Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (5)

Listening in stillness

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools…never be rash with your mouth, not let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few. (Eccles 5: 1,2).
Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46: 10).

Prayer needs stillness. No relationship can develop on the run, least of all spiritual ones. That’s why the only practical instructions Jesus gave concerned going into a room and closing its door (Matthew 6:6). Of all people, preachers especially need to develop skills in being still and listening to God. We need to know that He is God.

Sometimes we have grown to occupy the center of our world. So preoccupied are we with our work for God that we fall in love with our activity at the expense of God’s glory. Busy preachers must live by the perspectives of a big God – his greatness and our littleness. “God is in heaven and you upon earth”, “Be still and know that I am God! “ He is exalted, not us.

Stillness leads to deeper places of reflection, wonder and fresh worship. It opens hearts to listen to what God is going to say by his Spirit through his word. Every moment in awed quietness deepens the messenger. Holy pauses in his presence discover who he is and who we are.

It’s too easy to be rash with your mouth. Nathan too readily agrees with David and then has to backtrack because God orders him to say “No” – that same night (2 Sam. 7: 1-17). Peter gabbles on the Mount of Transfiguration trying to find something to say. (Mark 9: 5,6). Listening to what God says should precede anything we say. Only then can we pray that a message may be given to me (Eph. 6:19).

Prayer. Dear Lord, forgive my presumption that races to speak for you. Help me to be still before you so that I may know your greatness and see my littleness. Help me mature into a deeper person with you, a person of open heart and fewer words. Through Jesus Christ. Amen

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Significant Sevens (3)

Of a rather different order, I came across '7 sure ways to drive yourself insane' from Dr. Art Kirby, (a Texas psychotherapist).

1. Deny your feelings, doubt your thoughts and never do anything that does not make everyone happy.
2. Try harder to accomplish what has not been accomplished by many efforts at trying harder.
3. Receive and dispense only the love and forgiveness that you or others earn.
4. Base your acceptance of reality on your ability to understand it.
5. Compare your unique being to other unique beings in order to assess how well you and they are doing.
6. Never admit to yourself or anyone else that you were, are, or could be wrong.
7. Believe with all your heart, mind, soul and strength that you salvation is totally up to you.

It's stimulating to consider what are the reverse of these - sure ways to be whole?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Significant Sevens (2)

Someone has just sent me the 7 Spiritual Objectives of The Gideons International.

1. Men of the Book
2. Men of Prayer
3. Men of Faith
4. Men of Separated Walk
5. Men of Compassionate Heart
6. Men who Witness
7. Men who Give

He comments that since these are objectives for lay ministry, those for a pastor ought to be at least as high. But, he adds: 'By the way I know of no one who attains to all of these, pastor or lay person!' We can easily make these inclusive in language to relate to Christian leadership in general, but do they say all that matters to being an effective pastor?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clusters of Sevens

Seven is the number associated with fullness and completeness, beginning with the seven days of creation. Not surprisingly, it is a useful number by which many have grouped ideas into clusters. I don't know about you, but I find it stimulating (without always agreeing) to see how a big subject may be summarized in just seven statements.

One of the most famous is Steven Covey's 7 habits of highly effective people, which has sold in millions of copies. Well-written and persuasive, he lists seven key principles:
1) Be proactive - the unique human capacity to makes things happen.
2) Begin with the end in mnd.
3) Put first things first.
4) Think win/win.
5) Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
6) Synergize - create with others.
7) Sharpen the saw - the principle of self-renewal.

Recently I came across the 7 criteria for emotional maturity, compiled by Dr. William Menninger of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
1) The ability to deal constructively with reality.
2) The capacity to adapt to change.
3) A relative freedom from symptoms that are produced by tensions and anxieties.
4) The capacity to find more satisfaction in giving than receiving.
5) The capacity to relate to other people in a consisten manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness.
6) The capacity to sublimate and direct one's instinctively hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets.
7). The capacity to love.

Have you any creative lists of sevens? And this has set me thinking about what could be the seven marks of the effective pastor! If you have any ideas about what you would include on that list, please let me know. I'll work on it and post something in the future.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayerbook (4)

Holy troubling
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven…While I kept silence, my body wasted away. Then I acknowledged my sin to you….I said: ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:1, 3, 5
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9.

We cannot wear masks in authentic prayer. Everywhere else we can pretend - especially in pulpits. But genuinely joining in with God always leads to soul trouble. We see ourselves as we really are before God and know our need of forgiveness. Unconfessed sin damages relationship and mutes prayer. Only true sorrow allows for new starts.

God knows how easy it is for preachers to play the hypocrite. To raise the spiritual bar for others and drop it for ourselves. To make general confession and miss out specifics. To roar like lions in a pulpit and hide as mice when moral courage is needed. To seek others’ high opinions and manipulate situations to avoid pain.

Only God knows just how unholy, inadequate and dry I may be in spirit. How I find it easier to give out assurance to others in public ministry than to know God’s strength in private. About my busyness covering up my sense of spiritual inadequacy. My unwillingness to be troubled about sin. God help me to be real with you so that you can be real to me.

Prayer: Waken my heart, O Lord my God:
Trouble me with the smallness of my work.
Trouble me with the greatness of your command.
Trouble me with my unholiness and my slowness to obey.
Trouble me with time running out and every lost hour.
Trouble me with my sins and the troubles of all people.
Trouble me with the troubles of your church which are the work of people
Trouble me and make me to watch continually for your judgment.
Trouble me, O Lord, and let me keep my faith in the midst of my trouble.
Let me go forward, desiring the coming of your glory. I thank you that my work ends and your work begins. In Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (3)

Saying Abba, Father
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret;…Pray then in this way: Our Father… Matt 6: 6, 9.

Arguably the two most important words in the Lord’s Prayer are the first two. Nothing reveals the secret of Jesus' prayer life more than his relationship with his Father. To his first hearers it seemed blasphemy. An Aramaic child’s first word: Abba – Dada. To contemporary hearers it probably seems absurd. Who could dare to call the Creator of the universe by personal intimate name? To imagine that in the best of parenting we might catch glimpses of God qualities – both father and mother (“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13, Matthew 23:37).

One of the biggest problems in ministry is a lack of personal security. Preachers are sometimes driven by the need for affirmation and shattered by its absence. Too often there is little sense of knowing whom we have believed. Yet Jesus opens up the amazing possibility - “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1.12,13).

This belonging is a spiritual fact of life. However emotionally disengaged we might feel, however much under stress we are, however disobedient we’ve been- it remains true, every day. I am a child of God, born of God. I belong to God who is my heavenly Father. No wonder Jesus commands us to find a quiet space and trust with childlikeness, saying “Our Father”. To affirm this relationship changes the way I respond to everything else this day.

Prayer. Our Father, help me to say those two words slowly and deliciously, with a fresh openness to your love and a willingness to trust you with my life and my ministry. Forgive me my lack of trust that finds security in other people’s opinions and help me rest in your opinion of me, Father. Fill me with childlike belonging and trust. Amen.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Golden calves (2)

I gave this meditation at the AEF Conference today.
Exodus 32:1-9 tells a troubling story – a cataclysmic idolatry meltdown with a golden calf. But I wonder what should trouble us most?

It’s troubling how people could forget that God hates idolatry. Don’t they remember the first two commandments: you are to have no other gods before the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or earth beneath ? How could they ignore such direct commands?

And it’s troubling that a spiritual leader compromises so crassly with culture. Of course, there are two spiritual leaders in the story. One - Moses -is up the mountain communing with God, while Aaron is at the foot of the mountain communitng with the people, close to culture. And most of us are at the foot of the mountain close to culture. So probably we understand how Aaron could bow to pressure when the people are impatient with an absent Moses, and the invisible holy God who is leading them into his story. They want something now,visible, immediate, and pleasurable. Surrounding cultures worshiped gold bulls - why not here? And like a really terrible unsubtle B movie, the people take off the gold earrings and throw them into a fire. Aaron later excuses himself: 'I just threw them into the fire and out came this calf'"(verse 24). Philips Brooks called this 'a curious and ingenuous lie.' The text makes it clear that Aaron fashioned it with a tool. How troubling that a spiritual leader can so quickly accede to culture.

And it’s disturbing how, when the people see the idol, they start chorusing: 'These are your gods who brought you up out of Egypt', blasphemously echoing the first commandment, and arrogantly replacing God’s story with their own. This manufactured thing is now credited with making their story happen. How troubling when people invent their own religious story.

But, perhaps, most troubling of all - when Aaron hears this chorus, he seems to remember the true God and pulls back. ‘When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced: Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh, to the Lord.’ Alongside, this travesty of a false god, he wants to bring the true god. Note, not instead of, but in addition to. So that the next day they can bring their burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the holy invisible God on the altar, but really enjoy themselves (with undertones of sexual licentiousness) before a visible false idol. To glory in a finite god instead of giving all glory to the infinite God.

That’s terrifying. That God is not enough on his own. That the people gain a worship buzz out of something else, given pride of place alongside the true God. And it is possible isn't it....
for preachers to glory in their preaching
for worship leaders to glory in their skills and beautiful offerings
for leaders to glory in their acumen
for whole churches to glory in their reputation, their buildings, their programs?
For us to glory in a finite god, instead of giving all glory to the infinite God.

It’s a troubling text. Sometimes we need to be troubled.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (2)

The value of weakness
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Rom 8: 26,27

So often books on prayer seem to focus on the human aspect – all the things we must do in order to make prayer work. But the best part of prayer is what God is doing. At the same time as Jesus Christ intercedes, seated in glory, the Holy Spirit encounters us at places of weakness.

People expect us to be continually positive, fresh and assured in our public spirituality. After all we are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:11). We may conclude that any signs of spiritual weakness deny God’s power in our lives. Wrong! Spiritual weakness actually opens the way for God’s power in our lives. Spiritual weakness opens the door to deeper prayer. Weakness is valuable. It makes prayer real.

Preachers who claim to have all the answers and are never at loss in prayer betray shallow prayer lives. But preachers, who know their unholiness and weakness, are realists with God who reads their hearts, knows their desires and interprets them in prayers too deep for words.

It’s true - out of weakness there is strength, (2 Cor. 12:10). Treasure comes in jars of clay “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). In God’s kingdom everything is reversed - greatness is service and weakness is strength.

Preachers should never be surprised that when they feel their efforts are least effective, God may use them mightily. It’s as though, precisely when we despair for our own glory, He takes it for His! As we hobble along in spiritual weakness God promises strength.

Prayer: O triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over everything and in everything, help me to be real with you. You read my heart and know my mixed motives and spiritual weakness, yet also my desire to be deeper with you. Grant me, when I cannot find words, to keep trusting and to know how much I belong to you in your strength. Amen.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Golden Calves in church

Next week I am preaching (briefly) for the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference on the Church (http://www.ancientevangelicalfuture.blogspot.com). This is Bob Webber's (a colleague of mine at Northern Seminary) legacy of challenge to the evangelical church in North America. That (among other issues) it turn away from individualism that makes the Church a mere addendum to God's redemptive plan, and instead sees it as key to God's mission in the world.

My given text is Exodus 32:1-14 - Aaron and the golden calf. This is cataclysmic idolatry meldown when Moses up the mountain communes with God, and Aaron dares to lead people (and be led by the crowd) at the foot of the mountain. What jumps out at me are verses 4 and 5. First, the people worship the calf and say: 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Does he try to combine calf worship with God worship? Does he want a both/and God? And can you have other sorts of (false) worship combined with worship of God in church today? Such as worshipping church success, especially its growth, its pastor and its programs even while we try to worship God?
We have much to think about. I shall keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (1)

Each time I teach my students, I begin class with a brief meditation. As classes begin again this week, I thought I would post the first few to see if they help anyone else.

The prayer secret - joining in
Trying to keep up daily prayer used to make me feel guilty and tired. After all, Christian leaders are supposed to be good at disciplined praying and I knew I wasn’t. But, I had to learn that prayer isn’t about what I am good at. It’s all about what Jesus is good at. My prayer relationship with God does not depend on how much effort I put in, but on how willingly I join in with what Jesus is already doing.

This prayer secret breakthrough came when I realized that Jesus is not only risen and ascended in glory, but that he continues to pray for believers. He always intercedes with his Father for me and you. When I say at the end of a prayer –‘through Jesus Christ’ – it is because he has taken my prayers into his own and guarantees that they will be heard. This is an extraordinary claim – that Jesus keeps a prayer ministry going night and day for us.
Jesus holds his priesthood permanently because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebs 7:24,25.
It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Rom 8:34.

When Jesus tells us to go into a quiet place (Matt 6:6), close the door and pray to our Father who sees what is done in secret, we do not go on our own. It’s not a chore that needs gritted teeth. As we enter that place we discover that Jesus is already filling it with love, purpose and strength. He has been praying through the night before we begin. He greets us before we can get a word out. And when we leave to work and play no part of our lives is lived outside his prayer.

This is not to trivialize our holy God as though all that matters to him is my little life. How narcissistic! Never forget, he is awesome – a consuming fire (Heb: 12:20)- whom we can only approach “with a true heart in full assurance of faith”(Heb 10:22) because of Jesus’ sacrifice. But through Jesus we can join in and my little life does have significance. Our great God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and little me – together!

I now have a smile when I go into the quiet place. I open Scripture, write my prayer journal, offer prayers with joy because I know that he is Lord and he is good at prayer, when I am not, and he loves me, and he wants me to join in with him. I tell you, this secret has revolutionized my prayer life from being all my effort, to trusting into his.

Prayer: O Lord, I find it incredible that with all you have to do, Lord of Creation, that you are praying for me today, and inviting me to join in my prayers with you. I wonder again at your grace for me - Lord of heaven and earth, yet my Lord and my friend. Truly I do. I praise you and love you. Gladden my heart and lift my spirit that I shall know that nothing matters more than belonging to you, and help me to walk into the challenges of this day knowing that I can never walk outside your love and care. Through Jesus Christ, Amen.