Easter is more than bunnies and baskets

By Erika Rizkallah

In a few days, millions of Christians will celebrate Easter — an observance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Savior of the world.

As a child, I didn’t know about Jesus. For me, Easter was all about the basket. For some reason my father hid the baskets from us.  My brother and I would jump out of bed and spend the morning searching for it.

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I suppose it was easier for a single dad to hide two baskets instead of a bunch of eggs, but it’s one of my fondest memories. I grew up in a non-religious home so we didn’t go to church and I didn’t realize the holiday had anything to do with Jesus.

It meant little more than the beginning of spring break, all fun and games!

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Now, Easter is ripe with meaning. Truthfully, I hate reading about most of the details surrounding the Easter story.

The way Jesus was treated before his death fills me with sadness. I can’t help but feel the agony of what he went through — the betrayal of Judas, the illegality of the trials and brutality of the crucifixion.

In my quiet time yesterday I learned something new and I thought I’d share it with you. But first I have to set the scene . . .

Jesus has already been accosted and arrested in the garden at Gethsemane. The chief priests handed him over to Pilate to be condemned to death and Peter has disowned him. He’s flogged within an inch of his life. Leather whips embedded with bits of bone and lead rip through skin and muscle.

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Then he’s taken into the Governor’s hall and surrounded by the whole company of soldiers. The Bible tells us that they stripped him, dressed him in a scarlet robe and pushed a crown of thorns onto his head. And then they mocked him and knelt in front of him, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” After that, they spit on him and beat him in the head repeatedly with a staff.

This part of the story saddens and repulses me. But what I didn’t know is that for the Roman soldiers, this was a popular game they played with condemned prisoners. There was an actual game board etched into the floor. They would roll the dice and move the “king” around the board while the troops mocked and abused him.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

And though at any time Jesus could have commanded more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him, he didn’t.

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He sacrificed himself and saved us. This is why we celebrate and commemorate his victory over death.

After the crucifixion the sky went dark and a tremendous earthquake shook the land. The only people standing near him were a centurion and a group of guards.

Matthew 27:54 says, When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!

It makes me wonder how they spent the rest of the day.

What grace our God has given us — let us never forget what Easter is truly about!

 

 

Boating with Jesus

By Erika Rizkallah

Yesterday I had lunch with Kathy, a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. As we settled into our seats at Panera, a woman rushed up to us.

“I saw you sitting here and I just had to pop over and say hello,” she gushed. “You’re a hard woman to get in touch with, always so busy.”

Emily introduced herself to me and apologized for interrupting our conversation. I didn’t mind. Kathy runs a successful children’s theatre program and though we both moved to town at the same time, it seems like she knows everyone.

Emily asked several questions about the program and Kathy directed her to the website to get the information she needed. Kathy said, “It’s all on my Facebook page. We just updated it.” Then the discussion turned to social media and they talked and talked.

I said, “I’m hardly ever on social media so I’ll have to check out the page too.”

“Oh, you’re lucky,” Emily said. “It’s better to stay away from it or you can get sucked in.”

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I explained that I needed to be on it more – though I don’t like to – because if I’m not, the world passes you by; people rarely reach out to me. We share so much through platforms and devices now, I’ve become disconnected. My nephew broke his arm last month and I didn’t know because I wasn’t on Facebook.

Before she left Emily said, “It’s nice to meet you.” I thought she was talking to me but it quickly became apparent she’d never met Kathy in person — she’d only “seen” her online.

Her words, “You’re lucky” made me pause. Luck has nothing to do with it, intentionality does.

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It reminds me of a passage in Mark 3. Jesus has just pissed off the Pharisees after healing a man on the Sabbath, against their religious law. He withdrew to the lake and large crowds followed him.

Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. Mark 3:9

Though needed and followed by the masses, Jesus deliberately withdrew. He kept his distance, not allowing the crowd to press into him. We often see him withdrawing to quiet places and spending time with God in solitude. We often see him getting into a boat.

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Like Jesus, we too need to get away from the crowds for a time, even if they’re virtual. Then we come back better grounded in reality and stronger.

Is the world pressing in on you? Do you need to spend more face time with your friends and take a break from a demanding crowd?

It’s ok to give yourself permission and press the “off” button for as long as you need.

Just tell them you have a boat ready and a date with the friend who loves you the most!

 

Lessons from a Liar

By Erika Rizkallah

Have you ever heard the Bible story about Ananias and Sapphira? This couple carries the unfortunate legacy of being some of the most dishonest people in the New Testament.

Their story is told in Acts 5:1-11 — it’s a warning for the ages.

To fully understand it we must read the previous passages in Acts 4:32-37. The author tells about a special time in the early church. Jesus has ascended to Heaven and the persecution of his disciples has begun. The Holy Spirit settled on the believers who’d gathered together and formed a close-knit community.

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The Bible says: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Acts 4:32.

The apostles boldly testified about Jesus’ resurrection and there were no needy people in the community. The generosity was so great that some individuals with land and property sold it off and gave it to the apostles to distribute to anyone with need. They practiced Christ’s command of brotherly love. One man who did this was Joseph, who they nicknamed Barnabus, which means Son of Encouragement.

This sounds Utopian, but there’s always a snake in the garden.

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Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostle’s feet. Acts 5:1-2

Peter knew something was up. He said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” (v.3,4)

When Ananias heard this he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (v. 5)

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The story continues with Sapphira, who wasn’t there when the offering was made. She arrived three hours later and Peter questioned her, asking if they withheld any money. She lied and Peter said, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” (v. 9)

Then she dropped dead!

In hindsight, we could read this and wonder why they did the things they did. But we might also feel sympathetic — haven’t we been tempted to lie or hold out on God?

Did pride cause Ananias to lie? Greed? Maybe it was both. Or maybe he wanted to be like Joseph — maybe he wanted to be called a Barnabus. I know when I see a friend do something awesome, I want to be like her.

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What about Sapphira? Didn’t she have a clue that something might be wrong when her husband didn’t come home? Maybe she feared what he might do if she told the truth.

Either way it’s a sad story that hurt their loving community.

It’s also a reminder to us. We must continually check our hearts for evidence of greed and dishonesty. We must always remember that our enemy — the great serpent — lives to tempt us into grieving the Holy Spirit.

His goal is our destruction and the dissolution of Christianity.

 

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We must remember that like those in the early church, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and his grace is sufficient for us.

Heavenly Father, we praise you. We ask that you give us the courage and strength to rely on you for all our needs. We ask that you make us aware of any evil in our hearts and keep us from the temptations of the evil one. Above all, we seek your glory and not our own. Amen

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. John 4:24

 

 

Surviving seasons of sorrow and slobber.

By Erika Rizkallah

I thank God summer is over. Well, kind of. I live on the Southeastern coast and even though leaves are starting to fall and acorns litter the sidewalks, it can feel as hot as Hades.

From my windows I watch boats drift by with girls in bikinis dancing on the bow. I watch egrets stand as still as statues in the tall grasses at the water’s edge. I see fish jumping as they try to avoid the jaws of a gator who has no business being near my dock.

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I saw a lot out of my windows this summer but rarely got out of the house. Even though I can see the beach, I didn’t get a chance to spend even one day on it.

I know I sound like a baby . . . a little woe is me. But I don’t mean to. It’s simply that this summer season was hard.

So hard.

I watched the health of my loved ones deteriorate. I tried to provide comfort, safety and aid and I guess in that regard it was successful. We made it through but at times I questioned my own sanity.

And in the middle of it all, my husband ( bless his heart ) made a ridiculous decision. He brought home a puppy – a Rottweiler. Somehow he thought this would be a great thing, even though I’ve continually said, “Not one more thing that poops is allowed in this house!”

I told him I’d rather have a baby and he told me not to worry. I wasn’t going to have to care for this baby. No, he and my son would do it all. Yeah, right. He made it through a month before he realized he’d  made a big, messy, slobbery mistake.

Yet, in spite of all the chaos and sorrow, I watched God working out things for our good. It’s one of the promises I held onto through the tears, hospital visits and sleepless summer nights.

His plans are good. His ways are higher. His love heals our wounds.

I hope you know that friends. I pray you will cling to Our Father, keep your eyes on His son and understand that His grace is sufficient for us.

Here’s our promise . .  .

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

Finding family faith

By Erika Rizkallah

Almost every night after my family goes to sleep, I spend an hour or two working on genealogy. I’ve had an Ancestry.com account for several years.  It’s amazing to piece together what’s becoming a massive family tree. It’s thrilling to see their names. Among the common ones we have the standouts: Nimrod, Commander, Dilemma, Ransom and Content.

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I’ve found ancestors as far back as the 1500’s. Sometimes I’m just doing gritty research like digging through census records and wills. But often I stumble upon stories in books written decades later.

I didn’t grow up in a family of faith. My great-grandmother was a Christian and poured into me as much as she could through letters. Though she didn’t get to see the fruit of her labor in her lifetime, it did produce fruit. Both in my own family and the families I served as a children’s minister.

I think understanding where you come from is important work. In the Bible, we see name after name recorded for posterity. As I dig for my family members I discover a rich history of faith.

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My ancestors came over as colonists seeking religious freedom. Some of the men fought against “the savages” we now call Native Americans ( ironic). And sometimes they were killed or taken captive because they were peace loving pacifists. There’s a story  about a man named Robert, who lived alone on his farm in Maine . . .

“One time, just at night, he was cooking his supper when the Indians burst in upon him, and seizing him, said, ‘Now, Robert, quick you go to Canada.’ He answered, ‘Well, if I must, I must.’ He begged that he might cook and eat his supper, when he took up his line of march for that distant country.” Robert was taken multiple times to Canada but always managed to get home.

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I come from a long line of immigrants who fought in the Revolution as patriots – because they believed in America. They were hard working dreamers who knew this bountiful land offered them the opportunity to worship Christ on their terms. Many became leading citizens of their new country and established towns and community churches. The women, served at home, “keeping house,” caring for community members and fighting when necessary.

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I’m proud of my heritage. I’m amazed that I’ll get to meet my relatives in Heaven.

But whether your ancestors landed in Plymouth or sailed in at Ellis Island, the idea of worshiping freely is an integral part of the American dream. It’s worth fighting for.

I wonder what history will say about our generation of Christians. As Jesus said, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Your turn: Do you record the stories of the faithful in your family?

 

 

 

 

Picking proverbs for a push

By Erika Rizkallah

Each morning before I begin the day’s work in my home I pick a proverb to motivate me. Nurturing our nest requires loads of daily drudgery; I can’t do it all under my own power  (too boring).

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Bless our nest.

When I say I “pick” a proverb, I mean I open my Bible to the book of Proverbs, close my eyes and rummage through the pages. Then I point my finger and poke a verse. Whatever I land on is my daily inspiration to write at the top of my to-do list.

Sometimes they don’t make sense to my modern mind so I dig around, unearthing the hidden treasure. Yesterday my verse was A lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions. Proverbs 12:27

Because I’d dug up that one before I already knew it was about being wasteful. But you sure wouldn’t know  by looking at it! In the Old Testament, “diligent” means energetically or devotedly.

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So I pondered the meaning, trying to figure out how to make it work for me. Everything we have – all our possessions and the money to buy them – comes from the hand of God. Believers are called to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness and stewardship, caring for the gifts God gives.

Now there’s something I can focus on! Still, the verse didn’t come to life until later in the day.

Grocery shopping is drudgery to me but my husband loves it. I usually give him our list, but he was sick yesterday so I had to do it.

I was at the checkout counter with a full cart of necessities when I spied the magic words BUY ONE GET ONE FREE. It’s on that rack retailers position near the register to lure us with seasonal must-haves. And this was something I needed – a grill lighter. So I grabbed the only one left. I raced around checking the other racks but they were empty also.

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Oh well, one is all I really need, I thought. The proverb zipped through my mind and I wrestled while the cashier rung up the rest of my order . . .

It’s no big deal.  You don’t need two grill lighters. Just let it go.

But it’s $ 5.49! I’m throwing away money my husband works hard for.

Not really, you’re just passing up a BOGO. It’s just a trick to get you to buy more. Don’t fall for it; you’re in a hurry and there’s a line at customer service.

The lazy woman does not wait in line for a rain check, but the diligent woman . . .

Ugh.

In under three minutes I had my rain check. Incidentally, the silver-haired woman in line with me did the same thing with her BOGO. I bet she didn’t consider wrestling with her lazy spirit.

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Proverbs has much to offer us, so that’s my challenge for you. Poke a proverb for yourself and see if God uses it to teach you a little lesson. At the very least, you’ll gain instant wisdom from the ancient saints who went before us.

Follow your dreams or your mission?

By Erika Rizkallah

Follow your dreams.

In our individualistic culture we’re bombarded with the idea. All forms of media fill our heads with bucket lists and the notoriety of easy celebrity.

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I admit I’ve been fascinated with following my dreams since I was a kid. I was convinced I could be so many things: a model, a marine biologist an Egyptologist . . .

It didn’t matter I was too short and plain for modeling, or that I was afraid of fish and  hated sand. Those careers appealed to me. Then the reality that I lacked certain skills became obvious and I settled for the unglamorous job of working in human resources.

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Until recently I pursued some other dreams but chronic illness, aging and parenting issues edged them out, making them seem frivolous. I struggle with that – after all, aren’t we supposed to follow our dreams?

I wonder if it’s a modern construct. If it’s part of Paul’s warning about the last days, People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . . 3 Timothy 1-5

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So I looked to the Bible for wisdom. I found nothing about following dreams. I looked to Jesus’ life and wondered about his dreams. Was he content with his carpentry career?  Did he talk to his buddies about it?

Then it hit me. We were his dream of the future.

He focused ceaselessly on God’s purpose, not veering from his mission. Mark 1:21-39 offers a clue. He taught with authority in the Capernaum synagogue and dramatically drove a demon out of a man. Later he went to Peter’s house and found his mother-in-law suffering with a high fever. Jesus healed her and that evening the people brought him all the sick and demon-possessed. The Bible says, the whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed many and drove out many demons.

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Early the next morning he left the house and went to pray in a solitary place. Peter and his friends found him saying, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. 

He was so focused on his mission that he left the comfort of Peter’s home and the certainty of local celebrity to spread God’s good news to others in the region.

We benefit as a result of his obedience and in turn, his dreams for us (and himself) came true. It seems to me that when we follow God’s purpose for our lives, somehow they intersect.

What about you? Do you find God’s purpose and your dreams are in sync? Please share and tell us how!

 

5 Benefits of Having a Clear Conscience

By Erika Rizkallah

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The other day I took my dog, Titan, for a walk on our dock. Generally he hates this because he’s a big chicken. He’s afraid of the dark and wind but he seemed eager this day. He pulled me up the ramp, through the gazebo and toward the water. So I went with it.

I thought, well you’re not such a fraidy cat after all. We walked a short while and he stopped;  I gazed at the water and took a few cleansing breaths of salty air. Then he started pulling me back toward the house. Ah, the wind! I thought.

When we got to the gazebo I saw something out of the corner of my eye and pulled on the leash. He stopped and stoically faced forward.

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“Titan!” I barked. He just looked at me.

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Then he turned forward again as if I couldn’t see him; he knows not to pick up bones.

He has a conscience . . . a guilty one.

Having a clear conscience is a gift of peace. The idea of having a clear conscience before God is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Interchangeable words are “heart” and “mind.” According to the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis “. . . the words have a dominant metaphorical use in reference to the center of human psychical and spiritual life, to the entire inner life of a person.”

Here are five benefits of having a clear conscience straight from the Bible. For the full stories read the scripture references. Since it’s a longer than normal post I’d suggest pouring a cup of coffee and reading it as a mini study.

God keeps us from sinning against him – Read Genesis 20:1-18 – When Abraham was traveling in the region of the Negev he told people that his wife, Sarah, was his sister. One day Abimelech, the king of the land sent for Sarah and took her. Nice huh? But God came to him in a dream and told him she was married woman. Now Abimelech hadn’t touched her so he appealed to God and claimed his innocence. He said, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.”

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We are freed from burdens – Read 1 Samuel 25 1-34 – While David (before he was king) hid in the desert from King Saul, he watched the flocks of a rich jerk named Nabal. At shearing time it was customary for the owner of the flocks to feed the shepherds protecting them. But Nabal refused and offended David, so he came tearing down the hills bent on revenge. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, was a smart lady and rode out to meet him with gifts of food and drink. She humbled herself, called him master and said, “When the Lord has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” Abigail’s humility and quick thinking saved scores of lives that day.

The New Testament idea of conscience changes a bit as it’s influenced by Greek and Roman thought. As the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains, “The avoidance of a bad, accusing conscience is worth aspiring after, yet it is even more important to have a good conscience that confirms the correspondence of faith and life.” and “The Pastoral Letters lay great emphasis on a good conscience.” In short, it’s a rule of conduct applying to us today.

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Our conscience confirms our duty before God – Read Acts 22:1-23:11 – The Apostle Paul gave his testimony about Christ before a hostile crowd in Jerusalem. Things got so violent that the Romans arrested him and the next day he was brought before the Sanhedrin to find out why he was being accused by the Jews. The Bible says, Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” He was struck by those next to him for saying this and another violent dispute broke out. He was then taken away by force at the order of the Roman commander, but this time for his safety. But listen to this amazing sentence: The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome. The Lord himself stood by Paul that night!

We have knowledge of right and wrong – Read Romans 13:1 – Like Jiminy Cricket in the Pinocchio story says, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” Paul preached a lot about doing the right thing. In his letter to the Romans he wrote about submitting to the authorities, how it was the right thing to do (even though the Romans were known for their brutality). He writes, Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

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We have love – Read 1 Timothy 1:1-5 – When Paul went into Macedonia, he urged Timothy to stay in Ephesus to take care of men teaching false doctrines. It was Timothy’s job to command them to stop and instead do God’s work. Paul wrote, The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. The combination of a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith produces love.

I know when my conscience is clear I feel at peace with God, but it requires vigilance on my part. Right now, I’m working on some things that need cleaning up in my own life. How about you? Which of the five benefits applies to you right now?

 

 

Called to struggle

By Erika Rizkallah

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

Out of the darkness comes light. Do you believe this?

Whenever a mass killing streams across news headlines I try not to spend too much time in front of the television. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of a natural disaster or at the hands of a psychopath.

It’s too painful and I tend to absorb the energy of those who’ve suffered and lost.

However, the Orlando attack resonated with me; it could have been me in that bar. I don’t go to bars now (because I’m sober) but a long time ago, I frequented gay bars in my old hometown. It was the best place for a young woman to dance the night away without being hit on by sloshed and groping men.

Last night I forced myself to listen to the many survivor stories and I can’t get two of them out of my head.

The first was about a guy who’d made it out unharmed. On the way, he found a man who’d been shot three times – one was a life-threatening shot in the back. He helped him to a waiting police car for transport to the hospital. The officer had him shove his shirt in the bullet wound and instructed him to bear hug the guy all the way to the hospital. It was a human tourniquet and would help keep him from bleeding to death. Bloody and hugging the injured man, the good Samaritan said, “Can I pray for you?” He then cried out to God on the man’s behalf and comforted him, telling him everything would be alright.

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He silently begged God that his words would be true. His prayer was answered.

The next story was told by a man hiding in a bathroom stall with others when the shooter came in. He says they begged him not to shoot. The killer laughed and sprayed bullets. The survivor told the reporter the laughter sounded satisfied. It was a laugh unlike any he’d ever heard before.

He then went on to say, “It sounded like it came from another world.”

I don’t doubt it. The Bible clearly states that our world is increasingly evil. Because of this, we’re called to struggle.

We are called to strenuously resist our own evil inclinations and fight against the forces of darkness. We’re called to struggle in prayer.

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Prayer is our weapon. Faith is our shield. His word is our sword.

Today will you pick up your weapons and fight with me?