3 Prayer Tools for 2021

Excuse the number orientated blog post title! The best way to learn how to pray, is by praying. Plain and simple. I find it off-putting when Christians make prayer a complex ritual, that needs countless hours of study and expertise in order to get right. When Jesus was asked ‘how to pray’, He gave a simple, stunning and all-encompassing example that could be picked up by anyone.

Far be it from me to make prayer complicated.

All that being said, I do find it helpful every now and then to come across new tools and methods to help me ‘spice up’ my prayer life. After all, we are a Body with many parts, and we are called to live out our faith amongst the great cloud of witnesses. Learning from our Spiritual fathers and mothers, and imitating those who seek to imitate Christ.

It is from this foundation that I want to present three tools I have found empowering in my prayer life recently.

  1. The Valley of Vision [Book]. I was recommended this book by a friend who loves praying. When I asked him how he learns to pray more – this was one of his “go-to”s. Page after page of poetic, beautiful and rich words. Easily hi-jackable and which lend themselves to thought provoking moments of conversation with God.
  2. Guitar [Music]. I was very lucky growing up to have been given guitar lessons. Although, I never appreciated, as a teenager, the power of practice! I still managed to get the hang of most of the chords and minimal music theory required to play most songs to a mediocre standard. (With the internet people can learn the basics of instruments within a couple of hours.) If you have an instrument to hand, I have found playing some simple chord progressions with the Psalms open (or even the Valley of Vision book) very helpful.
  3. Phone call prayers [Technology]. I am NOT a fan of online/Skype/zoom prayer meetings. Even for our weekly Church zoom meetings. I just have not got used to being videoed in prayer (- alas, my issues). However, give me some Bluetooth headphones with a mic, a friend to call, and a walking route. And I can pray for some time. The last few weeks on Sunday morning I have been calling up a friend and praying together while I walk and talk on the phone. All the encouragements of praying with a friend, none of the self-conscieness that comes from being on a webcam! (Win-win!) Not to mention the biggest win that we draw closer to God (WIN-Win-win!)

There we go, there are three tools for prayer in 2021. I hope you find them encouraging and useful.

Come and share your Master’s happiness

Jesus tells a parable of a servant who is “good and faithful”, he stewards the gifts of his Master well – producing multiplied value from the initial gifts.

At the end the servant is commended!

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21).

There is much to like about this story. But what struck me this morning, is the invitation to share in the Master’s happiness.

  1. God’s happiness is not an intangible, aloof, disconnected emotion. Sometimes we assume that ‘holy people’ or even ‘intelligent’, ‘stoic’ and ‘upper class’ people have a humour and delight for things that would go over our heads. But in this verse Jesus reminds us that the happiness of God is something we can ‘share in’.
  2. God is so happy when we steward His gifts well.
  3. The task of stewarding is separate from the task of sharing God’s happiness. I think this is important. We can work and work and work, strive and strive and strive, to be good stewards. And totally, completely and utterly miss out on the happiness God wants us to share in. Yes, stewarding well opens the door to the happiness. But no, stewarding well does not automatically result in joy.

We see this last point played all over the western world’s addiction with work. Men and women across the country, working to steward their jobs well, working to steward their privilege well. But not accepting the invitation to share in the happiness of God.

I think of Martha who worked and worked, to steward her house and hospitality, but didn’t enjoy Jesus. I think of the elder brother, who ‘slaved in the fields all day’, but never enjoyed the feasts of the Father. I think of the church in Galatia who were so focused on striving, that Paul had to remind them that the fruit of the spirit is Joy.

And then I think of Jesus….who, it says, ‘for the joy set before Him, endured the cross…scorned it’s shame…and sat down with the Father’ (Hebrews 12:2).

Yes it is important that we ‘strenuously contend with all the energy that Christ so powerfully works with in us’ (Col 1:29), that we ‘continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12), that we ‘make the most of every opportunity’ (Eph 5:16)….but yes, it is also important we sing the words of Psalm 84:

How lovely is Your dwelling place, oh Lord God Almighty. My soul thirsts and even feints for You… Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you!

Today, come and share in the Master’s happiness

The “Ungodly” fear of God

In Proverbs we are told that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom! This is very true.

Having a godly fear of Him who created you, will spur you towards holiness, right decisions and yes, wisdom!

Even when we sin, a holy fear of God’s wrath will draw us to the Saviour who forgives and Who has become our righteousness.

It was the fear of God that moved David to repentance after his sin with Bathsheba. It was the fear of God that moved the population of Nineveh to turn back to God. The fear of God is healthy!

And yet, there is an unhealthy (or an ungodly) way of fearing God. We see it in the story of Adam and Eve… “ I heard you coming and I was afraid…so I hid”.

We also read the parable of the wicked servant who was afraid of his master, so he hid the money underground…and did not invest it!

Let us not mistake the godly fear of God, from the ungodly counterfeit. May the fear of God draw us to Him and His Son for communion. Rather than keep us with the pigs in rebellion.

Afterthought: In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians he describes two kinds of sorrow. Godly sorrow which leads to repentance and ungodly sorrow.

Little, but often

When I was in Junior School (around 12years old) we had these end of year tests called SATS – don’t ask me what they stood for. I don’t think they even do them anymore. Anyway, I’m rambling!

In preparation for these determiners of fate and class setters, I asked my teacher how to revise. (Ever the conscientious learner!) his reply:

Little but often

I’ve really taken that advice to heart over the years. Especially when faced with a daunting task. Like transcribing 1600 pathology reports for work, like writing a first draft of a book, like trying to edit that first draft…like reading through the Bible, or 52 books in a year… it’s all about the “little but often”!

For some reason I expecting blogging consistently over a long period to be any different! Batching together a week’s worth of posts in a Saturday morning.

It might work for others but it doesn’t for me. Especially when the day-job ramps up its demands and Saturdays become the one quiet day of the week!

So for the next few weeks, while work is intense, blogging will be: little, but often

Quick update

Dear supportive readers,

I’m sorry I’ve missed a couple of days and will likely miss a few more. Work is pretty busy at the moment, with a few deadlines all coming up together.

The result? I’m burning the candle at both ends. So I’m having to be extra cautious and sensible with how I use my free time.

All is well, and God is good. But this is a busy season. Will try and get back on with blogs next weekend.

Best wishes and thanks for your prayers

Paul

Systematic Theology 10: The Knowability of God

How much of God can we actually know? If you are anything close to my age and have been around Churches in the last 10 years, you will likely remember a song by Chris Tomlin called: Indescribable.

The song worships God, not just for all His powerful acts and mighty works, but also for His mystery. When I was a teenager I read a book by Matt Redman who talked about “the Otherness of God”.

In this chapter, Grudem explores this theme, by answering the question: how much of God can we actually know?

Firstly, we see that in order for us know anything about God, He must first reveal Himself to us. To quote Matt Redman again, the pattern of worship: “He reveals, we respond”. We see Him reveal Himself through scripture, through nature, through the Son (Matthew 11:27), through wisdom etc…and yet our sin, and our sinful nature/tendencies blind us to His many revelations (Romans 1:18).

Secondly, even though God habitually and frequently reveals part of Himself, we must concede that human beings can never fully understand God. This flows not just from scriptures like the psalms that explain that He is ‘unsearchable’ (145:3), ‘beyond measure’ (147:5) and ‘too wonderful for me’ (139:6). But also from a logical point of view…how can the finite, ever fully grasp the ‘Infinite’.

One objection to this point is usually made in reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12 which says ‘now I know in part, then I shall understand fully’. However, as Grudem points out, the Greek for ‘understand fully’ means to ‘understand without error’ – not ‘know all things’. In the same way I can understand correctly how my coffee is brewed in the morning, I still do not know the full extent of the brewing process in all it’s complexities. (I’m no coffee expert).

The lack of ability to know God fully, isn’t just because of our sin – though it does play a role in blinding us – but it is also because of His infinite greatness.

Nevertheless, we can and still should seek to grow in increasing knowledge of God (Col 1:10).

Thirdly, despite our limited capacity to know God fully, we can still know God truly. We can know true things of God, because of Scripture. For example we know that He is love, that He is good, and that He is working all things together for our good and His glory. We can know God as a personal relationship, not just exhaustive facts about Him.

In fact, this is what God desires for us: Jeremiah 9:23-24, John 17:3, 1 John 2:13.

We may never know God fully, but we can and we should, seek Him with our entirety. It is a great comfort that we will never find out too much, that we may discover new things every day and still learn more for eternity.

Preaching the Hard Stuff

I have a lot of sympathy for Pastors who are intimidated to avoid preaching the hard stuff. The Hard Stuff includes exposing errant belief, sinful attitudes and ungodly behaviour. The Hard stuff is calling people to sacrificial living, giving their whole life to God to use.

This must be difficult. As a lay preacher it can be hard enough speaking uncomfortable truths to friends. But throw into the mix the added complications of preaching to people who in effect ‘pay your wages’, or may leave your church for a more “comfortable one”…or at the very least, you will have to speak to over coffee face to face straight after.

And yet, we know that true unity, harmony and joy is not achieved by avoiding the hard stuff.

The apostle Paul, knew that challenging people was hard and so he encouraged the young leader Timothy in this area. The message of 1 Timothy 4 could be read: “convince, rebuke, exhort, correct, don’t let older people intimidate you or tick you off. Don’t be timid, guard your gospel carefully, don’t compromise and don’t let anyone whittle you down.”

But how, how can we be steadfast in our preaching:

  1. Be informed (spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically). Have you done your homework?
  2. With love. When we preach with love, this will produce in us a desire to be informed. When Paul wrote a challenging letter to the Corinthian Church he said: “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you” (2 Cor 2:4). In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul emphasises the dangers of teaching with knowledge alone, and without love.
  3. Find confidence in the solid ground of scripture. I remember a time when I had been asked to preach on suffering, using Psalm 139. I remember feeling very inadequate as my life at that point, had had relatively little levels of suffering. I knew that many in the Church had faced intense trial and hardship, and here was a young 20-something, with very little life experience, teaching on suffering. I felt unqualified to say the least. What God taught me, was that my confidence in preaching, should never come from my own life experience, knowledge, education or anything else! Rather it must come in the steadfast truthfulness of Scripture. Again, Paul wrote to Timothy, that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness. When we preach the hard stuff, we must lean upon the power and authority of Scripture. It truly is a solid rock upon which to build our house.
  4. With a deep and searching prayer life. Not just for our congregation, this goes without saying. We need to be addressing issues that God places on our hearts for the Church, not just the latest trendy call to radical discipleship etc. But we must also have a deep and searching prayer life for our own hearts. Coming to God with questions like: why do I want to preach this, where am I in these lessons, where do I still fall short. Not only will these prayers promote in us a loving compassion on those we speak to, but they will also provide the crucial integrity check of our hearts. Many times we will need to preach a hard message, and confess that we are still struggling to apply the message ourselves.
  5. With vulnerability. After writing a challenging letter to one Church, Paul ended with the words: ‘not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I do not consider myself to have already taken hold of it, but one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” This will dismantle pride in us. This will provide hope for those who hear us. This will demonstrate that our need of God’s grace is just as great as theirs is. This will glorify God, for His power is [shown to be] perfect in our weaknesses.

Genesis 19: We are a lot like Lot

Excuse the pun! As part of my Bible reading plan this year, I recently came across the story of Lot’s rescue from Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s a story that is largely overlooked, in favour of the controversial debate on homosexuality. But in the midst of the debate, is a person whose story reverberates with resemblances of the Christian in his faith.

  1. We read that Lot is sinful. Despite, Abraham’s prayers for God to spare the city if only 10 righteous people were found there, it is undeniable that even Lot (in all his “heterosexual” ways!) is very much sinful. If you were left in any doubt after reciting Romans 3:23 (all have sinned and fallen short), take a look at how Lot handles the riot on his doorstep (v8). It really is not pretty! We are like Lot in this way, that even as Christians we remain sinful. Just because we give our lives to Christ, does not end the inclinations of our heart. We must still wrestle and put to death the tendencies of sin within our self. Romans 7.
  2. We read that Lot was rescued by God, on the basis of someone else’s faith. A chapter previously, Abraham is pleading with God to spare the city and rescue Lot. Abraham is playing the role of intercessor. At the end of Genesis 19, we read that “so when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham, and He brought Lot out of the catastrophe..” (v29). Notice Lot isn’t saved because he was a holy man, he was saved because God remembered Abraham. In the same way, we are not rescued from the destruction of hell, because we are righteous…but rather because of the faith and righteousness of Jesus. Romans 8.
  3. We read that Lot attempted to persuade others to flee the coming wrath and destruction. He pleaded with his son’s in law (or soon to be son’s in law) to leave. But it says they ‘laughed at him’. How often do we experience this as Christians, when we tell others about the good news. Many people laugh, disbelieve. Romans 9.
  4. We read that after the rescue of Lot and his family, he continues to make foolish and harmful decisions. Giving himself to drink and promiscuity, to the point that his own daughters take advantage of him. This is no ideal man, no ideal husband and father. In fact, a man like this would likely be arrested. In the same way, many Christians – even Church leaders – are riddled with the residue of the sinful flesh. This is not to excuse them, or myself, but rather to urge us back to Him who is our righteousness. To push us back to worship. To encourage us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to Him who rescued us. Romans 12.