Tag Archives: theology

Covenant Prayer (part 2)

10 Aug

Today’s guest post continues 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.

As promised, the purpose of this brief series of blogs is to supplement the focus on prayer not through examining theories or ideas about prayer, but by becoming an eavesdropper to some who dared to actually engage in the transformative conversation with the Divine. As we listen, what we will hear is perhaps quite different from the safe ‘proper’ prayers we hear ourselves uttering.

​In Genesis 18, we read the story in which the Lord is on His way to investigate the outcries of evil He has heard coming from Sodom. Abraham sees three ‘men’ traveling and invites them to stop and rest. During this visit, it is confirmed to Abraham that he and Sarah would indeed have a son within a year…and then we are given the privilege of being able to listen in as Abraham and the Lord engage in somewhat of a strange conversation.

​It is easy to read stories like the one found in Genesis 18:16-33 with some preconceived thoughts. We ask the question, ‘how is it that Abraham seems to have so much influence in the interaction?’… and respond with the safe answer of–‘well, God is just testing Abraham’. However, there is no indication of God simply testing Abraham in this interaction. In other places (Gen 22) when it is a test, the reader is made privy to that fact.

What we do read is that Abraham stood before the Lord and had the audacity to speak and listen in hopes of ‘changing God’s mind’ for the sake of the righteous living in Sodom. We are left to speculate the thoughts of God behind His words. We do not know whether or not God would have destroyed the righteous with the unrighteous without Abraham’s influence. However, Abraham (right or wrong) seemed to believe with humility simply that his prayer had a chance to make a difference…his prayer mattered.

So…how could Abraham, who referred to himself in 18:27 as ‘but dust and ashes’ come to believe that his side of the conversation could make a difference? And how is it that God even entertained Abraham’s requests? I think the introduction to this story is key to establishing the mindset with which we read the prayer. God and Abraham’s interaction follows 18:17-19 where we are reminded of two very important things:
1. Not only does God have a plan, He desires to reveal it to his people. Creation was never in a static state, nor was it abandoned. God is at work and His plan will be brought to completion.
2. For whatever the crazy reason may be, God desires His people to play a part in His plan. He invites us to learn His desires and participate in them.

This happens through interaction…through transformative conversation in which we learn to listen and speak and respond. Abraham knows that he is not entitled to the privilege of conversing with God. He knows he is ‘dust and ashes’. However, Abraham dares to speak out of the confidence he has in the covenant relationship that he did not establish, but was invited into by God himself. ​

Finally, lets read this story with honesty…this is not a neat and clean story with a clear moral. If we wrote it, we would want it to read like this: Abraham intercedes and the people are saved! We would then easily apply it to our lives and we would be inspired to intercede so the ‘people would be saved’. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed…Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt. Certainly, Abraham is aware of the destruction. Prayer is not a series of isolated events. It’s not a series isolated wins and loses. It is an ongoing transformative conversation that we are invited into. Despite the city being brought to ashes, Abraham continues on–learning who God is, what His intentions are, and what it means to be in covenant relationship with God as he works out His plan for creation.

Prayer (Week 3)

8 Aug

We are continuing to go through Mark Batterson’s book “The Circle Maker.” In the second section of the book Batterson says that prayer is a habit to be cultivated, a discipline to be developed, and a skill to be practiced. Habits, disciplines, and skills take real effort. That pursuit starts with this prayer…

“The prayer preceding all prayer is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.'” (C.S. Lewis)

There are two questions to ask yourself in prayer. First, ‘is it I that am praying?’ or ‘is it a carefully scripted version of myself that I believe God approves of?’ And second, ‘am I praying to God or a sanitized version of Him that I approve of?’

Real I
There are generally two versions of ourself that the world sees. There is the public persona that work colleagues, drive through workers, and acquaintances see. Then there is the more personal version that our close friends and family sees. However, as Philip Yancey notes, there is your true self that no one sees–all those secret things you live with. Those motives. Those thoughts. That past guilt. That hurt. These are the things that often go unsaid to the public and, sadly, to God. We are good at repressing those things and treating God as if he were a general acquaintance. We make awkward small talk with Him and never go further. Some move past that and let God in a little closer and give him access to our frustrations, joys, and daily life the way we would with a family member. But very few interact with God as their true self. We approach God with carefully rehearsed sincerity but never from a place of purity. This is a tragedy. Often we complain about not feeling God’s presence. I wonder if God too longs for our true presence. I wonder if God is waiting to heal the broken places in our soul but we don’t give him access. True prayer happens when you get honest with God. The posture of prayer is helplessness. Everyone has dark corners of the soul. God wants admittance into those areas to mend that which is broken. (Read Psalm 139)

Real Thou
Blaise Pascal said, “God made man in His own image and man returned the compliment.” Last week we talked about the importance of your view of God. If we have a misconception of God, our prayer will be greatly impacted. If we believe God to be a malevolent dictator in the sky that issues punishment with calloused anger, our prayers will be shaped by that. The “real thou” that Lewis speaks of will not be boxed in. He can not be contained and will not fit any mold we put him him. I believe one of the major problems in prayer is doubt. We don’t trust that God is what the Bible says He is. We doubt even his existence. The problem is that this feeling is tucked away in that dark corner of the soul that we don’t give God access to. Yancey says that he often challenges atheists and agnostics to come up with a doubt that they can’t find in the pages of the Bible. So many great biblical characters wrestle with doubt. The difference between their doubt and ours is that they voice theirs in the form of prayer. They pray to the God they feel is absent or silent. They persist. God loves their prayer because it is real. (Read Psalm 13)

Batterson challenges us to persist in prayer. He says the only way to lose is to stop praying. Pray to God as you are. Pray to God as He is.

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.

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