Lessons in Prayer…

Life has taught me a lot of lessons. Some of those lessons I learned the hard way, and some came rather easy. As I’ve reflected on prayer over the past four weeks, I discovered there were a number of lessons concerning prayer that I’ve learned that I thought if I wrote them down they would become more tangible to me. I want to share seven lessons on prayer that seem rather profound for me at this time in my faith journey.

Lesson #1

We are hard-wired to pray. When I say “we,” I don’t simply mean Christians. I mean people are hard-wired for prayer. God made us that way. I love what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in 3: 11, “He has planted eternity in the human heart…” With eternity in our hearts we long for a connection to something/someone beyond ourselves. There is a deep longing for the Divine which lies within us, and prayer is the language that connects us to God. No matter where we may go in the world, we will find praying people, whether those people be Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or some other obscure faith. Prayer is at the core of what people of faith do. 

We all pray. No, we may not all have that set time each day that we consciously focus on matters of prayer, but we pray. Even if we don’t consider ourselves a praying person, when there’s a crisis, we treat prayer like a fire extinguisher. We run to it when we need it. While some of us my treat prayer like a fire extinguisher, others are prayer warriors that have learned to pray, as the Apostle Paul counsels, without ceasing. No matter. We are hard-wired to pray.

Lesson #2

No one feels they are very good at prayer. Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Think of the profound nature of the disciple’s request. Most of Jesus’ disciples were Jewish men who were taught to pray from a very early age, and most of them had done it twice daily since around the age of 12. These were praying people, and yet, when they saw Jesus praying, had the awareness that they weren’t very good at it.

We, too, (perhaps I should only speak for myself) feel inadequate to pray, and the reality of most of life is if we’re not good at something, we don’t do it. We get frustrated because we can’t develop a habit of prayer. We feel insecure in our knowledge of prayer. We are sometimes confused because we don’t see answers to prayer. Let me say all that makes us is normal.

I’m reminded of the words of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest men of prayer to ever live. Merton said, “But let us be convinced of the fact that (when it comes to prayer) we will never be anything else but beginners all our life!” We may go all our lives feeling we’re not very good at prayer, but let that not stop us from trying.

“But let us be convinced of the fact that (when it comes to prayer) we will never be anything else but beginners all our life!”

Thomas Merton

Lesson #3

Prayer is communion with God. If we feel confused in our prayer life, it may be because we are trying to make prayer something that it isn’t. Prayer is conversation with God, meant to keep us in communion with God.

Do you have a person you call your best friend yet never talk to them? Can I tell you about Bill? Bill was my best friend. My family and I moved to Kentucky for me to attend seminary. We didn’t know anyone in Kentucky. Sure, we’d get to know the church folks, and eventually some of the students from the seminary, but one day shortly after we moved, I looked out the back window of the parsonage and I saw someone mowing my yard—a two acre yard, I might add (I don’t know why anyone would leave a pastor responsible for a two acre yard, but that’s for another blog). I met Bill. Bill was not a church member (he did eventually become one, and I had the honor of baptizing him), he was just a neighbor. We became best friends who saw each other almost every day. We went fishing together, to flea markets, to gospel singings. 

We eventually moved back to Louisiana. When we first moved I would talk to Bill on the phone once a week. Over time, it became once a month. It wasn’t long before it became every other month. As more time passed, it became once a year. Now, twenty years later, we keep up with each other on Facebook. We lost our communion because we stopped talking. Why would it be different with God?

Lesson #4

Prayer deepens our relationship with God. The Apostle James says in James 4:8—“Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” Prayer is the primary thing that makes us more like Jesus. That’s why the disciples would ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. If we want to be more like Jesus, we must pray. Service is great, but serving more will not transform us to be more like Jesus. Prayer transforms us. We pray hoping to change circumstances, but prayer is meant first to change us, and we are changed when our relationship to God is deepened.

Lesson #5

Prayer is not just an event, it’s an attitude. Oswald Chambers says, “Prayer is not only asking, but an attitude of mind which produces the atmosphere in which asking is perfectly natural.” The Apostle Paul counsels the believers in Thessalonica, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Apostle Paul doesn’t mean that we are to constantly remain in our prayer closet, but we are to have an attitude and mind that we are always aware of the Person and the needs around us…to know that God is always present and always listening and always ready to hear. Prayer is not just an event, but an attitude.

Lesson #6

Prayer is simple, but not simplistic. Jesus gave his disciples the “model” prayer when he was asked to teach them to pray. The model Jesus gave is not a long, eloquent prayer, but rather a short, to-the-point statement, yet that short statement encompasses all that is necessary to nurture a life of prayer.

In “The Lord’s Prayer” (which really should be called “The Disciple’s Prayer) there is adoration—“Hallowed be Thy name.” There is confession—“Forgive us our trespasses…” There is supplication—“as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is provision—“Give us today the bread we need.” There is a request for strength—“do not lead us into temptation.” That’s all deep stuff.

I’m going to paraphrase an early church mystic by the name of John Climacus. Climacus, in essence said, flowery and abundant words fill our minds with images and distracts us, while a single word can focus us in reflection. The more simple the prayer, the more potential for power, and that is not a simplistic idea.

Lesson #7

Prayer is far more significant than we realize. It is significant because it can release God’s power and provision in our lives, or I should say, prayer is the means whereby God’s power and provision is released in our lives, and that is significant. If we want to see God’s power and provision in our lives, then we must be persistent in prayer. That’s why Jesus would use the examples he gave his disciples.

Prayer is not a one and done thing. We must be like the persistent friend at the door. We must continue to ask, seek and knock. We must P. U. S. H. through in prayer. PUSH is an acronym that stands for Pray Until Something Happens. Power and provision come through our persistence. No, we don’t wear God down. Persistent prayer reflects our faith in the One to whom we pray, and faith can move mountains.

The profound nature of this particular lesson is visited upon me over and over again. Over a period of three years, Vanessa and I spent time in deep prayer seeking to discern where God was calling us in ministry and in life. He was calling us away from the United Methodist Church, and at that time, away from vocational ministry.

I learned the significance of prayer yet again as we entered into a period of prayer and discernment concerning planting a house church. That was at a time when I had no real desire to be in ministry leadership, but prayer reveals some really significant things!

There has yet been one more significant development as a result of a season of prayer, and that development has been to step back into the pulpit as a “pastor,” which is something I NEVER believed I would do. I believed my time in vocational ministry was done (I wanted it to be done). I was content to work, attend worship and fill the occasional pulpit. That could be satisfying, indeed. The Lord had other plans.

In September of last year, I was asked to “fill in” for three weeks at Beulah Methodist Church beginning in October. They were without a pastor and I couldn’t think of a good reason to tell them, “No.” At the end of the three weeks, no pastor had been appointed and they asked if I would stay on until the end of the year. Saying “No,” seemed a bit selfish since I had no other commitments, so I committed the congregation. I met with the congregation and stated in no uncertain terms that I was NOT their pastor. I was simply their guest preacher for this time. My commitment was to establishing and growing The House Church Movement. The Lord had other plans.

The Beulah Methodist Church congregation, long a United Methodist congregation, through their own time of discernment voted to become affiliated with the Evangelical Methodist Church, and to withdraw from the United Methodist Church (we’ll see how all that works out). On January 31, 2021, the Evangelical Methodist Church chartered a congregation named the Beulah Evangelical Methodist Church, and I was appointed its pastor by Rev. Kevin Brouillette, the District Superintendent for the area that includes the state of Louisiana. Prayer pervaded the entire experience, and that is significant.

The decision did not come hastily, or without persistence in prayer. Vanessa and I have been patiently listening over the three months we were preaching at Beulah to hear God’s voice and learn His direction for our lives.

We have been like the man who lived alone in a cabin by the lake. There was a large rock in front of the cabin. One night while he was sleeping, his cabin filled with light and the Lord appeared to him telling him he had work for the man to do. The Lord showed the man the large rock and told him, “I want you to push against that rock with all your might.”

The man undertook the mission, and day after day for years, the man went and with all his strength pushed against the rock. For years the rock never moved. Frustrated and weary from the struggle, he took the matter to the Lord in prayer. “Why would you have me push that rock for all these years with no hope of ever moving it?”

The Lord replied, “I didn’t ask you to move it. I asked you to push it, but in the pushing you became stronger. Look at your hands, your shoulders, your back. They’re all stronger because you were obedient. Now, I’ll move the rock.”

Vanessa and I believe the Lord is calling us to take this step of faith. We will serve the church as a bi-vocational pastor. That simply means I’ll continue my “day job” in the banking industry and serve the congregation, too.

Life and ministry have taught me a lot of lessons. None are more powerful than these practical lessons I’ve learned about prayer. I suspect that many of you are seeking clarity concerning God’s call on your life. My encouragement is to keep praying simple, persistent prayers. The Lord will eventually show you the way.

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Constant Prayer…

If you’ve been around the church at all, you’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing.” It comes from Paul’s instruction to the church at a place called Thessolinica, and it follows right after he told them to rejoice always and right before he tells them give thanks in everything. I don’t know about you, but there are a few times that I find it hard to rejoice, and there are probably a lot more times that I fail to give thanks, so that little “pray without ceasing” thing that falls in the middle finds me coming up short, too.

Paul wasn’t the only person to commend constant prayer to us. Jesus pointed out the necessity of constant prayer to his disciples before Paul ever showed up. Luke records this in his gospel:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18: 1 – 8 (NIV)

Jesus, as he was prone to doing, told his disciples a story to illustrate his point. He tells the story of a godless judge who was always put upon by a widow seeking justice for some wrong done to her. In the story, the judge granted her request because she was constantly brining her petition to him. Don’t think for a moment that Jesus was comparing God the Father to the wicked judge. He was rather saying, “If wicked men can do justice, how much more can God do justice.” He was saying to his disciples, “If you want to see God work among His people, keep praying.”

If we want to see Jesus work among us, if we want to see answers, and see lives changed, and see OUR lives changed, we must learn this discipline of constant prayer. We should pray always. I have learned, however, that constant prayer is a hard thing.

When We Pray

We all pray (see last week’s blog). Many, if not all, of us pray in the crisis times of our lives. In a time of desperation, prayer becomes the last resort, and let me say—it’s okay! Even that prayer is better than no prayer!

Jesus prayed in the crisis. On the night he was arrested, Luke tells us Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and he told his disciples to pray that they might not be overcome by temptation. Gives me the indication that temptation might, in fact, be a moment of crisis for us, you think? But then, he went further on, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” Luke says an angel appeared and ministered to him, and as Jesus continued praying great sweat drops of blood dripped from his brow. For Jesus, the cross lay just ahead of him. It was a crisis moment, and Jesus prayed. The great difference in Jesus and us? Jesus prayed before the crisis of the cross. We usually wait until the crisis hits.

We pray at other times, too. Many of us pray when we’re facing a major decision in our lives. Job opportunities open us for us, and many of us pray about those opportunities. We pray for guidance and wisdom to make the correct choice. Or marriage. How many of you reading this actually prayed before you got married? I’d be interested to know (share your story in the comments section below). I’ll confess. I didn’t. Or at least, I don’t remember doing it.

How about praying before we purchase a new car? Major decisions offer an excellent opportunity to pray. It raises an interesting question. Does God really care what type of car we buy? Probably not, but prayer before major decisions of life show trust and dependence on God, and that’s one of the things prayer is meant to develop.

Buying a new car can change our lives completely, though. That new car might mean extra hours at work in order to afford the payment, and that means less time with our family. It may mean less expendable income to use when we do get that time away with family to develop those relationships that will last far longer than material possessions. It may also mean the difference in being able to support the work of the Kingdom of God, which, in turn, affects our spiritual lives. Major decisions are life-changing. Why would we ever consider changing our lives without first praying about those decisions?

Finding Time to Pray

We don’t face major decisions every day, and by God’s grace, we don’t face a crisis every day, so what about this constant prayer thing? Time has been called the greatest currency and the greatest commodity of contemporary culture. In this world moving at breakneck speed, we have come to value time more than anything else. You know how it is?

The daily schedule looks like this:

  • 6:00 a.m. – Alarm goes off. Wonder why it takes so long for Saturday to get here.
  • 6:05 a.m. – Drag self out of bed. Look in mirror for signs of life.
  • 6:10 a.m. – Wake kids up, make coffee, get Pop-Tarts in toaster and cereal on table.
  • 6:15 a.m. – Shout at kids!
  • 6:16 a.m. – Get first cup of coffee. Survival looking possible.
  • 6:20 a.m. – Shot at kids!
  • 6:30 a.m. – Get in shower, while shouting at kids!
  • 6:40 a.m. – Get dressed, while shouting at kids!
  • 7:00 a.m. – Get kids loaded for school.
  • 7:05 a.m. – Get stuck in traffic (now shouting at other drivers and traffic signals)
  • 7:25 a.m. – Drop kids off at school, head to the office, while continuing to shout at traffic
  • 8:00 a.m. – Get to work, wondering why I keep this job

That’s just two hours out of our schedule. Most of the rest of our day continues that same way. We start early and we don’t slow down until our heads hit the pillow, and then we realize we haven’t really prayed. Sound familiar? Uh, huh! Me, too, and I’m a preacher. With the schedules we keep, when do we pray? How do I fit prayer into my schedule?

How We Pray

Let me first offer a word of advice on what NOT to do: Do not put prayer on your “To-do” list. When we put things on our “to-do” list, we feel guilty when we get to the end of the day, and we haven’t checked those boxes off. Prayer, or lack thereof, is never meant to make us feel guilty. Prayer is meant to usher us into God’s presence, and God wants us to know his presence in the “to-do’s” of life. Home, school, family and work are all legitimate concerns that conspire to make life a blur, but we cannot adore life unless we adore the one who gives us life. Prayer helps us adore Him. So, how? Tell me how, please?

How about starting right where we are? Rather than trying to pray in some fanciful isolation that we almost never find, we need to discover God in our times. What do I mean? Mothers, especially mothers of infants, discover God in your times with your baby. God will become real to you through your infant. Times of play with your baby are your prayer. When you are feeding your baby, sing your prayer to God.

When we’re driving down the road, instead of listening to the endless drones of another news program, turn off the radio and listen for God amidst the honking horns. Here’s my growing edge: Instead of shouting at the person who cuts you off in traffic, pray for him or her in that moment. I said that was my growing edge.

Or, how about this? Let your favorite color become a prompt for an instant of prayer. When you see purple, pray a prayer of thanksgiving.

When you hear your favorite song, let it remind you to say a prayer for your family.

When you pass a person you know on the road, pray a prayer of safety for them.

These are called breath prayers.

There are countless more ways to be in prayer. Prayer is not stopping at a specified time and saying a specified set of words. Prayer is living in God’s presence in the midst of what is happening around us. God invites us to see and hear what is around us, and through it all, to discern the footprints of the Holy.

Just Do It!

We develop the capacity for constant prayer by doing it. We can’t assume that time will magically appear for us to pray. We’ll never HAVE time for prayer—we have to make time. Don’t feel guilty because you don’t have time for prayer on a daily basis. Rather, find a time that you do have for prayer, and do it.

John Dalrymple said, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.” Constant prayer produces the miracle we are looking for in life. The miracle of constant prayer is the daily realization of God’s power, presence, and purpose in us, and ultimately, through us.

There was a man who would pass the church every day on his way home from work. He would stop, and go in and sit on the pew for an hour. This happened for several months. Finally, the pastor approached the man and asked what he did in those quiet times.

“Oh, I just look up at Him, and He looks back at me.”

When we look up at Him, and He looks back at us, when to pray will never be a problem. Whether at work, or on the street, or in the church, or at home, we know that prayer is a continuing experience, and an ever-present comfort.

Until next time, keep looking up…oh, and keep praying 😉

Three Reasons to Pray…

We all pray. Admittedly, it may only be in times of crisis when we have no other option, or even before we realize that’s what we’ve done, but we all still pray. Carrie Underwood sang a song that illustrates the point—Jesus Take the Wheel. The song is about a women driving on Christmas Eve when she loses control and she cries out, “Jesus take the wheel.” She is spared a horrible accident and thanks the Lord. She then tells Jesus to take the wheel of her life. It is a powerful song, and it illustrates that we are more prone to praying than not. There is, however, a great difference in that momentary crisis prayer, and the prayer that changes the world. That’s the type of prayer Jesus prayed, and that’s the type of prayer the disciples wanted to pray when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus prayed earth-shattering, life-changing prayers, and we can, too.

That raises the question, “Why pray?” Why should we, as disciples of Jesus, make prayer a regular part of our lives? If I see prayer as another duty to add to an already overcommitted schedule, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as a waste of time because we see so few answers to prayer, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as something for other, more religious people, then I will never pray. If I see prayer as something to be done only in emergencies, then I’ll only pray in emergencies, and I’ll never know the power of life-changing prayer. Prayer is more than a duty. Prayer is more than looking for answers to problems and struggles, and prayer is more than being religious.

I know of three reasons (there are many more, but in the interest of time…). I see the three reasons exemplified in the life of Jesus in an encounter recorded in Luke’s Gospel called the “transfiguration:”

28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. 31 They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 34 But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them. 35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” 36 When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Jesus is on Mt. Hermon with his inner circle of Peter, James and John, and there on the smoke-covered mountain, they entered the presence of God. This encounter reminds us of the time in the Old Testament when a prophet named Moses (who appeared here with Jesus) went up to the mountain to see a bush that was not consumed and there he discovered he was on holy ground in the presence of God.

Elijah, likewise, was whisked away into heaven on a whirlwind by a flaming chariot to stand in the presence of God. We could get lost in the symbolism of God and the mountain. It is rich symbolism, indeed. Lost in the symbolism would be the detail that is so important in understanding why we pray. The first reason why we pray is because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

Into God’s Presence

God wants an intimate relationship with us. God wants with us the type of relationship he shared with Jesus—a parent/child relationship. He wants to watch us grow, and he wants to give us the best that he has to offer, but we have to embrace that relationship, and we can only do that as we enter into his presence, and prayer brings us into his presence.

God invites us deeper in and higher up. Like our relationship with our children, we love it when they ask us for things. The very fact that our children ask us for things enhances and deepens our relationship with them because it shows their trust in us and their dependence on us. P. T. Forsythe said it this way, “Love loves to be told what it already knows…it wants to be asked for what it longs to give.” Prayer takes us deeper in and higher up in our relationship with the Father.

Prayer places us on the mountain of God’s presence even in the midst of the daily, ordinary circumstances of our lives. The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary because that is where we live most of our lives. We don’t live on the mountain, and though Jesus went to the mountain, and was on the mountain when he entered God’s presence, it was Jesus’ prayer that brought him into God’s presence, not his position. Our prayer brings us into God’s presence. Our prayer takes us to the mountain in the midst of daily and ordinary struggles.

Jacqueline was an elderly woman who lived to take care of her daughter, who was wheelchair bound. When her daughter died, Jacqueline lost her purpose in life and her living companion. Most of her time was spent in oppressive solitude because all her friends were also dead, and her own health was failing, too.

One day, Jaqueline opened her bible to Philippians 4:5, and four words stuck in her mind: “The Lord is near.” Jaqueline thought, “If that is true, then I should be more aware of it.”

“Lord,” she prayed, “I’m going to pretend you’re here all the time. No, forgive me. There is no pretending to be done. I’m going to visualize you really are here. Help me remind myself of the reality of your presence.”

Jaqueline began to pray that very night. “Lord, I’m going to bed now. Will you watch over me as I sleep?” When she would sit down for a cup of tea, she would read through Philippians 4 again, underlining verse 5, and she would pray. At noon, she said, “Lord, let’s watch the news so you can show me what to pray for. They watched the news and she prayed for flood victims, and a new African president, and a man sentenced to life in prison. At supper, she prayed and thanked the Lord for her food, but she wasn’t praying to someone distant. She was talking to someone sitting across the table from her. Little by little, her attitude was transformed. The loneliness lessened, her joy increased, her fears diminished, and she never again felt she was alone in the house. Her prayers kept her in the presence of God. 

Why pray? Because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

A Change in Us

A second reason we pray? Prayer changes us. As Jesus prayed, his countenance was changed. He was transfigured in the presence of God the Father, and in the sight of Peter, James and John (even though they almost slept through it). The glory of God shone all around him and was reflected in him as he prayed. Now, I’m not suggesting that our prayers will reveal the divine nature within us the way it did Jesus that day, but in prayer we catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and God’s glory will be reflected through us to the lives of those around us.

One reason we don’t pray like we should is because we’re simply not prepared to change. How does prayer change us? First, prayer changes us in our relationship to God. We view God in different ways. Sometimes we have no relationship with God. God is just someone or something out there somewhere, but that knowledge has no impact on how we live our lives. God is simply the philosophical first cause, but little more. Yeah, He’s God, but so what?

Others may see God in a relationship of fear. We project our understanding of humanity onto God. Like, God is the big score-keeper in the sky, or judge on the bench. We are limited in our ability to be in a relationship with God because we’re afraid of Him. Who dares confess to the judge? He might condemn us. Or, who would tell the score-keeper we committed an error? That might cost us a run, or a basket, and we’d lose the game. Prayer allows God, through His Word and Holy Spirit to bring us into a deeper understanding of His true nature. Prayer confirms that God is love, and that God really does love us.

But, prayer also changes us in relation to ourselves. Like Carrie Underwood’s song reminds us, there are times we learn to depend on God, and we can do nothing else. Here are the words:

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I’m on…

We learn our true nature in prayer. We learn of our need for forgiveness. We learn self-denial. We learn God’s will, and we are able, through the Holy Spirit, to adjust our lives to God’s truth. Prayer changes us in relation to ourselves, and sometimes that’s just not a change we’re willing to make.

We also see that prayer changes us in relation to others. Prayer brings an awareness of the great need for salvation and redemption throughout God’s creation. If we don’t see the needs around us, it might be because we’re not praying. We pray because prayer changes us.

Blessed Assurance

Finally, a third reason we should pray? Prayer brings assurance. Jesus was beginning the final leg on a long journey toward the cross. This time of prayer confirmed for Jesus that he was in the Father’s will, and brought assurance that God was with him on the journey.

You and I need assurance, too. We face the uncertainty of life, and we all know that life can pose questions that are unanswerable, but in prayer, we hear God say to us that hope is not found in the temporal circumstances that overwhelm us, but in the eternal love and grace of God.

The reasons we should pray are as limitless as God’s love and grace, and with these three reasons to pray we have only scratched the surface of the benefits and joys that come through prayer, so it leads to the question, “Why don’t we pray?”

Evangelist John Rice tells a dream he once had. He said, “I once imagined I was in heaven. Walking along with the Angel Gabriel, I said, ‘Gabe, what is the big building over there?’”

“You’ll be disappointed,” he answered. “I don’t think you want to see it.”

Rice said he was insistent until Gabriel relented, and proceeded to show him floor after floor of beautiful gifts, all wrapped and ready to be sent.

“Gabriel,” Rice asked, “What are all these gifts?”

Gabriel replied, “We wrapped all the beautiful gifts for people, but they were never delivered because they were never requested.”

We don’t live in God’s presence because we don’t ask. We don’t change because we don’t ask. We don’t have assurance of hope and life because we don’t ask.

God’s presence, transformation and assurance. I can’t think of three better reasons to pray.

If you’d like to watch the message from which this blog was taken, you can do so by clicking here.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Prayer is…

If 2020 showed me nothing else, it showed me of my desperate need to pray more. I like to think I know all there is to know about prayer, but try as I might, I can’t seem to nail prayer down to a singular definition? I am supposed to be a person of prayer, and I know when I see someone praying, and I know what I do when (or if) I pray. I know the preacher does it, if for no other reason than that is says so right in the bulletin—the Pastoral Prayer. So, prayer is something done at a particular time and usually in a particular way, or a particular place for a particular reason. Prayer is all that, but that seems like such an inadequate understanding as I desire to go deeper in prayer in 2021. 

I take some comfort in knowing the Bible doesn’t define prayer anywhere. I know the Bible commands it. People like Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and Hannah exemplified it. I am invited through the pages of scripture to pray, and God commends it to us as a way to communion and wholeness. The Bible even describes prayer, but never once do I find a verse that says, “Prayer is…” If the Bible doesn’t define prayer, I wonder if I can?

The Lord’s Prayer

Though the Bible doesn’t specifically define prayer, its examples of prayer give me a clue in (at least) understanding what prayer is. For more than defining prayer, I want to learn how to do it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing one day with his disciples. I’m not sure if we can definitively answer the question by looking at that encounter between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe we can get far down the road. Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

11 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy.
    May your Kingdom come soon.
Give us each day the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”

Jesus would, in the verses following these, continue to teach his disciples more about prayer, but first, it was Jesus’ own example that made his disciples want to know more about prayer. I remind us they were Jewish men who were steeped in the traditions of their elders. They likely spent every morning and evening repeating the prayers of their fathers, yet when they saw Jesus pray, there was something that moved heaven and earth and made them want to pray that way. I’m not sure what that was, but I see three things that begin to help me understand a meaningful definition of prayer.

Upward Focus

Let’s start where Jesus started: First, prayer is upward focused. In verse 2, Jesus begins with the “Father.” As we learned the prayer from the King James Version, it begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Richard Foster says, “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.” The upward focus of prayer is our acknowledgment that God is our Father, that God is the source of truth outside ourselves. After all, we don’t pray to ourselves–“Oh, help me, Me!” We look to God for understanding in this confusing world. This upward focus is our confession of dependence on the One who is abundantly more than we can even think or imagine.

This understanding is insufficient in and of itself, for how can we have an upward focus unless we have first been called to turn our eyes toward heaven? When we turn our thoughts upward, we acknowledge it is God who acts first in prayer. Our prayers are a reaction to God’s first seeking us. In Psalm 27:7 – 8, David sings these words:

Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
    Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”

The key is that God said, “Come and talk with me.” Without God first calling to us we cannot seek Him, and we can never experience the kind of prayer that ends in answers. We Wesleyans call that God’s prevenient grace—the grace of God reaching out to us before we even realize it. Prayer that is upward focused will move the hand of God because we have first been moved by the hand of God, and it will draw us deeper into a growing, on-going love relationship with the Lord.

Inward Focus

Yes, prayer is upward focused, but prayer is also inward focused. Verses 3 and 4 say, “Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins…” In prayer, we do focus on our needs, but not in some selfish, prideful way. Actually, if we look up the words “pray” and “prayer” in Webster’s dictionary—although no one looks up words in a dictionary anymore—we find these definitions: “to implore, an entreaty, supplication.”

The words the Bible uses which are translated for us as pray and prayer in both the Old and New Testaments mean “to request,” and “to make a petition,” so prayer is asking God for something, and it is never selfish or sinful to concern God with the circumstances of our lives, and the needs we face. As a matter of fact, God desires that we should ask. Our asking is yet another way we confess our dependence on and our need for God.

The inward focus is not totally selfish when we understand that this prayer is consistent with the way Jesus lived. He was always occupied with the trivial things in people’s lives. He turned water into wine (and good wine, I might add) at a wedding. He fed hungry crowds, and he offered rest to weary souls. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors. He stopped to talk to a woman drawing water from a well, and he healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. It is appropriate that he invites us to pray for our daily bread because all of our little daily concerns are important to him.

We must be careful, though, that this not become a shopping list we bring to God. It is a petition for survival. It is not, “Lord, let me win the lottery, then all my needs will be met.” Such a prayer would never strengthen our faith or draw us deeper into a relationship with him. Prayer is designed to strengthen the bond between us and the Father. Only as we call to God for daily provision, and only as God meets us at our point of need, will our trust grow. When trust grows, love grows. When love grows, the relationship grows, and that is what God desires.

There is more to this inward focus than daily provision to meet our needs. There is a spiritual aspect that must not escape our understanding. As we focus upward and God begins to reflect His love and holiness back into our lives, we begin to recognize our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. We pray for this deepest need of our lives. Deeper than the daily provision for our physical needs lies the need for God’s forgiveness.

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1 – 12) tells the story of a paralytic man who was lowered by his friends into a house where Jesus was teaching. The man obviously had a physical need, but Jesus saw a deeper spiritual need, the need for forgiveness. Jesus met both needs. As the crowd watched, Jesus looked at the man on the cot and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowd, and especially the Pharisees, were stunned and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus, hearing their question, responded, “Well, just so you know I have power to do both, I say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” We, too, have both spiritual and physical needs, and prayer that is inward focused brings us an awareness of both. The greatest news in the world is that I am a sinner who can be saved from my sin.

Outward Focus

The Good News that we can be forgiven carries us deeper into the heart of prayer. Prayer that is first, upward focused that produces an inward change inevitably moves us to become outward focused. Jesus prays in verse 4, “just as we forgive those who sin against us.” Any prayer that is real prayer will touch our relationship with others. Jesus says we ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others. It sounds almost conditional, doesn’t it? Well, it is! We cannot be in a right relationship with God and not have it affect our outward relations with others. How can we not forgive others if we have experienced God’s great forgiveness? God’s forgiveness renews and transforms us, and we then seek to be renewed in our relationship with others.

Richard Foster indicates that to forgive is the very nature of the created order. We must give in order to receive. We cannot receive love unless we give love. People may try to give us love, but if we are filled with resentment and vindictiveness, their offers will have no impact on us. We cannot receive anything as long as our fists are clenched. St. Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”

God, The Pizza Man

Let me tell you about our love for pizza at our house. When the children were growing up it was our default food of choice (it’s become Mexican now). One of the greatest days of our lives as a family was moving to Junction City, Kentucky. It was great because Junction City had the luxury of pizza delivery. I know that doesn’t seem like much to most of you, but being raised in rural Jackson Parish, and serving my first pastorate in the same community, pizza delivery was something reserved for places like New York City and Chicago. It didn’t take us long to avail ourselves of pizza delivery in Junction City. Piping hot pizza a phone call away.

How many of you have ever ordered pizza delivery? Call the pizza place, the guy or girl answers and place your order, “Give me two large pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with double cheese. Malone is the name, and the address is 104 School St.” (that’s where we lived in Junction City). Hang up the phone and wait for pizza at your front door. Oh, we were in heaven!

Too often, that’s how we think of prayer. We treat God like the pizza guy. We call on God, place our order as though it was some shopping list, and we wait for an answer. When God doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time we get mad because he didn’t answer on our schedule. God didn’t meet our expectations. Forget the tip, buddy, I want a free pizza because it wasn’t here in thirty minutes or less.

God is not the pizza guy, and prayer is not akin to throwing out orders for someone to meet our expectations. What is prayer? Prayer is any intentional upward focus designed to bring an inward change that becomes reflected in outward relationships which produces an on-going, growing love relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Not sure that any of that qualifies as an appropriate definition, but it’s the one I’m going to work with for 2021. I’ll check back in with you in 2022 and see how it went.

May I also invite you to pray more in 2021? Here is the “Daily Prayer” app that I’ve put on my phone and will be incorporating into my prayer time this year. It might be helpful to you, too. If you don’t like that one, try “The Daily Office” app. You can download it on your phone, or use it right from your desktop or laptop. If you don’t like either of those tools, simply do a Google search to find one that fits your need. As has been said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

Three Life Hacks for a Successful New Year…

“Life Hack” made its way into the English language around the turn of the century, and the definition made it into Merriam-Webster in 2004. A “life hack” is “a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently.” As we transition into 2021, may I recommend three “life hacks” that will make for a successful 2021? I find them in the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. Here is his prophecy from Jeremiah 29:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[a] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

I’m done with making new year’s resolutions only to break them seven days (or seven minutes 😉) into the new year. So, I’ll swap resolutions for solutions, and these life hacks (simple as they are) offer a solution to all that might trip me up in the new year. I want to get to the end of 2021 and look back at a life well lived, rather than look back at a year full of regrets because I didn’t achieve all I’d hope, or resolved to accomplish when the year began. I don’t think anyone can look back at 2020 and say it’s been a good year, or that they accomplished everything they hoped when the year began. If you can, well you are incredibly blessed. Count those blessings!

The Commodity of Time

Everyone of us begins 2021 equal in at least one way–time. Everyone of us has 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, 31,536,000 seconds. It’s what we do with the time that makes the difference. What do we do with all our time?

If the average person sleeps seven hours a night, we’ll spend 3 ½ months sleeping. We all have to eat, and if we eat three meals a day, we’ll spend 16 days eating. If we are active in church, we’ll spend 9 days in church. For work, an average 8-hour day, allowing for normal holidays, we’ll work 75 days. Five to ten days will be spent traveling (to work, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the store, etc.), and here’s an interesting one—we’ll spend 9-15 days in the bathroom [unless we’re sick, then it could be longer, or shorter depending on the sickness]. With all that moving, working, eating, sleeping, etc., the average person still has about 100 days that are unaccounted for. What we do with that 100 days can make all the difference in the world.

Life Hack #1–Seek God

The first hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to seek God. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong! There are two types of people in the world—planners and non-planners. Each of those types can be subdivided along a spectrum of good to bad planners, and good to bad non-planners, but basically you’re either a planner or a non-planner. What we too often do, whether we’re a planner or a non-planner is to make our plans and either ask God to bless them, or look back and ask God why He didn’t bless them, or if we’re a non-planner (me), fly by the seat of our pants and when something happens wonder where God is in all of it. We pretty much make our own excuses, justify the things we do, believe those who agree with us, and never once consider God. Every endeavor, every new year, every project should start with the question, “How will God be glorified in this?”

If we would be successful at anything, we must first seek God. If we’re a planner we will go into the new year with everything all planned out. We’ll have our job plans, our family plans, our vacation plans, or our educational plans, but, we’ll leave out the most important part of planning—God. Of course, for all you planners, if 2020 has shown us nothing else, it has show us that plans are made to be changed. Or, as the old joke goes: “Do you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!”

I’m reminded that Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

It’s not much different if we’re a non-planner. We’ll wander (and wonder) through the entire year, without seeking God and the plans that He has for us. We’ll come to the end of another year trying to figure out what happened to the time.

Seeking God is simple, but never always easy. It begins with worship. Covid changed the way the Church worships, but worship is at the center of our life as disciples. Worship is an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy, and without worship it is impossible (yes, I said “impossible”) to seek God.

We also must study if we are to seek God. Study the Bible and study the great thinkers of the Christian faith. Study is an opportunity to understand God’s will more.

Prayer is also a key to seeking God. Prayer is where real intimacy is developed. Do we want to distinguish between the the clamor and demands of the world around us and the authentic heart of God? Pray!  Seeking God is not about resolving to do one more thing. It’s about seeing prayer and worship and study as solutions to the issues facing our lives. The first life hack that will make 2021a successful year is to seek God.

Life Hack #2–Bloom Where We are Planted

The second hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to bloom where we’re planted. This is all about contentment in our lives. That’s the problem for a lot of us, we’re simply discontented with circumstances as they are. Granted, there are some things we should never be content with—like if we’re living with a persistent sin, or struggling with an addiction. But, most of us are looking for the next job, or the next spouse, or for graduation. We say, “If I were only married,” or “If I only had a different job,” or, “If I only made more money,” or “It I could just get out of school,” then things would be better. As if a change in circumstances would make a change in me.

God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29 to build houses, plant gardens and have children as foreigners. That was God’s way of saying, “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” Understand, there is such a thing as holy discontent, a time when God puts it on our hearts to move on to the next phase of life, but that rarely comes until we’re content where we are. We also need to realize that sometimes, bad circumstances may be God’s tool of refinement in our lives.

Part of blooming where we’re planted includes working for peace in our relationships and in our community. Jeremiah tells the exiles to pray for the peace of Babylon. I am reminded of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

If we desire peace in our communities, we must work pursue it, primarily because WE are the community. The community won’t be better until we’re better.

If we don’t like the political climate, pray and work to change it. Enter the fray. Engage the community. If we don’t like the educational climate, pray and work to change it. If we don’t like the social climate, pray and work to change it. It we don’t like…well, you get the picture.

We must engage our community in ways that promote strong healthy relationships and pursues peace. That’s part of what it means to bloom where we’re planted.

Life Hack #3–Always Look Forward

The third hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to always look forward. We look forward because we know the best is yet to come. We are an expectant people, a resurrection people, and as God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 that He had a plan for them with a future and a hope, so He has one for us.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope, and it’s at the heart of God’s plan for our lives. The resurrection is the reason we gather weekly to worship. The resurrection is the foundation of our faith. As bad as 2020 may have been, 2021 can be better. As good as 2020 may have been (can anyone really say that?), 2021 can be so much better. We know that God’s best, God’s ultimate plan for us, for His Church, for His kingdom is yet to be realized.

There is a story about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her affairs in order, she contacted her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss some of her final wishes.

She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral service, what Scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in (talk about a planner!). She requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. As the pastor prepared to leave, the woman suddenly remembered something else. “There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly.

“What’s that?” said the pastor.

“This is important,” the woman said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”

The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say.

The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming, like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie.

“So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come!'”

My friends, we ought to live life with a fork in our hand. It’s our reminder that the best is yet to come.

Seeking God. Blooming where we’re planted. Always looking forward. Are these really life hacks? Well, they’re simple, but there’s nothing very clever about them, so I’m not sure they fit the classic definition. I do know, however, that if we do them, I can virtually guarantee a great year in 2021 no matter what happens.

Until next time, keep looking up…

I Think I Need a Drink…

I wrote last week about the draining nature of 2020 for me, and the reality is that 2020 has been draining for many people, so much so that they have been driven to drink! Nielson reported a 54% increase in alcohol sales the first week of the “stay-at-home” orders in the U. S., and three weeks later the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use would exacerbate the health-related concerns of the pandemic. Go figure (see here and here for more concerns)!

I ended, though, with the expression of my desire to be filled…to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul had something to say about that idea, too! Those who follow Christ, Paul says, have “put on” a new way of being. This new way of being comes as a result of being filled…filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

A CASE FOR WINE?

We don’t simply come to Jesus Christ for salvation and that’s the end of it. The Christian life is like my fire pit. DE7E8223-A03C-479B-B090-F8D65F778712Vanessa and I love sitting around our fire pit, but to continue to enjoy its warmth and glow, we have to keep stoking the fire. It’s a process that keeps the fire burning. So is the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul liked to use analogies, too. As he wrote describing the life of followers of Jesus Christ, he variously used a wrestler, a runner and a soldier. Those are all active people. We must do something as we participate in this walk of faith where we are becoming people of Christ.

Paul having previously cautioned the Ephesians about their behavior, says in 5:15– “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

Some folks read verse 18 and think Paul is making a case against Christians drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). We know wine was a common beverage in the first century, and that Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (John 2: 1-12). This passage is not a case against drinking wine. It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in the city of Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

BE FILLED

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we came to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The problem is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul tells the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the word helps us understand that, too.

The word is given as an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastor’s and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, we are to live under the Spirit’s influence.

The word is also in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing (sort of like my fire pit I mentioned earlier). This filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience.

A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured (Matthew 17: 1 – 11). They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

There’s one more interesting point about the word used: the word is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

GETTING FULL

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us. Fill me as I go to work today, Lord. That’s what I do! Every morning, I’m continually asking God to fill me with His Spirit, to speak his word through me. You can pray these prayers, too:

  • “Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”
  • “Fill me as I face my boss today.”
  • “Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”
  • “Fill me for _______________.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5: 19). Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians, and does so once again as he says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible. When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Just reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the words opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing God’s work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it.

God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

0A615C60-C567-4824-B5DD-4044B35A7F4D_4_5005_cSo, let’s all have a drink! Drink in the fulness of Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Power and Purpose…

The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”

Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:

Jesus, keep me near the cross;

There a precious fountain,

Free to all a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.

Famous Last Words

First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.

Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:

25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)

As I read these words, I make two discoveries.

The Power of a Passionate Love

The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.

Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.

Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.

A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.

He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.

Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.

Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.

The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”

This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.

The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.

The Power of an Incredible Purpose

The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.

Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:

33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).

We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!

I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”

“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.

“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.

The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”

Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”

“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.

God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!

Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Deferred Maintenance…

The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…

We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.

The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.

It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.

That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see?  I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.

But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…

Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”

God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.

The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.

Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”

“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”

“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.

“What made you bring it back now?”

“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.

During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.

Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.

Lent is a  journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.

It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.

God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”

We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.

So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.

Until next time, keep looking up…

“MORE” Reality…

I resolved to make 2019 the “Year of More.” In all the resolutions I made…

  • More stillness
  • More service
  • More exercise
  • More writing
  • More love
  • More sleep

…there’s one very important “more” that I overlooked, and that is to be more Christ-like. Isn’t that the “more” that matters most? I must confess there are many days I fall far short of the goal, yet I am reminded of Jesus’ own words to his disciples:

13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them. (John 13: 13 – 17 NLT)

The Apostle Paul’s words also remind me that my calling (please read this as “our” calling) is to become like Jesus:

29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8: 29 NLT)

How might I become “more” Christ-like in 2019?

MORE CENTERED

Jesus centered his life in Scripture. He answered the temptations of Satan by the power of Scripture, and he began his earthly ministry moving out of Galilee into Capernaum in fulfillment of Scripture. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus life and words pointed to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Scripture is at the heart of spiritual growth. If we desire to hear God’s voice clearest and loudest, it will be through God’s Word, the Bible. We can live a more centered in Scripture as we worship, participate in group Bible studies, and spend personal devotional time with the Bible.

Of course, being more centered will cause me to be still more, which was my first resolution, so maybe I’m on the right track after all.

MORE CHANGED

Jesus began his earthly ministry with a call to repentance. Repentance is a call to change our minds about sin—literally to do a 180. I’m not sure my greatest sin is pride, but it’s up there on the list. Probably topping the list is selfishness. Every other challenge to my desire to be more Christ-like flows out of that innate proclivity for wanting my own way.

Repentance that is meaningful repentance is more than a changed mind. I think it is a changed mind that leads to changed actions. I also think it not a one-time thing. Repentance is an on-going process…at least it is in my life.

MORE CONNECTED

Jesus invited his first disciples to be connected to him, and to one another. We are connected to Christ most fully when we are connected to his body, the Church. And, we become more Christ-like the more we are connected to his body.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for pastors to make friends in the body. Ron Edmondson has written about that here. It doesn’t change the fact that I need more connection.

MORE COMMITTED

I think about Jesus’ first disciples who, when called by Jesus, left their nets and their tax-collecting table immediately and followed him. Am I as committed as those first disciples? Am I willing to drop everything…even the pastorate (the source of my livelihood)…to follow his calling?

Seriously, what would I do if Jesus walked into my office today and said, “Come, follow me”? I’d probably say, “I thought I was following you.” Just the idea of that conversation frightens me and causes me to reflect on my commitment of Jesus.

One of the most challenging books I’ve read recently (or ever) is Francis Chan’s Letters to the Church. Here’s a video describing the book’s premise. Chan’s book caused me to question so many assumptions about “church,” but it also helped renew my commitment to it…and to Jesus.

MORE CONSECRATED

To be consecrated is to be “set apart for special service.” Jesus consecrated his life for preaching, teaching and healing knowing that it would lead ultimately to the cross. His consecration led to his sacrifice. How is my life set apart for greater sacrifice? What sacrifice is God calling me to in order to be more consecrated to his purpose?

I earnestly desire to be more Christ-like, but this “Year of More” is looking MORE difficult by the day. Perhaps I should have been LESS bold in proclaiming it so.

Where is God challenging you to be more Christ-like? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

On April 28, 2017, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued its ruling regarding the July 2016 election and consecration of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Almost everyone I know (from a Methodist perspective anyway) was waiting for this ruling, and many of them have asked me what I thought of the ruling. My answer has been: “I think it’s better than it could have been and worse than it should have been.”

BETTER THAN IT COULD HAVE BEEN

It’s better than it could have been because the Judicial Council could have decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. That is, in essence, what they ruled in part of the case. The Council concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the nomination, election and assignment as Bishop (you can read the entire decision here), but that it did have jurisdiction over the consecration of a homosexual bishop, and in that matter, the Western Jurisdiction violated church law. The decision goes on to say that any clergy who participated in the consecration are subject to a “chargeable offense.”

I’m not going to comment on the intricate details of the case because I’m not an attorney steeped in church law, but I will say that any intelligent person could read The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and conclude that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is a violation of church law. No matter how one parses the words, they say what they say, and no matter a person’s gifts and graces for ministry, the words say what they say. If we don’t like what the words say, then the words should be changed, but every four years for forty plus years, the wording has been reaffirmed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, the ruling is better than it could have been. The Western Jurisdiction violated church law when it consecrated Rev. Dr. Oliveto bishop (although Oliveto was not specifically named in the petition). I believe it was the correct decision, and it helped to bring some clarity to the current debates within the United Methodist Church around human sexuality.

WORSE THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

But, the decision is worse than it should have been. I know many will disagree with that statement, and that’s perfectly okay with me (this is me assenting to your right to dissent–so please keep the nasty and snarky comments to a minimum). The decision left Oliveto in “good standing” in the office of Bishop, and remanded the case back to the Western Jurisdiction for what is called an “administrative process.”

Yes, others have asked what that means, too. Let me see if I can explain it briefly. Just like in the secular world, a person has a right to “due process,” so in the church a clergy person has the right to “due process” before any action can be taken against him/her (this is a good thing), so the ruling sends it back to the Western Jurisdiction for the process to play itself out.

So, while that’s good, it’s bad because the Western Jurisdiction is the entity that elected  and consecrated Oliveto in the first place, so I anticipate that nothing of substance will be done through the process, and when all is said and done, Oliveto will still be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and those of us who hold to the traditional biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be frustrated with the politics of it all (I’m speaking purely of church politics here). It’s also bad because it will continue to be a distraction from the mission of the church, and will continue to drain time, energy and resources away from the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

WHAT NOW?

So, what do we do now? We wait…just like we’ve been doing. We’ll wait to see how the administrative process works itself out in the Western Jurisdiction. We’ll also continue to wait and see what the Commission on a Way Forward recommends when it completes its work, and we’ll wait to see what the special called session of General Conference does with that information when it meets in February of 2019, in St. Louis, MO.

In our waiting, we might discover that the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a new work with these people called United Methodist. The Holy Spirit could, in fact, be giving birth to a new Methodist movement. If we react now with frustration and anger (no matter which “side” of the debate we take), we might just miss the greatest move of the Holy Spirit in Methodism since John Wesley‘s heart was strangely warmed at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s all remain faithful with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness (those are the vows every person takes when she/he joins the United Methodist Church).

There is one thing we can do in the waiting, and that is to pray. We must pray for unity…but not unity for an institution…we must pray for unity in the body of Christ that goes far beyond any human institution. We must also pray for unity in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us with fire so that our singular purpose will be a people who have nothing to do but save souls.

More than waiting, though, is the necessity of work…the work of the Kingdom. We must continue to be in ministry to the least, the last and the lost. There are homeless people to feed. There are foster children to care for. There are churches to build. There are souls to save (there’s my evangelical bent coming through). There are people to love, there’s a God to worship and adore and there’s Jesus to follow. Nothing any Council (Judicial or otherwise) could ever do will change the commandment Jesus gave us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20 NLT).

So, I’ll wait, and pray and work. May I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Until next time, keep looking up…