Spiritual Growth; January 7, 2021

2 Peter 1:8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Because verse 9 had such a liberating effect on me over 20 years ago, I tend to gravitate to that whenever I read this chapter. However, there’s a lot more good stuff here too! Verses 5-7 list qualities that should be practical, every-day goals for us. They are perhaps difficult to quantify but they are certainly recognizable, either to ourselves or to those around us. It can be difficult at times to make an objective evaluation of yourself, so it is very helpful, even essential, to have a brother or sister in faith who can be honest with you about how you’re doing. Even without that, however, we know what these things are and can press on to take hold of them in our lives. (Philippians 3:12) This verse gives the reason and motivation for doing that. If our ultimate goal is to receive the accolade of “Well done, good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:21, 23) and it should be, then we certainly don’t want to be ineffective and unproductive! The Japanese says, “unfruitful,” and that ties in exactly with something Jesus said in the Upper Room before His crucifixion: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8) When God created us He didn’t want pets, much less stuffed toys, but when we fail to grow spiritually and apply the resources He has given us, we aren’t much better than that.

Spiritual growth is of great interest to me precisely because I was so bad at it for longer than I care to remember. I started out with great advantages, as I am reminded often. However, as Jesus said very clearly, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) I am grateful for my heritage, but I must not presume on it. That sort of pride can be disastrous, as the Lord was so gracious as to show me back in 1972. As a pastor, I am to seek to make full use of all that God has provided to me to lead others into full, obedient fellowship with Him. Anything less would be ineffective and unproductive.

Father, thank You for this strong reminder. Help me indeed be a faithful steward of all that You have poured out on me, so that all of Your purposes in giving it to me in the first place may be fulfilled, for the blessing of many and for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Anxiety; January 6, 2021

1 Peter 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

This was one of the first Scriptures I memorized as a child, but it is still a very good one to meditate on. I like the NIV use of “anxiety” simply because “care” has such a wide range of meanings, but at the same time, the KJV double use of “care” has something to be said for it as well. In other words, “”You don’t have to care (be anxious) because God does it for you.” The Japanese likewise picks up on that, though it uses two distinctly different terms in the two locations. The first is a close analog of “anxiety,” but the second is a term that is most often used to mean “worry.” It seems strange, and even vaguely blasphemous, to say that God worries about us, but the actual characters used to write that term mean “distribute heart.” In other words, He isn’t casual about us; He really cares. In our finite humanity we have great trouble really grasping God’s infinite divinity. Human language often isn’t really up to the task of describing Him. As a result, we tend to think that He is like us, instead of His having created us to be like Him. God can’t be anxious, because He knows the end from the beginning, but He can “distribute His heart” to us. That’s what the Psalmist was talking about when he said, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15) Whatever else you say about God, it is never accurate to say He doesn’t care. After all, Jesus said He even keeps track of how many hairs we have on our heads! (Luke 12:7) When God so cares about us, it is clearly absurd for us to be anxious about anything!

As I said, I memorized this verse as a youngster, but at the same time I’m still learning it. As I write, the political situation in the US is in turmoil, and the temptation to anxiety is great. However, God is still God, and that will never change. That is never to be an excuse for passivity; faith is to be active. However, my faith needs to be big enough to know that God is far greater and stronger than any possible problem or situation. Jesus spoke His famous words in Matthew 6:33 about God’s supply of our physical needs, but seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness applies to absolutely every area of life. In reference to America’s political situation, seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness would obviously lead to Biblical positions on every issue of public morality, but if I’m focused on a humanistic view of “my rights” I’m going to miss God’s kingdom. I am to be earnest in prayer, but it’s not to be anxious prayer. That distinction can be easy to miss! I am to be a good steward of the opportunities and the authority that have been entrusted to me, exercising them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results entirely in God’s hands. He’s more than up to the task!

Father, thank You for this strong, timely reminder. I do pray that Your will would be done, not only in the US political situation but everywhere in every way, just as Jesus taught us to pray. I pray that those who know you who are involved in government, from voters all the way up to the very top, would be active in their obedience to You, and that those who don’t know You, whatever their purported “religious affiliation,” would repent and believe, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Prayer; January 5, 2021

1 Peter 4:7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.

Peter’s first letter is so loaded with good, important stuff! I couldn’t count how many times I’ve used verses 10 and 11 in teaching, and the same can be said for verse 17. However, this verse jumped out at me just now. Believers have been feeling “the end is near” throughout Church history, obviously since the 1st Century. That said, there are ebbs and flows in that, and recently I have been hearing it increasingly from all sides. My position, for as long as I can remember having a position, has been that for everyone alive today, the end will come in less than 100 years. I do believe in Christ’s physical return, and I have a gut-level feeling that it’s not very far off. Actually, for a long time I have felt that it would come within my natural lifetime, but the longer I live and minister, the more I feel that is largely irrelevant, since each individual is going to have to appear before God in any case. All of that said, Peter’s “Therefore” here is very much to the point. If we have an awareness that things aren’t going to last forever, and we should, then we should do everything possible to be in a right relationship with our “faithful Creator” (as he says in verse 19) right here and now. We aren’t to let our minds be cluttered with everything under the sun. That has been a danger for as long as mankind has existed, but it is all the more intense in this Information Age. And then there’s the matter of self-control. The need for that goes without saying! Right now the very things that are making so many people feel “the end is near” tend to make us anxious and preoccupied, unable to focus even on daily tasks. Politics is of course a prime example here. In the middle of it all, we need to remember that God is still God and Jesus Christ is still Lord and the Holy Spirit is still available to all believers, and rest, relax, and rejoice in that assurance.

That last sentence contains what has become my trademark phrase ever since the Lord spoke it to me: rest, relax, rejoice. Since childhood, really, I have known as theory that my relationship with God was the most important thing in my life, but I certainly haven’t acted like it the whole time. That shows the importance of translating theory into practical reality. Just as James said, I must not deceive myself! (James 1:22) I am intensely interested in many things, and it is very easy to let my mind get cluttered with countless things, from politics to health issues to the latest science fiction book I was reading. None of those things are bad, but they aren’t the chief thing, and I must never forget that. Prayer, that is, an intimate, 2-way relationship with my Creator, has got to be my top priority. I don’t spend hours on my knees, either literally or figuratively, (though that’s certainly not a bad thing) but I do live my days with an awareness of Him “in whom we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Anything that interferes with that awareness needs to be dealt with, because my relationship with Him is the only thing that’s eternal.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for speaking, “Rest, relax, rejoice” to me back in 2010. Help me follow through indeed, delighting to be Your child and Your servant, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Evangelism; January 4, 2021

1 Peter 3:1-2 Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

In some circles this is a very controversial passage. Some male pastors have used it to counsel battered wives to stay with their husbands, and women have been killed as a result. That is certainly not what Peter meant! My own perspective has been greatly clarified in recent years because of an exemplary family in our church. The husband had an alcohol problem and the wife ended up with severe clinical depression, to the point that she couldn’t leave her house. The husband was a nice guy when he wasn’t drinking, but often became violent when he was. The wife had been baptized some time before I ever met them, but the situation never seemed to improve. For a period of about two years, while the wife was in the throes of depression, I would take a CD of our worship service to their home every week. Usually she would come to the door to receive it, we would talk a little and I would pray for her, but sometimes she couldn’t even bring herself to come to the door. She said later that she actually hardly ever listened to the CDs, but what made the difference was the fact that I came, as a concrete indication that God hadn’t abandoned her. Eventually they got a puppy, and the act of taking care of something else drew her out of her self-centered depression. (A majority of mental/emotional problems seem to stem from having a mirror stuck to the end of your nose, but that’s a different, and long, discussion.) As she became able to attend worship services, the worship itself opened her up to the full work of the Holy Spirit, and she blossomed. Meanwhile, her husband still had the alcohol problem and it got to the point that she made him move out, saying that he had to choose between alcohol and her. I’m not sure how long that went on, but he eventually dried up enough that she let him come back. Meanwhile, the husband’s older brother, who had been away working in another city for several years, retired and came back to town, and was astonished at the change in his sister-in-law, to the point that he earnestly sought the God she had, and was baptized. It was less than a year later that his younger brother followed suit, and both of them said that it was the demonstration of her changed life that convinced them that God was real and Jesus could save. Now, that family is central to this church, and the men also are growing in faith and knowledge of the Lord. To me, they are a magnificent example of the validity of this passage. The wife was not a doormat to her husband, but forced him to move out when that was appropriate. However, it was her life itself, far more than anything she said, that brought her husband and her brother-in-law into the family of God.

This is an illustration of the reality that as a pastor, I learn from those in my flock. Life is complicated, and being simplistic doesn’t fix things. However, the simple, basic truth that God loves enough that He sent His Son to die in our place, if accepted, will fix almost any situation. I need to keep growing, never thinking that I have all the answers but remembering that God does. I am to live as a demonstration of God’s love and grace, not being a pushover any more than Jesus was, or the woman I just wrote about, for that matter, but always speaking the truth in love. At the same time, even as a man of words (which I certainly am) I must remember that my actions speak louder than my words, and seek to present an undistorted picture of my Lord to those who watch me.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for that family, who mean so much to this church. Thank You for all You are continuing to do in each one of us. May this be a year of harvest indeed, so that many may be brought from darkness to light, from death to life, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Course of Action; January 3, 2021

1 Peter 1:13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.

To me this verse strikes a very good balance between the reality that all power is God’s, but we are involved in the success of our lives too. Here we have the mental aspect as well as the physical. (The Japanese is a little clearer that “self-controlled” refers to our bodies.) However, the desired outcome is grace, not something we have earned by our own efforts. We get all confused about that, thinking that if it is grace, then we don’t have to do anything at all. In a sense that’s true, but passivity means we have no real appreciation for the grace that Jesus died on the cross to provide. “Setting your hope fully” is an active exercise, and we must not take it lightly. Our ultimate reward comes at Christ’s return, and that is clearly nearer than it has ever been before. In the middle of the mess of life, we need to be active in our anticipation of the revelation that Peter speaks of here. We are to be faithful in our obedience, serving God in whatever ways He directs by His Word and His Spirit, just as Peter goes on to talk about in the following verses.

As with all other Biblical truth, this is something I continue to grasp more fully the longer I walk with the Lord. At this point I have a lot of my own failures to look back on, as well as overwhelming proof of God’s gracious faithfulness. It is much easier to set my hope on what God has promised, and in that I rejoice. As a pastor I long to impart this understanding to others, that they too may have such a joyous expectation. With the new year and the new decade we tend to have all sorts of thoughts about the future, but the major sentiment I’ve been hearing has been, “I hope it’s not as bad as last year.” I need to keep my own focus on the reality that, as God told Jeremiah, “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) I’ve had some low moments in the past few months, so I’ve got to remember that “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) That’s the hope that Peter was talking about.

Father, thank You for being God. Thank You for Your plans that far outweigh and overshadow anything I could imagine. I pray that You alone would be glorified by Your solution to every issue that confronts us now, in the short term and the long, so that indeed Your name would be acknowledged as holy and Your kingdom come as Your will is done, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Living Hope; January 2, 2021

1 Peter 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

I had to pray about what part of this magnificent section I was to write about, because this is so packed with good stuff. Actually there are many places in the Bible like that, because it is the living Word of God. This particular verse hit me just now because so many people are short on hope at this point. It has seemed that forces of evil have triumphed and lies rule the day, but God’s truth is always greater and stronger than any lie. Looking back over the past 2000 years there have been many dark moments in the history of the Church, but God has never been defeated, whatever it might have looked like “on the ground.” That’s still the case today, and the next week is going to be climactic in a number of ways. Exactly what method, and whom, God will use is something I cannot say, but the two divergent courses presented to America, and the world, today could hardly be more starkly different. God’s people need to fix their eyes on Jesus and be faithful in prayer, in speech, and in action, so that His name may be acknowledged as holy and His kingdom come as His will is done. Trials come to cleanse and strengthen us, and we need to accept the discipline and training the Lord is supplying. We can do that only as we hang onto the living hope that Peter speaks of here. The devil wants to kill and destroy our hope, through politics and pandemics and anything else he can use, but as the hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

This is intensely personal for me. Over the past two months I have had some very low moments, envisioning a tsunami of filth, lawlessness, and rejection of God washing over the US, but God is still God. As I said, I have no idea how God is ultimately going to triumph, but He still has faithful children in every state, and even in Washington DC. From a completely different angle, about two years ago God gave Cathy the vision of an audio CD to help people who are feeling suicidal. We made progress on it, recording some tracks, but then it seemed to just die. Over the past two months God has resurrected that, and we are moving forward again. The title of the CD is to be Living Hope, just as it says in this verse. If I let go of the hope God has for me, how can I impart hope to others? I need to pay attention to the messages I preach, living out God’s truth in all its fullness and not deceiving myself. (James 1:22)

Father, thank You for this strong reminder. I pray that all of Your children would take firm hold of the hope You have provided in Christ and stand up, a mighty army to defeat the forces of falsehood and evil, for the deliverance of many and for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Trust; January 1, 2020

Psalms 118:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

This Psalm is loaded with potent truth, a lot of which has been turned into songs. Verse one is already chosen as the verse for the year, and I’ve already prepared sermon notes on it for Sunday. This passage struck me as particularly topical because of all the election mess, and really all the political turmoil over the past several years. There will always be people, not only in government (but certainly there), whose thirst for power makes them completely available to the devil. That has been true throughout human history, as the Faust story shows. The only genuine answer is to depend on God. He can and does raise up leaders who are pleasing to Him and good for the people, but even those leaders are fallible, as kings David and Hezekiah and others demonstrated. America is in the historically unique position of having been a democratic republic for over 200 years, so by the Constitution, the people are the rulers, but when the people fail to seek God, all sorts of junk rises to the surface, as we are seeing right now. There are some good, honorable people in leadership on just about every level, but there are also numbers of incredibly perverse individuals, and God is the only ultimate solution. We have just a few days to the runoff elections in Georgia that will determine the political majority in the Senate, but elections as such, specifically in Georgia, are certainly suspect at this point. We are to be faithful in whatever role we are given (and mine is simply prayer) but our trust, our reliance, must be in God rather than in any human agent. There are far too many “double agents!” God is the ultimate “safe space,” and we must never forget it.

Living in Japan I have been at a remove from all the turmoil, physically speaking, but I have certainly been involved emotionally. The COVID-19 mess has directly impacted my life in various ways, including income, but not nearly as drastically as it has for so many. Countless people the world over are very relieved that 2020 is over, forgetting that the numbers on the calendar mean very little, As Jesus said explicitly, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) I am to keep looking to Him whatever the calendar says, making Him my refuge, my Lord, and my absolute standard of truth. The devil is frantic, knowing his time is short, (Revelation 12:12) but my Lord is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. (John 1:1-3) He is more than worthy of total trust and obedience, and nothing else is.

Father, thank You for this powerful, timely reminder. I do pray for Your will to be done in the Georgia elections and in the continuing efforts for truth to prevail in the presidential election. That is the only direct impact I can have, but it is a powerful one. Thank You for all You are doing in, around, and through me. Thank You for the good Watchnight service we had last night. I do continue to pray for complete healing for that sister’s ears, that they would be no hindrance to her learning Japanese and communicating the Gospel effectively. May all the desires expressed be fulfilled in Your way on Your schedule for Your glory, that this would be a year of kingdom harvest indeed. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Pressing On; December 31, 2020

Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

What an appropriate passage for any landmark, milestone event! This is the last day on the calendar, but that hasn’t affected the rotation of the earth in the slightest, nor its journey around the sun. We tend to want to “rest on our laurels” any time we achieve something, even if it’s as simple as surviving another year. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, New Years, all of those tend to come into this category. However, we need to have the attitude Paul expresses here, and if we don’t yet, verse 15 is addressed to us. The point is that we aren’t through until we are “home” with our Creator and Lord. Many years ago B. J. Thomas had a song, Home Where I Belong, that expressed this beautifully. Sadly, he himself wasn’t mentored properly, and as far as I know, abandoned the faith. That is a tragedy that none of us need to fall into, but we need to maintain the attitude expressed in this verse. For once, I really like the way the NIV expresses it here: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” So long as we think it depends solely on us, we will burn out in no time. However, if we are passive and fail to submit our will to our Lord Jesus, that is unproductive too. The power comes from Him, but our active participation is called for. Anything less deprives us of the fullness of the blessings He intends for us.

This is something I am still growing into, just as Paul was. I can look back and see major growth and improvement in my life, but an honest evaluation of myself right now reveals many weaknesses that hinder in various ways. Too often I am neither instantly nor totally responsive to my Lord, and that’s nothing to be proud of. I need to rest, relax, and rejoice in the assurance that He has taken hold of me, just as Paul says here, and at the same time apply myself fully to take hold of that which He holds out to me. I have outlived my father by over eight years already, but that may just mean I have more areas that God needs to correct before He takes me into His home! I know I have plenty of room to grow as a pastor, and this is a good opportunity to do so. I need to be God’s instrument to provoke the believers into self-examination, to see where they are and where God wants them to be, so that they too may press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of them. If we will all do that, then there is no limit to what God can do in and through us for His glory.

Father, thank You for having me put this passage into the Scripture reading list for today. I pray that Your Spirit would touch us all and both inspire and empower us to do exactly as this verse says, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Love for the World; December 30, 2020

James 4:4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

These 10 verses include some dearly loved ones, particularly verse seven (which I quote often) and verse 10. However, I would venture to say very few people count this verse as one of their favorites. Part of that comes from misunderstanding the use of the word, “world.” This isn’t talking about the natural world that God created and called good, (though that too will pass away) it’s talking about the world system that John was talking about when he said, “For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16) The problem is, we tend to glorify and seek after those very things! There is a massive industry aimed at “the lust of the flesh,” advertising is designed to provoke “the lust of the eyes,” and we are taught by social pressure from childhood to be self-centered and proud. That’s what James is talking about. We also tend to hang up on being called “adulterous people.” Perhaps the expression in the Japanese would click a little better: “people without chastity.” In the current environment of casual “hook-ups,” that should hit close to home! The NIV, in an attempt to make this more understandable, says “friendship with the world,” but the Japanese sticks with the Greek and says “loving the world.” Too many of us are completely infatuated with the world, desiring all the trinkets it promises and sometimes even delivers, when they are no more than ashes compared to the glories of fellowship with God. This isn’t a call to a completely ascetic lifestyle, but it is a strong warning to get our head on straight and understand what is important, valuable, and eternal.

I find myself tempted to pride that I haven’t descended to some of the excesses I have seen around me, but that is an exercise in self-deception. I too am tempted by the “trinkets of the world” I just mentioned. I need to get it completely straight and firm in my heart and mind that God knows what I need better than I do, and He’s not stingy. If I will indeed seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then the supply will be generous and unending. (Matthew 6:33) Recently more and more is being uncovered of the activities of people who lust after power in this world, and it is truly ugly. I am to stand firm against that, as it says in verse 7, but I am not to despise those who fall for that deception. Rather, I am to pray for God’s mercy and grace on them, even as I pray that their actions be nullified. I must remember that I am fundamentally no better than they are, and it is only by the grace of God that I can see things as I do.

Father, thank You for this clear reminder. Thank You particularly for pointing out that I am again tempted to pride. That has been such a snare to me, but You have been so gracious! Help me indeed love You with all I am, and love my neighbor as I love myself, so that the love of the world may be far from me and I may be fully available and useful to You, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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The Eternal Covenant; December 29, 2020

Hebrews 13:20-21 May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Spoken (or rather written) like a true pastor! The focus is on God, but the desire expressed is what every true Christian leader desires for those they lead. The Japanese translation is slightly different from the NIV, (once again) saying, “May Christ work His will in us so that you will be able to do His will, being perfect people in relation to every good thing.” The overall thrust is the same, but comparing the different wording can help us grasp it more completely. It all comes down to God making us into what He wants. I’m reminded of God’s famous lesson to Jeremiah, having him watch a potter at work. His rather “mic drop” statement there was, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” (Jeremiah 18:6) What the writer here is doing is asking God to do what only He can do. He demonstrated His ability to do that by resurrecting Jesus, which was based on the covenant that He made first with Adam and then renewed with Abraham and David. We tend to forget that we currently inhabit only a tiny slice of eternity, and we feel that our current challenges are insurmountable. This is a reminder that God’s covenant of salvation didn’t start at Calvary, though that was the climax of it, but it was from creation, and God is going to fulfill it in spite of us. We are indeed to work for God’s kingdom to come through His will being done in and through us, even as it says here, but we aren’t to think for a moment that even when things seem to fall apart that God and His purposes have been defeated. This year has been a mess, with various plans and activities of evil coming out into the open. Whatever happens at this point, we must remember that we are under God’s eternal covenant, and that’s all the security we need.

This is a reminder I have needed in recent weeks. The past two months have been an emotional purgatory, so to speak, but they have certainly been a lesson in focus and trust. I am to proclaim the truth in love, standing in the truth whoever accepts it or doesn’t accept it and knowing that the outcome is in God’s hands. The media crank everything up to crisis level, and emotional exhaustion kicks in to the point that it’s hard to recognize a genuine crisis. I am to remember that I am God’s sheep and Jesus is my Shepherd, even as I am tasked with being an under-shepherd for the sheep in my care, and my Shepherd can do anything at all. I am to rest, relax, and rejoice in that assurance, not trying to dictate to Him what His will ought to be, but listening in all humility and obedience.

Father, thank You for this powerful reminder. Thank You for how You have grown me, and so many of Your children, in recent weeks. May we indeed recognize Your will and do it, in private prayer and public speech and activity, so that Your name may be acknowledged as holy and Your kingdom come as Your will is done, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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