Prayer


“Jesus and his disciples went on…On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?” They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am” (Mark 8:27-29 NIV)?

Do you know Jesus? I mean, do you really know Him? This is a question we must all ask ourselves. Perhaps, like the disciples we know what others say about Jesus. The world offers endless answers to the question Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Some say He was a good, moral and ethical teacher and we should all strive to be good people like He was. Others claim He was just another prophet. Yet, others believe He never even existed.

This is the most important question we will have to answer in our lives, “Who do you say I (Jesus) am?” If you listen close enough you may hear Him whispering it. I can’t answer that question for you, and you can’t answer that for me. Yet, if we are willing, Jesus will spend time revealing Himself to us in this Lenten season. As we enter this season of discovery we need to let Jesus into our daily lives so we can answer for ourselves who Jesus truly is to us.

Lent is a unique time of the year where Christians all over the world set aside several weeks to search their deep thoughts, reflect on the direction of their lives, examine what motivates them from day to day, and contemplate how they can surrender more to Jesus. It is a somber time of wholesome spiritual reflection, self-examination, and change. It is an opportunity to reaffirm to ourselves, through the inner working of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus is. It is an occasion to contemplate how the reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection impacts our lives.

Christians go about this in different ways. For instance, some may read through a Christian classic like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Others “fast” something in their lives such as a particular food, coffee, or TV. And yet, some commit to waking up earlier to pray, read through a Gospel devotionally, or keep a journal of what the Lord is speaking to them during this season. Whatever method we use, we need to remember that they are merely tools to center us and help us focus on God.

Therefore, as we anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, Lent is also a hopeful time of joy and celebration. After all, Lent is a journey to Easter Sunday where we rejoice that our Savior has risen. He is ALIVE! And He has the power to save and transform us into His image. The fact that He is alive also offers the reassurance that He is present and ready to help answer His question, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Gracious Lord, we pray that you will help and guide us during this Lenten season. Lead us in exploring our answer to this question and who we are because of what you have done for us. We pray that this will be a season of discovery and transformation for all of us. We look forward to the glorious sunrise on the day we celebrate the reality of the resurrection of our Lord. Amen!

*Adapted from my Lenten message for a chuch newsletter.

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At the beginning of Thomas á Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ he speaks of the most important thing a Christian can do in their life time is to study Christ.  Yet it is not enough to merely study him but to imitate him in our everyday lives.  The very practice of doing or saying what  Jesus said or did is to experience a bit of life through the mind of Jesus Christ.  Think about it, when Jesus didn’t ignore those who were often invisible in his culture (like children) but embraced them.  Such an act changes a person from the inside out.  One learns to see the disenfranchised with compassion and love.  Or when Jesus said to turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile for an enemy.  This sort of sacrificial living teaches that life is not all about us and that even the hearts of our enemies can be softened.

We can also examine the lifestyle of Christ, how he spent significant amount of time away in prayer.  We all need this time of prayer and fellowship with God.  We can often fall into the trap of feeding our rational/intellectual side of being human and neglect the other basic need of being a social being as well.  We need that time to simply have relationship with God.  This is vital for becoming like Christ.  Paul encourages us in Romans to have the mind of Christ, to renew our minds.  A very big element of this is spending time, getting to know Jesus.  What does this do?  It helps us to truly think, act, and speak like Jesus.  I believe that this is the reason for so much nonsense in the world and even among so-called Christians who appeal to a gospel, that Paul says in Galatians 1, REALLY ISN”T A GOSPEL AT ALL.  Why?  Because they have perverted the faith of Christ, the apostles, the early Church fathers and mothers, and great men and women of God down through the ages for a lie.  How?  Because they do not truly know Christ or have not spent significant time in his presence getting to know him.  Instead they follow their passions, imaginations, feelings, emotions, lusts…to create something that though it sounds biblical because they use scripture, it is not biblical at all because they twist scripture.

In Jeremiah God speaks of false prophets crying out, “Peace, Peace” but the message and warning from God was that “there is no peace” but judgment.  Why is this important to recall?  Because we need to be in tune with God the Father and be aware of what is coming down the pike.  We need to be able to heed his warnings.  We need to be able to know the truth when we hear it and know what is false.  There is a lot of false teaching out there as we speak.  We live in a very pluralistic society where people are making up beliefs as they go along.  While studying philosophy in my undergrad, one thing that drove me nuts was that there was a philosopher for every crazy belief you could think of.  One day my professor said, “Philosophy is a dangerous thing, with the right charisma and eloquent rhetoric, a philosopher or orator could prove that a toothpick is God.”  Sounds ridiculous huh?  Well there are people that teach that god is in everything, in all matter and that that matter possesses the essence of God.  Therefore if God is in a tree and that toothpick came from the tree that housed God…the toothpick is God too.

So what is the safeguard to all of this.  Praying, and sticking to the faith you have received.  Pay attention to that check in your spirit that says, “You know…that sounds all nice and stuff but something isn’t right here, something is off.”  St. Irenaeus was a bishop in the ancient Roman province of Gaul in the second century AD.  He was very close to the time of the apostles and had received the faith that had been handed down to him by very trusted and faithful men.  In turn he taught the “barbarians” in Gaul, the simple folks who could not read or write.  Yet he says in Against Heresies if someone came and began to teach them a different Gospel than what the apostles had handed down to them they would recognize it immediately as a lie and would turn and run the other way.  It is a faith that many have suffered for, died for, and guarded, not only with their words but with their hearts, minds and lives.  We need to honor them by taking our faith as seriously as they did.

The moral of that story is that it is better for most Christians to not even listen to deception and to flee from it instead.  Now God has called many throughout the Church ages to practice what is known as “apologetics” or the defense of the faith.  Yet these individuals are usually deeply grounded in the teachings of Christianity and are very familiar with why we believe what we believe and most of the details behind our faith.  But the truth of the matter is that most Christians do not have the time, the resources, the interest or the calling to engage in this.  We are all part of the same body with different gifts, passions, and callings that are equally as vital and useful to our community as the next.  I have no ability in leading worship because I sing like a sick duck.  Yet I am thankful for those who are called into this ministry who can lead us into the presence of God through worship.

I say all this because it is necessary in our day to stay anchored in the faith and know what that faith is.  There are a lot of false gospels as Paul says in Galatians, but they are no gospels at all.  In fact, he says “If anyone teaches you another gospel than the one we have given, even if I or angels come doing so, let him be cursed.”  Pretty strong language that wouldn’t go over big in our day.  But his language emphasizes the urgency of his warning.  This is why Jesus was so sturn with those who departed from the true faith, same as the apostles, same as the early Church fathers and mothers.  Thomas Oden says in his three volume work Systematic Theology that “the vital question for Christians is not rather it is palatable but rather it is true.”  We are not interested in only the things we like about scripture but what is true…what is scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles claiming is true.  That’s what we want to know.  That’s what we need.  That’s what God expects of us.

Then Jesus* told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’*6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:1-8 NRSV).

As I read this passage today for my devotion, I was prompted to reflected upon some of the thoughts my readers and myself shared in the last article.  I was thinking of how we think of God in terms of our humanity.  For instance, when we think of God’s love for his children, we think of it in terms of our love of our children.  In this passage of scripture from Luke, this is what Jesus is doing in his parable.  Jesus calls the judge in this parable an “unrighteous judge.”  It is clear therefore that when Jesus reflects on the actions of this judge that he is not saying, “God is like this judge.”  Instead, what he is doing is giving an example in human terms.  As Leon Morris points out, it is an example of “degrees.”  That is to say, God acts in much MORE just ways and with more ethical and compassionate motives than this “unrighteous judge.”

You see, this earthly judge responds to this helpless widow because  he finds her quite annoying with her persistence in seeking his help against her enemies.  This judge just wants to get rid of her.  He doesn’t feel compassion for her, benevolence, or mercy.  He doesn’t think it is the ethical thing to do.  He isn’t even concerned what God or men may think if he helps or doesn’t help at all.  His motives are completely selfish.  He helps this widow to help himself.  It is as though she is an annoying fly that he just can’t swat away so he appeases her merely to do away with her.  One gets the sense that if he could  have pushed her off of a cliff, it would have sufficed, just as long as she was removed.  However, the law did not allow him to do so so he takes the only avenue he has…using justice to silence her annoyance.

Jesus is not saying that God gets annoyed with our persistence, on the contrary.  What Jesus is saying is that God is NOTHING like this judge.  He is saying that if an earthly judge like this piece of work would defend a helpless widow merely out of a necessity to relieve himself of her harassment, then how much more would our God who is nothing like this judge come to our aid?  The answer is: MUCH MORE!

This parable offers hope for those in need of justice, defense, provision, and companionship (to name but a few).  No matter what we are experiencing, God is near to vindicate us and do it “speedily.”  God is the good judge.

Now some commentators point to this passage to say that we need to be persistent in seeking God for help.  I on the other hand do not believe that is what this passage is getting at.  I do however believe that there are other parables that teach us to be persistent, but not this one.  I think the main focus is on God as the true and good judge.  If this passage is saying anything, it is saying that we don’t need to be as persistent as this widow was because we are not dealing with an earthly and unrighteous judge like she was.  Our judge is quick to her us and quick to come to our aid without our nagging.

Think on that today, that our God is the good judge who is quick to aid us.  Praise be to God!

 

This is a short post but I would like us to take it seriously.  Many Christians, including you and me, are at times quite displeased with our life of faith.  We may become disappointed because we know we need to be reading scripture, praying, meditating, and focusing on God.  However, it often seems that one day fades quickly into the next, week into week, and month into month without much accomplishment in these areas. 

Many times, we set unrealistic goals for ourselves.  We try to go from hardly reading scripture at all to promising ourselves and God we are going to read a chapter of the Bible a day.  Or we promise that we will pray 30 minutes before bed.  Then bedtime comes, the kids are whining for us to bring them a drink or turn on their light or cover them up again.  Or we are just so beat that as soon as we say, “Heavenly Father, I come to you…zzz…zzz…” we are out like a light. 

I am here to tell you that practicing the spiritual Disciplines (i.e. prayer, devotional reading, study, fasting, meditating etc.) do not come easy and can not be left undone one day and suddenly picked up as a pro the next.  In fact, becoming committed to the Disciplines takes time and practice.  We learn to mold and fix them into our lives, often times by trial and error.  For example, I used to try to read a chapter a day in the Bible.  Yet by the end of the day I forgot what I read.  So over time I learned that what works best for me is to, take a section (often marked by embedded subtitles in various Bibles) and read those.  What’s nice about this is that many sections are only 3-10 verses long.  Therefore they are quite managable to memorize and meditate on throughout the day.  This practice that took time to perfect greatly improved my engagement in scripture. 

I likewise have a challenge for us when it comes to prayer.  In the past I have promised myself that I would get up a half-hour early every morning to pray.  Sounds great huh?  Well it didn’t work out.  Why?  Because I am not a monk that lives in a monastery among fields of golden barley.  Instead I lead a life that consists of children who keep my wife and I up to ungodly hours of the night and several days I am up before 4 am or a little after.  It is unrealistic for me to go to bed consistently at 11 pm and wake up at 3 am or 4  am.  God bless you if you can function on 3 or  4 hours of sleep, because I can not.

If you find yourself in similar shoes I challenge you to start with another practice: Purpose to talk to and listen to God as you get ready for work and drive to work.  This may be difficult at first and continue to be so on various mornings.  The reality is that some mornings are more difficult than others…like when your brain is not working and all you can think about is “boy I wish I could sleep for 5 more minutes…it would feel so good.”  This is where discipline comes in and you must work at focusing your thoughts on God.  Even if you don’t feel like talking…GREAT!  Now you have your chance to LISTEN for God. 

This practice has allowed me significant time at the beginning of my day to pray and meditate on God and his Word.  From the moment I wake up, take my shower, get my stuff together, get in my car, drive to work, and walk to the time clock…I have about 45 minutes.  Not so bad huh?

The problem is that we want to find a perfectly quiet place, play some good worship music, get our feelings and emotions all stirred up before we feel that we can effectively pray.  If we can make that kind of time…that is terrific.  However, don’t not (double negative) pray at all because you are unable to find that time. We have to work at introducing the Disciplines into our particular life and our unique set of circumstances.  Not everyone has access to beautiful botanical gardens with humming birds and fountains to set the mood. 

Note, that this practice works for me and may not necessarily work for you.  But my goal in this post is to get us to find ways to be creative in our approach to maintaining the Disciplines in our lives.

Jesus taught that his sheep know his voice.  But have you ever told another Christian that the Lord told you something and they look at you like you have three heads?  Or they act like you just told them you met with Elvis, Tupac, and Ghandi and they told you that they wanted you to lead the advertising for a comeback concert? The fact of the matter is that many Christians don’t believe God talks to his people like that anymore, I mean individually, in their hearts, or like God spoke with Moses face to face (Exod. 33:1).  But has God really stopped speaking?  Does he have nothing left to say?  Does he not want to help us with the day to day moments of life?  Are we supposed to cast lots like the apostles did in Acts 1 to figure out God’s will is?  Are we to look around for “angel feathers” and interpret such things as God communicating to us?  Seems like God can do better than that, doesn’t it?

I think God has a better way of speaking to us.  He doesn’t have to resort to the Patrick Swayze’s methods in the movie Ghost.  Remember him struggling to knock vases over when he is trying to get Demi Moore to realize he still exists?  Maybe there are some Christians he has to do that for because they are not listening.  But this was never meant to be the means God had to go to get our attention.  He does speak and he wants to speak daily to you and me.  In the words of Richard J. Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline (which you can find a link to on the sidebar of this blog), “He [Jesus] is not idle, nor has he developed laryngitis.”  Thus his sheep truly do have the opportunity to hear and know his voice.

When can you hear his voice?  Well it is possible to develop your hearing to the point of being able to hear him throughout the day even amongst the hustle and bustle.  Yet I personally find that I hear from God most when I am able to quiet my mind and heart and in Christian meditation…LISTEN for him.  Will it be audible?  There will be times when it seems like it, but usually not.  And it may not come right away.  But we must learn to WAIT and LISTEN.  Those are two things in our culture that are not very popular to do, especially “waiting.”  We want everything instantaneously.  But God does not work that way.  In fact, I often wonder if God likes to see if we are willing to WAIT for him.  Or are we going to say, “Come on I need an answer now.  I haven’t got all day.” 

No, we need to patiently listen for God and wait, maybe days, weeks or months.  I have learned that one of the best ways to know it is God’s guidance is listening for consistency over a period of time.  If it is God, he will not give up, he is relentless…especially if you are being a faithful listener.

But how can we be like what Jesus describes?  How can we KNOW his voice?  Answer: Time, Commitment, and Patience.  Elijah spent many days and nights learning to hear the “still small voice of God” in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:9-18).  In time, one is able to distinguish God’s voice from others.  But be patient with yourself and don’t get discouraged and give up.  And remember, no one get’s it down perfectly, but we are all learning. 

It is no coincidence that the Gospel writers often mention Jesus getting away to be alone and pray.  It is in these moments that he heard from the Father.  It is at those times he saw what the Father wanted him to do, for Jesus did nothing unless he saw the Father doing it or saying it (John 5:19; 14:10).  Then he could truly say “as I hear, I judge” (John 5:30).  That is, Jesus made judgments based on what the Father’s judgments were.  Not on feelings, opinion, prejudices etc. 

There is no perfect formula for hearing from God.  Like anything else, one learns by practicing.  Begin to listen and take that time with God.  As you do, rely on his grace to help you to hear and recognize his voice.  Remember, “ask and you will receive.”  Ask God to help you and I promise he will.  In time, you will experience such an overwhelming joy and peace that you can  journey through this life with the guidance and companionship with the Creator.  Is there anything more exhilarating than that?