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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

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

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