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    Entries in prayer (32)


    Prayer is Primal Speech

    Growing up as part of congregation, I grew up around people saying prayers. It was strange speech. In Sunday School and worship, before meals and at family gatherings, a respected elder would call upon everyone to pray. Someone would lead us in a petition for help, blessing, or thanksgiving. We would pray for neighbors, friends, family, community, church, or nation. Prayer was modeled before it was ever taught.

    Only in retrospect can I look back and call such speech strange. But the day eventually came when I was not expected to listen and attune my heart and mind to our collective petition, but to give voice and speak to God on behalf of the community. To my recollection, the earliest opportunities came as part of a Sunday School. I do not remember if I was an eager volunteer as a young boy. But I do remember that I was one of the few willing to give it a try during the middle and high school years. When a teacher asks for a volunteer and no one speaks up, someone has to step up and do everyone a favor, for we all know that until someone prays, we won’t be dismissed. And after you pray once, your peer group begins to look to you for leadership, since you’ve braved the voyage of prayer before and achieved safe passage.

    My first forays into prayer were not undertaken with a sure knowledge or unshakeable confidence. I simply spoke from my heart and relied upon the patterns of speech that I had received. Every prayer I recall being offered in the Baptist congregation of my youth was of the spontaneous sort. Scripture may have been quoted, but formality was not present or expected. Simple speech. I was trained to pray with simple speech.

    But as the years passed I realized I had much to learn. Prayer in public was one thing. Prayer alone, in the hidden place was quite another. What was I to say? When I gave voice to the cry of a community, I could articulate hopes and desires, or fall back on the reliable petitions of the people of God in all times and places. But when I was alone, I was not sure where to begin, or what to say in a world filled with trouble, speaking to a God who surely had other, more important matters to attend to than the trivial concerns of little old me. 

    Things changed when I offered a simple prayer, asking God to teach me to pray. That was my beginning. When I was alone before God I turned my being toward the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and began with that bit of simple speech, “Teach me to pray.”

    On some days, that was all that could be said. At other times, my private prayers, either written or spoken, stretched a little further. It was like I had discovered a muscle I had never really flexed, so the least bit of activity was a challenge. But I persisted in the knowledge that the strengthening of this muscle was vital for the well-being of the entire body, my entire self. No transplants were available. I was going to have to practice, to exercise, and build endurance.

    Eugene Peterson* was one of my guides along the way. He says it well:

    [W]hen we engage in the act of prayer itself, there is no preparing, no getting the right words, no posture to take, no mood to assume. We simply do it. Prayer is primal speech. We do not first learn how to do it, and then proceed to do it; we do it, in the doing we find out what we are doing, and then deepen and mature in it.

    That’s where we begin. We “simply do it.”

    Along the way I’ve figured a few things out. I have learned that God’s greatness is found in his lowliness. God can give ear to the concerns of “little old me,” because God is “great old God.” I’ve learned that my small, trivial concerns are not unworthy of a true friend, and I’ve become aware that it is self-centeredness and attempts at self-preservation that have kept me from crying out for help. I think I can handle my problems. I think I am the center of my own universe.

    Through prayer, God teaches us that this is not true. Through prayer, we suspect we will discover the One who rightfully belongs at the center of our lives, and of course, this displaces us. We think we belong at the center. Therefore we resist. Eugene Peterson states:

    In prayer we intend to leave the world of anxieties and enter a world of wonder. We decide to leave an ego-centered world and enter a God-centered world. We will leave a world of problems and enter a world of mystery. But it is not easy. We are used to anxieties, egos, and problems; we are not used to wonder, God, and mystery.

    I have also learned to rely on the Psalms. The psalmists have become my certified personal medical and training staff. Why?  Many of the Psalms are laments, and our world is filled with trouble. Each cry of despair only confirms that those who have been faithful through the centuries have been acquainted with grief, just like their Lord. But there are also psalms of petitions and celebration and remembrance. The Psalms teach us to pray, and to do so within the community of the prayerful. In joining my voice to theirs, God helps me discover my own deep need for salvation, redemption, healing, and restoration. I discover who God has made me to be, and who God is calling me to become. In prayer, my life is aligned with God’s life. My deepest desires are uncovered, revealed, and fulfilled.

    Peterson again:

    The Psalms train us to pray with others who have prayed, and are praying: put our knees on the level with other bent knees; lift our hands in concert with other lifted hands; join our voices in lament and praise with other voices who weep and laugh. The primary use of prayer is not for expressing ourselves, but in becoming ourselves, and we cannot do that alone.

    Peterson insightfully adds that “We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be,” and that “The regular place of prayer is the ordinary life.” The Psalms reinforce this discovery, and as we learn their rhythms and patterns, and adapt them to our own realities, they train us to rely on God in the same fashion as those saints of old.

    There are still lessons to learn. My training is not complete. But if prayer is something you are seeking to learn, begin, even if your first efforts appear to you as weak. The Word precedes your words. It is God who calls us to pray. When you cannot pray for yourself, rely on others to give voice to your cry, either in the Psalms, or in the congregation.

    “The Spirit searches all things,” Paul writes, “even the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10b) The Spirit searches our hearts, and reveals to us the unfathomable nature of God’s love. Prayer is our response. Let us learn from the One who will teach us.

    *All quotations are taken from Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.


    Book Review :: Dallas Willard's Hearing God

    Dallas Willard’s Hearing God, Updated and Expanded: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God is the most practical, straightforward, and helpful theological resource on communicating with God I have ever encountered. Communicating with God may very well be the most pressing and least understood aspect of the Christian spiritual life today, and too often, I have worked with people who do not expect to hear from God, or who believe hearing from God is a spiritual experience reserved only for select holy men and women. This is despite the fact they have been invited to enter a “personal relationship with God.”

    Moving methodically and with precision, Willard introduces the reader to the “paradox in the contemporary experience and understanding of hearing God.” On the one hand, “we have massive testimony to and widespread faith in God’s personal, guiding communication with us,” and on the other we “find a pervasive and often painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works.” Willard then gives guidelines for hearing from God, assurance that God is with us, an examination of God’s speaking in the created order, and the nature of God’s voice as “still and small” amidst competing voices. Then, Willard examines God’s Word and God’s rule, the transformation that comes through hearing and believing the gospel about Jesus, the ongoing role of Scripture in furthering that transformation in the life of the disciple, wisdom in how we discern God’s voice, and, lastly, how we listen for God in the everyday, beyond matters of simple guidance, growing in friendship with him. This book is narrowly focused but incredibly deep, laser-like but possessing a unique breadth. It is a treasure.

    Willard writes with a pastoral tone, expressing concern for those who have, so often, shared with him their difficulties in hearing God. Very gently, Willard reminds those who believe their prayers do not pass the ceiling that “God is beneath the ceiling.” God is near. God hears you. God has spoken, and his Word still rings out. God wants you to listen, and to discern God’s voice. Countless examples from Scripture, and the testimony of many Christians known and obscure confirm that God is a God who has spoken, and who speaks. God is good, and will teach all who are willing to learn to communicate with him “as a friend.”

    Willard is also a Christian philosopher. In my view, this is a strength. The author has given this matter careful thought, and has surveyed a broad range of theological and autobiographical writings on the subject of hearing God. He moves the reader through the finer points of hearing the divine voice, discerning God’s will, and living life before God in “the kingdom of the heavens.” Patient and thoughtful readers will be rewarded in considering the book as a whole, not only in reading those portions considered “practical.” We don’t “get to the point” when learning to hear God, we get to the person. God is a person, not a machine that can be manipulated through our own power. When we meet the Person and are initiated in to the life of the kingdom Jesus announced and enacted, the adventure begins, the conversation broadens, the world takes on a new shape. We do not control God’s speaking by mastering a “hearing technique.” That’s good news.

    If God is personal, and we enter a relationship to God, wouldn’t it make sense to communicate with this person who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? As Willard notes, a brief biblical survey of ordinary people like Abraham, Moses, Miriam, David, or Mary reveals that God is certainly an awe-inspiring figure, but near enough to befriend his human creatures. In one of the more profound insights explored in this book, Willard argues God’s greatness is amplified by his lowliness. If God desires to establish friendship with those who seek communion in his presence, he most certainly can bring it to pass.

    Once the premise that God can, and does, communicate with us is accepted, all that is left is to establish the ways and means we might experience such communication. That is no small task. How, exactly, does one discern God’s speaking? What role does Scripture play? What pitfalls exist, and how might we avoid them? What about those who abuse others through the claim they have heard from God? To what degree does God communicate his will for our lives, and to what extent do we possess a freedom to choose that which we believe is best? Willard addresses these questions, and others.

    A unique feature of the Updated & Expanded edition is the incorporation of lectio divina, or “sacred reading.” A bugaboo for some due to association with Catholic spirituality or mysticism (unfounded, in my opinion), lectio can be helpful when regarded as a means by which to discern God’s voice, and not as a means to some esoteric experience of God. Six familiar passages of Scripture are highlighted, complementing material in six of the chapters. The reader is invited to read, reflect, respond, and rest in the text. The inclusion of this type of Bible reading trains us  with regard to how God has spoken in the past, and in hearing God’s voice today.

    For those reading this book with others, each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions that review content and broaden the conversation. As noted on the back cover, a companion DVD resource is also available as a separate purchase. Taking on this topic with others isn’t a bad idea; you will find that a community of others learning to communicate with God is an immense help in understanding and applying the truths contained in this book.

    Lastly, I have read many books on Christian spiritual formation, and specifically on learning to hear God’s voice. Hearing God is unparalleled. It is a complex, sophisticated book, but it is incredibly clear and direct, immensely edifying for the diligent. Don’t let other reviewers dissuade you by describing this book as one “for seminarians.” I have read this book twice, and missed many key aspects on my first reading.

    But great books are worth rereading. They continue to teach us, as we change, grow, and develop. This is just such a book.

    If you found this review helpful, head over to Amazon and tell others.


    Prayer: What Does it Accomplish?

    Irresistible Attraction

    Of all the Christian spiritual disciplines, prayer is the most difficult for me, at least as I have come to understand the practice. We are commanded to pray, and taught to pray by the Scriptures, most notably by Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Our Father..."

    And our pastors and leaders exhort us, telling us to pray, and from time to time they even give us a glimpse of what prayer looks like, earnest and transparent before the throne of God, offering praise, asking for divine help, confessing sin.

    But still, prayer remains difficult. Is God listening? Is his ear inclined to my prayers? Are my prayers, in effect, answered? Are "no," "yes," and "wait" the full range of responses God may offer? Could it be that the conversation is the end, and not the outcome or the result? Might it be that simply entering God's presence is enough? Could it be that prayer has other outcomes, other purposes, other transformative ends in the life of the faithful person, beyond the thrills of a spiritual experience, beyond the chiseling of character, or the witnessing of God's sovereign acts in accordance with our supplications? Or could it be that prayer is all of these, and more? That the facets, the effects of prayer are beyond our imagining? The privilege itself is ineffable.

    Here is a story that may capture one meaning, one end of prayer.

    I once heard a wise elder relay a story of a young monk who had become frustrated by the practice of prayer. He approached an older monk, his spiritual mentor, and asked, "What does prayer do? I am tired of praying! Prayer doesn't accomplish anything!"

    Instead of offering a theological rebuttal, the older monk simply said, "Here is my basket, woven together and made of straw. Please, take this down to the river and fill it with water, and return it to me."

    Again and again, the young monk filled the basket. And time after time, the basket slowly drained as he made his way back to the monastery. Finally, the young monk returned to his master, basket in hand.

    "Each time I attempted to return, the water ran through the basket. I attempted to do as you had asked, but to no avail," said the young monk.

    "Look inside the basket," the older monk offered. "What do you see?"

    The younger monk replied, "When I began, the basket was lined with dirt and a trace of filth, but now, the dirt has been removed. It is clean."

    The older monk then said, "This is what prayer does. It cleans."

    As you pray, remember, God may be at work exposing dirt and rinsing it away. The work may be slow and tedious and gradual. Your patience may wear thin. But take heart. Return again and again to the Water of Life.

    Let him cleanse you.


    What Is the Role of the Pastor?


    Scot McKnight has been carrying on a brilliant exchange with Mark Stevens of Australia on the calling and role of the pastor. The impetus that set this conversation in motion is the challenge of the megachurch to the vocation and current embodiment of the role of the pastor, and because I have been both nurtured within and am currently a member of a megachurch, I found these words pertinent. I have also served as a "pastor" within the large church context, though not in the senior leadership role. I know firsthand the pressures of being "visionary", or leading successful programs, of applied analytics that seem to be more numerically abstract than concrete and fleshy. I think that it is very difficult to be in a large church context and remain a pastor, rather than an entrepreneurial visionary leader of a religious enterprise. Not impossible, but very difficult.

    Stevens advocates a "Petersonian" perspective on the pastorate, and in his correspondence with McKnight, draws insight from Eugene Peterson's works The Pastor and Working the Angles (if Andy Rowell's correction in the comments is on point), both to great effect. Leaning on Peterson, Stevens names the three primary aspects of pastoral vocation as:

    1. Prayer,
    2. Scripture,
    3. and Spiritual Direction.

    "But of course!", you might say. Pastors should pray. They should read and study and know Scripture inside and out and help us to hear its words rightly and truthfully in our particular cultural moment. And yes, they should help us tend to our own souls, if indeed we have one, and encourage us along the path as we grow in maturity to Christ. Of course this is the role of the pastor.

    But as I've said above, the large church does not always concern itself, primarily, with prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. Oftentimes it is programs, soaring attendance, and strategic planning, done in a way devoid of spiritual energy; fueled by business acumen. Shepherding a soul is not the same thing as herding bodies through programs. Numerical growth is not always indicative of spiritual growth. And strategic planning can, at times, depart from the call of congregational faithfulness and move toward the achievement of personal ambition, particularly for that of the senior leader.

    Senior leaders, or pastors, of large congregations can fall prey to the temptation to establish themselves in a pastoral career, rather than within a pastoral vocation. Looking forward to the next generation of pastoral leaders, I have expressed this very concern at Resurrection, albeit quietly, when considering the name of our pastoral discernment program for students, "MAC Track", or "Ministry as Career". Here is Stevens on the subtle nuance between vocation and career, and the discreet way the latter can overwhelm the former:

    The truth is there is no blue-print for being a pastor. The circumstances and call of each pastor and their ministry are as unique as the person themselves. Nevertheless, those who are called to lead the church are called to be shepherds of God’s people. My concern is with how the pastoral vocation is conceived of, developed and understood. It is easy for most of us to give lip service to what it means to be a faithful parson when in reality what we do and what we are taught to do is pursue careers. We plan, we build we call people to follow us and our vision for God’s church. I just don’t think this is what it means to be faithful. It maybe how the world defines faithfulness to a c[a]reer but I don’t see it as faithful pastoral practice.

    Being a pastor is not a career, it is a calling. And on this occasion, I would contend "but it is both!" will not do.

    Being a pastor is a response to the voice of God to serve in a role that is unique within the community of those who believe in and call upon Jesus Christ as Lord. The role of that person is to cultivate an environment where the Word of God can be heard in the proclamation and reading of Holy Scripture, where the voice of God can be heard in the stillness, and where the Spirit of God can blow where it wills, propelling the sails of the great ark of salvation in whatsoever direction it deems faithful and best. All the while, the pastor prays for his people and teaches them to pray. The pastor listens to the people and helps the people listen to God. And the pastor witnesses to Jesus and points the people towards Christ.

    Churches do not need more religious employees, those making a career out of regulating the machinations of spiritual gizmos. The church needs more pastors, those who have gotten in to the life of God, and by their very lives compel us likewise to get in to it and get in on it, to get a glimpse of the glory and to chase it forever, because there is nothing more beautiful, nothing more satisfying.

    Like Stevens (please read his post), I do not think that the megachurch is devoid of value within the Kingdom. But I do think that it is a place filled with its own unique temptations and blind spots, and considering it is a rather recent phenomenon in world Christianity, I doubt we have yet discerned the extent of spiritual maladies that lurk within our midst. Careful discernment, and careful application of Christian wisdom is advised, as it would be in any small parish. And to discern and apply best, we will need pastors willing to shepherd the souls entrusted to their care, to pray, to immerse themselves in Scripture, and to offer us spiritual direction that helps us to better follow after Jesus.


    Awesome Sketches of Jesus in the Wilderness

    A perfect video for the 40 days of Lent.