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Praying for Our Leaders

Praying for Our Leaders

There has been some fuss recently about praying for political leaders, in particularly, regarding an image of folks praying for President Trump. I think that many prayers for and against leaders mistake the value that prayer has. Further, complaining about what other people pray is largely a waste of time, and again reflects a misunderstanding of the value of prayer.

I recall the quote that “most people want to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity.” (I looked it up and found this attribution to former SBC president Adrian Rogers.) When the majority of our prayers involve telling God what to do, what does that say about our believe in the omniscience, omnipotence, and indeed, the wisdom of God? Many of those who pray positively for President Trump, advising God to destroy his enemies and to prosper the president, also prayed quite negatively regarding President Obama. Just as happens in the broader American society, in Christianity we tend to exchange scripts when the party in power changes. About the same number of prayers get said, and the same number of complaints made. They are just made by different people.

My prayers for our leaders have not changed with the change of presidents. No, I do not deny having opinions, even strong ones, regarding various political issues. I have just chosen to spend my time on other things. But I prayed regularly that God would bless President Obama, and I continue to pray that God bless President Trump, according to his will.

How can I do this since I must disagree with substantial policy choices of one or the other? Very simply. I believe that God’s blessing is always a positive thing. Some people worry about prayers that they don’t like. I do not. I believe God can and does work, but I both believe that he doesn’t need advisors, and that he’s not going to let self-appointed advisors get in the way of his divine plan. Some are concerned about “prayers amiss,” but I think that idea is the result of a misapplication of James 4:3, which actually supports the idea that God is not going to respond to a prayer for evil.

So I welcome prayer, even ones I don’t like. I suspect that if I seek God, I may somehow get closer to him than I was before. The same thing applies even to those who advise God to do things I would disapprove. Opening yourself to God is both dangerous and wonderful.

Thinking, Praying, and/or Acting

Thinking, Praying, and/or Acting

Credit: OpenClipart.org
Credit: OpenClipart.org

Frequently when there is a crisis or any form of trouble, Christians call for prayer. These calls can take many forms. In addition, a common comment from Christians is that we will pray about a situation.

Now it’s quite possible that someone who says they will pray will limit their activities to just praying. It’s even possible that they won’t even bother with that. We are all human, and we often make insincere statements.

I think, however, that the majority both pray and also do other, concrete things. For those who have prayer as an important part of their spiritual life, it can be a critical part of action.

I discussed this with Dr. David Moffett-Moore, author of Pathways to Prayer, Life as Pilgrimage, and some other books, and I think he made these points extremely well.

It’s unfortunate that the common perception of prayer, a perception that is far too common in the church, is that prayer is primarily about getting God to do things our way, so that the test of the success of prayer is whether we get something or whether God’s (perceived) action changes. One of the primary ways in which prayer “functions” (a questionable word, but one that will have to do), is by changing us and driving our decisions and actions.

Here’s the video:

 

Seven Marks: Fervent Prayer

Seven Marks: Fervent Prayer

nt church booksThe sixth mark Dave discusses in Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is fervent prayer (pp. 39-42).

There are a variety of views of what it means to be “the church” or what it means to be Christian. For some, it’s a matter of holding the correct set of beliefs. One knows that certain things are true and one gathers with other people who know the same things are true, and this is church. Evangelism, in that case, is convincing other people that the things one believes are true and thus they should join this group.

I exaggerate a little bit here to make a point. I think prayer brings out a problem with this view, and it’s one that has been building through Dave’s book. Notice that all these marks of the church are activities. Dave quotes Acts 2:37-47 on pp. v-vi of his introduction. You might want to read that now. Notice that the description of the church is active. God is acting in the church and so are the people.

Now I don’t want to suggest replacing believing or knowing with doing. Doing must result from knowing in some sense or from instinct and habit. Even the idea that doing is important involves thought and belief. Often, however, we can tell more about what we actually believe by what we do than by what we claim.

I recall going to teach about prayer at one church. The prayer coordinator was dismayed at the low attendance of the conference. She told us that the church had determined that prayer was their second priority. In that case how could so few people attend a conference on prayer scheduled by their prayer ministry?

The answer, I suggested, was to observe what people did, and particularly how money was spent. In particular, look at your property. How is it arranged? What have you spent money on? How much of your money has gone to sports facilities? How much to education? How much to outreach?

Now I absolutely don’t want you to read that as a negative view of sports facilities. Used well, sports facilities can be a critical element of outreach, and in turn a focus of prayer. The question is what you are actually doing.

In fact, the measurement of the commitment to prayer should not have been attendance at a prayer conference, but rather time spent in prayer, a prayerful attitude, and ultimately establishing lives of prayer. A conference might help that. Since I have offered a few, I’d like to think so! But one can spend amazing amounts of time in a conference on prayer without actually praying. One can have a nice looking prayer ministry, while neglecting prayer.

Do we really believe in prayer? I’m not asking what miraculous things prayer can bring, but rather whether we believe prayer can provide communion with God. That, in turn, leads to asking whether we believe God is active in our lives, our churches, and our communities.

The evidence of prayer in the American church suggests that we don’t. We may believe in prayer as an occasional spiritual discipline on the one hand, or as a means of pushing God into doing things that we want on the other, but as a means of communing with God, either we’re not sure it will work, or not sure we want it.

Dave talks about an “attitude of prayerfulness” (p. 40). Such attitude is a reflection of belief and practice.

I want to illustrate this by quoting from one of the other books I’m following through this series:

Some congregations make a decision by voting; but many churches learn to choose through the process of discernment. Discernment, as it is used in everyday language, has to do with sifting through the information we’ve been given in order to decide a course of action. In the church, discernment describes the prayerful process of making a choice in light of the inspiration, leading, and guidance of the Spirit.

Discernment can be practiced by individuals or by groups. When transforming congregations make use of discernment as a decision-making tool, they place their choices in the context of God’s transforming activity, assuming that they are called to something larger than self-interest and partisanship. Through discernment, they imagine not just what they want to do, but how they might share in God’s New Creation through the choices they make. (Thrive, pp. 126-127)

This is a test for belief and practice. Can and will the Spirit guide our discernment? Will prayer help us in discerning what the Spirit is doing and where we can become part of that activity?

There is a huge difference between having a short prayer at the beginning of a meeting in which you then carry out the normal business of debating (or arguing) and then voting and one in which one seeks to hear the Spirit and come to a consensus. The latter requires a certain amount of trust!

In discussing the early church’s beginnings and prayer, Bruce Epperly (Transforming Acts, p. 26), under the heading “Don’t Do Something, Wait Prayerfully” says,

In the wake of the ascension, the apostles return to their meeting place and, for the next several days, constantly devote themselves to prayer. We don’t know the nature of their individual prayer practices. They may have been a blend of quiet contemplation, praise, intercession, celebration of Jesus’ last supper, and thanksgiving. But prayer was their priority as  a community before they undertook any action. They knew that God’s power was coming, and also knew that power without prayer is destructive to us and others.

“Power without prayer is destructive.” I fervently agree. Fervent prayer is a critical mark because it sets us up for everything else, just as it did the early church.

When My Father Was Healed

When My Father Was Healed

1893729222_adI was talking recently with a friend who commented that there are certain events that serve as anchor points for our faith. For me, despite all the drifting I’ve done since it happened, one of those points was the time when my father was healed. I alluded to this briefly in a comment on the Energion Discussion Network, and was challenged (or so it felt) to retell the story more often. You can get another perspective on this story from my mother’s book Directed Paths, which includes many other stories of God in action. I was 14 years old at the time and will tell this as I remember it.

It was 1971 and my parents were called as missionaries to Guyana, South America, where my father was to become medical director of the 54 bed Davis Memorial Hospital in Georgetown. Shortly after we arrived my father required emergency surgery. This took place during the night. The surgeon persuaded my mother not to wake me up, so anything about the surgery is not from my memory, but rather from what I was told. The surgery was on the large intestine and during the surgery there was considerable contamination. In addition, at one point my mother, who is an RN, was left alone as the entire team had to go to an emergency with a delivery in another room. Overall the surgery lasted for four hours, if I recall correctly.

Nobody wanted to tell me in the morning, so I was successively directed from room to room until I arrived in my father’s room in the hospital where he was connected to various tubes and devices. It was quite a shock.

He continued to be weak for some time, and his digestive processes and intestines would not restart their function. The surgeon said that he would never work again and would not live more than another 10 years. The mission board began to plan to bring my parents back to the states.

My parents, on the other hand, did not agree. They said that they had gone to Guyana to perform a mission and that they had not yet performed one. Their choice was to follow James 5, and call for the elders of the church. The elders anointed my father with oil and prayed for his healing and that he would be able to carry out his mission. I was actually quite disappointed with the results that day. It seemed that nothing happened.

But from that moment, my father’s recovery began. Within two weeks he took over as sole physician for that 54 bed hospital and was on call 24 hours/7 days per week for the next year before any relief came. He served there for seven years and still worked after he returned to the states. He has now gone on to be with the Lord, though since he was a Seventh-day Adventist he would say “to sleep in Jesus.” I have come to not see a lot of difference there. One breath here—the next breath there. Time won’t matter! But he lived into his late 80s, much more than 10 years and he continued to work through to a normal retirement. He was active as a Christian witness up to the time of his death.

I find that story challenging and encouraging. It’s challenging because my parents refused to leave and give up when everyone else was saying the situation was hopeless. It’s encouraging because when they stepped out in faith on their mission, God was there with them.

Thoughts from the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout: Stewardship and Worship

Thoughts from the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout: Stewardship and Worship

books tuesday 020216I enjoyed interviewing three different Energion authors last night. The first was Rev. Steve Kindle who talked about stewardship and the importance of starting from an understanding that everything belongs to God. Steve provided some practical steps that a church can use in caring for all of God’s creation. Steve’s book goes into this somewhat more: Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World.

At about 7:30 pm, a half hour into the program, Dr. Jon Dybdahl joined us. Jon is the author of a newly released book Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul. When he experienced this longing as a young missionary he started to pursue the presence of God and co-taught a class in college in spirituality. Jon’s PhD is in Old Testament, but he has a passion for serious worship.

For the last 15 minutes, he was joined by Dr. David Moffett-Moore. Dave is author of Pathways to Prayer, and has two doctorates, both a PhD and a DMin. It was interesting and challenging to hear two men with so much education of the mind nonetheless tell us that the intellectual paradigm of religion was not enough. Prayer is an essentially. Coming to know the reality of God’s presence and power is essential.

When I asked Dr. Jon Dybdahl how one would start this in a church as a pastor or other church leader he said the best way was to see your own need and start practicing it yourself. People will sense when your activities in leadership are powered by prayer and time with God whether you’re telling them all about what you’re doing or not. He also suggested a change in terminology that struck me, suggesting we might use “lead worshipper” rather than “worship leader” to take away the separation of the one on the platform from the ones in the pew.

The video is embedded below:

Pathways to Prayer Interview

Pathways to Prayer Interview

The Spirits FruitConsidering my recent posts, I wanted to call attention to my interview last night with Dr. David Moffett-Moore, pastor and author of five Energion titles: Life as Pilgrimage, The Spirit’s Fruit: A Participatory Study Guide, Creation in Contemporary Experience, Wind and Whirlwind, and of course Pathways to Prayer (in the Topical Line Drives series).

I asked Dave about going into prayer in such a way as to simply reinforce what I already think and want. He talks about how important listening is as part of prayer. It’s not a catalog of our desires sent to God. It’s a time of listening and learning.

I also asked him what to do if one wanted to improve the prayer life of a church congregation or community, and how one proceeds when someone asks for prayer for a specific purpose.

Dave is practical and down to earth. I really enjoyed the conversation and learned from it.

The interview is embedded below.

Praying and Studying to Change Yourself

Praying and Studying to Change Yourself

Yesterday I wrote a bit about using prayer and Bible study as a starting point for change. The problem is that it’s very easy to pray and study the Bible in such a way that it makes you a worse person.

I’ve found a relatively simple way to determine whether I’m doing this myself:

  1. If I’m studying the Bible to figure out what other people are doing wrong, how other people need to change, I’m making a worse person of myself.
  2. If I’m studying the Bible so that by beholding I can be changed, so that I can find out how to be a better follower of Jesus, I’m allowing God to make a better person of me.

I frequently hear (and have sometimes myself offered) prayers that ask God to fix someone else. If you’re praying for your pastor and asking God to make him or her see things your way, you’re on a dangerous path. Let God make the decisions. It might just turn out that what needs to change in your relationship with your pastor might be you.

In Bible study I’d take another step and say that one’s general approach needs adjustment. When I started studying biblical languages I imagined that I would discover the original text and read it in the original languages, and thus resolve issues, at least to the extent that I would be certain of what was right and what was wrong. Getting that information was my entire intent.

As I studied, I found that every aspect of that approach was problematic. Even the idea of an original text wasn’t easy to define. Was I looking for the text that came from the pen of the writer, however inaccessible that might be? Was it to be found in whatever sources were used by a writer? Perhaps the text actually used in the early church was more important than some earlier text that was beyond my reach. Having discovered (or pretended to discover) whatever text I was after I then had the problem with where and how it applied. The hard and indisputable facts were generally in dispute, no matter how long I studied.

Over time I have come to believe that there is value in studying all levels of the text. Those who prefer canonical criticism look down on form, source, and redaction critics, and claim that the canonical form is the “special” form of the text. Source criticism, just as an example, assumes that one wants to get closer to the roots of the text.

I find both approaches helpful. One is certainly on less solid ground looking at the prehistory of the text. While I may have doubt about the details of the canonical form of the text, I am frequently in serious doubt about the text’s prehistory. Yet when I’m studying the text to see God in action, I am always able to listen for the voice of God. Sometimes that voice will even get through the static of my own thoughts.

Talking to God and listening to God are about changing me. Only when I first focus this on me will I be in a position to help someone else. If I respect them and love them as I believe God loves me and calls me to behave, I have to allow them to behold and become changed (2 Cor. 3:18) as well.

I Think I’d Go Somewhere Else

I Think I’d Go Somewhere Else

A discount for praying? Actually, yes, I say a blessing over my food. So I have some problems with the “disobeying Jesus” thing. There are occasions when you don’t have to hide in order to pray. That’s not what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 6:1, though making a public show of it, which this restaurant seems to encourage, is definitely what he was talking about.

But the idea of profiting by praying is just so wrong in so many ways …

(HT: Exploring Our Matrix)

Fervent Prayer and Praying in the Spirit

Fervent Prayer and Praying in the Spirit

Dave Black provides an extract from his forthcoming book on the Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. In it, he refers to praying in the Spirit, noting that some exegetes say this refers to praying in tongues. He doesn’t deny that possibility but says it is broader than that.

While I believe that praying in tongues is praying in the Spirit, “praying in the Spirit” is not a category of prayer, in that one might pray “in” and “out” of the Spirit in some way. Rather, it describes something that should be a characteristic of all prayer. There are those who elevate or diminish praying in tongues. On the one hand nobody, even the person praying, necessarily knows what a prayer in tongues is about. Is it not better that people hear the prayer? On the other hand, prayer in the Spirit is most definitely not under the conscious control of the one praying. Is it not better to be fully under the control of the Spirit of God?

Actually prayer, and any spiritual discipline can be verbal or non-verbal. I find I hear most from the Lord when I’m reading Scripture. But often it is not the words, or at least not consciously the words, that bring peace or direction. Sometimes I just study and come to some decision or other that I needed to. Sometimes I merely feel my anxiety relieved, even though I may not have been reading. This morning I was helped to a place of peace (I was worrying about something I had no business worrying about) while reading Leviticus 23 in Hebrew. I cannot think of anything in that text that related to my situation.

I would suggest that bringing the words of one’s prayer, when those words are spoken aloud and consciously, under the power of the Spirit is more difficult. It is definitely worth doing. But you won’t do it yourself. You can only hope and wait for the Holy Spirit to do it. And obey when He does!