De Los Muertos

Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.
~ Deuteronomy 14:1

… and other oddities

November 1 is the well-known Mexican holiday, The Day of the Dead. Customs may vary throughout Mexico, but generally it is a celebration of the dead. People build ofrendas in their homes to place pictures or some possessions of their deceased relatives. They may have flowers or burn candles on these altars. People gather around the graves of their deceased and eat meals featuring the favorite foods and drinks of the departed, and leave portions for them as well. They pray to and for their dead, dance in the streets, and calaveras are everywhere.

The holiday is typically associated with the Catholic holidays, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. However, the Catholic influence on such practices is more come lately, as the roots these observances go back much further to the pre-hispanic, indigenous peoples of Mexico. Odd beliefs, customs, and practices concerning the dead go even further back in the roots of paganism.

Pagan Roots and Fruits

We first encounter observances pertaining to the dead in the Bible among the Canaanites. The old covenant law gave specific warnings to Israel, forbidding them from taking up the pagan practices of the nations around them (Leviticus 19:26-31; 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1; 18:9-14; 26:12-15). We find there prohibitions against such as making offerings to or for the dead, body modifications for the dead, eating the blood to gain power of the dead, and consulting with diviners and such to communicate with the dead in order to learn the future or gain special knowledge outside of God’s natural revelation in creation or special revelation in his word.

Of course, the Jews of Israel were not impervious to these cultic practices concerning the dead. A perusal of the prophets finds the nation condemned for such things as offering their children in the fire and seeking commune with the dead (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 47:12; Jeremiah 7:31-32; Ezekiel 23:37-39). By the time of the intertestamental period post-exile, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be offerings for the dead and prayers to and for the dead in Israel. The inclusion of such things is one of the reasons early churches rejected the intertestamental books as apocryphal, not including them in the canon of Scripture.

Various adaptations of pagan practices concerning the dead have persisted in church history. The practice of prayers to and for the dead eventually gave rise to the doctrine of purgatory and the idea of post-mortem atonement or absolution of sins. I hope that evangelical Christians can see all these things as the abominable pagan practices they are, regardless of the sanctified language, historied traditions, good intentions, or imaginative reasoning used to support them.

A Rose of Another Name

It is good to have such hope I suppose, but Christians really seem to struggle to get a handle on paganism. We can’t seem to figure out what it is exactly. For some, all you have to do is label something as pagan and that roundly condemns all instances of it and everyone within a fifty mile radius of it. You better steer clear of any twice-removed cousins who know a guy that has a friend who might have seen it or heard of it before. Of course, that is not any species of scriptural reasoning at all. It is more like the reasoning of a sweating fundamentalist evangelist at a southern summer campmeeting. He can preach agin’ anything. All he has to do is label it worldly and then quote a verse about not loving the world, and, boom, he’s got “bible” for preaching the devil out of y’all.

Calling something pagan or claiming it has pagan roots doesn’t accomplish anything. For instance, pagans have hunted and farmed as long as pagans have existed. They typically pray to their gods before and after their harvests. Does that mean farming and hunting are pagan practices? When a Christian engages in these activities and prays to the true and only God before after the harvests, is he committing paganism?

A pagan cuts down a tree, builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread, and with the rest he makes idols to worship (Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:2-5)? Pagans go outside and cut flowers or other greenery to bring into their homes. They may do so with observing certain rites and believing they are inviting the spirits of their ancestors into their homes to bring them favor. When a Christian cuts down a tree, builds a fire, warms himself, or bakes bread, is he practicing paganism? When a Christian man brings home a bouquet of beautiful flowers to his wife and she puts them in a vase on the dining room table, or they otherwise adorn their home with plants of God’s creation, have they committed abominations?

Paul would say, No (1 Timothy 4:3-5). The creation of God is good and is to be received and enjoyed with thanksgiving. All things are made by God and rightly belong to him (Psalms 24:1). Paul actually quoted that verse in 1 Corinthians 10:26 where in chapters 8-10 he is showing that meat sacrificed to idols is not tainted or inherently sinful. Paul wrote that those who have true knowledge understand that and that an idol is nothing in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4). Those chapters certainly help us sort out paganism for what it is. Paganism doesn’t create or own anything. Paganism perverts and corrupts what God has created and owns to use for abominable practices. But, pagan misuse doesn’t nullify a proper use.

Secret Sauce

Getting back to praying for the dead and other such odd practices, what should we make of it? Some may be tempted to apply Paul’s argument about meat sacrificed to idols and say, “Oh, we aren’t praying for the dead like that. We are not praying like pagans do. We don’t believe in purgatory or post-death atonement. We are merely praying retroactively, knowing that God has all power and time is nothing to him.” I’m tempted to ask, What then are you praying for? What are you asking God to do, or what you asking for to happen? Stripped back to the essence, this argument claims that pagans misuse prayers for the dead and these Christians are making a right use of prayers for the dead.

That argument fails and twists Scripture. We have already considered references where such practices for the dead are condemned as pagan abominations. God doesn’t give alternatives to those practices as if there were a right way to do it. No, he says don’t do it at all because you are “the children of the LORD your God,” and you are “an holy people unto the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). When it comes to plowing a field, there is a way to plow in sin (Proverbs 21:4) and a way to plow in faith (1 Corinthians 9:10). The plowing itself is neither sinful nor righteous. Paul said the same thing about eating the meat. But, praying for the dead is only sinful. There is no right way and wrong way to do it. The whole practice is abominable.

The various strange practices for the dead are all linked by the attempt to converse with a realm that is forbidden to us living people. When Moses gave Israel the law, he made clear that the source of knowledge for them and the source of requirements for them was not hidden or secreted away is some unreachable realm so that they would have to resort to unusual means to find it out (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). What God wants us to know is given to us in his written word (Deuteronomy 29:29). To pray for the dead is to meddle with God’s domain that is his alone. Our prayers are to be made to God alone and not after the manner of pagans (Matthew 6:5-13), and they are to be made for the people living in our time (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Well, Actually

We all struggle at times to distinguish wrong from right. When it comes to oraciones por los muertos, prayers for the dead, no struggle is required. It’s actually pagan. It’s actually wrong.

A New Year’s Prayer

Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.
– 3 John 2

Pray the Scripture.

New Year’s Day is just another day. A lot of people are off from work and maybe spend the day with family, but it’s not really so much different from the day before it or after it. It’s not just another day, since it marks the beginning of a new year. I realize that’s just convention, but there’s something to it for us.

New Year’s provides a natural time for us to review the previous year and different aspects of our life in general. We also naturally look ahead and even if we don’t have written goals, we probably have unwritten ones. We have areas of our life in mind that we would like to improve, continue, or maybe stop. Goals involving personal health and finances are on most people’s minds. If you’re a Christian, you probably have in mind some sort of spiritual goals. Maybe you want to read the Bible in a year for the first time, or pray more, or pray better.

So let’s think together on a portion of Scripture that will perhaps help us with three common goals or thoughts at the beginning of a new year: devotions, money, and prayer. Paul wrote to Timothy:

    Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.
    – 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Meditate on the Scripture

What does this passage mean? Paul mentions riches in this passage and it is the third mention material possessions at the close of this letter. The first is a warning about greedy, false teachers (1 Timothy 6:3-5). The second flows from the first and is a word concerning contentment and a sober warning to those who desire to be rich (1 Timothy 6:6-10). Paul then tells Timothy to flee all these things that he be above reproach and then gives Timothy this charge for the rich.

The word Paul uses for rich in this passage means wealth, or abundance of possessions. Most of us dismiss this charge as belonging to a category of people we do not belong to. Not so fast. The earlier warning was to those who want to be rich and this word is to those who “are rich in this world.” If we think in general and basic terms, riches refers to having abundant possessions, or having more than mere necessity. While we can discuss a range of having more, we must admit that most everyone reading this has more than simply mere necessity. The fact there are people with far greater abundance than us does not change the fact that we have more than just what we need. So this charge is for you and for me.

The charge consists of two things not to do and five things to do that will result in “laying up in store … for the time to come,” and laying “hold of eternal life.” First, we are not to be highminded. The word means haughty and Paul is telling us not to derive our self-worth from our possessions where we esteem ourselves more highly than those who have less than us. Second, we are not to trust in uncertain riches. Whatever abundance we have, we are not to have confidence and hope in those things, which are so uncertain. Everything you and I have today could be gone tomorrow.

Having wealth in whatever measure, we are first charged to trust in God, who is the source of our abundance and the terminus for our enjoyment, praise, and thanksgiving. Second, we are to do good. Doing good means doing good for others, or doing things for the benefit of others. Third, we are to have an abundance of good works. The word for good here means beautiful in the sense of noble, or virtuous. Fourth, we are to be ready to give. Fifth, we are to be ready to share.

Paul, nor other Scripture, condemns the having of abundance. We are warned not to trust in it, nor to pursue it as our primary goal. We are charged to be open-handed and generous in giving to others. We are to be thankful for what we have, recognizing from Whom we have received it. And, we are to use it for enjoyment and service in bringing glory to God. By this, we lay up treasure in Heaven.

Pray the Scripture

Maybe you have heard someone talking about praying Scripture, but aren’t sure what they mean. First, let’s admit we all struggle in prayer. We fall into routine, redundant prayers we don’t even need to be fully awake to pray. We set out to spend a longer time in prayer but run out of gas after only a few minutes. Praying Scripture can help us, but what is it and how does it work?

Let’s use our passage to see how we might pray this passage. First, we read the passage and meditate, or think, on what it means and how it applies to us. We did this in the previous section. You may to spend some time thinking how each of those charges apply to you personally. Second, we pray the passage.

We often must begin with confession to put ourselves in the right place in the passage. Here we begin by acknowledging we are rich. We have more than bare necessities in life. Don’t worry about who may have more, or less. You have more than you deserve and more than you truly need. So acknowledge this before God.

Next we focus on what we are not to do. If we have been highminded and trusting in possessions, confess it and repent of it. This will take time for reflection and examination to search out our own hearts and shine the light of Scripture in the dark corners. After confession, we seek God for his help and deliverance from these temptations and failings.

Then we pray through what we are charged to do. We can follow the pattern–examine our hearts and lives, confess and repent our failures, and seek God for deliverance and preservation to glorify him in faithful obedience.

A New Year’s Prayer

This particular praying of Scripture is an excellent way to start the new year. Perhaps this practice will help you pray more and better in the new year. Maybe this prayer will help us with the abundance we have. I pray this will help us glorify him this year, whether by life or by death.

Prayer Reboot

Pray without ceasing. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:17

Pray without ceasing.
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:17

A devotion for prayer meeting.

This devotion calls for one of those rare moments of honesty. I know that’s the last thing many expect when coming to church—someone being honest. If we are all going to be honest though, we grow dull in prayer too often. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I can speak for myself and my own experience in times of dull dryness in prayer. Sometimes I let the busyness of life push prayer from the center. Sometimes I’m tired and feel scattered and prayer is not fresh. I find in those times that prayer becomes repetitive and mechanical. I find that prayer becomes general and vague. I also find that prayer at those times becomes much more focused on me and what I need or want.

Simply put, there are times we need a reboot in our prayer life. We need a refreshing and refocusing in prayer. To help us in that, I want to look at some specific prayers from the Bible. This will not include everything we are commanded to pray for in the Bible, but some key things that will help us to refocus. In order to recover fresh zeal in prayer, we often need to come back to specific prayer needs in our own life and for others around us.

Pray for the salvation of the lost

It’s good to begin outside of ourselves and consider the needs of others. Paul gave us a good example of praying for the salvation of the lost.

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.
– Romans 10:1

He testified that he had “great heaviness and continual sorrow” for his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” i.e. Israel (Romans 9:2-3). He had a great desire and prayed for his fellow Jews that they might be saved. Likewise, we have family who are lost. We have neighbors who are lost. We have co-workers who are lost. Let us repent of our indifference and pray to God that they might be saved.

We do not only pray for salvation, but we also give witness of the Gospel to those we pray for. In that regard, we should also be praying for the free course of the Gospel among those we pray for.

Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you:
– 2 Thessalonians 3:1

We should be praying for appropriate boldness in our witness.

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that i may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel,
– Ephesians 6:18-19

We need the boldness that the Word deserves when it is proclaimed. It may sound contradictory, but we also need to pray for meekness and humility in our witness. We need to speak the truth in love and not become angry or shout at others when we face opposition (1 Peter 2:21-23).

We should also be praying for other churches and missionaries in their work of evangelizing. We should not only be concerned about ourselves or our church, but we should have a burden for our fellow laborers and pray for them and rejoice with them when the Lord blesses them.

Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; That I may be delivered form them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints;
– Romans 15:30-31

We should not be all wrapped up in what we are doing. We should remember others and their labor for the Lord.

Pray for ourselves and our brothers and sisters

As we pray for our own needs, we must also remember our brothers and sisters who have the same needs in several areas. We should be praying for an increased knowledge of God and his will.

For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;
– Colossians 1:9

We should pray for the flourishing of hope in our lives.

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints,
– Ephesians 1:18

We should pray for unfailing faith and help for our unbelief (Mark 9:24).

But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
– Luke 22:32

We should pray for strength to stand.

Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness;
– Colossians 1:11

We should pray for fruitfulness in our lives. Fruitfulness glorifies God and should be our desire (John 15:8, 16).

That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;
– Colossians 1:10

Lastly, we should pray for deliverance from temptation.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
– Matthew 6:13

We are daily engaged in a great warfare against our flesh, sin, and the devil. We must never take it lightly, but pray continually to be delivered (Matthew 26:41).

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