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Showing posts with label prayer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prayer. Show all posts

Monday, December 17, 2018

Formation Prayer

Preface - I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer.  Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.

People of earth, take me to your leader.
We are the people of earth. This is our home. It is not just that we are from the earth.  The Bible says we were made from her.  For God, in the beginning, made us from the dust of the ground.  He formed us with his hands. He shaped us in His image and gave us dominion over all the earth.

We were created with a purpose—to be in constant communion with God. Prayer is how we enjoy that fellowship. Far more than just folding our hands, bowing our heads, and closing our eyes to say a few words that mimic what we hear the preacher say on Sunday in church, prayer is placing ourselves back into the hands of the One who formed us in our mother's womb to continue the work of shaping us into the people He wants us to be.  And so, today, I want to talk a little on formation prayer.

Formation prayer is the intentional act of letting go of self and letting God’s form in us His attitudes, behaviors, and goals.

Isaiah 29:16
How foolish can you be?  He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!  Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”?  Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”?

Formation Prayer
In the church, we like to say “Prayer changes things.”  The most important thing it changes is us.  We are bound to change as we rub up against God Eternal through prayer.  When we start out praying, our prayers are mostly asking God to change our situations.  Often times, we are in those situations because of our own actions.  When I was a kid, my older brother had a BB gun and I wanted one so bad.  My mom was wise enough to know I shouldn't have one; I was mature enough yet.  Finally, I grew old enough she thought it would be OK and my brother handed down his Daisy Red Rider BB Gun.  I invite my friend Paul over and we played with it all day!  That was, until my pesky little sister started bugging us.  She was two-years-younger than me and she always wanted to bother me when my friends came over.  Finally, I'd had enough and I told her if she didn't leave us alone, I was gonna shoot her.  I pointed the BB gun at the ground near her feet and fired it to scare her.  The BB hit her in the foot and her world fell apart!  She ran off to tell my mom and I started to pray!  "Lord, please don't let my mama kill me!  And don't let her take the BB gun away!"  Well, God answered my prayers, sort of.  My mom didn't kill me, but she did take that BB gun away!  I obviously wasn't mature enough to have it yet.  You never point a gun at someone like that, even if you think it's unloaded and even if it's only a cheap, low-powered BB gun.  To many people have been maimed or killed that way.  I needed to learn to respect guns and thankfully I have.  My mom's lesson of taking that BB gun away from me when I was a kid helped teach me that lesson.

Perhaps you have heard of Abraham.  He is known as Father Abraham in three of the world's major religions--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  Abraham gave the world a revolutionary idea.  He believed in God, but that wasn't that revolutionary.  Everyone in his day believed in God.  But Abraham believed in a God no one could see.  Everyone else worshiped animals or heavenly bodies or idol statues--things they could see, hear, and maybe even touch.  And along comes Abraham who believed an invisible God by faith alone.  People probably thought he was crazy, but Abraham knew it is important not to have any created thing represent the supreme God who created it all.  No idol could represent God and God later commanded Abraham descendants, "Do not make idols of any kind" (Exodus 20).  

It might be easier to worship an idol.  It doesn't take as much faith.  You can see it and touch it.  And you can make that idol god look like anything you want.  You can make it just the way it pleases you.  Plus, you can keep that idol put away in a drawer or the corner of some temple and only bring it out when you need something.  Then, you can put it away until the next time you need something.  Furthermore, if that idol ever tells you something you don't like, you can throw it away and make yourself a new god who will never say or do anything you don't like.  

Sure, that would be easy, but we know that's not the way it works, right?  We don't make God.  God makes us.  However, there is a way of praying--that many people practice--that treats God like some idol statue you can take out and pray to when you want something and then put him away back in some dark and forgotten drawer once we get what we want.  But that’s not real.  That’s not who God is.  We can’t control Him and we don’t tell Him what to do.  We've got things turned upside down up if we think that’s the way prayer works.

It was God who made us.  We are the idols—the images made to look like God.  We are the only idols authorized in the Bible.  God authorized us to look like Him.  The Eternal and Living God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, The One True God, the Great I am, who spoke the universe into existence, lovingly took the dirt of the earth into His divine hands and formed us and shaped us in His image.  And He is still working His art in Your life today.  Our job, then, is to yield to His vision.  Formation prayer is the method through which we yield.

Hummus and Humility
My wife and I discovered a new snack food called hummus about 15 years ago when I was in seminary.  I was the first one to try it.  They served some free food to the starving seminary students at Emory and I was glad for the free food.  They said, "Here try this.  It's called hummus."  I said, "What's hummus?"  They said, "It's popular in Mediterranean countries like Israel.  It's made from ground up chickpeas, olive oil, and lemon juice."  I tried is and it was pretty good.  Hummus used to be an exotic dish, but it's now become quite popular.  You can get it at the grocery store just about everywhere. now.

Hummus, comes from the same root word as humas, which means soil—specifically the layer of topsoil that is packed with organic matter that makes agriculture possible—like the amazing corn fields I see all around my community every summer.  Human also comes from the same root word; we are people of the earth and made from earth.

Humility is another word that grows out of the same family of words.  So there’s this connection between humanity, humility, and the earth:  humility is lowliness like the dirt of the earth (which is what we are made of); also, there is the idea of being grounded in the dirt.  Humility is freedom from pride or arrogance.  Some people think of humility as having low self-esteem, but that’s not it.  To be humble is to understand who you really are according to God.  Humility is knowing the world doesn’t revolve around me; it is having my place in the universe as a human in proper perspective.  We were made from dirt, humus, but we were made by the very hands of God in His image.  So humility also recognizes how unique and special we are without leaving us with a big head that thinks we don’t need God.

Christians are called to be humble humans.  But how do we become humble people of Earth?  We certainly aren't born that way.  Most children start out thinging the world revolves around them.  We have to grow beyond that self-centered mentality with God's help.  Through prayer, we can cooperate with the Hands of God that want to sculpt humility into our humanity.

Let me share some prayer exercises that can help God establish more humility with you.

The Little Way
The first prayer exercise is called “The Little Way”.  To follow the little way means that throughout the day you actively seek out the most menial jobs, welcome unjust criticisms, befriend people who annoy you, and help those who are ungrateful.  There are lowly jobs like washing dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning the toilet, and other task that may seem beneath our rank in society or where we work.  Rather than avoiding these, make a point to get your hands dirty with these jobs.  Actively seek them out.  It will help you develop humility by remembering you are not too important.  We also all know people who get on our nerves and really annoy us.  But rather than avoiding them, seek to be their friend and rpay that God would help you to love them the way He loves you.  Realise that you are annoying to someone too, but God still loves you.  So, intentionally seek out and befriend people that bug you and it will help make you humble.  Follow the little way toward humility.

Another prayer practice that can help us with humility is solitude.  Solitude means to take some time to be lonely.  It is a great practice to get away from people for a little while so you stop worrying so much about what people think and remember to care more about what God thinks.

In the age of social media, we are constantly sharing with others what we are doing, where we are, what we’re eating, etc.  Through Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, we are in constant contact with our “friends” and the whole world has a chance to give us feedback about what they think.  Think how much more spiritually grounded we would be if we were as constantly connected with God as seeking His approval as we are with our social media networks.  What if we sent a snapchat to God in prayer as often as we snapchatted with our friends.  What if we posted or tweeted a prayer as often as we do on Facebook or Twitter.  Through solitude, we step away from the world—both our face-to-face interactions with people and our virtual interactions through social media—to focus on interacting only with the God who forms us.  

Jesus, the Son of God, knew the great benefit of going away to be by himself.  At the outset of his ministry, he spent forty days alone in the wilderness fasting and communing with God in prayer.  It prepared him for his three years of public ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection to save the world from sin.

But who has the time (or spiritual fortitude) in our crazy, hectic, and fast-paced world to go away and spend “forty days alone in the wilderness”?  Well, some people do.  There are some who are retired or have the kind of career that would allow an extended spiritual pilgrimage like Jesus took.  It might require a great sacrifice of time and money, but it is possible.  For most, that long a pigrimage is just not practical.  But if not 40 days, how about one weekend.  Most people could manage that.  There are even spiritual retreats like the Walk to Emmaus that are tailored to guiding people into deeper spirituality through study, contemplation, and solitude.  Certainly, everyone could manage one day or or one afternoon of solitude.

We often say we “don’t have time” for alone time with God; usually, the truth is we don’t make time.  We “make time” for the things that are a priority in our life.  Who do you know who was busier than Jesus Christ during the three years of his ministry on earth.  Crowds of needy people followed him all over the countryside begging for food, for healing, for wisdom, for salvation.  There were also those who despised him, who opposed him, who argued with him, who were threatened by him and wanted him dead.  The Gospels often say he was surrounded and pressed by the crowds so that his only way to escape was to get in a boat and flee out across the Sea of Galilee where the crowds couldn’t follow.  And yet still, the Gospels say again and again that Jesus “got up early before everyone else to go spend time alone with God in prayer.”  If the Son of God needed solitude, how is it that we don’t think we need it?

Could you not find a few extra minutes in your day to spend some time alone with God, worrying more about what He thinks of you than your friends on Facebook and Instagram?  This is possible for most of us, but it means we have to be intentional to carve out some private time for us and God and start to change our mindset so we become more interested in what God wants for us than what the world thinks about us.

Romans 12:2 says, "Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Above all, we must pray that God would take us in His hands and form us like a Master Potter forms clay.  As we humble ourselves, our flaws are revealed and we lift them up to God to change them to conform more fully to His glory.  For the God who formed Adam from the dust of the earth is still forming people today.  He wants to hold you in His mighty hands and sculpt you into a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that reflects His divine image perfectly.  But He won’t force His artistry upon you.  You must open your life to Him and invite His hands to take hold of you.  Will you?

I invite you to take a few moments to go to the Lord privately right now.  I give you this time to be alone with God in solitude to speak to Him and invite Him to form you into His image.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Continual Prayer

Preface - I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer.  Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.

Introduction and Definition
I love the lyrics in the song “Let Us Pray” by Steven Curtis Chapman when it says, “And just because we say the word, "Amen", it doesn't mean this conversation needs to end.  Let us pray, let us pray, everywhere in every way.  Every moment of the day, it is the right time.  Let us pray without end and when we finish start again.  Like breathing out and breathing in, let us pray.

There are so many ways to pray and today I want to talk about continual prayer (AKA Unceasing Prayer).  If prayer, at its heart, is really communion with God, shouldn’t prayer be something we do every minute of every day?  Why do we say “amen” and go on with our life—as if prayer were something we paused to do apart from everything else.  Don’t we want to walk with God all the time, to be in constant communion with Him?  Is that even possible?  It is possible and it’s called continual prayer and Scripture commends it to us.

Ephesians 6:18 – Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

Romans 12:12 – Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

1 Thessalonians 5:17 - Never stop praying.

Now continual prayer doesn’t mean walking around all day with our heads bowed, hands folded, and eyes closed in prayer.  There are other ways to work towards a constant state of prayer throughout the day.  I want to share some exercises that can help you be in more constant prayerful communion with the Lord.

Breathe Prayer
One spiritual exercise is known as breath prayer.  A breath prayer is a short prayer you can pray in one breath.  An example of a breath prayer from Scripture is the prayer of the tax collector from Luke 18:13, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”  Perhaps you remember the story…

The idea behind a breath prayer is to choose one breath prayer to focus on for an entire day.  Then, you say your breath prayer throughout the day as you are driving, working, cooking dinner, cleaning up, or whatever you are doing.  You don’t say the words of your prayer continuously; rather you say it whenever you think about it and try to reflect on it all day.  You make the prayer the focus of your thinking throughout the day.  In doing so, you stay in a prayerful attitude and open your heart to whatever the Lord might speak on the subject.  You can make up your own breath prayer or try one from Scripture, such as:
“Speak Lord, for your servant hears…” (1 Samuel 3:9 & 10, NKJV).

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1, KJV).

“Know that Jesus is Lord… Cease striving” (Based on Psalm 46:10, NASB).

“In Christ alone my soul finds rest…” (Based on Psalm 62:1).

"My help comes from the Lord…" (Psalm 121:2)

"Here I am." (Isaiah 6:8)

"Show your power." (Based on Psalm 80:2)

"Not my will, but yours." (based on Matthew 26:39)

"Come, Lord Jesus." (Revelation 22:20)

Practicing the Presence of God
Another way we can move toward the continual prayer of constant communion with God is an exercise called practicing the presence of God.  Psalm 13:8 says, “If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.”  We may know in our mind that God is everywhere, all the time, but our heart does not always feel God’s presence in every place, all the time.  It takes practice to help our heart feel what our mind already knows.  Christians throughout the ages have developed techniques to open the awareness of our heart to God’s presence with us all the time.

Few people jump straight into full awareness of God’s presence with us everywhere and all of the time.  We have to take baby steps to progress toward that goal.  You can think of it like learning to writing.  When you are a child—maybe five or six-years-old—you don’t jump from being illiterate straight to writing a long essays.  No.  First, you have to learn the alphabet—A, B, C, D…  Then you have to learn the sounds they make and how letters form together to make words.  And then, you have to learn how to hold a pencil and how to form certain pen-strokes that form letters and learn how to keep the words you write neat and all on the same line.  It takes years of practice to learn to write well.  In the beginning, you struggle because you have to think about every letter and every word you form.  Then, you learn to make coherent sentences.  Then, after a time, it starts to become more natural and you begin to write without having to think about it all that much.  It’s just natural.

The same is true when we practice the presence of God.  We take small steps that move us from the very beginning stages to more advanced stages where our awareness of God’s presence with us all the time is something we don’t have to think about; we just know it to be true and we feel Him and know Him all of the time.  Here are some steps that can help you grow as you practice the presence of God.

The first step feels a little artificial.  It is an exercise that takes practice and work.  You have to rehearse it again and again before it starts to be natural and you can move on to more advanced stages.  In the first step, we look for ordinary everyday reminders to call us to prayer.    Teachers could learn to say a quick prayer every time they hear the school bell ring.  Or maybe it could be a reminder to pray every time you see your favorite color.  Doctors, nurses, and surgeons might say a prayer every time they scrub up or wash their hands.  You could even set an alarm on your phone or your wrist watch to go off every hour to remind you to pray.  Your prayers need not be long.  They could be a simple breath prayer.

The second step in practicing the presence of God starts when our prayers begin to happen subconsciously.  After a while, our short, regular prayers start to become so habitual we don’t need the reminders anymore.  We don’t even think about it; we just automatically pray because our prayer habits have become so engrained into our daily life.  At this stage, you may start to see some practical changes in your attitudes and behavior.  You may be less agitated in traffic; you may worry less; you may treat people with more kindness.  You are beginning to feel that God is with you even in those moments you used to exclude Him from before.  Knowing He is with you changes how you act and empowers you to be more like Christ in every moment.

The third stage occurs as prayer moves into the heart.  Our prayer has become more of an attitude of the heart than of just words we say.  We may not even articulate a prayer, but our thoughts, feelings, and behavior now express the sentiments we formerly spoke in prayer.  We are walking in close communion with the Lord.  He is in us and part of us and our lives become a continual pray of God’s love.  We also begin to see others the way God sees them.  Richard Foster writes in his book Prayer, “We walk into a room and quickly know who is sad or lonely or dealing with a deep, inexpressible sorrow.  In such cases, we are able to slip over beside them and sit in silence, bringing comfort and understanding and healing, knowing that “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7).

Answers to Objections
Some may have concerns about continual prayer.  In Matthew 6:7, Jesus warned, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.  Some have argued the kinds of continual prayers I’ve mentioned are like the repetitive babbling of the Gentiles that Jesus condemned.  But I don’t think so.  What Jesus was dealing with was religious leaders who liked to make a public spectacle out of the prayers in order to impress people and pagans who thought prayer was some kind of magical incantation they could use to control God. 

The kind of continual prayers we want to practice are secret prayers.  We aren’t doing them as a way of showing off for others.  In fact, if you do them right, you could go through your entire day without anyone even knowing you were praying.  It is a practice between you and God alone.  Furthermore, you are not trying to manipulate God by repeating your prayers over and over as some magical incantation.  The point of your repetition is to affect your own behaviors and attitudes, not God’s.  There’s nothing wrong with repetition.  In Matthew 26: 36-44, Jesus repeated his prayers about his cup of suffering three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Lord, if it is possible, take this cup from me!”  Furthermore, he said we should, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7).
Some people may be afraid of constant communion with God.  What if you are angry or having an argument with your wife or are angry at your kids?  While some might want Jesus to be very close to them in those moments, others might feel awkward thinking of God seeing them in those unflattering times.  It’s ok.  God is patient with us.  Richard Foster puts it this way in his book:

“Frankly, beyond the desperation prayers… (“O God, help!”), I have found that I cannot pray during these times.  So rather than try to fool myself by piously pretending constant communion, what I do in such situations is to ask God for a timeout.  He is gracious as always and understands our frailty.  In time we can come back and try again.  The question is not whether we fail again and again—that is a given; the question is whether over a period of time we are developing a practiced habit of divine fellowship.”

So, know that you’ve heard about continual prayer, how might you put it into practice in your life.  We need to pray faithfully.  We also need to pray deeply.  Prayer is the life blood of our relationship with God.  It is why we were put here on earth.  So how might you use the techniques of continual prayer to help you be in more constant fellowship with God through prayer?

Monday, December 10, 2018

Suffering Prayer

I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer.  Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.

There is a shallow, imposter Christianity--one popular with many, many people--that says believing in Jesus will keep you safe from suffering (or at least, will help you suffer less than those who don’t believe).  And many of us, if we are honest, spend most of our time praying that God will protect us from or take away our suffering.  And yet, again and again, the Bible talks about suffering as inevitable and even an essential ingredient in a Christian’s spiritual development.  Jesus promised we would suffer because we follow him as Lord and Savior.  In fact, he said, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself everyday and take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  The cross itself, is a torture device that was designed specifically to cause excruciating, long lasting pain.  And Christians are only faithful when we choose to pick one up everyday as we follow our Lord.  So, far from ending our suffering or even helping us to avoid it, the Christian faith seems to guarantee we will suffer if we choose to follow Christ--the suffering servant of God.  Now, to be sure, the suffering we endure is nothing compared to the joy of know the love of God through Jesus Christ or the glory of eternal life.  However, we will suffer in this life.

Suffering takes us out of the shallow waters of pop-Christianity into the deep waters of real intimacy with God.  To know true suffering, is to know something of what Christ knew as he hung on the cross; it gives us empathy with the Son of God who suffered for our sins. We understand in our very own aching bones:  this is the price of our rebellion. We know the pain only in part, but Christ bore the full hell of sin--the weight of every person's sin, the whole world's, completely.  So today, we will consider suffering as Scripture often does:  as a deep form of prayer, suffering prayer.

2 Corinthians 4:6-10
6 For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

God’s Word is Unchanging
I am so thankful for the Bible! Were it not for the unchanging Word of God, we would be lost in the shifting sands of the world's pop-philosophies.  The world today says, “Suffering is bad.”  That’s just an unchallenged idea in America these days.  Perhaps our “avoid suffering at all cost” mentality is the root cause of many of our problems:  
  • kids that have no self-discipline because their parents sheltered them from all suffering,
  • a sense of entitlement--like everything should just be given to us
  • and obesity is an epidemic in our society because exercise is a form of self-imposed suffering that few want to endure.  Better to just indulge ourselves as much as possible.

Most people take the easy road, one that bypasses short term suffering but leads to greater suffering down the road.  We do not have the will to be healthy because it requires suffering and the world has told us the lie that suffering is bad and must be avoided at all costs.  But the Word of God tells a deeper Truth:  suffering can be a virtue--when endured rightly by those who place all their faith in Jesus Christ.  Who do you believe?  The world or the Word of God?

Suffering Prayer
Prayer is so much more than we might have thought.  Most of us are familiar with prayer as:  something a preacher does in worship on Sundays, or a blessing before a meal, or asking God to help us or our loved one’s with a problem.  However, the colorful spectrum of prayer is much wider just than these few hues. Prayer comes in many forms.  One important type of prayer is called “suffering prayer”.  Suffering prayer is prayer that asks God to use our difficulties in a redeeming way.  

We all face trials in life.  Some are only minor irritations--a traffic jam or aching muscles or a cashier at the grocery store who was not very polite.  Other suffering comes from deep tragedies—our home burns down or our our parents neglect us or we lose someone we love.  Whatever the trials may be, you can turn them into a suffering prayer.  When you suffer, pray that God would use your troubles for redemptive purposes.  You can pray as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Matthew 26:39).  Jesus didn’t want to suffer, but he was willing to accomplish God’s greater good--the salvation of the world.  You too can ask God to turn your suffering into a blessing--for you and for others.  You could pray something like this:  “Lord, my feet are hurting today.  May their aching remind me of those in the world who don’t have good shoes to wear.  Take my suffering and turn it into a blessing for someone who’s in need.”  Or as you encounter a rude sales clerk this busy Christmas season, pray to yourself, “Jesus, I don’t know why they’re being so rude, but people were rude to you too.  Help me to be patient and a humble servant like you.  And please show your love to this clerk, for I don’t know what they are enduring.”

Another way to use suffering prayer is to voluntarily suffer on behalf of others in order to help set them free.  There is a way to listen as others share their troubles and prayerfully feel the pain with them.  I have at times been moved to tears by hearing someone’s pain.  I felt something of of what they felt.  Others have sometime done this for me as too.  When this happens, the load becomes lighter; two people can carry a sorrow better than one.  It is a fulfillment of Galatians 6:2, “Share one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  Now, it is also important to say you must let go of that burden after a short time.  No one should carry other people’s burdens for too long.  It could become too much and crush you.  As a pastor, I am always hearing of other people’s troubles.  Someone is always fighting with demons or falling ill or going to the hospital or grieving a loved one who dies.  I take each one seriously, but I cannot carry all of their pain, all the time.  So I try to carry it for a little while and then give it to Jesus, who is the only one who can carry all of it, all the time.

Fasting can be a very meaningful spiritual exercise that, unfortunately, is practiced too little in the Church in America.  Fasting is voluntarily denying yourself food for a time in order to seek spiritual nourishment.  Fasting could also be giving up other things besides food--like watching TV or using social media.  Fasting is a form of self-inflicted suffering.  Done rightly, fasting is not a way to go on a diet or lose weight; it is a deep form of suffering prayer.  Fasting has been a valuable tool for spiritual growth in the Christian Church for 2,000 years.  Many people in the Bible fasted in order to draw closer to God.  Jesus, himself, practiced fasting.  He fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just before he began his earthly ministry.  Jesus also taught that some demons can only be overcome through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29 KJV).

It’s very common to tell someone struggling with a problem you will pray for them.  “I’m having surgery this Friday.”  “Oh!  I’ll pray for you.”  It encourages them and our prayers are a blessing.  But consider this, how would they feel if you offered to fast for them?  Perhaps they say, “I have a interview for a new job tomorrow and I’m worried about it.”  And you say, “Friend, I’m gonna pray for you and I’m going to fast for you too.”  Maybe you could skip breakfast or lunch as a fast on their behalf.  Ask God to use your suffering as a prayer for them.

Suffering prayer keeps us humble and reminds us that we are very FRA-JI-LEE (fragile).  It is wonderful news that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is adopted into the royal family of God.  We are kings and queens--a royal priesthood in God’s Kingdom.  The divine light of Christ shines in our hearts, but 2 Corinthians 4:6 says we carry that divine light in fragile clay jars.  We are tremendously blessed, but don’t be too proud of yourself because we are easily broken.  Pride not only leads us away from God, it numbs us to the glorious presence of God all around us. 

Suffering Prayer draws us away from our prideful delusions of grandeur back into the reality of God’s glory and love.  Through suffering, 2 Corinthians 4:10 says, “...our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” How might you use suffering prayer to go deeper in your prayer life?  Perhaps Christ is calling you to a more faithful and deeper  prayer life through the use of suffering prayer.

A Prayer on Suffering by Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette Soubirous [Sue – B – Roo] was a sickly child born in 1844 to a impoverished family in France.  Her family was so poor they lived in the one-room basement of a friend that was formerly used as a jail cell.  Bernadette contracted cholera as a toddler and suffered from severe asthma for the rest of her life.  Her poor health stunted her growth.  She only grew to 4’7” tall.  Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity working as an assistant in the infirmary until she died at the age of 35.  Her life-long suffering kept her in constant communion with God.  She is remembered and honored for her deep humility and spirit of sacrifice.  I would like to conclude with her Prayer on Suffering (adapted):

Heavenly Father, we suffer. All our cries of anguish rise to You, our Comforter. In Your adorable heart, we grieve. To Your heart, we confide our sighs, our anguish, our grief to Your grief.  Jesus, sanctify our sufferings by this holy union. Grant that by increasing our love for You, our grief may become lighter and easier to bear.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Liturgical Prayer

Preface - I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer.  Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.

As we head toward Christmas, I challenge you to pray more often and more deeply.  Prayer is essential in the Christian faith.  It’s not just something Christians do; prayer is our relationship with God.  Prayer is so much more than we’ve settle for.  There are so many ways to pray.  And our prayer life needs to be faithful and deep.  Faithful, meaning we pray often and regularly; and deep, meaning our prayers go beyond the shallow, surface prayers of immature faith.

Last Wednesday, I shared about examining prayer—where we examine our life for ways God reveals His presence with us and also invite Him to examine our hearts.  Sunday, I taught about the Lord’s Prayer (aka the Daddy prayer)—a simple model of prayer where we have a conversation with our Daddy in Heaven about whatever we want to talk about.  Today, I want to explore liturgical prayer.  Psalm 136 is a beautiful example of liturgical prayer from the Old Testament.  Here's a sample that would normally be lead by a worship leader with a congregation responding with the words in italics:

Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights—
His faithful love endures forever.
the sun to rule the day,
His faithful love endures forever.
and the moon and stars to rule the night.
His faithful love endures forever.
He remembered us in our weakness.
His faithful love endures forever.
He saved us from our enemies.
His faithful love endures forever.
He gives food to every living thing.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His faithful love endures forever.

Liturgical Prayer
Liturgy is a scripted formula for worship or prayer.  For instance, every Sunday at our church, we follow the same general pattern for worship.  We make announcements, then have a prelude as the Acolytes light the altar candles, there is a call to worship, and then an opening prayer, etc.  The songs and prayers and messages change from week to week, but we usually follow the same general pattern.  The “pattern” (or order of worship) is the liturgy.  

We might also call a responsive reading a liturgy.  For example, we might recite the Apostles Creed that is printed in the bulletin or on the screens (or from memory); or we might use a responsive reading as we light the Advent candles or a prayer of confession from the back of the hymnal at the end of the service.

Ceremonies we act out—like lighting the Advent candles—are also liturgy.  This includes many ceremonies like:
  • Holy Communion – where we break the bread and raise the cup
  • The offering – passing the plates and lifting them up at the altar
  • Baptism – sprinkling or pouring water over a person’s head
  • The Acolytes lighting the candles on the altar
  • Parishioners kneeling at the altar for prayer
All of these physical acts are a form of liturgical prayer.  Sometimes, we say formulated words (written prayers) as we perform the acts; we say, “This is the body and blood of Christ” as we share Holy Communion.  Other times, the rituals stand alone as acts of prayer by themselves as when the acolytes symbolically bring the light of Christ to the altar candles at the beginning of the service.

So let me explore two forms of liturgical prayer you could use in your private prayer times:  written prayers and ceremonial prayers

Written Prayers
Some people really struggle to know what to say in prayer.  I had one person tell me they have the prayer in their head, but really have trouble getting the words from their head to their lips.  Others who pray quite frequently often find that their prayers get repetitive; they always pray about the same things.  Fortunately, there are endless collections of prayers that people have written down through the ages.  There are prayers that cover the gamut of subjects we can pray about.  Examples of Written Prayers:
President Woodrow Wilson

A Prayer for All Nations by President Woodrow Wilson
Almighty God, supreme Governor of all people, hear our prayer for all nations, and so overrule the imperfect counsel of people, and set straight the things they cannot govern, that we may walk in the paths of obedience to you, and to thoughts that purge and make us wise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Prayer of Saint Fancis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The United Methodist Hymnal has prayers throughout its pages.  Books that collect and index prayers according to topics are also available.  And with the tremendous resources available on the internet, you can find prayers for any subject or occasion.  Struggling with depression?  Look up a prayer about depression.  Want to pray for someone on their birthday?  Do a Google search for birthday prayers.  Need a prayer as you get ready for Christmas?  Look up Christmas prayers and find one like this one by Melanie Chitwood: 
Dear Lord, don't let us miss You this Christmas season. Help us to simplify our activities and traditions so we can focus our celebration on Your birth. Thank You for being the Prince of Peace, and I ask You for that supernatural peace to reign in our hearts. Thank You for the simple but life-changing message of Your love for us. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

A drawback to written prayers is they might lack some of the spontaneity of coming up with your own prayer on the spot, but the drawback comes with a great benefit—spiritual depth.  Written prayers broaden what you pray about.  Left to ourselves, we might not ever think to pray about anything beyond the same people, concerns, and subjects we always think about.  Reading through collections of traditional and contemporary prayers exposes us to a multitude of ideas, yearnings, and insights from Christians from all over the world and throughout the ages.  And praying words someone else wrote down doesn’t have to be impersonal.  Often, you may find that reading someone else’s prayer inspires you to talk to God about the subject in your own words.  Now you have gotten to the heart of prayer.

Ceremonial Prayers
Ceremonial prayer is a prayer acted out in a ritual.  The variety of ceremonies is limitless.  And don’t be put off by the word “ceremony”, which might seem too “official” for what you do in your private prayer time.  A ceremonial prayer is just a physical routine that you do as a form of prayer.

If prayer is intimate communion with God, then it makes sense that our intimate times with God would include more than just talking.  Doesn't your time with close family and friends include more than conversation?  Let me put it to you this way.  Kelly and I have a habit of getting up and sharing a cup of coffee together on the couch at 5 AM on those mornings when she goes to work.  We get out of bed, let the dog out, make a cup of coffee, and sit on the couch.  We usually don’t talk much.  We’re both quiet people and it’s early in the morning.  Although few words are spoken, we are together and there’s an intimacy in our time which we intentionally spend together.  Drinking coffee is the ceremony, but just being together is the beautiful result.  We have other non-verbal “rituals” too.  We sometimes like to hold hands while driving in the car.  I open the door for her when we enter a building together. 

Now take that concept and transfer it over to your relationship with God.  What routines might you do that become a form of prayer while you spend time with God?  Some people like to read a chapter of the Bible or an Upper Room devotional every morning.  Others like to open their palms to heaven while they sing in church on Sunday.  Some like to kneel down at the side of their bed before they go to sleep.  

We don’t always have to use words when we commune with God in prayer.  Deuteronomy 6:9 instructs Jews to write the Lord’s commands on the doorposts of their house.  Many Jews have a Mezuzah on their doorpost that contains a written prayer statement called the Shema that says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  Many kiss the Mezuzah when they go in or out of their home.  What prayerful rituals do you or could you incorporate into your life?  Could you hand copy or type a few verses of Scripture into a journal every day?  Could you turn your morning commute into a time to sing praises to God?  Some families find it meaningful to read the Bible together.  Some people have their own Advent candle ceremony—lighting one candle in their home for everyday leading up to Christmas.

Everyone has daily rituals in their life.  How might you take something you already do—a daily walk, a morning cup of coffee, taking a shower, doing the dishes—and turn them into a ceremonial prayer.  How do you make a daily ritual a ceremonial prayer?  It’s not hard.  It only takes you making it an intentional act of prayer.  Here’s an example of how it could look.

Loading the Dishwasher with Jesus
  1. As you see all the dirty dishes needing to be cleaned, don’t be overwhelmed. Instead, be glad you have a way to clean them.
  2. As you unload the clean dishes from the dishwasher, be thankful for all the ways Jesus has cleansed and made you new.
  3. As you load dirty dishes into the dishwasher, envision Jesus graciously receiving all your sins.
  4. When the dishwasher is full, be satisfied that Jesus has the capacity to carry all your sins away.
  5. As you place the dish detergent in the washer, know the blood of Christ can wash away the stain of any sin.  As you start the dishwasher and hear it running, remember Jesus is cleansing your life--even now.  It may take some time to see the results, but you will.  Be patient.
Holy Communion
Prayer is communion with God.  Perhaps the greatest of all liturgical prayer is the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Through the use of bread and grape juice, we remember the love of God that was so strong it left the glory of Heaven to come down to our broken world to save us from our sins by dying on a cross.  Maybe you will find an opportunity to enjoy The Lord's Supper this season.  We will share it at my church on Christmas Eve at 5:00 PM.  

How could you deepen your prayer life through liturgical prayer?