Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Teach Us to Pray, Pt. 2: Prayer in the Context of a Disciplined Christian Life

[On Wednesday nights I'm leading a study called Teach Us to Pray: Building a Life with God. This is Part 2: Prayer in the Context of a Disciplined Christian Life]

Prayer, simply put, is communion and conversation between God and us. That simple definition, though, assumes something very important, namely the existence of a relationship between God and us; after all, one talks to and listens to someone else, to someone that one knows.

That relationship is the context within which our prayers are to happen. We need, then, to consider the nature of our relationship with God.

God’s desire is to share a close and intimate relationship with us. We see God express this desire in the Old Testament in, for example, Exodus 29:43-46; we see Jesus express it in beautiful and powerful words on the night that he was betrayed (John 15:14-15). Now, if God desires to live among us, and that desire was certainly proved when Jesus came into the world, and if Jesus called his original disciples and by extension calls us as his present disciples his friends, then we have an amazing opportunity, don’t we? It is the opportunity to live in a vital, intimate, dynamic relationship with God.

But do we? Or do these lives that we are supposedly living in relationship with God seem, in the words of Paul Scherer, “too trivial to be true”? (Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 24) Are our lives characterized by passionate longing like what we see expressed in Psalm 42:1-2b: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God”? If we are developing a deep relationship with God then such longing will be great. Is it?

I’d like to name two related steps/moves that will help us to develop the kind of relationship with God that God wants us to have and that, whether we realize it or not, we want to have, too.

1. Embrace the true nature of our Christian life

The true nature of our Christian life is that it is a life! Many people tend to think of salvation in terms of a past event, as in “I was saved in 1966.” While that is not an inaccurate way to think or talk, since there was a time in the past that we first put faith in Christ, such a way of thinking and talking is incomplete. It is incomplete because it does not say nearly enough. We need to also say: (a) the Christian life has no end (because it encompasses our entire earthly sojourn and our subsequent heavenly sojourn) and (b) the Christian life has no limit (because it encompasses every facet and part of our lives).

The true nature of the Christian life is that it is Christ’s life in us! Scripture teaches this in, for example, 1 John 5:11-12 and Romans 5:10. Dallas Willard has powerfully argued that while salvation certainly involves the forgiveness of sin, we need to think of it more in terms of the imparting of life:

God’s seminal redemptive act toward us is the communication of a new kind of life, as the seed—one of our Lord’s most favored symbols—carries a new life into the enfolding soil. Turning from old ways with faith and hope in Christ stands forth as the natural first expression of the new life imparted. That life will be poised to become a life of the same quality as Christ’s, because it indeed is Christ’s. He really does live on in us. The incarnation continues. (p. 38)

Because the crucified and resurrected Christ lives in us, because his life has been imparted to us by the grace of God, we really can live his kind of life in the world.

Which leads to the second step/move that will help us develop the kind of relationship with God that we need:

2. Practice Christian discipline

Willard also points out that we can only expect to develop the kind of life that Jesus lived if we do what Jesus did; such emulation of Jesus is modeled for us by many of the great Christian saints down through the years and we can learn from them, too. We can and we need to do what Paul told Timothy to do: “Train/exercise yourself in godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).

Jesus was the Son of God in a unique way; he was human and divine—and yet he trained himself to live the kind of life that he lived. By observing the life of Jesus and the lives of those who have learned from Jesus we can learn to follow what Richard Foster has called “the path of disciplined grace” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 7).

Next time I will say some more about what some of the disciplines are that will help to train us and that will put us in a position to be changed by God so that we grow in grace and in faith and in service. For now, I end with an illustration about the value of the regular practice of such disciplines.

One thing always bothered me about Popeye the Sailor, whose cartoons I greatly enjoyed when I was a child: why did he wait until he was in a crisis, such as being pulverized by Bluto, to eat his spinach? I mean, wouldn’t he have been better served if he had eaten a well-balanced diet that included regular helpings of spinach rather than having quickly to devour some just before it was too late? Besides, wouldn’t eating spinach regularly have put an end to his practice of carrying a huge can of it around in his shirt, which couldn’t have been very comfortable? And wouldn’t a little exercise have helped, too?

It seems to me that we Christians are too often like Popeye. We wait until a crisis arises before we get serious about our relationship with God. When the crisis comes, then we get around to praying or reading our Bibles or seriously seeking God. Aren’t we better off if we engage in the disciplines of the Christian life in a devoted and regular way? When we do we build up our strength over time so that when the crisis arises we have a storehouse from which to draw. That’s so much better than trying to find help in a big hurry just in that moment when we must have it or else.

Popeye is just a cartoon character, of course, but real life teaches us the same lesson. Moreover, Jesus in his life models for us the exercise of spiritual discipline all along the way so that he could face the tremendous crises of his life, culminating in his crucifixion, with strength and faith.

Conclusion: Prayer will be the vital communication and communion with God that it is supposed to be when we live out the truth that salvation is Christ’s life in us, that is a total way of life for us, and that we can grow in that life through exercise and discipline.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Prayer for Sunday

This is the day you have made, oh God, and what a day it is—for it is the Lord’s Day!

Of the manifold blessings for which we praise you, we praise you most of all for our Lord Jesus Christ, for his life of perfect obedience to you, for the death he died on the cross, and for that Sunday morning miracle in which he broke the bonds of death.

We praise you on this Lord’s Day because it is the day on which we commemorate and celebrate hope, the hope that is real for us and for all your creation because of the resurrection of Jesus.

Please, oh God—fill us with the resurrection life that we might live in hope for this world and for the world to come; fill us with the resurrection life that we might rise above our struggles even as we live through them; fill us with the resurrection life that we might live every moment of every day in trust and in assurance; fill us with the resurrection life that we might live out your presence in us in these days even as we will live in your presence one day.

On this Lord’s Day, oh God, remind us in this service of worship that we are filled with resurrection power and cause us to remember as we go out into the world that we walk every moment in that resurrection power.

In the name of our crucified and resurrected Lord,


I Am Grateful for Me

(A sermon based on Psalm 139:13-18 for Sunday, October 25, 2009; this is the first of three sermons on "Gratitude.")

Several years ago, as part of the process of applying for a promotion, I had to put together a file on myself. I asked my dean, “What am I supposed to say?” He replied, “Just tell us how great you are.” When I set about trying to do that, I found the task to be very difficult. It was hard for me to say flattering things about myself. Perhaps my reluctance sprang in part at least from an appropriate sense of humility. But perhaps it also sprang in part from a life-long sense that I really didn’t have all that much of which to be proud.

Maybe you have such doubts about yourself, too. Whether you were born with it or whether you had it beaten into you by people or by circumstances, maybe you have always harbored a deep sense of worthlessness and insecurity. Outward appearances don’t tell the tale, either. Sometimes those with the most chutzpah and bravado are often the most insecure; they’ll put up any front or put on any mask to keep you from seeing who they really are or who they are afraid they really are.

Into our lives breaks the wonderful good news of this psalm: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (v. 14). I am fearfully and wonderfully made. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. All God’s children are fearfully and wonderfully made. We need to get hold of the fact that our very existence is a miracle; that is a wonder that we are. It should give us chills just to think about it.

A friend of mine was once very ill, at the very point of death, but he recovered enough to go home. A mutual acquaintance said of him, “He’s a walking miracle.” I got to thinking about that phrase “a walking miracle.” Doesn’t the phrase accurately describe us all, particularly if we substitute the word “living” for “walking”? If we have life we’re a miracle of God because were it not for God we would not exist. Acknowledging our creation by God is the first step in living a life defined by gratitude. It is a miracle that we are, that we exist. So praise God that we are!

G. K. Chesterton famously said that “the worst moment for an atheist is when he/she feels grateful and there is no one to thank.” We know who to thank! And how it changes things when we acknowledge that God made us and when we incorporate the wonders of that miracle into our thinking.

We are a part of what God has always been doing through God’s creative activity. “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (v. 15). God made me and that connects me with all of those whom God has ever made.

That verse also reminds us that we are fashioned by God in minute and wondrous detail. What a miracle it is that this body works, and that is true even when some of it stops working as well as it used to work. We are made by God in intricate detail.

The psalm further reminds us that we are made by God for a purpose. “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (v. 16b). God has purposes that God is working out and we are created to be a part of that purpose. It’s all a miracle! Our lives should be a celebration!

So we’re special because we’ve been created by God. But it is a personal relationship with God that makes us aware of just how special we are. Over and over the psalmist declares in wonder that God knows him and sees him. Now in some ways this is the case whether or not we acknowledge God and whether or not we love God and whether or not we have a personal relationship with God. But there are wonderfully positive possibilities for those whom God has also adopted into his family. We are the ones who understand God’s knowledge of us and presence with us not as a threat but as a blessing. We understand that the facts that God sees us and is with us make it possible that we may in fact become what God intends for us to be.

When I was a teenager a couple joined our church who had a small adopted son. His mother decided to use the process of potty training as an opportunity to teach him something important. So every time that he was involved in the process of potty training his mother had him say, “I’m special because I’m adopted.” The timing is not as strange as you might think. Perhaps it registered with the boy that his being adopted was absolutely natural and significant and necessary and indispensable to him. He was special because he was adopted.

So are we. Because we have been adopted into God’s family through the saving work of God’s only Son Jesus Christ we celebrate God’s presence rather than dread it; we welcome it rather than try to escape it. God’s presence is basic and essential and indispensable to our lives. How wonderful it is to know that God knows our thoughts before we think them and our words before we say them and our paths before we take them. How magnificent it is to ponder the fact that no matter where we go and not matter what we go through God is there.

It is because we are in a personal relationship with him through his adoption of us in Jesus Christ that we can pray with confidence rather than fear the closing words of this psalm: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (vv. 23-24). That really can happen if you belong to God! You see, I’m grateful for me because it’s finally not about me; it’s finally about God. In Christ, I really can be who God has made me to be. How can we not live our lives in gratitude if God is so working in our lives? As Paul put it,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us…. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:3-8a, 11-12).


Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for WWII Veterans

Today the city of Fitzgerald hosted a luncheon in honor of our community's World War II veterans. I was honored to offer the following prayer of thanksgiving.

Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth, Savior of all people everywhere who hear and respond to your call,

We praise you for life and for life everlasting, both of which come to us only through your grace.

We praise you for the United States of America, for the state of Georgia, for the city of Fitzgerald, and for the county of Ben Hill, all of which we call home.

We praise you for the life, the liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that constitute the legacy of our forebears and the ongoing ideals of our Republic.

O God, we ask for your wisdom, for your guidance, and for your strength that we might as individuals and as a people pursue and live out those ideals.

We thank you today for those among us who, along with their fellows and their families, sacrificed so much during the great conflict of World War II. We thank you for their service to their nation during the war and we thank you for their service to their families, to their communities, and to society in all the years since the war concluded.

We are mindful of the fact that many of their fellows sacrificed their very lives on the fields, on the seas, and in the air where the battles of the war were fought; we remember those today with great reverence and thanksgiving. We are also mindful that large numbers of our WWII veterans are leaving us each day and so we thank you for this and for every opportunity that we have to tell them “Thank you!”

We are furthermore mindful of the fact that many others have served in uniform in the years since WWII and that indeed many are serving even now, with many of those serving in harm’s way, and we thank you for them and ask your protection and blessing on them.

As we thank you today for the great victory over the forces of totalitarianism and oppression that you won through these veterans all those years ago, we are mindful that there are still forces of totalitarianism and oppression that do and that would rob the people of our world of their liberty and we ask that you would, now and always, give those of us who possess and who love freedom the willingness and the resolve to stand firm against them.

For the food in which we share today, for the fellowship around the tables, and for a community in which we appreciate, celebrate, and support each other, we give you our most humble thanks.


Some of the Most Important Words Ever to Come from a Baptist

The current issue of the Christian Index, the newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, contains a letter by Dr. James Staubes, pastor of Skidaway Island Baptist Church in Savannah, that may well be one of the most significant pieces of correspondence penned by any Baptist in any generation.

When the next resurgence comes, this letter may well be looked back upon as the turning point.

I encourage all Baptists to read this important letter. You will join me in saying "Amen."

(Folks of other traditions will be inspired by it, too.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Teach Us to Pray: Developing a Life with God

Tonight I started a Wednesday night study on prayer entitled "Teach Us to Pray: Developing a Life with God." Part One follows.


Part One: The Place and Position of Prayer

“(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1). Along the way we will return in detail to the specific teachings on prayer that Jesus offered in response to the request of his disciple but for now I want to note that this disciple expressed the desire of the heart of each of us, whether we know it or not: we want to know how to pray. Moreover, the fact that Jesus answered the question reveals that we can be taught how to pray, that we can learn how to pray.

One of the first steps in learning anything is finding out where and how you are supposed to stand. A baseball player learns first where to stand in the batter’s box and then how to stand in the batter’s box; a football player learns where to stand on the field and then how to stand on the field; a golfer learns where to stand in the tee box and then how to stand in the tee box.

Learning involves being in the right place and in the right position, then. That applies to learning to pray.

The right place: before God

Glenn Hinson offered this definition of prayer: “Prayer… is conversation, communication, or communion between ourselves as personal beings and our heavenly Father, the ultimate personal reality in the universe” (The Reaffirmation of Prayer, p. 17).

God as Father. Prayer is personal communion between personal human beings and a personal God; it thus has the potential for great intimacy. Jesus purposely taught us to pray to “Our Father”; the word is Abba, a form of the Aramaic word for Father that really means something like “Daddy.” So Jesus told us to approach God as a personal being in a very personal way.

God is love. That statement in 1 John 4:8 is the most basic biblical definition of God. As Hinson also said, “Prayer…is motivated by love, which seeks naturally and spontaneously to interact with what it has made.” So from God’s side of this two-sided relationship, conversation, and communion, God approaches us and that approaching is motivated by God’s love. Our response is a response of love, then; as Hinson put it, “Our love responds to God’s love that is always beaming on us” (A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle, p. 46.

The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, along with the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit, offer the definitive proof of God’s determination to relate to us personally.

Prayer happens when our real and open personhood responds to the real and open personhood of God.

The right position: the posture of humility

While God is personal and relates to us in love, we nonetheless need to acknowledge that we stand before him as the human creation of Almighty God. As Psalm 8 reminds us, “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?” (vv. 3-4 NASB). God does take thought of us and God does care for us—but that is a most remarkable thing. This morning before sunrise I went out to try to see the Orionid meteor shower. I am happy to report that I saw exactly one meteor but it was still worth the effort as, it being a clear morning, I was overwhelmed by the wonder and majesty of God’s creation as exhibited in the innumerable stars. What are we, indeed? We stand in awe before God.

Luke 18:9-14 contains Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in which the tax collector’s humble attitude, exemplified in the words “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” is favorably contrasted with the self-righteous and haughty attitude of the Pharisee.

Commenting on that parable, Metropolitan Anthony said,

What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without Him and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will receive us, receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love…. (A)ll we can do is to turn to Him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask Him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting Him face to face, not for judgment, nor for condemnation, but for eternal life (School of Prayer, pp. 7-8).


As we approach our attempts at prayer, our position is before God and our posture is humility.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

God Gets Flagged in Fitzgerald

We have a very good football team at Fitzgerald High School this year; the Purple Hurricanes are 6-0 and ranked #2 in the Georgia AA classification. Head Coach Robbie Pruitt and several of the players are members of the church that I serve as pastor and we have good reason to be proud of the manner in which they conduct themselves.

Last Friday night, during a home contest with region rivals the Berrien County Rebels, a young man named R. J. Davis caught a touchdown pass and, before handing the ball to the referee, pointed his index finger toward the sky. As a yellow flag fluttered to the ground beside him, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, that’s an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against us.”

I remember thinking that it was unwarranted; it was very quick gesture by Davis and it did not seem designed to draw inordinate attention to himself or to taunt the opposing team.

It was not until the following Wednesday, when I learned that a crew from WALB-TV, the NBC affiliate in Albany, Georgia, had arrived at the Fitzgerald High School campus, which is, incidentally, right next door to our church campus, that I found out that the player’s gesture had religious significance. As it turns out, Davis’ gesture was intended to glorify God; he was pointing toward heaven as a way of thanking God for the good thing that had happened to him. He said in the interview that was aired on WALB’s 6:00 p.m. broadcast on Wednesday that he pointed upward “to give God thanks” for allowing him to “be open in the first place.”

I do not know Davis personally; folks who do know him affirm that he is a fine young man and that his religious convictions are sincere.

There are some who would say, I know, that God is neither interested nor involved in whether or not a football player catches a touchdown pass, such legendary football terminology as the “Hail Mary” and the “Immaculate Reception” notwithstanding. I suppose they have a point, given that we would probably prefer that the Almighty give attention to such slightly more important matters as hunger, war, poverty, disease, and injustice than to the outcome of a football play or a football game, even if a school with a name like Trinity or St. Pius or Notre Dame—or even Ouachita Baptist—is involved.

Besides, some would say—and again, I guess they have a point—what kind of theological crisis might be created if we were compelled to conclude that God directed the path of the Fitzgerald High School receiver more than God directed the path of the Berrien County defensive back and that, by implication, God favored the Fitzgerald team over the Berrien County squad?

It is true that the Bible speaks often of God’s mysterious choosing of one over another or favoring of one over another—Jacob over Esau and David over everybody, for examples—but do we really want to extend the theology of divine election to sports teams, as in “Fitzgerald I loved, but Berrien I hated”? I would think not. On the other hand—no, really, we don’t want to go there.

There is another way to look at it, though: should we not be pleased that a Christian young person—that any Christian person—acknowledges and takes seriously the fact that God is somehow involved in all the moments and in all the events of his life? This particular young man does not worship with our congregation but if he did he would sometimes hear me say that if God is indeed God then God is God in every aspect of our lives and he would assume—rightly, I think—that God is a football player’s God on the football field just like God is a doctor’s God in the operating room or a teacher’s God in the classroom or a farmer’s God in the field.

That does not mean, of course, that God micromanages the routes the player runs any more than it means that God micromanages every cut that the surgeon makes or every word that the teacher says or every furrow that the farmer plows—but it surely does mean that somehow God is present and involved in every step that they all take.

It is absolutely appropriate, then, that the Christian praise God in all things because God is in fact God in all things.

That means, though, that God would have also been God if Davis had dropped the ball or if he had twisted his ankle and even if, God forbid (!), our team had lost the game—and it means, doesn’t it, that God was God when the referee—who may be a fine Christian middle-aged man, too, for all I know—threw that flag when that fine Christian young man pointed his finger toward heaven.

Somehow God is in it all.

Sound theology—not to mention sound living and maybe even sound football—require such nuances in perspective.

Maybe that’s a lesson we can all learn from the night that God got flagged in Fitzgerald.