Tagged: discipleship

What’s the Point of Prayer?

prayer

What do you think about when you think about prayer?

I have a confession: throughout my life I’ve had moments of skepticism regarding the value of prayer. Does prayer accomplish anything or is it simply wishful thinking?

Over the years I’ve learned that a lot of people avoid prayer because they’re afraid that it might not work and by that they mean that their requests won’t be fulfilled. So they keep prayer at a distance, safely tucked away and pulled out for religious occasions.

You’ve likely heard the maxim that “prayer changes me more than it changes God.” Perhaps that is true, but I would put it this way: prayer is the arena in which God changes me. When we pray, we are being drawn into a conversation that has already been going on long before we show up. Prayer draws us into God’s life, helping us align our desires with his.

Henri Nouwen says it beautifully when he writes that “prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us.”

One of the ways prayer changes us is by giving us a new vision. In my own experience, prayer has afforded me the possibility of having a new set of eyes for seeing people and situations.

Jesus was known to say, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

If you’ve ever tried to pray for someone you dislike, or who has offended you, it doesn’t take long to realize why Jesus invites us to pray for those who persecute us. It’s not simply because Christians should be “nice” to all people, it’s much more. When we pray for our enemies, we’ll inevitably be put in a position to think about what would be best for them. What do we hope for him or her?  What do we want for them? When we pray for those we are against (or those who are against us), we’re not complaining about them or focusing on how they offended us,  but wishing good for them and hoping the best for them.

This is brilliant!

When we pray, we’re letting God give us a new perspective on the people we would otherwise dismisson the people we would otherwise want to avenge, and want to see fail.

It gets better: prayer doesn’t only do this for our relationships, but for any situation in our lives that might seem like “an enemy”the moments in life where we feel like everything is working against us and things seem hopeless, aimless, pointless.

As a pastor, I have had times with people who reveal their grievances and complaints about someone who has offended them. In these situations, I’ve learned to follow up with an important question: “What do you hope for them?” This question is usually rhetorical, but important. It draws them into the transformative practice of beginning to actually pray for their enemy.

Prayer is the place where we are challenged to discover what God wants for a person, a circumstance, a next step.

Prayer gives us a new set of eyes for the people who get on our nerveseven those closest to us. When Jesus invites us to pray, he invites us to develop a future vision to see beyond the faults of those who offend us.

This is what prayer does: it gives us vision. It opens up possibilities. It says “yes” when everything in you wants to say “no.”  In prayer, God takes us away from our present offences to a greater vision of what could be.

So prayer, more than merely a tool for requests, is a means of transforming our very desires. Prayer is a means of changing our “hunger and thirst.” Prayer helps us have the wants that God wants.

Perhaps the lack of hope and vision for our lives (or our children’s lives, our marriages, our relationships) is often due to a lack of prayer.

I know I’ve found this to be true in my own life.

In fact, when Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, he was defining perfection.

“Be perfect, just like your Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.”

For Jesus, perfection means we live with a deep hope even in the most broken situations; that nobody and nothing in our lives is beyond repair.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Next time you feel anger or offence, ask yourself what God may want you to want for your offender. It won’t be hard to figure out, and maybe in that process you’ll find yourself loving your enemy, praying for your persecutor, and just a little closer to perfection.

Three Rules for Healthy Bible Reading

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I recently had a conversation with a Christian who confessed her aversion of personal Bible reading. Her reason was understandable: she’s afraid that she’ll misunderstand and misinterpret the Bible, rendering her more confused than when she started. For some people, reading the Bible is an intimidating task because they’re keenly aware of its complexity.  While they are willing to be honest, there are others who read the Bible with a certainty that claims to “hear from God” every time they read it. Two unhealthy extremes are typical: avoidance and arrogance. In a world of competing extremes, here are three foundational rules for healthy Bible reading that you can start applying today:

  1. Accept the Complexity of Scripture: 

Healthy bible reading begins with accepting the complexity of Scripture. Peter speaks of Paul’s writings as containing things that are “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”  The Bible is a collection of writings that encompass a multitude of genres, many of which aren’t in use in our day (i.e. Revelation is a “prophetic-apocalyptic epistle,” and a prime victim of misreading as foretelling of the future).  The Biblical world is “distant” from ours in terms of language, geography and culture, and without a healthy awareness of that distance, we will be tempted to assume a meaning that isn’t there. Matters of salvation are clear in the Bible, but much of the Bible is easily misapplied and misrepresented because readers lack a humble posture towards. Reminding yourself of the complexity of Scripture will help foster an open, listening and humble posture.

  1. Prioritize Your Heart Over Your Head: 

I have devoted a large portion of my life to understanding the biblical narrative and its complexity, so don’t misunderstand the following words: the primary purpose of reading the Bible is not to “understand” it with your head, but to receive it with your heart. If you believe “understanding” the Bible is the primary goal of reading it, you will miss its point altogether. And when you don’t understand it you might think something is wrong with you; it might even deter you from ever reading it again (like it did my friend). Or worse, if we too quickly presume that we have understood it, in an absolute sense, we can easily become “puffed up” (1 Cor. 8:2).

Instead, attend Bible reading with a heart ready to be convicted and corrected. Prayerfully anticipate that you would be cut to the heart, and be made aware of the many ways your life doesn’t align with the way of life that Jesus is calling you to. You’re not looking for “universal laws” to add to your bag of ammo, but listening for the voice that’s speaking to you. The great Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger wisely captures this when he says “the meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.”

  1. Read with Patience

If you’re like me you might expect to experience something special whenever you read the Bible—a vision, an insight, a unique revelation. We sometimes approach the biblical text with the expectations, (or heaven forbid, the demand!) that God will open our “spiritual eyes” so that we can discover deep life-changing truths!  That could happen sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Our expectation for quick results is more so informed by our perpetual-entertainment-culture of Netflix and Youtube than anything else. Learn to read with patience and endurance through the mundane and boring bits.  Bible reading is a lot like brushing your teeth; you can’t expect to have healthy teeth all at once. Healthy teeth comes from brushing two minutes twice a day for the rest of your life.

Foundational healthy Bible reading that produces fruit will always include these three things: a humble acceptance of the complexity of Scripture, an openness to be convicted and cut to the heart, and a willingness to read with a patience that endures even when nothing special happens. With these three rules, you can trust that the words of Scripture will truly become “indelible”—it will truly “take root”, endure, and bear fruit in its time.

 

Praying Sacramentally

christians-praying-iconThere are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

The Kingdom in Mark: 3 Predictions and 3 Misunderstandings

If you read the Bible, and more specifically if you read the Gospel’s you’ll notice that the disciples of Jesus had a hard time understanding certain things. Mark gives us an interesting picture regarding their complete misunderstanding of the kingdom. Even though to them it had “been given the secrets of the kingdom” (Mark 4:11), Jesus asked them various times, “do you not yet perceive or understand/ are you hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you net hear?” (Mark 8:17-18, cf. 4:13; 7:18; 6:52). What had been given to them was Christ himself, but what they seemed to fail to understand was the implications of the kingdom of God. Their expectations of what was to happen represent the same expectations of all of Israel; that God would eventually send a Messiah who would militaristically and politically take charge of Israel and be in command. For Israel, the comming Messiah meant political power and authority given back to the people of God.

I think Mark chooses many ways to show this, but I want to highlight one. Jesus predicts his death and suffering three times, in 8:31-38, in 9:30-32 and in 10:32-34. Now the interesting thing that Mark does is that he juxtaposes the disciples misunderstanding right next to the predictions. First with the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes become radiant on the mountain (sounds familiar, think Exodus?), and Elijah and Moses show up, and suddenly Peter says “it is good that we are here.” Of course these words should be seen in light of the next part. In 9:34, after the second prediction of the suffering Messiah (literally right after), it says that “they (disciples) argued about who was the greatest.” And then lastly, following Jesus’ 3rd prediction, James and John have the brilliant request: “grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory” (10:37).

We see more of this happening later on as Judas betrays Jesus for money (14:10-11), Peter denies ever knowing Him (14:66), and none of them eventually stay with Him, but they all “fled” (14:50).

The people of Israel misunderstand the plan of God. They expected to be freed from Roman bondage by sword. In fact, that will explain why Jesus will constantly tell those whom he healed NOT to tell anyone. If the people thought of him as the Messiah, they would quickly begin to riot against Roman rule. Similarly, the disciples, the closest ones, completely misunderstood the meaning of the Kingdom.

Here’s the big idea. Mark is writing to Christians who like us would read the gospels and identified themselves as being disciples. Mark is warning against presuppositions that come from our own pride and smugness, and our own self-assurance. The people of Israel had an expectation that was completely off, so did the disciples. I think what Mark may be saying is that wether or not we may think we are “insiders” we may miss the point of discipleship, equating it with worldly status rather than obedient service.