Category: Prayer

Prayer Inside Out

AChurch Inside Outs the Summer Blog Tour continues… Remember that you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s new release Church Inside Out, both the book and workbook, by leaving a comment on this page and completing the form over HERE.

 

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“The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers.”  1 Peter 4:7 (NLT)

The end and culmination of all things is near. Therefore, be sound-minded and self-controlled for the purpose of prayer [staying balanced and focused on the things of God so that your communication will be clear, reasonable, specific and pleasing to Him.] – 1 Peter 4:7 (AMP)

People who believe the Bible to be inspired have trusted that the end of the world is coming, but it’s been coming for a very long time. But even people who are not too keen on the Bible might look around at our world today and consider that the world might be making it’s way swiftly to the end. The number of nuclear nations grows and as it does there are less reliable hands in control. Crime and war and disease and all manner of issues threaten our planet. Those who are always looking for a ‘sign’ are aware that there is no shortage of signs.

I don’t know what Peter’s original readers thought about his intense descriptions about the end of the world, but none of them lived to see it. What they did see, though, was an end to THEIR worlds through persecution that scattered them and anger towards the Christian community that scandalized them. Whether the end of planet earth is close enough to happen in our lifetime or whether our personal ‘world’ is potentially going to shatter, the answer is to grow in our prayer life.

Prayer shouldn’t come from the outside in. I think that’s what has people turned off about prayer sometimes. They have to sit through the prayers that do not seem to have much to do with them.

At times we repeat memorized prayers quickly and without much connection … emotion … and we wonder why we pray.

Prayer needs to come from the inside out. It needs to be earnest. Prayer that comes from the inside out expresses the intentions of our heart because it comes from the heart. We talk to God about the things that really matter to us. Earnest prayer is not concerned with form or vocabulary. It is more intense because it is more intentional. We pray these prayers most easily when we are forced into a corner by a loss of financial security or the loss of someone we love. We pray from the heart when our friend is hospitalized and we wonder if they will make it. There are situations in life that we face that move us to the earnest prayers God seeks. That’s where we ought to try to live in our prayer life. That takes another quality. Discipline.

Discipline is really the harder part. Praying with discipline might involve praying consistently. Who of us hasn’t had a hard time being consistent in our prayer life? Has anyone else bought a new prayer journal determined to really dig in but you can’t locate it right now and if you could you know there isn’t a single word in it? Can I get a witness? Discipline might also relate to concentration. Using our prayer time to compose ‘to do’ lists for the day is not what I call a powerful prayer time. But it might describe my prayer life sometimes.

Praise 01Earnest and disciplined … Peter says that’s how we ought to pray because the world is coming down around our ears. We’re much too jaded to believe this, so our prayers go on either dry and boring or light and easy. Since this kind of prayer relates to our inward attitudes and thoughts about prayer, here are some ideas to move us toward the kind of prayer God desires:

  1. Remember Confession. In the prayer acrostic ACTSS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, Submission) confession comes on the heels of praise. When we consider our lives in contrast to the Holy God we serve, confession should come easy…but it doesn’t always. If we want to skip confession we also want to skip the element of our prayers that drives us to a more earnest spirit.
  2. Remember Compassion. Many of us keep up with prayer lists for others. These can grow quite large because of the volume of requests we may see on Facebook or other social media. In which case we are often praying for people we’ve never met in places we’ll never go and for whom we’ll never have an update. Nothing wrong with that, but keep your closest friends and acquaintances in a separate list. When you consider their needs – and in this list you likely know the current needs – practice empathy and imagine what they might need from the Lord. This seems like a good way to tap into earnestness.
  3. Remember Consistency. There are probably no real tricks when it comes to a consistent prayer life. An advertising slogan says ‘Just Do It’. You can set reminders, pray in the same place every day, develop routines that you don’t want to break. I don’t know why it is that we never have trouble remembering to eat at noontime or keep other rituals, but establishing the routine to pray seems more difficult. I think there are many habits that we can do without mental engagement, passion, earnestness … but praying isn’t one of them. At least a lively prayer life isn’t one of those things. Someone smarter than me will have to tell us why we resist such a beautiful gift as spending time with our Abba… why we’re so easily distracted…. why we fall out of prayer patterns so easily. I think the word ‘discipline’ that Peter uses may reveal something. We can be an undisciplined bunch sometimes.

Prayer that comes from the inside out is prayer that is earnest and disciplined. It’s the kind of prayer that our Father desires, but it is also the kind of prayer that keeps us coming back for more. It satisfies our soul … the deepest part of who we are in Christ.

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John  Dobbs and his wife Maggy live in Monroe, Louisiana. He is the minister for the Forsythe Avenue Church of Christ. He is often distracted from an earnest and disciplined prayer life by social media. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@johndobbs) and his blog at http://johndobbs.com.

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Fasting to Go Slow

We live in a fast paced world. We fret at red lights. We become agitated when our computers take 30 seconds to do something. We have a list of things we needed to do yesterday, or last week. And another list of things we should be working on right now.

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Then there’s God…

God wants us to spend time with Him. God wants to hear from us. God wants to speak with us. God wants us to do things for him too.

Where can I find time in my busy work day, family day, parenting day, social networking day, church day, school day or leisure day to hang out with God?

To commit time in my day to God, I must first carve out space: empty space. I must dedicate myself to a time of nothingness, or nothing-else, and meet God there.

Fasting provides one approach to giving God greater prominence in my daily routine. Fasting commits me to giving something up, so that God can take its place.

When I give up food for a day, I can spend my lunch break talking to God. When I avoid social media, I can update God on my thoughts rather than my Twitter followers. When I turn off the TV or hang up the Ipod, I can listen to God’s Spirit speaking in the stillness.

Fasting, in whatever form we practice it, creates space for God. It reminds of the priority He should have in our life. It confronts the value we give to other aspects of our lives. It’s a way of offering a sacrifice to God… without the blood and guts.

I suspect that most Christians don’t practice fasting. I’ve never previously been part of a church that encourages Christians to fast. Yet, as the pace of our lives and the world around us increases, the ancient practice of fasting becomes increasingly important for our faith.

I’ve written previously on the topic of fasting HERE. Or you can listen to this week’s sermon HERE where I discuss some of Jesus’ teaching on fasting.

Do you practice regular fasting?  What questions do you have about fasting?

Start with Gratitude

How would your life be different if each day started with GRATITUDE?

Do you know that Paul begins most of his letters in the Bible by thanking God for the church or person he’s writing to?

  • Romans 1:8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:4 “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”
  • Ephesians 1:15For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you
  • Philippians 1:3I thank my God every time I remember you.In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…”
  • Colossians 1:3-4We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people…
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:3We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.
  • 2 Timothy 1:3-4I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.
  • Philemon 1:4-5I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.”

The exceptions are 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Timothy and Titus.

In 2 Corinthians I’m guessing Paul was just exasperated that he needed to write to this church a second time. (Possibly this was the fourth letter he’d written to the Corinthian church in total.) In Galatians he’s obviously upset as he opens with “I can’t believe your fickleness—how easily you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message!” (MSG) This is obviously no time for formalities!  1 Timothy & Titus I can’t explain.

Scholars tell me that Paul was following standard letter templates as he opened his letters first by introducing himself and the recipients and offering a greeting. He also followed the usual conventional structures by including a thanksgiving paragraph in his letters.

As you read through the list above you’ll notice a fairly consistent format to these thanksgiving paragraphs. I’m not going to break down that structure any further. The more practical point is to notice that Paul personalises each of these thanksgiving paragraphs.

I don’t believe that these thanksgiving paragraphs are mere flattery.

They are not just form letters where Paul has Timothy fill in the blanks with different names. He takes time to think of traits about that church for which he can offer thanks to God.

Now I get to jump on one of my favorite soap boxes.

In every church I know the list of prayer needs far exceeds the list of thanksgiving points.

It seems that most Christians view prayer as a means of communicating our needs, wants, hurts, and requests to God. I happen to agree with this.

It also seems that most Christians, myself included, make very little effort to look for God’s presence in our lives and then pause to thank Him. The church prays for Sister Brown’s foot pain as she submits a prayer card each Sunday for weeks and months, then when she finds a helpful medication we offer a brief prayer of thanks mixed in with other needs, if we mention it at all. (Luke 17:11-19 seems pertinent here.)

This unbalanced prayer life impacts the way we see God. We don’t use prayer to express love and appreciation to a loving Father. Rather we view him as a giant-vending-machine-in-the-sky and if we can just hit the buttons the right way we’ll have our hearts desires drop into our lap.

family breakfast 01I wonder how our lives would be different if we consciously decided to “Start with Gratitude”.

Would we appreciate our spouse and kids more if thanked God not just for their presence, but for something about them? Would it make the breakfast table be a different place if our daily routine started with thanks?

Would we have a better attitude toward our co-workers, or teachers, or classmates if we thanked God for them on the way to work or school?

Would we speak differently about our church if each day we gave thanks for the presence of the church, a ministry of the church, and some individuals from the church? Have you ever prayed down your church directory just thanking God for the way he’s working in that person or family’s life and the way he’s using them to bless others? Do you think that if you thanked God for that young Christian who seems to stumble more than grow but is still committed to Jesus, do you think you might say something different next Sunday?

I believe that when we make gratitude our starting point in our relationships with God and others the whole relational dynamic makes a positive shift.

On Sunday I encouraged the church to deliberately spend more time offering prayers of thanks rather than requests this week and see if it makes a difference. Perhaps you’d like to try this also?

DISCLAIMER: We all experience season of our life where we feel closer to Psalm 13:1 “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” than we do Psalm 34:1 “I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.

There are moments when praise and thankfulness seems shallow and fake. There are times when grief and pain overwhelm us. This post is not intended to tell those of us experiencing this darkness to “just get over it” or to “fake it”. If that’s you, I pray that God provides healing. I pray you don’t feel guilt because others experience joy and gratitude. Even Paul in Galatians felt that the urgency of the Galatian problems meant skipping his usual paragraph of thanks. I pray that your day of gratitude will arrive soon.

 

How to Follow Christ

In my previous post I linked the problems Paul confronted in 1 Corinthians 1-4 with excessive adoration of Christian authors and teachers on today’s landscape. However, I feel that it’s irresponsible of me to describe a problem without giving some ideas for avoiding it. So here are 4 methods Paul gives us in those same chapters to help us keep our focus on Christ.

1. Remember Your Roots (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Christians need to stay humble. This virtue remains as relevant today as 2000 years ago in Corinth. It’s so easy to gloat in our “superior” knowledge.

  • “I can’t believe those atheists really think God doesn’t exist! Why don’t we all just pursue anarchy if we’re not following God? What’s the point?”
  • “I can’t believe all those scientists really think God didn’t create the universe. Where’d we come from if He didn’t initiate life?”

Then we start picking on each other:

  • “Did you hear what Mark Driscoll said the other week? Crazy!!”
  • “I don’t understand how Calvinists live. It must be awful going through life feeling like a puppet.”
  • “I don’t know why people are so enamored with ‘free will’. It’s much more comforting to trust my future to God.”
  • “How crazy is it that Baptists don’t think baptism is very important?”

I hope you get my point. PRIDE!

We need Paul to remind each of us that our “knowledge” looks like foolishness to the world. It’s faith, not logic. It’s spiritual, not rational. We use words like “believe” and “hope”, not “prove” and “know”.

The entire basis of our faith is that we’re incapable of helping ourselves. We depend upon Jesus and his grace to restore relationship between God and ourselves. There’s nothing in those two sentences that should give us cause for pride or a spirit of superiority. Our own knowledge, skills, and abilities lead to us being buried in sin and death. We only have relationship restored with God because He wants it restored.

2. Seek the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)

Given point #1 above, and recognising our human limitations, following Christ requires us to depend upon his wisdom and teaching. When we depend upon our own wisdom and knowledge we’ve stopped following Christ.

Seeking the wisdom of God according to verses 11-13 requires listening to the Holy Spirit. We do this by practicing spiritual disciplines. In my experience within Churches of Christ spiritual disciplines are for the “super-Christians”. I’ve been part of 5 churches of Christ in the United States. I don’t recall one of them every having a Day of Prayer, or promoting a Prayer Retreat. Fasting tends to be something we joke about rather than practice. We’re much more likely to have a class on the subject of prayer than to spend 45 minutes praying together. When Randy Harris went on a silent retreat it was so revolutionary that he wrote a book about the experience.

Following Jesus requires us to listen to the Holy Spirit.

church split 013. Despise Division (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

We live in a society of choices. I cannot list the numerous choices that confront us when we go to a diner and order eggs. “How do you want them cooked?” The same applies to churches. We each have a gazillion choices about where to attend church.

Somewhere along the road Christians have come to accept division within the church. We prioritize doctrine, decorations, worship styles, personalities and umpteen other things above the unity of the church.

If you want to follow Jesus, love His church. “If anyone destroys God’s temple [the church] God will destroy that person.” Ouch! Persevere with the church. Seek the betterment of the church. Spend more energy contributing to solutions than identifying problems. Love God’s people in the church.

4. Glorify God for our Differences (1 Corinthians 4:6-7)

In the Corinthian church the members wanted everyone else to agree that their favourite preacher was THE best one. As a result the church divided into several factions aligned with different leaders (not that the leaders wanted this).

First, we should see our distinctives as gifts that strengthen the church. Paul talks further about this in chapter 12. If four preachers connect with four different groups within the church that’s a great blessing that one of those groups isn’t left out in the cold. Diversity is a gift.

Second, since our gifts and talents come from God, let’s not take credit for them. Let’s  use them to encourage others and strengthen God’s kingdom. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

I’d love to get some feedback on this post. Obviously it’s not the answer to everything related to following Jesus, but I believe it’s a significant step. Does one of the points above strike you as more urgent for the church today than the others? (It’s okay if we disagree. 🙂 )

Why Don’t WE Pray for the Lost Enough?

So many books, seminars and DVD series exist on the topic of evangelism. Most of these resources describe mindsets, motivational pep talks, and above all else a wide variety of techniques. I want to suggest that in the midst of all these voices we often overlook the most productive evangelistic practice: PRAYER.

Last Sunday I was blessed to speak at the Center Road Church of Christ in Kokomo, Indiana. They asked me to address the topic of evangelism, so I did.

A significant part of my sermon focused on the benefits of prayer in the evangelistic process. I’ve provided a summary below.

5 Reasons to Make Prayer Central to Evangelism

  1. Prayer involves God in our circumstances. The Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) begins with Jesus’ statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore…” Our evangelistic mission emerges from the fact that Jesus has all power! When we pray, we request the holder of all power to act on behalf of the lost in our  lives. This single function of prayer is 99.5% of the reason prayer should always be central to evangelism. The power of God that we request through prayer is real!
  2. Prayer reminds us that it’s not our expertise that’s on trial, we’re just joining God on His mission. Closely related to the previous point this reason just shifts the focus. If all power belongs to Jesus, then we need to remind ourselves that we’re just His tools. I suspect the #1 barrier to sharing our faith is that we take complete responsibility for bringing people to Christ. When we do that we subvert the work of God and the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Yes, we have to meet people, speak to people, express our faith, but we also need to give God space to work.
  3. Offering to pray for (unchurched) people is a a super non-threatening way of expressing our love for God, our love for the individual, and God’s love for that person all at the same time. It is amazing how people will open up when you ask if you can pray for them.
    One of the first time I asked a waitress if I could pray for her when I gave thanks for my meal she nearly burst into tears telling me how her cat was suffering and about the surgery it needed. Now I’m not a cat person, but I prayed for her cat (can’t remember its name) as I gave thanks for my meal. I was at a conference that week, but if that happened in Rochester, I’d have gone back to that restaurant to ask that lady how her cat was. I’ve gotta think that lady hated being separated from her cat while she was at work that day, but that God was able to give her some encouragement through my question.
  4. Offering to pray for people leads to spiritual conversations. How often do we psych ourselves out of speaking up for God because it just seems inappropriate. But when a stranger asks you to pray for something specific, they’re having a spiritual conversation with you whether they realise it or not. They’re asking you to approach God with a need on their behalf. Then as the above story demonstrates you can come back and ask how God responded to that prayer. Before you know it, you’re talking about God with a stranger and they’re viewing you as a conduit to God.
    Or you could just walk up to people and ask them if they know where they’re going to spend eternity. Try that with your waiter and see how it goes. 🙂
  5. When prayer for the lost is part of church gatherings it raises the awareness of the members. One of the few specific things that Jesus commanded his followers to pray for was workers to spread the Gospel. Do you remember this passage from Matthew 9:37-38 “Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” When is the last time you heard this prayer at your church? Church leaders will often lament about church growth and evangelism, but are we praying as Jesus instructed us to pray?

Yeah, I know I cheated and there’s some overlap between those points, but I’d love for you to add to this list. Please leave a comment below.

And many thanks to Kairos Church Planting for helping me focus on prayer as the locus of evangelism.

Sabbath: A Spiritual Discipline

You can read Part 1 of this discussion HERE.

Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline provides a list of spiritual disciplines that have become an pretty standard list. He groups them three ways:

  • Inward: Meditation; prayer; fasting; study.
  • Outward: Simplicity; solitude; submission; service.
  • Corporate: Confession; worship; guidance; celebration.

I don’t think Foster would claim that this list is exhaustive, but as I say, it’s become standard. For example, other authors often list “silence” separate from “solitude”. Dallas Willard in The Spirit of Discipline includes disciplines such as frugality, chastity and fellowship in his discussion of spiritual disciplines.

I find it interesting that neither of these respected authors discuss “sabbath” as a distinct spiritual discipline. I hope to use this post to argue that sabbath-rest, although related to other disciplines, should be valued as a distinct discipline in its own right.

Sometimes we Gentiles might assume that Sabbath becomes a matter of routine for Jews and therefore simpler for them to give up one day per week. This perception may contain some truth, but Amos 8:4-5 describes an attitude consistent with our times, “When will the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” Sabbath-rest clashes with our culture’s emphases on consumption, efficiency, productivity and time management. A popular book from 2000 captures this tension well with the title Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World in reference to the events found in Luke 10:38-42.

A recent CNBC article made the statement “There’s little arguing that the concept of Sabbath is in serious danger.” The article discusses how technology has helped work intrude into our lives in never previously imagined ways. “It took labor unions 100 years to fight for nights and weekends off, some say, while smartphones took them away in about three years.” According to some research the average smartphone user checks her phone every six minutes. Additionally, “government data from 2011 says 35 percent of us work on weekends, and those who do average five hours of labor, often without compensation—or even a thank you.”  We have come to associate busyness with importance.

The pull from culture to adopt its values is intense. Choosing another path requires discipline. We require discipline not to check work email on our days off. We require discipline not to interrupt game night with the kids to run another load of laundry. We require discipline to rise early to abide with God without checking the overnight sports scores. We require discipline to establish a tech-free family meal focused on our relationship with God. We require discipline to build “down time” into our week, or to dedicate a day such as Sunday to personal renewal. Is this why the Sabbath command was necessary, because rest does not come naturally to us?

When many of us think of sabbath our thoughts gravitate toward solitude and silence. These are distinct disciplines that may occur during a time of sabbath but they do not capture the full scope of sabbath. In her book Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity Keri Kent discusses 6 aspects of practicing sabbath-rest:

  1. Rest – learning to be still and reducing stress;
  2. Reconnecting – in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy the 10 Commandments apply sabbath rest to everyone in the household, even animals. Sabbath is an inclusive event that flattens the social hierarchy.
  3. Revising – refers to examining our priorities. What is more important than sabbath, really? What parts of our lives do we need to rearrange to make sabbath-rest possible?
  4. Pausing – references small moments throughout our week where we accept interruptions as opportunities for spiritual growth. Is my task more important than this person? Pausing also encourages to interrupt ourselves at times to contemplate the wonders of the ordinary around us.
  5. Playing – extrovert personalities find refreshment through interacting with people more so than quiet contemplation. Sabbath-rest legalism should not prevent us from pursuing refreshing activities.
  6. Praying – meets the sabbath-rest goals of rest, loving God, and loving others.

In 2006 Church of Christ author Darryl Tippens published a book titled Pilgrim Heart in which he describes 15 “practices” for aiding our journey with Jesus. He dedicates two of those chapters to discussing sabbath-rest. He clarifies that “Sabbath as a wonderful benefit and blessing to humanity that our culture greatly needs. Sabbath — which I use broadly to signify rest, “down time,” quiet, renewal, recreation, getting away — can occur any day of the week. It can be eve a part of a busy day.

Tippens presents his discussion in the form of 8 paradoxical “beatitudes” that I’ll attempt to summarise here:

  1. Retreat – Retreat from the word is one of the best ways to serve others. Times set apart for silence, reflection, prayer and other forms of worship can permanently change our understanding of our mission and our relationship to the world.
  2. Rest – Rest is not a burden, but a life-giving gift and joyous freedom.
  3. Play – Part of our weariness results not from the weight of our work but from the dreary joylessness of our working lives. We should respect leisure as an intrinsic good.
  4. Embrace Imperfection – The point is not to endorse uncaring or sloppy work, but to call us to be strategic with our limited resources.
  5. Slow – I cultivate patience by deliberately choosing to place myself in positions where I have to wait.
  6. Create Boundaries – ‘Multi-tasking’ may be a virtue in certain limited settings, but it is disastrous as a way of life because it means that no one thing [or person] ever receives our total devotion.
  7. Say “No” – In the midst of the tsunamis of life, one cannot enjoy the luxury of retreat from the fray. Still, not everything that calls to us is a crisis. It takes careful discernment to determine when to say no.
  8. Connect – Time spent in authentic community is also a kind of Sabbath rest.

I’ve quoted heavily from other sources because I’m certainly no expert on the topic of sabbath-rest or even much of a practitioner. Yet it seems to me that integrating sabbath-rest into our lives is one way God calls his people to be counter cultural. Again, God no longer demands that we cease work for a 24 hour period, but he graciously teaches us to value rest as way of preparing His mission.

Some traditions regard sabbath as a fast. Others view sabbath as a time of feasting: a joyful celebration. A healthy practice of sabbath will integrate both elements into our lives. The 10 Commandments have often been divided between the first two focused on loving and worshiping God and the last six that guide our relationships with our neighbours. In this way they help Israel fulfill the great commands of loving God and neighbour. But the third command to keep the Sabbath doesn’t fit neatly into this division unless we see it as a transitional merging of the two.

Exodus 20:10 calls the seventh day “a sabbath to the Lord your God.” Clearly it is God focused. Yet just as clearly it benefits neighbours as the householder cannot delegate work to children, servants, guests, or even animals. All people are to experience sabbath-rest equally. In this way sabbath-rest is both a God-focused fast and a communal experience. We may not enjoy both elements at the same moment, but our overall experience of sabbath should seek both fasting and feasting.

In some ways the use of the word sabbath confuses us due to its association with the formal practices of Judaism. Perhaps another way of thinking about this topic is to develop a theology of rest. Does your understanding of God really require him to rest? Or does your image of God have him continually in motion? If our Christian journey is a process of being transformed into the image of God, then we must transform our schedules to enable the pursuit of  refreshment and renewal in a theology of rest.

Guard Your Heart

Today’s post is the fourth in a series of guest posts centered around my church’s annual theme of “Healthy Hearts”. This month’s contributor is Kevin Griffith. His full bio is at the bottom of the post, but here’s a brief intro…

I crossed paths with Kevin at Harding School of Theology. I don’t think we had any classes together, but we both lived on campus and spoke to each other occasionally. Unlike most students living in campus housing Kevin and Michele had kids!! It kinda made them stand out. 🙂 Kevin was also different because he came to grad school with plenty of ministry experience under his belt, it wasn’t just all theory.

I have great respect for the work that chaplains do. I would not do well at it.They approach people at some of the most difficult times of their lives and seek to speak God’s comfort and peace into those lives. In most cases there’s a constant turnover and few opportunities to see long-term fruit from the emotional energy they invest. I am grateful to Kevin and others who serve in this role of truly shining God’s light into darkness and making the world a better place.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

— Proverbs 4:23

Working as a Staff Chaplain in the 2nd busiest trauma center in the nation has its unique challenges, but I love my job. Each night I pass through the halls of the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center connecting with families, patients and staff. Boring nights are few and far between, and welcomed by me and the staff. Each time I pass through the Trauma ICU I am reminded just how precious and how fragile life is – and how suddenly it can all change.

Working here has made me appreciate the simple things in life and it has made me realize just how blessed I am. However, working here does have its price as well. Like any other job it can become just another hum drum day at the office. Because death is a constant companion (I’ve stood at the bedside of almost 700 deaths in the past six plus years) I can become easily desensitized or even jaded. Although I may not be personally involved, I have to constantly guard my heart and not allow myself to forget I am dealing with family members who have just lost a loved one. I must strive to be an emotional support and a spiritual ambassador – sometimes the only representative of God in the room. I must guard my heart.

The same can be said of a patient that is, in my estimation, in fairly good shape considering some of the more serious cases I have dealt with in the past. It’s easy for me to forget that those that are not as seriously ill as others are also human beings in need of a consoling touch, a listening ear and a sympathetic heart. In chaplain circles we call it being “fully present.” Being “fully present”, in my estimation, is exactly what we find Jesus doing in the Scriptures as he interacts with all those who come into his realm of influence. He not only listens to them with his ears, he listens to them with his eyes and his heart as well. And yet he chastises the smug, the arrogant and the self-righteous that come within earshot. I must guard my heart.

Not only can the job become hum drum and death all-too-familiar, but also the anxiety of others can take its toll on my attitude. Working in a trauma center will test you, sometimes more than wanted.  Scripture tells us: “An anxious heart weighs a man down.” (Proverbs 12:25) Those that administer care to the seriously ill sometimes suffer from a condition known as “Compassion Fatigue.” So, I must constantly be on guard and remind myself that I choose how I react to the stress and anxiety of others. I can choose to be caught up in all the craziness that surrounds me, or I can choose to be a calming presence. I can choose to take things that are said in the “heat of the moment” as personal attacks, or I can choose to understand that people and staff members in “crisis” often say and do things without thinking. If I am not careful I will find myself responding in kind to these perceived attacks and undermine all that I am attempting to accomplish as God’s representative. I must guard my heart.

All too often I am more like the proverbial “frog in the kettle” — as the temperature rises and I happily sit and boil, smug in my own self-confidence that all is okay and I am in control. And this brings me to another point — the deceitfulness of the heart. We find in Jeremiah 17:9 a very interesting verse which makes this point — “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Indeed, who can understand their own heart, then alone the hearts (i.e., motives) of others?

So just how do I guard my heart against this?

First, Luke tells us that the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart that out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. So what is it that you put into your heart? If I am to guard my heart I believe I must take specific steps to fill it with good rather than evil. The beginning place for me is in the Scriptures. The Bible is my source of all things good and I endeavor to spend time in it daily. Will this make me perfect? By no means! But I believe it will get me closer to the goal of having a pure heart – a heart that endeavors to please God with my words and actions. I choose to treasure God’s Word – for in doing so I find my heart there.

Second, I believe it important for me to live a prayerful life. By “prayerful” I do not necessarily mean sitting down and spending an hour or two on my knees – I wish I had the time and the discipline to make that happen. However, what I do mean is to be in conversation with God every minute I am possibly able. As I walk through the Trauma Intensive Care Unit, I see many of my patients who are unconscious, on ventilators or even in a coma. I do not make a spectacle of myself, but I do pray for them, even if it is just a short breath prayer of healing and peace. I believe prayer changes things – if nothing else, it guards and changes my heart, and draws me ever closer to God.

Third, I must remember that out of the abundance of my heart my mouth speaks. That is to say the words I speak, and the thoughts I choose to share, are brought forth from the well-spring of my heart. If I am having difficulty with saying inappropriate things or even if I am the saying the right thing in the wrong way, then I know I need to stop and examine just exactly what I have been putting into my heart.

Bio: Kevin Griffith is a Staff Chaplain at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis, TN. He obtained his BA in Bible from Lubbock Christian College (now University) and served churches of Christ for almost 15 years in Texas and California in the capacity of Youth and Family Minister. In 2001 Kevin moved his family to Memphis so he could complete his Masters of Divinity degree. Having completed this degree in 2005, Kevin enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education for a year in order to train for a career in Chaplaincy. In September 2007 he began working at the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center, a part of the Regional Medical Center, and serves there to this day. He has been married to Michele Roder Griffith, a graduate of Harding University, for 22 plus years. They have four children: Shelby (18) a freshman at Harding University; Peyton (14); Abby (11); and Levi (9). Kevin and his wife home school their children.

If this article has encouraged you, please return the favour by leaving a comment to let Kevin know. Or perhaps you have questions or comments. I know Kevin will check in and respond. So don’t be shy!

Questions of the Heart

Today’s post is the second in a series of guest posts centered around my church’s annual theme of “Healthy Hearts”. This month’s contributor is James T Wood. His full bio is at the bottom of the post, but here’s a brief intro…

James and I crossed paths in graduate school a few years ago. Since then James has gone on to do a lot of writing. In addition to his numerous blogs and articles he regularly publishes online, his small group discussion guide on the book of Ephesians was recently published by The Gospel Advocate. I appreciate James volunteering to contribute to this series. I’m sure you’ll find his perspective encouraging.

QUESTIONS OF THE HEART

Growing up in church, I was taught that certainty, not cleanliness, is what’s next to godliness. From the pulpit to the Sunday school classroom, we were told that we could be sure of our faith. It came as a surprise to me, then, when I discovered the many of the heroes of faith in the Bible have struggled with questions.

????For me it started with a distraught father. He was completely at his wits’ end. He’d tried everything up to this point and nothing had worked. He wanted what was best for his son, but it seemed like he couldn’t ever get there. Failure after failure left him crushed. One more offer of hope seemed like a cruel joke that he just couldn’t resist. Faith was worn, frayed, and close to breaking. In a desperate, lonely moment he let the words slip out of his heart before his brain could stop them: “I do believe, help my unbelief.”

You might recognize the words from Mark 9, but, if you’re like me, you also recognize them from your own frayed, broken moment when the hope that you’ve been clinging to seems to slip away. You find yourself speaking nonsense. You and I mix belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, certainty and questions.

But, if you’re like me, you feel guilty about it. You question your questioning and doubt your doubting. We grew up being taught that there’s no higher goal than spiritual certainty so our doubts, fears, and questions must be wrong. Right?

But that’s not how Jesus treats this poor, beleaguered father in his moment of confession. He’s not condemned as a sinner for expressing doubt, his son is healed and his life is transformed. Jesus, the man who flipped tables in the temple, defiantly healed on the Sabbath, and called out the religious leaders as hypocrites, was not afraid of confronting sin. He never flinched from a righteous conflict and didn’t excuse people from doing wrong, even in the midst of forgiving them. But he doesn’t forgive the unbelieving father – no, instead he just heals the son.

Scripture is filled with faithful people who question God.

Once I started to see it, I couldn’t avoid it. Scripture is filled with faithful people who question God. Elijah, immediately after miraculously defeating the prophets of Ba’al, runs away into the wilderness. There he meets God in a still, small whisper and confesses that he’s done. He’s afraid for his life and he’s ready to give up.

Or look at David who cried out to God in heartbreaking songs that were penned when he was pretending to be insane, or hiding in a cave, or cradling his dead son, or hiding from his usurping son. David threw his questions into the teeth of God with poetic power and those songs became the hymnal of Israel.

One of David’s songs came up again – a heartbreaking question thrown at the Almighty for generations – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus, on the cross, echoes David and questions God.

Jesus questioned God.

Let that sink in for a bit. If you’ve felt guilty for your doubts, if you’ve questioned your questioning and feared your lack of faith, you’re following Jesus in this.

Jesus prayed for God to do something, anything different. Have you prayed that prayer? When the test came back positive? When the marriage didn’t survive? When you pulled on your black dress clothes for the funeral? When the collectors kept calling? When you lost your job?

God, why can’t you do something else? If it’s possible, let this cup pass from me. Take it away. Choose any other path. Please.

Jesus shows us that questioning God isn’t bad, it’s healthy. David did it, Elijah did it, Job did it, Habakkuk did it, Gideon did it, Abraham did it, Moses did it, and those are just a few of the stories. The Bible is filled with tale after tale of people who blurt out in pain, confusion, and passion: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Is that you? I know it’s been me.

When God responds to these questions, he’s not mad. He doesn’t rebuke or condemn the faithful-doubting of his people. Job’s answer was that God is in control. Gideon’s answer was that he should fight for God’s people. Elijah’s answer was that he wasn’t alone. David’s answer was to praise God anyway.

The questions don’t yield an explanation of God’s plan, but they draw our heart closer to the heart of God. When we lay everything, even our doubts, at the feet of God we get those Romans 8 moments:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Bio: James T Wood is a writer, minister, and teacher in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife Andrea have worked with established churches and church plants all over the US. You can find out more about James and what he’s up to at www.jamestwood.com.

Please take a moment to encourage James by leaving a comment.

You might also like to continue the conversation by addressing these questions:

  • Have would you describe the phrase “I do believe, help my unbelief” in your life?
  • In your experience, do questions draw you closer to God, or create a barrier between Him?

Simple Time With God: part 2

I make to claim to being an expert on the topic of Spiritual Disciplines. Reading on the topic of Spiritual Disciplines doesn’t automatically make me (or you) an expert. Yet, paradoxically, I understand their importance and appreciate their benefits when I do practice them. I struggle to maintain regular times of prayer and personal devotional Bible reading. I often allow the inane busyness of life and leisure to steal my simplicity of time with God.

I have not spent a week with Trappist Monks, though I know some preachers who have. Neither do I have a spiritual adviser I talk to regularly, although I know other ministers who depend upon a relationship like this.  Still, here’s a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.

SILENCE

I’m tempted to leave this space blank as a tribute to literary silence, but that wouldn’t help anyone very much.  In Habakkuk 2 the prophet describes idol worship as a waste of energy, but he concludes that list by saying “But the Lord is in his holy temle; let all the earth keep silence before him.” So often we come into God’s presence and rush to pour out our hearts to him. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it also seems reasonable just to silently absorb his presence and then talk with him. There’s little virtue in treating God like a giant vending machine in the sky and all we have to do is walk in and punch the right buttons to have what we want come down the chute.  “Let all the earth keep silence before Him.

When I was in campus ministry we held a retreat one year that included different stations of spiritual disciplines. One of those was silence. We blackened a room and over 15 minutes nothing was said but every 5 minutes the facilitator read a verse relevant to our theme for the weekend. I’m not suggesting you need to blacken your room, but silence does require the removal of distractions. It’s also a good idea but not a necessity to have a Scripture or thought to guide your silence.

Our time of silence can take place in a blackened room. It can equally occur in a park with kids playing on a nearby playground, or next to a lake just watching the waves. At night, gazing at a the stars is a good time for me to be silent with God.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Randy Harris book Soul Work (p126). He spent 40 days in mostly silence with some real life hermits in southern Texas. This chapter shares some of his experiences and observations. He refers to silence as “listening prayer”.

As you enter into this listening prayer and being with God, you are going to have all sorts of intuitions, urges, and feelings. Not all of those are the Holy Spirit. You have to be discerning. When you think that God is calling you to do something, one of the things yo do is take it back to God in prayer. The other thing you do is open up to the community for their discernment too. That’s why prayer is both a personal and a communal experience.

When I think God is calling me to do something other than what I’m doing, one of the first things I want to do is to gather four or five people around me who know me well, who love God deeply and who love me. I’;m going to say, “I think this is what God is calling me to do. I want you to start praying over this and I want us to see what we have here.” Because I am so self absorbed, there is virtually nothing that I cannot talk myself into and make it turn into the will of God. And the only protection I have against that willfulness is the wisdom of the community. Continue to pray over it, offering it up to the community for discernment.

Silence is a type of fasting. If you’re not ready for full-blown silence, you might attempt a period of hours or days without something that adds noise to your life: Internet, cell phone, television, etc. (not spouse and kids!) and make the effort to fill that space with some God time.

SPIRITUAL CONVERSATION

This one is my own invention, which doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t proposed it, I just don’t remember hearing about it before. 🙂

At practically every church service I’ve ever attended, as soon as the closing “Amen” is said, the conversation turns to family, football, lunch, weather, holiday plans, school, almost anything except the service everyone just experienced for the last 60-90 minutes.

When do you talk about God?

More specifically, when do you talk about your relationship with God?

Is that a weekly, monthly, annual event, or not at all?  Who do you talk with?

I think women will generally find this easier. Men generally have a hard time discussing things like emotions and relationships.  Unfortunately, spiritual health gets lump into that same bundle. It takes discipline to share our spiritual victories and struggles with others. Yet the biblical picture of the church is of one who aches and rejoices together when one member experiences pain or triumph.

John Eldredge (Wild at Heart, 174-5) teaches men,

Don’t even think about going into battle alone. Don’t even try to take the masculine journey without at least one man by your side. Yes, we need men to whom we can bare our souls. But it isn’t going to happen with a group of guys you don’t trust, who really aren’t willing to go to battle with you.

My take away from that is the importance of investing in relationships to develop trust so that we care share our spiritual journey. Don’t just grab the first guy or girl you see. Choose someone you can trust to provide insight and feedback on your life and relationship with God.

In the book “Why Men Hate Going to Church” (p224), David Murrow states that

Men comprehend relationships in terms of activity. Ken has his work buddies, his fishing buddies, his football buddies and so on. Ken would never approach another man and say, “Hey Roger, can we have a relationship?” Such a  request would arouse suspicion, because it’s not expressed in terms of activity. Instead Ken would say, “Hey Roger, let’s go fishing.” Ken and Roger could go fishing every weekend for thirty years and never describe what they have as a relationship.

So if you’re a guy looking to find a spiritual support system, find some other Christian blokes that you can do things with and go for it. But make sure you’re intentional about discussing your faith. It’s real easy to spend 5 hours riding around with someone in a golf cart and never have a meaningful conversation.

HERE is an interesting article I came across on the value of Spiritual Conversations. The article also has some tips on what makes a productive Spiritual Conversation as a mentor.

If we can’t discuss our faith and our relationship with God with other Christians, how on earth do we ever hope to share the Gospel with the non-Christians in our lives?

Simple Time With God

I make to claim to being an expert on the topic of Spiritual Disciplines. Reading on the topic of Spiritual Disciplines doesn’t automatically make me (or you) an expert. Yet, paradoxically, I understand their importance and appreciate their benefits when I do practice them. I struggle to maintain regular times of prayer and personal devotional Bible reading. I often allow the inane busyness of life and leisure to steal my simplicity of time with God.

Having made that opening disclaimer, here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way that may be useful for you.  I’ve found most churches give very little instruction on Spiritual Disciplines while expecting everyone to engage in them. Whether you’ve never made a serious attempt before or are looking to refresh you current routine, I hope you find these simple tips useful:

PRAYER

Josh Graves recently shared an interview with Mother Teresa who commented “I don’t think that I could do this work for even one week if I didn’t have four hours of prayer every day.” Do you feel intimidated? I do. That’s admirable discipline on her part, but probably not a realistic target for most of us.  But the only way of having any hope of getting anywhere near that is to take small steps.

The biggest mistake I’ve made with the discipline of prayer has been trying to get through my whole list every time I sit down to pray. I can easily make a long list of friends, family, church members, missionaries I know, world causes… and then it would take me at least an hour and that’s without getting to my personal thoughts and desires.

If I’m new to spiritual disciplines then I need to take baby steps. If I can pray 3 times a week for 15 minutes and maintain it for 2 or 3 months, that’s tremendous progress.  Attempting an hour a day (or four hours!) is like running a marathon with no training. It’s almost always doomed to fail.

So my big tip here is to break your list up into smaller lists. Maybe there are some people or situations you pray for every day, but others that you only pray for on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Or you can give every day a different theme: Thanksgiving, Church needs, Family members, People outside of Christ, etc.

A last practice I’ve employed from time to time is to carry a list in the car with me.  When I get a red light, rather than cursing the delay, I use the time to pray for the next person on my list. Some days I get a long way through the list and the red lights bring me closer to God, rather than tempting my patience.  Just remember to keep your eyes open so you don’t get honked at when you miss the light turning green!

READING SCRIPTURE

Again, my first advice here is not to get too ambitious. I know many people that want to start or renew a habit of regular time in God’s Word, so they commit to read the Bible in a year.  That’s a least half an hour a day.  And that’s half an hour of constant reading.  There’s certainly a place for reading the Bible in a year as it greatly increases our familiarity with Scripture, but it’s not necessarily the best way.  (Check out www.YouVersion.com for a huge range of reading plans including shorter readings and shorter periods of time. They’ll even email you the reading every day if you want.)

If you’re setting aside 15 minutes for Bible reading every day, or a couple of times a week, I recommend that you plan for at least 5 of those minutes to involve reflection on what you’ve just read.  You might want to give yourself a standard set of questions to consider.  For example:

  • How would I feel I was reading this as the original reader? (offended, reassured, comforted)
  • Does this chapter or passage speak directly to a situation in my life?
  • Is there a particular word that caught my attention for any reason? (take some time and think on that word)
  • How do I need to respond to this reading? (as a whole, or a particular verse)

Then close your time by praying in a way that includes what you’ve just read.

FINALLY, if you have more like half an hour, in Rick Warren’s book, Bible Study Methods (p39-40), he recommends using the S-P-A-C-E-P-E-T-S acrostic to direct your meditation.  After you’ve narrowed your contemplation down to a shorter passage or verse, work through these questions.  Is there any…

  • Sin to confess? Do I need to make any restitution?
  • Promise to claim? Is it a universal promise? Have I met the condition(s)?
  • Attitude to change? Am I willing to work on a negative attitude and begin building toward a positive one?
  • Command to obey? Am I willing to do it no matter how I feel?
  • Example to follow? Is it a positive example for me to copy, or a negative one to avoid?
  • Prayer to pray? Is there anything I need to pray back to God?
  • Error to avoid? Is there any problem that I should be alert to or beware of?
  • Truth to believe? What new things can I learn about God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or other biblical teachings?
  • Something to praise God for? Is there something here I can be thankful for?

In both prayer and Scripture reading, look for God to speak to your life.  God’s goal is for us to be transformed into His image, so be prepared to change. Don’t expect God to just pat you on the back and tell you to keep doing what you’re already doing.

Tomorrow, I hope to post some tips on the disciplines of silence & spiritual conversations.