Notes from my Prayer Journal Part III

In my last two articles I mentioned that I have made 2016 my year of prayer. I did so in part to renew my own prayer life but also to learn more about prayer. In my first article (March Issue) I gave some general observations about prayer. In my second article (April Issue) I raised and then attempted to answer the basic question of why we pray. My answer to that question was that there is no better answer than simply the example of Jesus – “And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray . . .” The Son of God, who knew the wisdom of His heavenly Father above any of us, felt such a strong compelling need to pray that he made it a regular habit of His life.

Answering the question above, caused me to focus on the prayer life of Jesus. As I did I discovered something that is both fundamental and essential to our own prayer life. Jesus was able to pray with remarkable ease, under any circumstance, about anything, with complete confidence because He knew His Heavenly Father was absolutely trustworthy. The God Jesus reveals always has our ultimate good in mind. He has no malice or evil intentions. He is completely good. And the fact that He is also all-knowing and all-powerful makes his goodness even better. One can never develop a satisfactory prayer life until one knows that our Heavenly Father is entirely good, loving and trustworthy.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they did so presumably because Jesus’ own prayer life was so vibrant and reflected such an easy uncomplicated trust in His Heavenly Father. One way Jesus used to teach them how to pray was to give them a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) that actually accomplished two things. First, it gave them the basic composition of a prayer. Second, it provided amazing insight into the nature of the God to whom they pray. To me, this second aspect is more important than the first because it fuels our faith by underscoring the trustworthiness and goodness of the God to whom we pray!

As we dismantle the various sections of the prayer we can clearly see the kind of God that Jesus came to reveal. The kind of God that is truly trustworthy!

“Our Father”- God is not distant sovereign but “Dear Father”. He desires to have intimate involvement in our lives. He is a God that is personal!

“Our Father who art in Heaven” – The Jewish understanding of heaven did not refer to a faraway place. Heaven referred to the surrounding atmosphere. He was telling His disciples that God is near. He is as close as the air you breathe.  He is a God that is present!

“Hallowed be thy name” – God is holy. There is nothing about Him that is bad or evil. He cannot sin nor participate in anything evil or wrong. His intentions for me are always good.  He is a God that is pure!

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – As the King who rules over all, He is a God that is powerful!

“Give us this day our daily bread” – God cares about our basic needs. He is a God that provides!

“Forgive us our trespasses . . .” – Richard Foster said, “At the very heart of God is the desire to forgive and to give.” He is a God that pardons!

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” – We all face trials, problems and sicknesses but our Heavenly Father always has the last word. Nothing can happen to us that God cannot redeem. He is a God that protects!

Trustworthiness in the One to whom we pray is crucial in developing a healthy vibrant prayer life. Praying the Lord’s Prayer and embracing what it teaches about our Heavenly Father was Jesus’ way of reinforcing this in the lives of His disciples. I believe it still works today. Try it with me in 2016!

Closing the Gap Between Knowing and Being

I have always been fascinated by what people say when they pray. The prayers of a great saint are not only edifying but revealing. They tell you something about the one praying as well as offer insight into the needs of those he prays for. Reading the prayers of the apostle Paul explains what I mean (read Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-21; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-11). The Apostle’s prayers consistently reflect two great requests: enlightenment and enablement. Paul’s earnest desire for his spiritual children is that they might have a growing knowledge of God’s will and power to live out that will.

Paul understood the importance of knowledge. He often began his prayer by asking that believers might be filled with spiritual wisdom, understanding, and an ever-growing knowledge of God. This knowledge would come from scripture, the teachings of the apostles and prophets, experientially through a daily walk with Jesus, and through the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s concern that his children grow in knowledge was not simply concern for intellectual attainment but for moral and behavioral transformation. Paul wants us to know so that we can be.

Paul’s companion request was for power, not power to work signs and wonders but the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to live beautiful, holy lives that manifest the fruit of the Spirit. Knowledge alone can’t take the wobble out of our walk. For knowledge to effect change it must be activated. One may be a Greek scholar and a master theologian and at the same time be a failure at living out a holy life. One needs power to translate what one knows into what one is and does.

The natural question that should follow is, “How is this power activated in one’s life?” Understanding the source of this power is an important first step. It is not self-generated. It does not have its source in human invention or determination. Paul tells the Ephesians that it is “His power”; that we are “strengthened with might through His Spirit”; and “according to the power that works in us” (meaning the power of the Holy Spirit). To the Philippians he says that we have these fruits of righteousness “by Jesus Christ.” To the Colossians it is “according to His glorious power” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” To the Galatians he says, “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh…but the fruit of the Spirit is….” Paul makes it clear that the power to live godly lives comes only through divine enablement.

The question still remains, “How is the Holy Spirit’s power unleashed in my life?” Again, there is something we must understand. The power of the Holy Spirit is not a thing that we possess. It is not like a high-octane fuel additive that supercharges our spiritual engine. The Holy Spirit is a person who lives within us in intimate relationship. He is there because we have willingly surrendered our lives to His control. And whatever He controls He empowers. And when He empowers, we are able to manifest the character of the God we serve. The key to this inner strength is total surrender. As we walk in the light and mature in Christ, we will be enlightened to new areas that need His enablement.   These new areas must be surrendered too, so that the Holy Spirit can give us victory and power in them. If we aren’t careful we will be tempted to handle these in our strength, and the end result will be failure.

Oswald Chambers said it succinctly when he declared that “to be our utmost for His Highest is not a matter of willing, wrestling, debating or reasoning, but of surrender.” If you want to close the gap between what you know you should be and what you are — you must close the gap between what is under your control and what is under His.

 

The Security of Footsteps In Prayer

The president’s home here at GBS is a one-hundred-year-old house with a basement, two floors for living and a third-floor attic. Needing a place for my “prayer closet,” I tidied up a corner room in the attic that has three small windows overlooking the campus. I was elated with my little chamber because it was the one place in the house that I could go that gave me both complete solitude and the confidence that no one could hear anything as I discoursed with the Master. I did know that my prayer room was directly above my son’s bedroom. I didn’t know that with every step I took (I walk when I pray) a corresponding squeak could be heard by my son below.

A few days ago I was up in my room praying at an unusual time. Josh happened to be in his bedroom studying. When I came down, he asked in a concerned voice if something was wrong or if I was preaching that night.

With my curiosity aroused, I simply responded, “Why do you ask, son?”

“Well,” he said, “I just heard the floor squeaking in the prayer room.”

Apologetically I said, “I hope I didn’t disturb you!”

He responded with words that I will take with me to my grave. “Oh, no, Dad! It makes us feel safe when we hear you up there.”

My own childhood was marked by a praying mother. My memories of growing up on a small farm are filled with the sounds and scenes of Mother praying. Many were the times that I would follow the sound of her voice to a fallen log at the end of the woods, or to a cattle trough behind the old barn, only to find her in deep communion with God. That upturned face, bathed with tears, is etched on my mind’s eye forever. That familiar voice, interceding for her family, still rings in my ears as if I were a boy again hiding in the shadows of that old barn. Death has stilled her voice, but the legacy of her prayer life lives on.

Parents, are you praying? There is no experience of conversion or any work of grace, which will provide immunity against the lack of prayer. When prayer fades out, power fades out. If intercession ceases, spiritual security in the home is lost. We are as spiritual as we are prayerful – no more, no less.

Our children need to hear the steps of Mom and Dad in prayer or on the way to prayer. I heard them, and I want my boys to hear them, so that someday they will give their children “the security of footsteps in prayer.”

Notes From My Prayer Journal – Part II

In my last article I mentioned that I wanted to make 2016 my year of prayer. I did so in part to renew my own prayer life but also to learn more about prayer. All of us began our journey in the school of prayer as learners rather than experts. At some point along the way we all faced certain nagging questions: Is God really listening? If God knows everything, what’s the point of me telling Him something He already knows? Does prayer really make a difference? Why would He seemingly answer a small trivial prayer and not something really important? Does prayer change God or change me? These questions will eventually come to focus on the one big question: “Why pray?”

There have been gallons of ink spilled trying to answer that question but there is no better answer than simply the example of Jesus – “And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray . . .” The Son of God, who knew the wisdom of His heavenly Father above any of us, felt such a strong compelling need to pray that he made it a regular habit of His life. Surely if the Son of God needed to pray how much more do I need to value and practice the act of prayer?

If the example of Jesus is the most compelling answer to the question of why one prays, then it seems to me we can learn something from the prayer life of Jesus. The Gospels record for us over a dozen of His prayers. I believe the prayers He prayed, the times and places He prayed them and the reasons He prayed them offer us remarkable insight into why Jesus prayed and consequently why we should pray.

Why Jesus Prayed

  1. Jesus prayed during times of trouble. The prayers of Jesus in the Wilderness, Gethsemane and on Golgotha represent times of trouble and soul sorrow. The Hebrew writer tells us that, “He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears . . .” (Heb.5:7)

Lesson: Times of great sorrow or personal upheaval fray our emotions, cloud our thinking and challenge our faith. Jesus took these situations to prayer and it was prayer that enabled Him to come through with the attitude and spirit that said, “. . . not my will, but thine, be done.”

Jesus prayed for others. He prayed for children brought to him by their mothers. He prayed for the onlookers at Lazarus tomb. He prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail. He prayed for His disciples that they would be “sanctified through the truth.” He prayed for all who would believe on His name. He prayed while hanging on the cross for those who nailed Him there.

Lesson: Prayer should have an “others orientation” to it. Jesus showed a remarkable lack of concern about his own needs. “Take this cup from me” may represent the only time Jesus asked something for himself. We also learn that we can and should take every situation, every person and every need to our Heavenly Father in prayer. We should live in a conversational relationship with God about everything and everyone in our lives.

  1. Jesus used prayer to recharge spiritually. After a long day of exhausting ministry Jesus would escape into the wilderness, only to emerge with a renewed sense of mission, direction and power. “I have meat to eat that ye know not of” Jesus told His disciples. The first chapter of the Gospel of Mark offers amazing insight into a weary Jesus finding personal renewal, clarity of direction and great power to minister after a time of prayer.

Lesson: The Chinese join two characters (heart and killing) to form a single pictograph for their word for busyness. That is stunningly incisive – it is true literally and spiritually. The heart is the place the busy life exacts its steepest toll. Too much work, the British used to say, makes Jack a dull boy. But it’s worse than that. It numbs Jack, parches Jack, and hardens Jack. It kills his heart. When we get too busy we lose something vitally important to the spiritual life. It is the solitude of prayer that allows our hearts to be refreshed, renewed and refocused on the things that really matter. When you choose to retreat to the place of prayer in the middle of all your busyness, you will find that you can work hard and not be destroyed by your failures or your successes.

  1. Jesus prayed before and around momentous or key events. Moments such as: His baptism, the selection of His disciples, His transfiguration on the Mount and before his final redemptive act and return to heaven.

Lesson: The night I was elected President of GBS, Dr. Wingrove Taylor ask me to accompany him to the prayer room in the men’s residence hall. When we arrived, he turned to me and said, “As President of GBS you will have many low moments but you will also have many high moments – moments of great accomplishment. In the low moments turn to God in prayer. But make sure you take the high moments, the great moments, to God in prayer too.”

  1. Jesus prayed just to commune with His Father. The prayers of Jesus reveal a spontaneous communion with the Father that has no precedent anywhere else in scripture. Jesus prayed just to engage in intimate conversation with His Father.

 Lesson: Prayer is the currency of friendship and intimacy with God. God wants to be wanted – enough so that we should be ready, predisposed, to linger in His presence. Dallas Willard says that spiritual people are not those who engage in certain spiritual practices; they are those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:12)

(To be continued)

Notes From My Prayer Journal – Part I

As I was doing some personal reflection during the final days of 2015, I decided to make 2016 my “year of prayer.” I did so for several reasons.

First, there are those seasons in the soul when one needs a fresh stimulus to pray. I was in one of those seasons. Second, I, along with the school, am facing significant transitions in the coming days-transitions that must have Divine direction. Third, I just wanted to learn more about prayer. I felt like Albert Einstein when a doctoral student at Princeton asked him, “What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?” To which Einstein replied, “Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer.” So rather than an article, I am giving you a peek into my private prayer journal where I am seeking to “find out about prayer.”

My approach is to share a personal observation that relates to a perceived weakness in my prayer life, and then a quote that spoke truth into my life about that particular area of weakness.

Observation #1: Too often when I approach prayer, I get the direction wrong. I quickly start downstream telling God about my concerns, my need of direction, my need of knowing His will, rather than starting upstream where the flow begins. However, when I start upstream, prayer raises my sight beyond the struggles or questions of the moment. It restores my vision to one that more resembles God’s. As I see things from His perspective, my soul is nourished and my faith strengthened.

“An extreme preoccupation with knowing God’s will for me may only indicate that I am over concerned with myself, rather than possessed with a Christlike interest in the well-being of others or in the glory of God.” -Dallas Willard

Observation #2: I often pray back to God the words of the Lord’s Prayer. I stress, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” As I pray this, I am reminded that it takes effort on my part to remember that I am the creature and He is the Creator. The practical application of this means that I must climb down from my own executive chair of control, uncreate the little world I have fashioned, and let God truly be God!

“In a life of participation in God’s kingdom rule, we are not to make things happen, but only to be honestly willing and eager to be made able.”

-Dallas Willard

Observation #3: At times my pray-ers seem so sterile. They are more like the dry repetition of liturgy than a conversation in the presence of my dearest friend. At the heart of this problem is a deficient understanding of how much God longs to talk with me, reveal Himself to me, and have a conversational relationship with me.

“The most staggering thing I have ever learned is that the eternal God-who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-has invited me to enter into conversation with that exclusive group.” -Dennis Kinlaw

“Who one believes God to be is most accurately revealed not in any credo but in the way one speaks to God when no one else is listening.” -Nancy Mairs

We are unceasing spiritual beings, created for an intimate and transforming friendship with the creative Community that is the Trinity.”

-Dallas Willard

Observation #4: Sometimes when I go to the special place of prayer, it seems I am all alone-void of any sense of His presence. At those times my prayers seem particularly inadequate or faltering.

 

“Prayer can seem dull or difficult; though if we give ourselves to it, [it] commonly ends up less dull and less obstructed than it began. Only what is dull or dark or labored on our side is not so on the side of God, who rejoices in every least motion of our good will towards Him; and where we see the merest vestige of His presence, there with cherubim and seraphim and all the host of heaven is He.” –Austin Farrer

“We do not go to a certain place to present our prayers, for He is already with us. We simply turn our attention to Him and acknowledge the prior reality that He has been there all along.” -Dennis Kinlaw

“If we fixate on techniques, or sink into guilt over our inadequate prayers, or turn away in disappointment when I don’t sense His presence, I need to remind myself that prayer is keeping company with God who is already present.” -Philip Yancey

(To be continued)

Ain’t Anybody Gonna Cry?

Healthy Christians have an appropriate balance of up-reach (worship), in-reach (spiritual formation) and outreach (evangelism). If we lack any one of the three we lack the kind of spiritual health taught in scripture. If we fail to give proper attention to any one of them, it will create a deficit or imbalance in the other two. We need the vigorous engagement of all three to be all that God wants us to be. With that in mind, I want to focus on the one that troubles my spirit and prompts this article – outreach.

God wants to work through you and me to reach a lost world. It is one of the primary roles we fill as Christians. It is true that we were made to enjoy an intimate relationship with the triune God but it is a working relationship! Just as Jesus was sent by His Father into the world on redemptive business, so we are being sent by Jesus to work in the family business – the business of saving lost men. This is our job! It is the primary reason given and illustrated in the book of Acts for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). He was given to fortify us with the kind of power necessary to testify of Jesus even in the face of death. Yet, while 80 percent of Christians believe they have a duty to share Christ with others; and 75 percent believe they can effectively carry out that duty; over 60 percent make no endeavor to witness to or win the lost. This is appalling! James S. Stewart put it this way, “The threat to Christianity is not atheism, materialism or communism. The greatest threat to Christianity is Christians who are trying to sneak into heaven incognito without ever having shared their faith.”

The obvious question is, “Why do so many Christians make no attempt to be a

channel that the Holy Spirit can use to bring someone to Christ?”

Frankly, there are barriers on both sides of the outreach door. Lost people erect emotional, intellectual and volitional barriers that make it very difficult, and at times impossible, for anyone to penetrate. These can be overcome with relationship building, patience and a willingness to answer objections graciously. Barriers for believers can be numerous but the list I have developed in short and to the point.

Intercession

Dennis Kinlaw notes, “Nothing saving ever originates with us. God takes the initiative in everything that is saving”. Yet this God, who alone can save, has chosen not to work alone. He has called us to work with Him in the saving of souls. One of the jobs He asks us to do is to be intercessors (one who causes to meet). Remarkably, God wants someone who will stand between the lost soul and Himself and be a channel of His grace to that lost person. When is the last time you paid the price of soul travail that allowed you to lift the reluctant hand of a lost friend toward the outstretched hand of a merciful God?

Religious Isolation

In a recent interview, Francis Chan said that as a young Christian in high school he used to cry over his friends when he thought about them spending eternity in hell. The same was true when he worked in a restaurant, he used to cry over the waiters and waitresses and pray, “God you’ve got to save these people”. However, after he began working in the church, he didn’t weep very much over the lost. Chan is being very transparent about what can easily happen to any Christian when they isolate themselves within the community of believers. Unless we interact with lost people there can be no outreach through us. There is no impact without contact. You need to ask yourself the question, “How many sinners do I have a close enough relationship to that the Holy Spirit could effectively use me to reach them for Christ?”  If your answer is none, then you clearly aren’t even trying to reach the lost.

It’s not my job!

Pastors regularly tell their congregations that it is his job to equip the church to do the work of the ministry. Congregations often respond (under their breath) that the pastor and his staff are being “paid” to reach people! The end result is that no one feels like it’s their job! Scripturally, the “going” shoes of the Great Commission fit the feet of all believers – clergy and laity alike!

Indifference

My gut feeling is that most Christians just don’t care. Indifference has robbed us of a broken heart for lost people. It has stolen the passion and commitment to do whatever it takes to be an instrument or the means of someone’s conversion. A well-known pastor shared the story of shaking hands with a group of Sunday school kids when one little boy informed him that he was moving and would never be able to come back to his church. The pastor simply patted the boy on the head and continued shaking hands with the other children. Suddenly, the pastor felt someone tugging on the back of his suit jacket. He turned around and there was the same little boy who had announced he was moving. The boy looked longingly into the eyes of his Pastor and said, “ain’t you even gonna cry?”

Does any lost soul know that you care enough to cry? More importantly, does God know that He can reach a broken world through your broken heart?