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Fear, Prayer, Trust, and Action

Fear, Prayer, Trust, and Action

As I write posts and various notes that speak against fear, I want to make sure some things are clear.

There are two quotes that have been going through my mind. The first is: “Prayer is not a substitute for anything, and there is no substitute for prayer.” I know I first heard this from a friend and author who was once my pastor, Bob McKibben, but he attributed it to someone else and I can’t locate it.

The other is from C. S. Lewis:

Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.

C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night

I first heard that one from my teacher and undergraduate advisor Alden Thompson, who has it memorized and can trot it out at a moment’s notice.

I’ve gone into detail elsewhere, but I want to restate a few things.

Fear shouldn’t control us, but it should get us moving. The fear one feels at the edge of a cliff, for example, needs to be sufficient to keep you from jumping or coming closer than your manual dexterity permits, but not so great as to paralyze you or make you take unwise, uncertain steps.

Trust is a great thing. It is something that lets us walk with confidence in dangerous times. When our trust is in God, we can have peace, even in very frightening circumstances. But trust, even in God, can be dangerous. In politics I tell people to calm down and trust God. I also ask, even beg them to go vote.

Prayer is great. One of the greatest things prayer does is change our hearts so that we will take more action, and more effective action to help others. Praying for your enemies is also a means of softening your heart. Be prepared for God to use you in response to your prayers.

Right now, the question is carrying out actions in response to the pandemic, such as social distancing. This is a decision to be made rationally. You can make it without fear. I’ll simply note that the numbers are convincing to me, but that isn’t a real argument. I’m not an expert. The experts are nearly unanimous that this is a good thing. Your decision should be based on this information.

Fear of sickness and dying and fear of harming others by carrying infection can get you to the point of taking that action. Prayer and trust in God can help you with your peace as you carry out those actions. Calmness as you trust will make it easier to make each decision. Is this a necessary trip? Is this contact safe and important?

We’re human, and each of these elements plays a role. Live wisely!

We Have Sinned

We Have Sinned

This week as the story of yet another prominent Christian who had fallen passed through my news feeds, a young man who was pleading guilty to 18 counts related to sex with minors, I was led again to Daniel 9 and Daniel’s prayer of repentance.

We argue about the impact of prayer and what God does with our prayers a great deal. Does prayer change God? But there is a much more important question, in my view: Does prayer change us? Whatever it does, I think it reflects how we are thinking.

The Bible is quite hard on its main characters, never giving them a break. Their faults are put on display for all to see. Even the heroes of the Bible are presented with flaws. Daniel is one of those that is presented at all times in a positive light. There are those who believe he is the one referenced in Ezekiel 14:14, where he’s in a list with Noah and Job, both of whom are described as righteous.

But when Daniel begins to pray, he uses the third person plural: “We”

We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have incurred guilt, and we have rebelled by turning aside from your commands and decisions.

Daniel 9:5 (my translation and emphasis)

I think Daniel had something there about a response to sin.

You see, our tendency is to blame others. Other people in other traditions, using other forms of church governance, believing other doctrines, and just generally being different from me/us (the righteous one/ones) fell into grave sin. They should correct their traditions, fix their church governance, clean up their doctrinal statements, and become more like us!

For decades, Protestants have spent their time looking down on Roman Catholics because they had pedophiles in the ranks. We Protestants, being wise enough to allow marriage in the ministry, obviously wouldn’t have such a problem.

They have sinned. We’re OK.

But the fact is that we have sinned, and the more news comes out, the more glaringly obvious it is that we are all falling short.

We have sinned:

  • By looking at the sin of others and assuming we ourselves are immune
  • By ignoring what Jesus said about not lording it over one another and making hierarchies
  • By considering some people to be above accountability because they are anointed leaders
  • By failing to be accountable to one another
  • By turning aside less important people, claiming their word should not stand against the word of the holier, the more educated, the richer, the more powerful, or the more respected
  • By shifting the blame from perpetrators to the victims
  • By thinking our witness for Jesus could be made better by covering up than by confessing
  • By seeing the least of these as least, rather than as God’s children, pearls of great price
  • By thinking that we can ever criticize and judge from the outside
  • By believing, contrary to Romans 13, that our behavior is only church business, and refusing to report crimes to the appropriate authorities
  • By feeling all holy inside when someone’s sin is exposed and we realize (or imagine) that their sin is not one that attracts us.

If the church is to be a witness we need to be an honest and genuine witness to who we are. God knows who we really are. In a self-righteous prayer, we do not deceive God. We just deceive ourselves. We help ourselves believe that we are exempt.

It is in feeling that we are exempt, better-than, holier-than, more Spirit-filled, more Christ-like, more like a real church, and less subject to temptation that we prepare for a fall. Our fall, my fall, may not come via sexual temptation. But if I become superior and arrogant, if I fail to realize who I am, my fall will surely come.

May God have mercy on us all.

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.

The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.

Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.

What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!

What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!

Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.

Counterexamples, too.

My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.

Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.

A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.

My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.

I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.

No, no negative “balance” story this time.

Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.

Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.

In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.

In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!

The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.

I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.

In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.

So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?

Job 38.

Yes, that one.

You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.

Infinitely more.

But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.

God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.

I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.

They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.

That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Daniel 9: Confession and Repentance

Daniel 9: Confession and Repentance

The Adult Bible Studies Sunday School curriculum was on the subject of confession and repentance with the primary passage being Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9. This is an interesting and powerful prayer to read and deserves more attention than it gets. They secondarily referred to Psalm 51, which is also an important prayer of confession, and is much better known that Daniel 9. (I wrote a meditation on Psalm 51 here, but didn’t get to it in my Sunday School class.)

One important difference between the two passages is that Daniel 9 is a corporate prayer of repentance, while Psalm 51 is individual. Each has individual elements and corporate elements, but the emphasis is far different. This is why Psalm 51 applies to the sin of David with Bathsheba so well. Daniel, on the other hand, is meditating on the fact that Judah has not been restored.

Daniel is treated as righteous in the Bible. While we assume that he is human, and thus had faults and failings, none are presented. This is notable, since the Bible, unlike many other official histories, does not hesitate to present faults. Much of our historical material about Israel, while based on official chronicles (at least according to the text), are actually written by critics of the various regimes. Yet Daniel is presented positively.

Here, however, Daniel is not afraid of the word “we.” He identifies with his people Israel (or Judah) has failed. He repents for all, and doing so identifies himself with all. There is a fine line here that we need to watch. By taking on the failings of everyone in a group, we can became paralyzed by shame and simple disgust. At the same time, recognizing that we are part of a group that has done certain things is critical. It becomes the foundation of changing the group.

Some want to emphasize the individual aspect of confession and repentance. Others think largely in corporate terms. In a church that has done wrong, treated members badly, provided a poor witness to the community, turned its back on those in need or who are suffering, it’s important for those who pray to confess what the church has done. You may have done everything you could, but at corporate confession time, it’s a matter of the group. I think the answer to corporate vs. personal is flexible and varied. The person in the right who says “let’s” rather than “you should” can be the catalyst of real change in a group or even in a nation.

Here’s a diagram I used in class. Well, actually, I drew with a marker on a white board, and did much worse than this, but whatever!

The scriptures I would apply are 1 John 4:7 & 20. Of course, as always, I recommend reading the entire passage. We try to prioritize loving God over loving one another, but John ties them together, and I think Jesus does as well when he says the second commandment is like the first. You won’t fulfill one without the other.

A good prayer of individual confession and repentance should draw you upward toward God. If it results in wallowing in guilt, you aren’t really getting it. If your prayer of confession distances you from others, you may have a problem.

How corporate should it be? That depends on what is needed. As long as we keep the lines even, drawing closer to others also means drawing closer to God. “Everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God, but the unloving know nothing of God, for God is love” (1 John 1:7-8). You can also test that love for one another by asking whether it draws you and the one you love upward as well.

This is only a short test, and it’s a bit like a pithy one-liner. Yes, you can get off track. But I think it helps. My hope is to keep the lines of even length and yet shorten the distance. Closer to God and closer to others. That should be my goal in life, and especially in confession and repentance. If love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10), then the chief confession is going to be my lack of love, and my repentance will be a turning toward the other points on this triangle.

Try it! It might help!


Here are some books on prayer and forgiveness.

 

Some Problems with Prayer

Some Problems with Prayer

I’ve co-authored a book about prayer, published several more, taught numerous classes, and led seminars about prayer. One thing I believe is that one should teach primary from experience, meaning that often you are teaching about your own weaknesses. In this case it it just so.

So here are some problems. I share in each one. Each one can devastate your prayer life and your Christian experience.

  1. I don’t pray when I should. My first response to a problem is to look for what I can do to solve it. I’m a pretty smart guy and pride myself on being able to solve problems. People call me to help solve their problems, especially with computers or language. Somehow I suspect God is smarter and wiser! A friend of mine said (and I think he was quoting, but I don’t recall who), “Nothing is a substitute for prayer, and prayer isn’t a substitute for anything.” It’s not bad to work, but prayer will transform your efforts. “‘Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6).
  2. I pray after rather than before. I know God can handle the “before they call” thing, but the problem here is that I make decisions and then ask God to bless them, rather than asking God to guide and then listening.
  3. I pray prayers of direction. By this I mean that I tell God how to solve problems. I don’t know the origin of the saying, but it’s unfortunately true: Many people want to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity.
  4. It’s more important to me that people know I’m praying for them than it is to actually pray. It may be a shock to some people, but you can pray without informing people. This doesn’t mean you should never tell someone you’re praying. I am deeply encouraged each time someone lets me know they’re praying for me. But the proclamation can be either a lie or a weapon or even both.
  5. I spend more time talking than listening. See also #2 and #3.
  6. Despite knowing all of this, these are still failings.

Fortunately for all of us, God says,  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9). I pray for greater grace in my prayer life.

Why I Believe the Laws of Physics Will Continue Unabated

Why I Believe the Laws of Physics Will Continue Unabated

It’s hurricane time, as Irma approaches Florida. Note here that I make again the error of many Americans, which is that the hurricane tends to become of interest when it’s arriving at our shores. It has already been quite destructive in a number of places and right now in Cuba.

Yet the discussion intensifies, and we are, inevitably, confronted with loads of hurricane theology. I think it’s because we get to watch hurricanes approach for such a long period of time. Earthquakes and tornadoes happen quickly more quickly. But we track the hurricane, we pray, and we do theology, generally bad theology.

I do not here claim to have a corner on good theology. I am quite unabashedly regarding as bad theology any theology that seems particularly bad to me. So there.

I am not, however, alone. Behold this tweet from author Carol Howard Merritt:

Now before everyone gets the wrong idea, I do pray, and I do believe in prayer. It’s just that what people believe prayer will accomplish starts to get particularly silly when there’s a hurricane trundling along nearby.

I’ve even prayed that God would mitigate the storm, or perhaps send it out to the open Atlantic, with due warning to all sailors who might get caught in its path. I have not, however, claimed that this prayer was likely to do a great deal to change the path of the storm.

So why on earth did I pray it?

This reminds me of talking with my Dad. My father was an MD, and a missionary. When he was not overseas, he was trying to serve those in need in the U. S. and Canada. He never made any money, and came as close as anyone I know to accomplishing John Wesley’s goal: Dying with only the change in his pocket.

I occasionally had conversations with my dad about the possibility of going into practice in an area where he would make money. The nice thing about that, from my viewpoint, would be that I could afford more stuff. In my case that would have been books, parts for my radios, chemicals for a photo-lab, etc. (In relation to nothing in particular, I would note that I often feel sympathy for parents of children such as myself.)

With my dad I would express my interest in such possibilities and how nice it would be to have more money. What I didn’t expect was that he would actually abandon his lifelong calling of service to others and go find a way to make money. I was honest about my desires, but I did not hold the discussion with some kind of expectation of results.

Why? Because I knew my father. I knew who he was. I knew what he believed. There was as much likelihood that my father would abandon his calling as there is that God will discard the laws by which he has chosen to run the universe.

Theologians may look upon general revelation, the revelation of God in God’s creation, with a bit of a jaundiced eye. Observation of nature does not easily result in the sort of ethical rules that a “Thou shalt not kill” does. Yet some of the most stable and definite indications of the way God works are displayed in the form of natural laws.

Air over heated water. The rotation of the earth, the way in which a heated gas (like the stuff in air) will rise. High pressure ridges. Troughs. These are some of the many things that result in the formation of hurricanes and in directing their courses. “He makes his sun to rise on the just and the unjust” and “summer and winter will not cease” are reflections of this nature of God’s action. Of course, we already knew that from observation. Unless, of course, we have not been observing.

So when I told God it would be nice for the hurricane to head out over the Atlantic, that was fine. But knowing just a bit about God, I wasn’t expecting that God would drop all the laws of physics just to suit me. God has been running the universe according to those laws by an estimated nearly 14 billion years.

But I tell God in prayer anyhow, because that’s what I do. Then I more seriously pray for the people who are in the way of the storm and that those who can will provide the needed help, that we’ll all give as we are able. There’s the common saying that prayer changes things. Personally I think that’s fairly rare. What it does is actually much harder: It changes me. It changes you.

And if it does that, it has done well.

(I wrote a series of articles on this back in 2003, which are also included in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. They are The Hand of God, The Hand of God: Miracles, and The Hand of God: Prayer. I recently published a book by Dr. Bruce Epperly, Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles, which also deals with this subject.)

 

Acts 12: Reacting to Miracles (and Their Absence)

Acts 12: Reacting to Miracles (and Their Absence)

Acts 12 is an interesting chapter, both because of what happens and what doesn’t.

James, the brother of John, is seized by Herod and killed. No comment, backstory, or reaction provided. One short verse and gone. I’ve just said more!

Then Peter is seized, and they expect him to be killed as well. The whole church prays for Peter. We’ll suppose that the church prayed for James as well, though it’s possible he was seized and killed so quickly the word didn’t get around until he was dead.

I think the stark presentation of James’s death, followed by the prayer of the church and then the rescue of Peter starkly emphasizes that prayer doesn’t always make things work the way we want it to, provided we haven’t figured that out by reading about Stephen’s death in Chapter 7. Yet the church prays.

As we watch calls for prayer regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and recognize the prayer that went before, we should perhaps note that prayer isn’t a means of steering hurricanes according to our desires, nor of doing the cleanup afterwards. As I once heard preached, prayer isn’t a substitute for anything else, and nothing else is a substitute for prayer. Prayer has its own functions.

In any case, this time while the church is praying, an angel is off to rescue Peter. It may be just my imagination, but it feels like Peter is kind of an automaton through the first part. In verse 9, we’re told he thinks it’s a vision. He is certainly not thinking, “Oh, yes, here’s the angel I expected come to rescue me.” Once he’s in the street and the angel poofs, he realizes it’s really happening.

He heads off to where the church people are praying, and here we get a cameo by young Rhoda, who appears in scripture this once to be so happy at hearing Peter’s voice that she doesn’t open the door for him, but rather heads off to tell the other people he’s alive.

There are a few people like her around today. They want to see a miracle happen, or even something they can imagine to be a miracle, and their purpose is to talk about it. They too can forget to open the door to whatever is happening next.

The people in the house are also quite normal people. They don’t believe Rhoda. After all, if you knew the security arrangements around Peter, you likely wouldn’t believe he was there either. I’d probably think someone got the guards drunk, stole the key, and then led Peter out of prison. If it was today, I’d think some kind of sleeping substance added to their food. At least they let Peter in off the street.

Sometimes Bible stories are really sparse. I keep wondering about Peter’s thoughts. He keeps knocking, but I imagine he was a bit put out when they didn’t open the door. Peter’s angel, indeed! (12:15).

Finally, we have Herod’s reaction. Imagine being one of those guards. I know I go off track, but I kind of feel sorry for the guards. They’re just ordinary guys off serving their country/ruler, and Herod isn’t for a moment going to believe that they were miraculously put to sleep while their prisoner was taken. Honestly, Herod’s reaction is quite rational. The best explanation for the facts he has before him is that the guards either shirked their duty or perhaps even took bribes to let Peter go.

Peter, who seems a relatively sensible guy in this story goes somewhere else.

I think if we read this story and let some of the turns sink in, we might away from a mechanical view of prayer and providence. It’s worth a try in any case.

(Some books I publish that relate: Pathways to Prayer (David Moffett-Moore), Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles (Bruce Epperly), and Directed Paths (my mother Myrtle Blabey Neufeld. Featured image credit, Openclipart.org.)

 

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

School is starting, and so we have the regular drumbeat of comments about prayer in school. One of the most common, used at my church today, is the comment that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in public schools. Which is, of course, quite true. Also, largely irrelevant.

Opponents of public school prayer aren’t trying to prevent students from saying, “Jesus help me!” as they start a test. (Well, I should make the “nut” proviso — I’ve discovered that there is really no idea so stupid that there isn’t a nut somewhere who will support it.) No serious opponent of school prayer is concerned with prayer before tests. What they’re concerned with is publicly sponsored prayer. The child is required to be there. The teacher operates with the power of the government. The prayer is sponsored by political authority.

It’s not my intention, however, to discuss the politics, or to examine from the state’s side whether it’s a good idea for prayer to be prescribed or permitted when led by someone with official authority.

My concern is with prayer by Christians, or even more with talking about prayer and promotion of prayer by Christians. What we say about prayer and what we do about prayer is important. My observation is that there are a lot more people talking about prayer and advocating prayer than are actually praying. This makes me wonder about the issues we choose to make central.

During the course of a day I find that I can pray in my bedroom, my living room, my office, my car, walking on the sidewalk, sitting in a restaurant, meeting with a client … Hmmm! Come to think of it, there really are no places or times when I can’t pray in one way or another. The way in which I pray may be constrained. It might not be best to suggest a time of prayer with every client, though honestly most of them would say “yes” if I asked. Each circumstance may require a different approach to prayer, silent, aloud, head bowed, or not, brief, or longer, kneeling (rare for me), or lying down in my bed.

If I complain that I can’t pray in a public place, I’m really complaining that I cannot make it clear and public that I am praying in that public place. If I’m willing for my prayer to be between me and God, the only ones who can block it are God and me.

I’m leaving out of this discussion the question of whether it is good as public policy to allow some sort of officially sponsored prayer at public events. Personally, I prefer prayer to be individual or part of a voluntary community. But regardless of this issue, the opportunity exists.

If your child or grandchild is going to public school, let me ask a few questions:

  1. Will you be praying with that child (if they are in your house) before they leave for school?
  2. Will you be praying for that child irrespective of what anyone at school is doing?
  3. Will you and your church be praying for your children and those of the community?
  4. Will you be modeling a life of prayer for your child or grandchild that makes spirituality inviting?

I’m sure you can find many other opportunities and ways to proceed with prayer. Too often our underlying concern, as evidenced by our actions, is more with the public display of our spirituality than with the spirituality itself. This doesn’t mean that I believe that if you advocate for teacher led prayer in public schools you are somehow less spiritual. But if you do so without taking the opportunities that are available, it may be time for some self-examination.

Come to think of it, even if you, like me, advocated for only voluntary prayer, your (our!) primary concern should be what we’re doing with the opportunities we have to pray every moment of every day.

(Energion books on prayer.)

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.

Teaching How to Experience God

Teaching How to Experience God

At my home church, Chumuckla Community Church, we’re going through the Experiencing God workbook. There will be 10 sermons, and then discussion groups. My wife Jody leads one right after church each Sunday, and I’m part of that. Doubtless someone will suggest that the book is somewhat more conservative than the theology I express on this blog. I’m delighted that this is the case. Later I’ll read something that’s more liberal and I’ll be delighted with that as well. I believe God is just as happy to talk to conservatives as to moderates and liberals.

The thing that bothers me about all teaching materials that deal with the experience of God’s presence, whether through listening to the Holy Spirit, expectation and exercising of spiritual gifts, or following God in any other way, is that it is often uncertain ground. In fact, I would suggest that if there isn’t an element of risk, you’re not really talking about experiencing God.

There are two basic approaches to trying to teach someone else to experience God. First, one can be prescriptive and define parameters. Second, one can be descriptive and open doors. In reality, of course, an individual’s approach will fall somewhere between, but there is usually a tendency one way or the other.

What I have found is that the most important thing any teacher can do regarding prayer, hearing from God, experiencing God, finding God’s will, or simply sensing God’s presence is ground clearing. Most people who want to hear from God or experience God aren’t simply looking for a formulaic approach they can follow. Rather, they’re usually facing barriers to the experience. Often these barriers are really good approaches they learned from someone else, but which do not work for them.

For example, my wife and I pray differently. Yes, we have times of prayer together, but when we’re each in our private time with God, we take a different approach. She likes music. I like music, but not when I’m praying. She’ll turn on the music and enjoy her time talking with (with, including listening) God. I start with scripture. I will select a passage and read without forcing the pace. I read very fast when that’s what I intend. In prayer time I read slowly and allow the words to direct me into communion. I will sometimes be directed to a different passage.

Jody’s prayer time would be really unfruitful if she used my method.  She’s likely to end up looking at scripture, but that will come as she hears from God in her prayer time. I, on the other hand, find music uplifting and energizing, and often use it to get myself charged for work on a day when I’m feeling slow. Right now I’m typing largely in silence. If I had gotten up unmotivated, I would likely have gone up to my office, turned on some music, and would have found myself getting ready to go.

It’s great to share your experiences. Just avoid telling someone, or leaving them with the impression, that your way is the one and only way to experience God. If you read the Bible stories, you’re going to find quite a variety: Abram just hears, as Abraham he later argues, Moses hears but might rather not at first, Gideon required a sign for each move, Balaam heard through a donkey (hard head there, I think), Jesus was in constant communion. There’s a valuable variety in scripture.

Experiencing God is great. Don’t be afraid of present experience. Beware of either letting someone place you in a straight-jacket, or of placing someone else in one. God’s way is past finding out. You and I haven’t gone that far!

(I’ve put some books I publish related to experiencing God into a collection on Aer.io. Check these out!)