visit to Bethlehem, Nicholas, along with his young guide and bodyguards, had searched for every holy place that they could find that related to Jesus. They had retraced Jesus’ steps from His boyhood village in Nazareth to the fishing town of Capernaum, where Jesus had spent most of His adult years.

They had waded into the Jordan River where Jesus had been baptized and they swam in the Sea of Galilee where He had walked on the water and calmed the storm.

They had visited the hillside where Jesus had taught about the kingdom of heaven, and they had marveled at the spot where He had multiplied the five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd of over 5,000 people.

While it was in Bethlehem that Nicholas was filled with wonder and awe, it was in Jerusalem where he was filled with mission and purpose. Walking through the streets where Jesus had carried His cross to His own execution, Nicholas felt the weight on his shoulders as if he were carrying a cross as well. Then seeing the hill where Jesus had died, and the empty tomb nearby where Jesus had risen from the dead, Nicholas felt the weight on his shoulders lifting off, as Jesus must have felt when He emerged from the tomb in which He had been sealed.

It was in that moment that Nicholas knew what his mission and purpose in life would be: to point others to the One who would lift their burdens off as well. He wanted to show them that they no longer had to carry the burdens of their sin, pain, sickness and need all alone. He wanted to show them that they could cast all their cares on Jesus, knowing that Jesus cared for them. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus had said, “and I will give you rest.”

The stories Nicholas had heard as a child were no longer vague and distant images of things that might have been. They were stories that had taken on new life for him, stories that were now three dimensional and in living color. It wasn’t just the fact that he was seeing these places with his own eyes. Others had done that, and some were even living there in the land themselves, but they had still never felt what Nicholas was feeling. What made the difference for Nicholas was that he was seeing these stories through the eyes of faith, through the eyes of a Believer, as one who now truly believed all that had taken place.

As his adventures of traveling to each of the holy sites came to an end, Nicholas returned to the spot where he had first felt the presence of God so strongly: to Bethlehem. He felt that in order to prepare himself better for his new calling in life, he should spend as much time as he could living and learning in this special land. While exploring the city of Bethlehem and its surroundings, he found another cave nearby, in the city of Beit Jala, that was similar to the cave in which Jesus had been born. He took up residence there in the cave, planning to spend as much time as he could living and learning how to live in this land where His Savior had lived.

Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie had gained a new sense of mission and purpose for their lives as well. As much as they wanted to stay with Nicholas, they felt even more compelled to continue their important work of bringing more people to see these holy places. It was no longer just a way for them to provide a living for themselves, but they found it to be a holy calling, a calling to help others experience what they had experienced.

It had been four full years now since Nicholas had first arrived on this side of the Sea. During that time, he often saw his young friends as they brought more and more pilgrims to see what they had shown to Nicholas. In those few short years, he watched each of them grow up “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men,” just as Jesus had done in His youth in Nazareth.

Nicholas would have been very happy to stay here even longer, but the same Spirit of God that had drawn him to come was now drawing him back home. He knew that he couldn’t stay on this mountaintop forever. There were people who needed him, and a life that was waiting for him back home, back in the province of Lycia. What that life held for him, he wasn’t sure. With his parents gone, there was little to pull him back home, but it was simply the Spirit of God Himself, propelling him forward on the next leg of his journey.

Making arrangements for a ship home was harder than it was to find a ship to come here, for the calm seas of summer were nearing their end and the first storms of winter were fast approaching. But Nicholas was convinced that this was the time, and he knew that if he waited any longer, he might not make it home again until spring–and the Spirit’s pull was too strong for that kind of delay.

So when he heard that a ship was expected to arrive any day now, one of the last of the season to sail through here on its way from Alexandria to Rome, he quickly arranged for passage. The ship was to arrive the next morning, and he knew he couldn’t miss it.

He had sent word, through a shopkeeper, to try to find his three best friends to let them know that he would be sailing in the morning. But as the night sky closed in, he had still not heard a word from them.

So he stood there on the beach alone, contemplating all that had taken place and all that had changed in his life since coming to the Holy Land–and all that was about to change as he left it. The thoughts filled him with excitement, anticipation and, to be honest, just a little bit of fear.

CHAPTER 13

Although Nicholas’ ship arrived the following morning just as expected, the children didn’t.

Later that afternoon, when the time came for him to board and the three still hadn’t shown up, Nicholas sadly resigned himself to the possibility that they just might miss each other entirely. He had started walking toward the ship when he felt a familiar tug at his sleeve.

“You a Christian?” came the voice once again, but this time with more depth as about four years were added to his life. It was Dimitri, of course. Nicholas turned on the spot and smiled his broadest smile.

“Am I a Christian? Without a doubt!” he said as he saw all three of them offering smiles to him in return. “And you?” he added, speaking to all three of them at once.

“Without a doubt!” they replied, almost in unison. It was the way they had spoken about their faith ever since their shared experience in Bethlehem, an experience when their doubts about God had faded away.

As Nicholas tried to take in all three of their faces just one more time, he wondered which was more difficult: to leave this precious land, or to leave these three precious youth whom he had met there. They all knew that God had called them together for a purpose, and they all trusted that God must now be calling them apart for another purpose, too, just as Nicholas had previously felt he was to move to Bethlehem and they were to continue their work taking pilgrims from city to city.

But just because they knew what God’s will was, it didn’t mean it was always easy to follow it. As Nicholas had often reminded them, tears were one of the strongest signs of love in the world. Without tears at the loss of those things that matter most, it would be hard to tell if those things really mattered at all.

A lack of tears wouldn’t be a problem today. Once again, Nicholas asked them all to hold out their right hands in front of them. As he reached into his pocket to find three of his largest coins to place into each of their outstretched hands, he found he wasn’t fast enough. Within an instant, all three children had wrapped their arms completely around Nicholas’ neck, his back and his waist, depending on their height. They all held on as tightly as possible, and as long as possible, before one of the ship’s crewmen signaled to Nicholas that the time had come.

As Nicholas gave each of them one last squeeze, he secretly slipped a coin into each of their pockets. Throughout their time together, Nicholas’ gifts had helped the children immeasurably. But it wasn’t Nicholas’ presents that blessed them so much as it was his presence–his willingness to spend so much time with them. Still, Nicholas wanted to give them a final blessing that they could discover later when he was gone, as he often did his best giving in secret.

Nicholas wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry at the thought of this final gift to them, so he did a little of both. Under his breath, he also offered a prayer of thanks for each of their lives, then bid them farewell, one by one. The children’s hugs were the perfect send-off as he stepped onto the ship and headed for home–not knowing that their hugs and kind words would also help to carry him through the dark days that he was about to face ahead.

CHAPTER 14

The wind whipped up as soon as Nicholas’ ship left the shore. The ship’s captain had hoped to get a head start on the coming storm, sailing for a few hours along the coast to the harbor in the next city before docking again for the night. It was always a longer trip to go around the edges of the Great Sea, docking in city after city along the way, instead of going directly across to their destination. But going straight across was also more perilous, especially at this time of year. So to beat the approaching winter, and the more quickly approaching storm, they wanted to gain as many hours as they could along the way.

Keeping on schedule, Nicholas found out, was more than just a matter of a captain wanting to make good on his contract with his clients. It was also soon to become a matter of life and death for the families of the crew on board, including the family of the captain. Nicholas found out that a famine had begun to spread across the empire, now affecting the crew’s home city back in Rome. The famine had begun in the countryside as rain had been sparse in the outlying areas, but now the shortages in the country were starting to deplete the reserves in Rome as well. Prices were rising and even families who could afford to pay for food were quickly depleting their resources to get it.

The ship’s captain was not a foolish man, having sailed on these seas for almost 30 years. But he also knew that the risk of holding back on their voyage at a time like this could mean they would be grounded for the rest of the winter. If that happened, his cargo of grain might perish by spring, as well as his family. So the ship pressed on.

It looked to Nicholas like they had made the right decision to set sail. He, too, felt under pressure to get this voyage underway, although it wasn’t family or cargo that motivated him. It was the Spirit of God Himself. He wouldn’t have been able to explain it to anyone except to those who had already experienced it. All he knew was that it was imperative that they start moving.

He had thought he might spend still more time in the Holy Land, perhaps even his entire life. It felt like home to him from the very beginning, as he had heard so many stories about it when he was growing up. He had little family waiting for him elsewhere, and up to this point, he was content to stay right where he was, except for the Spirit’s prompting that it was time to go.

The feeling started as a restlessness at first, a feeling that he was suddenly no longer content to stay where he was. He couldn’t trace the feeling to anything particular that was wrong with where he was, just that it was time to go. But where? Where did God want him to go? Did God have another site for him to see? Another part of the country in which he was supposed to live? Perhaps another country altogether that he was supposed to visit?

As the restlessness grew, his heart and his mind began to explore the options in more detail. He had found in the past that the best way to hear from God was to let go of his own will so that he could fully embrace God’s will, whatever that may be. While letting go was always hard for him, he knew that God would always lead him in the ways that were best. So, finally letting go of his own will, Nicholas began to see God’s will much more clearly in this situation as well. As much as he felt like the Holy Land was his new home, it wasn’t really his home. He felt strongly that the time had come for him to return to the region where he had been born, to the province of Lycia on the northern coast of the Sea. There was something, he felt, that God wanted him to do there–something for which he had been specifically equipped and called to do, and was, in fact, the reason that God had chosen for him to grow up there when he was young. Just as Nicholas had felt drawn to come to the Holy Land, he now felt drawn to return home.

To home he was headed, and to home he must go. That inner drive that he felt was as strong–if not stronger–than the drive that now motivated the ship’s captain and crew to get their cargo home, safe and sound, to their precious families.

Storm or no storm, they had to get home.

CHAPTER 15

Nicholas’ ship never made it to the next harbor along the coast. Instead, the storm they were trying to outrun had outrun them. It caught hold of their ship, pulling it away from the coast within the first few hours at sea. It kept pulling them further and further away from the coast until, three hours later, they found themselves inescapably caught in its torrents.

The crew had already lowered the sails, abandoning their attempts to force the rudder in the opposite direction. They now hoped that by going with the storm rather than against it they would have a better chance of keeping the ship in one piece. But this plan, too, seemed only to drive them into the deepest and most dangerous waters, keeping them near the eye of the storm itself.

After another three hours had passed, the sea sickness that had initially overcome their bodies was no longer a concern, as the fear of death itself was now overtaking all but the most resilient of those on board.

Nicholas, although he had traveled by ship before, was not among those considered to be most resilient. He had never experienced pounding waves like this before. And he wasn’t the only one. To a man, as the storm worsened, each began to speak of this as the worst storm they had ever seen.

The next morning, when the storm still hadn’t let up, and then again on the next morning and the next, and as the waves were still pounding them, they were all wondering why they had been in such a hurry to set out to beat the storm. Now they just hoped and prayed that God would let them live to see one more day, one more hour. As wave after wave pummeled the ship, Nicholas was simply praying they would make it through even one more wave.

His thoughts and prayers were filled with images of what it must have been like for the Apostle Paul, that follower of Christ who had sailed back and forth across the Great Sea several times in similar ships. It was on Paul’s last trip to Rome that he had landed in Myra, only miles from Nicholas’ hometown. Then, as Paul continued on from Myra to Rome, he faced the most violent storm he had ever faced at sea, a raging fury that lasted more than fourteen days and ended with his ship being blasted to bits by the waves as it ran aground on a sandbar, just off the coast of the island of Malta.

Nicholas prayed that their battle with the wind wouldn’t last for fourteen days. He didn’t know if they could make it through even one more day. He tried to think if there was anything that Paul had done to help himself and the 276 men who were on his ship with him to stay alive, even though their ship and its cargo were eventually destroyed. But as hard as he tried to think, all he could remember was that an angel had appeared to Paul on the night before they ran aground. The angel told Paul to take heart–that even though the ship would be destroyed, not one of the men aboard would perish. When Paul told the men about this angelic visit, they all took courage, as Paul was convinced that it would happen just as the angel said it would. And it did.

But for Nicholas, no such angel had appeared. No outcome from heaven had been predicted and no guidance had come about what they should or shouldn’t do. All he felt was that inner compulsion that he had felt before they departed–that they needed to get home as soon as they could.

Not knowing what else to do, Nicholas recalled a phrase of his father’s: “standing orders are good orders.” If a soldier wasn’t sure what to do next, even if the battle around him seemed to change directions, if the commanding officer hadn’t changed the orders, then the soldier was to carry on with the most recent orders given. Standing orders are good orders. It was this piece of wisdom from his father, more than any other thought, that guided Nicholas and gave him the courage to do what he did next.

CHAPTER 16

When the storm seemed to be at its worst, Nicholas’ thoughts turned to the children he had just left. His thoughts of them didn’t fill him with sadness, but with hope.

He began to take courage from the stories they had all learned about how Jesus had calmed the storm, how Moses had split the Red Sea and how Joshua had made the Jordan River stop flowing. Nicholas and the children had often tried to imagine what it must have been like to be able to exercise control over the elements like that. Nicholas had even, on occasion, tried to do some of these things himself, right along with Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie. When it rained, they lifted their hands and prayed to try to stop the rain from coming down. But it just kept raining on their heads. When they got to the Sea of Galilee, they tried to walk on top of the water, just like Jesus did–and even Peter did, if only for a few short moments. But Nicholas and the children assumed they must not have had enough faith or strength or whatever it might have taken for them to do such things.

As another wave crashed over the side of the ship on which Nicholas was now standing, he realized there was a common thread that ran through each of these stories. Maybe it wasn’t their faith that was the problem after all, but God’s timing. In each instance from the stories he could remember, God didn’t allow those miracles on a whim, just for the entertainment of the people who were trying to do them. God allowed them because God had places for them to go, people they needed to see and lives that needed to be spared. There was an urgency in each situation that required the people to accomplish not only what was on their heart, but what was on God’s heart as well.

It seemed that the miracles were provided not because of their attempts to try to reorder God’s world, but in God’s attempts to try to reorder their worlds. It seemed to Nicholas that it must be a combination of their prayers of faith, plus God’s divine will, that caused a spark between heaven and earth, ignited by their two wills working together, that burst into a power that could move mountains.

When Jesus needed to get across the lake, but His disciples had already taken off in the boat, He was able to ignite by faith the process that allowed Him to walk on water, and thereafter calm the storm that threatened to take their lives when He finally did catch up to them.

“Standing orders are good orders,” Nicholas recalled, and he believed with all his heart that if God hadn’t changed His orders, then somehow they needed to do whatever they could to get to the other side of the Sea. But it wasn’t enough for God to will it. God was looking for someone willing, here on earth to will it, too, thereby completing the divine connection and causing the miracle to burst forth. Like Moses when he lifted his staff into the air or Joshua’s priests who took the first steps into the Jordan River, God needed someone to agree with Him in faith that what He had willed to happen in heaven should happen here on earth. God had already told Nicholas what needed to happen. Now it was up to Nicholas to complete the divine connection.

“Men!” Nicholas yelled to get the crew’s attention. “The God whom I serve, and who Has given each one of us life, wants us to reach our destination even more than we want to reach it. We must agree in faith, here and now, that God not only can do it, but that He wills us to do it. If you love God, or even if you think you might want to love God, I want you to pray along with me, that we will indeed reach our destination, and that nothing will stand in the way of our journey!”

As soon as Nicholas had spoken these words, the unthinkable happened: not only did the wind not stop, but it picked up speed! Nicholas faltered for a moment as if he had made some sort of cosmic mistake, some sort of miscalculation about the way God worked and what God wanted him to do. But then he noticed that even though the wind had picked up speed, it had also shifted directions, ever so slightly, but in such a distinct and noticeable way that God had gotten the attention of every man on board. Now, instead of being pounded by the waves from both sides, they were sailing straight through them, as if a channel had been cut into the waves themselves. The ship was driven along like this, not only for the next several moments, but for the next several hours.

When the speed and direction of the ship continued to hold its steady but impressively fast course, the captain of the ship came to Nicholas. He said he had never seen anything like this in his whole life. It was as if an invisible hand was holding the rudder of the ship, steady and straight, even though the ropes that held the rudder were completely unmanned, as they had been abandoned long ago when the winds first reached gale force.

Nicholas knew, too–even though he was certainly not as well seasoned as the captain–that this was not a normal phenomenon on the seas. He felt something supernatural taking control the moment he first stood up to speak to the men, and he felt it still as they continued on their path straight ahead.

What lay before them he didn’t know. But what he did know was that the One who had brought them this far was not going to take His hand off that rudder until His mission was accomplished.

CHAPTER 17

The storm that they thought was going to take their lives turned out to be the storm that saved many more. Rather than going the long way around the sea, following the coastline in the process, the storm had driven them straight across it, straight into the most dangerous path that they never would have attempted on their own at that time of year.

When they sighted land early on the morning of the fifth day, they recognized it clearly. It was the city of Myra, just a few miles away from Nicholas’ hometown, and the same city where the Apostle Paul had changed ships on his famous journey to Rome.

It was close enough to home that Nicholas knew in his heart that he was about to land in the exact spot where God wanted him to be. God, without a doubt, had spared his life for a purpose, a purpose which would now begin the next chapter of his life.

As they sailed closer to the beach, they could see that the storm that raged at sea had hardly been felt on shore.

The rains that had flooded their ship for the past several days, and that should have been watering the land as well, hadn’t made it inland for several months. The drought that the captain and sailors had told him had come to Rome had already been here in Lycia for two and a half years. The cumulative effect was that the crops that were intended to supply their reserves for the coming winter and for next year’s seed had already been depleted. If the people of Lycia didn’t get grain to eat now, many would never make it through the winter, and still more would die the following spring, as they wouldn’t have seed to plant another crop. This ship was one of the last that had made it out of the fertile valleys of Egypt before the winter, and its arrival at this moment in time was like a miracle in the eyes of the people. It was certainly an answer to their prayers.

But that answer wasn’t so clear to the captain of the ship. He had been under strict orders from the keeper of the Imperial storehouses in Rome that not one kernel of grain could be missing when the ship arrived back in Rome. The ship had been weighed in Alexandria before it left Egypt and it would be weighed again in Rome–and the captain would be held personally responsible for any discrepancy. The famine had put increasing pressure on the emperor to bring any kind of relief to the people. Not only this, but the families of the captain and crew themselves were awaiting the arrival of this food. Their jobs, and the lives of their families, relied on the safe delivery of every bit of grain aboard.

Yet without the faith and encouragement of Nicholas, the captain knew that the ship and its cargo would have been lost at sea, along with all of their lives.

While it was clear to Nicholas that God had brought him back to his homeland, he too wasn’t entirely certain what to do about the grain. While it seemed that giving at least some of the grain to the people of Myra was in order, Nicholas still tried to see it from God’s perspective. Was this city, or any other city throughout the empire, any more in need of the grain than Rome, which had bought and paid for it to be delivered? But it also seemed to Nicholas that the ship had been driven specifically to this particular city, in a straight and steady line through the towering waves.

The whole debate of what they were to do next took place within just a matter of minutes of their arrival on shore. And Nicholas and the captain had little time to think through what they were going to do, as the people of the city were already running out to see the ship for themselves, having been amazed at the way God had seemingly brought it to their famished port. They were gathering in larger and larger numbers to welcome the boat, and giving thanks and praise to God at the same time.

Both Nicholas and the captain knew that only God Himself could answer their dilemma. The two of them, along with the rest of the crew, had already agreed the night before–as they were so steadily and swiftly being carried along through the water–that the first thing they would do when they arrived on shore was to go to the nearest church and give thanks to God for His deliverance. Upon seeing where they had landed, Nicholas knew exactly where they could find that church. It was one that his family had visited from time to time as they traveled between these twin cities of Patara and Myra. Telling the people that their first order of duty was to give thanks to God for their safe passage, Nicholas and the captain and his crew headed to the church in Myra.

As they made their way across the city and up into the hills that cradled the church, they had no idea that the priests inside its walls had already been doing battle with a storm of their own.

To be continued…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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