Archive | July, 2012

Covenant Prayer (part 1)

31 Jul

Today’s guest post starts a series on “Covenant Prayer” from Steve Witherup, one of the other pastors here at Center City Church. He holds a MTh from the University of Wales and is way smarter than me.

Mother Teresa was once invited to be the special guest of honor at a conference where several biblical scholars read papers, addressing topics such as social justice and servanthood. After the conference ended, one of the speakers approached Mother Teresa and asked her opinion on his presentation. I imagine the response expected was a showering of compliments concerning his amazing academic insight into an area so dear to the heart of Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa, however, responded by saying that she thought the paper was ‘o.k.’, but the best thing he could have ‘said’ was to simply pick up the broom in the corner and serve by sweeping the dirty floor.
We are sometimes very good at avoiding things by using the tactic of talking about the very thing we are avoiding. This tactic allows for our conscience to remain a little clearer while our hands remain clean. Prayer, for some reason, is something that seems to often fall into this category. We talk a lot about it; we recommend it; we instinctively respond to others’ tragic stories with ‘we will pray for them’; yet so often, we simply avoid talking to God.

There are of course a lot of simple, practical reasons why we don’t pray. We are busy, we forget, we wake up late, we fall asleep early, or we see no pressing need. I wonder, however, if there is not a subconscious reason that sometimes plays a part as to why we would avoid praying. This may sound strange, but talking about prayer may feel safer than actually praying. When we pray, we give articulation to the sneaking suspicion we have that we are in desperate need of another. By praying, we admit that we have exhausted ourselves and others and have been found wanting. It is at this point we ask ourselves, do we dare take the risk of crying out? Do we risk expressing our vulnerability? What if we put ourselves out there and are met with silence? What if we vocalize our biggest dreams and desires and they never come to pass? Would it have been better to just play it safe and see what happens? Ultimately, it is easier and much safer to talk about relationships than to become fully vulnerable and enter one.

…but who likes to play it safe anyway? The Old Testament is full of stories of people who chose to not talk about prayer, but to embrace the covenant relationship God offered and then dared to pray BOLD prayers; dared to question God; dared to express displeasure; dared to beg for miracles; dared to express their biggest dreams; dared to ask God to change his mind; dared to cry out why?; dared to express their absolute desperate need of God to rescue them from that which oppressed.

Throughout this series on prayer, I am not going to give theory, but am going to look at some of the stories of those who actually prayed. By looking at the interactions between God and people like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, I believe we can gain so much insight and perhaps be inspired to put into practice the simple idea of talking to our Creator.

Because He bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath! Ps 116:2

Prayer (Week 2)

30 Jul

Center City is corporately focusing on the topic of prayer this month and reading Mark Batterson’s “The Circle Maker.” In the first section of Batterson’s book he challenges us to dream big. In order to dream big we must first understand the complete “otherness” of God. He is far above and beyond anything we can fathom. He warns us against being prisoners of our left brain (the side that focuses on all things rational and logical). The reality of this God-saturated universe requires much use of our right brain (the seat of our imagination and dreaming). One of my favorite professors from Southeastern, Dr. Waddell, says that the moment you’ve figured out God, he’s no longer God. We have to relentlessly free God from the boxes we’ve put him in. A.W. Tozer was fascinated with this idea. He says that the most important thing about us is what comes to mind when we think about God. Our thoughts about God are of infinite importance. Batterson, paraphrasing Tozer, says that a higher view of God is the solution to ten thousand problems. When we get a fresh revelation of the “otherness” of God, his omnipotent power, and his divine love it will greatly impact our prayer life.

There are so many questions surrounding the topic of prayer. Doubt creeps in regularly. Philip Yancey writes, “Why pray? I have asked myself that question almost every day of my Christian life, especially when God’s presence seems far off and I wonder if prayer is a pious form of talking to myself.” I have asked myself at times “What if prayer doesn’t change anything?” But as Dallas Willard puts it, you should always doubt your doubt. What if prayer does change things? What if God does hear and respond to us? All of this is a mystery. Batterson says that we will not always know the will of God and we can’t be sure God will answer our prayer. What is most important is that we pray and believe that He is ABLE.

But what does this mean in practice? Richard Foster has a wonderful first chapter in his book “Prayer” about simple prayer. He says that we often have a love/hate relationship with the practice of prayer. This tension is usually because we are trying to pray perfectly. We attempt to pray with perfect theology, without any hint of cloudy motives, and with rigid discipline. Foster says, “…we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives–altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture.” C.S. Lewis encourages us to “lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” There is no pretension in prayer. God sees us for who we are. We don’t have to come to God as a blameless over-achiever. He frees us to come to him as we are–sinners and sons.

We must re-define prayer. Prayer is not simply an act of language. Prayer is a turning of our attention toward the Creator-God. Thus, prayer is not defined by the words we speak but the posture of our heart. Our desire to pray may in fact be prayer. Desire should give birth to action. Foster says we should not seek any ecstatic experience in prayer. We need only to come to God with simple faith knowing we are his beloved children.

“My heart is not proud, O Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
Psalm 131:1-2

Language Rut

27 Jul

Coffee shops are weird places. The clientele is predictable. A graphic designer works on his latest piece. An old man reads a well worn book. Two moms chat about the development of their children and whose kid is getting better grades and achieving more. Almost always though there is the unmistakable pastor. He is deep in conversation with a parishioner. I must confess, I am an avid eavesdropper. It’s not that I am incredibly nosy, it’s that I have ADD tendencies and I can’t focus while there is a conversation going on. I have heard some interesting conversations recently. April is breaking up with her boyfriend soon because she’s just not feeling it anymore. Mom #1 is really concerned about her kid going through puberty. I digress.

The thing that I have noticed in all my coffee shop listening is that in the christian community our conversations are incredibly predictable. The language tends to be stale and detached from the concerns and questions of the “lost.” Pastors and Christians are in a language rut–this pastor included. We say the same Christian catch-phrases over and over ad nauseum. It borderlines absurdity. There is no life in our language. This is a travesty. Any Christian, especially a pastor, should be a teeming brook of awe-inspiring language that captures attention–not because of our pretension or expertise but because of our intimate relationship with the God that chose to reveal himself in words. To reduce the glorious message of Jesus and his Kingdom into predictable Christian slogans that resemble a car dealership’s model year-end blowout sale is a grievous sin. Language that would relegate the infinitely beautiful God-story into a stale set of bullet points breaks the heart of God and severely thwarts the mission of the church.

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Words have power. You cannot have a conscious thought without words. Sure you see things in pictures at times, but those images are associated with words. Your thought life is in direct relationship with your language. Here’s a scary thought: God can’t speak to you with language you don’t have. At the risk of being heretical, his communication to you is limited by the words you know and use.

We need a language revival. There are several authors I read that use language in a way that burrows into the soul. Eugene Peterson and Brennan Manning don’t write mere books, the write symphonies. Reading their work is like being caught up and carried by wave. Time passes but you don’t feel it. Their use of language is breathtaking. I want that to be said of my work one day–that my words literally had life in them.

The solution is not go learn 10 new words a day and start figuring out how to use them. Language doesn’t work that way. You can’t list out all the words you know. Your vocabulary is a product of your context. A language revival starts with putting yourself in a new environment. Immerse yourself in the biblical narrative. Start reading great books. Listen to deeply meaningful sermons. Stop watching Jersey Shore. When you catch yourself using catch-phrases, stop and communicate what you’re trying to say in a new way. Don’t be guilty of using dead language for a God who’s alive.

Check out Brennan Manning’s book “The Furious Longing of God” free on kindle. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Prayer (Week 1)

26 Jul

Prayer is at the core of human existence. We can’t help but to pray. It is the natural longing of the human heart to be in contact with the Divine. Thomas Merton said, “Prayer is an expression of who we are… We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” There is a gaping hole inside each of us that can only be filled by relationship with Jesus. But there is enormous struggle in prayer. Many believe in the power of prayer theoretically but struggle mightily with it in practice–myself included. There are so many questions that come to mind. What is the purpose of prayer? Does prayer change God or me or both? Why do some prayers get answered and others go seemingly ignored? Why is prayer so difficult if it is a natural inclination of the heart? Does God hear us? Is prayer simply “manifest destiny” as some argue?

Over the the next 5 weeks I will be blogging on the topic of prayer and I hope to speak to many of the aforementioned questions.

Before we address anything specifically I think it is important to understand the heart of prayer. We pray, not because God demands it, but because he desires it. The God who saturates the universe–the eternal, uncreated and unending God–is intimately concerned with us. He hears our prayers. He desires us. To truly experience prayer you must first acknowledge and accept your identity as a beloved child of God. The Father wants to be in an intimate relationship with you. I dare you to believe it.

“Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love.”
-Richard Foster

Blogging through Bonhoeffer 5

12 Jul

We all wear masks. In this new age of social media and constant connection, we carefully craft an image of ourselves. We post things that make us seem smart, influential, good looking and, most importantly, better than other people. We are constantly monitoring this social media persona to make sure nothing happens that would jeopardize the image we’ve worked so hard to create. But this reaches far beyond the digital world. Our lives are lived behind masks. We buy homes and cars we can’t afford to impress people we don’t like to achieve something that we’ve been told matters.

This culture seeps into the church. We do whatever we can to appear spiritual. We do everything that’s needed to fit into the church subculture. Conversation soars with lofty spiritual ideas. We are fluent in Christian jargon. We act the part. It is no surprise that people can go to the same church and engage in conversation regularly for years and never truly know each other. There is an elephant in the room and no one seems to notice. The elephant is sin. We are, by nature, sinners in desperate need of grace. When we try to interact as pious devotees we are masked. It is only when we are all well acquainted with our brokenness that we can truly be in community as the people of God.

Bonhoeffer speaks directly to this issue in chapter 5 of Life Together. He challenges us remove the masks that we are so comfortable hiding behind. “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” Many Christians find themselves in utter desolation. We are to blame for this issue. The church has a reputation for being a place where sinners do not feel welcome. No one wants to experience the judgement of the pious. So, they hide their sin. Bonhoeffer reminds us of the words of James, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you might be healed” (James 5:16). Confession is the prescription to this diseased culture of pious judgement. Bonhoeffer says that when we confess our brokenness to brothers/sisters in Christ we find healing. When we peel back the masks and confess our sins we experience forgiveness.

“Sin wants to remain unknown.” Darkness is the healthiest place for sin to grow. Sin takes us into isolation and tells us that no one understands. Sin tells us we are alone in the struggle. And the farther it drags you into isolation the darker it becomes. Light is the antidote for sin. When we openly bring our sin into the light by confessing it to our brother/sister we take away its power. “The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power.”

Bonhoeffer says that “the root of all sin is pride.” We like our image we’ve created too much to let it be known we are weak sinners. But the thing we run from is the thing we desperately need. “Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation.” We are not fond of humiliation. But if we are to be like Christ we are to be intimately acquainted with abasement. The cross is the ultimate indignity. Jesus Christ, the God of the universe, hung naked on a cross, bearing the sin of all humanity for our sake. “The Cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride. We cannot find the Cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely, the public death of the sinner.” Jesus will meet you at the place you acknowledge your brokenness.

Bonhoeffer, later in the chapter, says that “Confession is conversion.” It is when we openly confess our sin to a brother that we find again the forgiveness of sins. It is in our confession that we experience salvation anew. Bonhoeffer also says that confession is discipleship. When we bring our sin into the light we are forced to face it and turn from it. Confession helps us to see the sheer ugliness of our sin. Often we give our sin to God in an abstract way and then move along. In the presence of a brother we must face the reality of our brokenness. Bonhoeffer says that we should confess “concrete” sins, not abstract ones. We should confess that we lied to our boss Tuesday, not that we lack self-control. When we speak of specific sins, we are forced to face our sinfulness. There is even a measure of pride in sharing abstract sin. You could revel in your humility to be able to be so transparent. It is hard to have any measure of pride in confessing a concrete, specific sin.

Jesus said that if you have a problem with your brother that you should leave the altar and go make amends with him. Bonhoeffer echoes this when he says that a perfect time for confession is before you partake of communion. It is clear that our actions affect the purity of our worship.

Bonhoeffer closes the chapter with some practical guidelines for confession. He says that there shouldn’t be anyone who bears the sole responsibility of hearing confessions. He says that it should be divided equally and naturally amongst the family of God. Confession is something to be shared. Anyone who does not regularly confess sin should not listen to the confession of others. We are all equal–sinners saved by grace.

We are given the opportunity to bear each other’s burdens in confession. We can stand firmly on the promises of God and offer forgiveness to our brother or sister for the sins they have committed. We can have full confidence that the Father forgives based on the promises of scripture.

Expose your sin to the light. Don’t allow yourself to burrow into the darkness. You can rest in the fact that you are a beloved child of God. He forgives without limit or restraint.

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