Some Thoughts on Prayer

Prayer is one of those mysterious and somewhat confusing aspects of the Christian life. We know that we’re supposed to pray but we often struggle with the Why issue. And when we don’t have a good answer we default to, because we’re told to (Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Sometimes that’s a really good answer.

But we want more. We want answers to questions like, If God is sovereign, why should we pray? Or, If God has planned everything, how much difference can my prayers make?

These are legitimate questions that deserve thoughtful answers. But I want to offer two, perhaps simpler reasons for you to pray.

Prayer is a way of acknowledging who God is.

When you pray about problems you are saying, God I can’t handle this by myself. It’s bigger than me. I need help. I need You.

When you pray in confession you are saying, God I sinned against you. I want our relationship to be right. I don’t want this to come between us. I don’t want to face life with a strained relationship.

When you pray in thanksgiving you are saying, God I recognize that you did this. It wasn’t anything that I did. You did it. I’m grateful.

When you pray in adoration you are saying, God you deserve all of my praise. You alone are worthy.

Prayer is our way of acknowledging that we need God, that we are willing to humble our self before Him, that we’re a thankful people and that He is the object of our love.

Prayer is also an expression of your faith.

Even when you don’t understand how prayer works – and especially when you don’t understand how it works, to pray says something about your faith.

It says that you believe when you don’t understand.

It says that you trust Him when your way is dark.

It says that you won’t give up when giving up is the logical and easy thing to do.

It says that you value prayer even when you don’t see the value of spending time in prayer.

Prayer is perhaps the greatest expression of faith available to the Christian.

It’s questionable whether or not we’ll ever find completely satisfactory answers to some of the great and difficult questions about prayer. But you don’t need answers to those questions in order to pray.

Pray to acknowledge that God is your God and you need Him. Pray to express your faith in Him.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

The Beauty of the Body

It’s Valentine’s Day and some of you are wondering where I’m going with that title! It’s true that God created the physical body as a thing of wonder and beauty, but that’s not the body I’m referring to.

I’m talking about the Body of Christ.

Just as God created the physical body as a thing of beauty, so He created the Body of Christ to be beautiful. Not just in our local churches but worldwide.

I’ve been exposed to the Body of Christ in both Haiti and the Philippines over the past 27 years and I have been blessed beyond anything I had anticipated.

My purpose in traveling to both of these countries was to teach in Bible Schools and preach in churches but I have learned far more from the Body in those places than I have given them.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned from the extended Body of Christ. I hope they encourage you to look at the Body differently.

1. I’ve seen what it means to be Satisfied.

I just returned from Haiti where our team visited eight churches in four days that were in the path of Hurricane Matthew. In each church 80-100% of the people lost the roofs on their homes. Many had family members die.

One thing that I’ve learned in Haiti (it’s also true in the Philippines) is that the Christians are satisfied. Would they like better living conditions? Sure they would. But they have learned to trust God and to be satisfied with what He has given them.

Check Philippians 4:11-13.

2. I’ve seen what Relationships look like.

I tend to enjoy solitude. Being relational doesn’t come naturally for me. But I’ve learned the importance (and the need) of relationships.

Both Haitians and Filipinos are by nature relational. In fact life for them is about relationships.

If I understand 1 Corinthians 12 correctly, the Body of Christ is also about relationships. We can’t survive without each other – at least not in a spiritually healthy way.

Because of the example of the Christians in Haiti and the Philippines, I’ve come to enjoy relationships and even to desire them.

See 1 Corinthians 12:12-14.

3. I’ve seen what it means to be Hospitable.

If Haitians and Filipinos are anything, they are hospitable. They will share their meager meal with you even if it’s all they have.

They can help you in any way they can.

They are generous and giving people – just like the Body of Christ is supposed to be.

Check James 2:14-17.

4. I’ve learned to be more about Jesus.

We talk a lot about Jesus in the church. We sing about Him. We teach about Him. We preach about Him.

But Living Jesus is another thing.

Depending on Him for everything is something that we in the Western church don’t need to do. We have a lot of material possessions. We don’t know what it means to suffer.

Our brothers and sisters have learned through their suffering to make life all about Jesus, not about things.

We can learn from their example.

See Philippians 1:21.

5. I’ve learned to listen more and talk less.

When you are in another culture, especially if you don’t speak the language, you are forced to listen more and talk less.

That’s a good thing. We learn more that way.

And by listening we begin to understand the needs, the heartaches, the joys, the hopes, and the hearts of another part of the Body.

James 1:19 applies here.

6. I’ve learned to value people.

Other cultures value people more than we do in the West. They will go out of their way not to hurt someone intentionally. It goes back to the relationships. When you have relationships that really matter to you, you value those people.

It also goes back to material possessions. When you have a lot you want to protect the things you have. Eventually things take the place of people.

Things are not important. People are. Christ never told us to value things, but He did tell us to value people.

Don’t value things. Value people. Value the Body of Christ.

Check Matthew 22:37-40.

7. I’ve learned about the importance of prayer.

Haiti was never a land without suffering but the suffering has multiplied 10-fold in the past four months. First there was Hurricane Matthew. Then the Hundred-Year flood. Now there’s a drought. There was no food in the gardens when we visited.

The physical needs are overwhelming. Yet not one person asked us to give them money or food. Their only request was for us to pray for them.

Prayer is their only hope.

And it is our only hope. Prayer is important to the Body of Christ.

Check Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6-7

The Body of Christ is Beautiful beyond anything we can imagine. God made it that way. We need to see it that way.

We need to value the Body. We need to take care of the Body.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Should We Pray Like Honi?

This Sunday I’ll begin a series titled What’s Trending Now? Whether we like to admit it or not we’re all influenced by trends in our culture. We’re going to examine a few of the most popular cultural trends from a Biblical perspective.

The reason for the series is that even Christians are influenced by cultural trends. There’s something about being seen as old fashioned or out of touch that we resist. I’m aware that some Christians and/or religious groups wear the past as a badge of honor. But old doesn’t automatically equate with right. Nor does new. One is as dangerous as the other.

While there’s little virtue in hanging on to the past just because we’ve always done it that way, there’s also a potential danger in too quickly jumping on the band wagon of the new.

New theological movements, ways of doing church and ministry ideas come along frequently. One of the concepts that has gained popularity in the last few years is using prayer circles to get better answers to your prayers. Those who advocate prayer circles explain it this way:

Do you ever sense that there’s far more to prayer, and to God’s vision for your  life, than what you’re experiencing? It’s time you learned from the legend of  Honi the Circle Maker—a man bold enough to draw a circle in the sand and not budge from inside it until God answered his prayers for his people. What impossibly big dream is God calling you to draw a prayer circle around?

The legend of Honi the Circle Maker or Honi ha-Ma’agel, is a Jewish legend from the century before the birth of Christ. The legend relates that in a time of drought, Honi drew a circle, stood inside it, and told God that he would not move until God sent rain. When it began to drizzle, Honi informed God that it wasn’t enough. So God sent a downpour but Honi still wasn’t satisfied and told God it had to be a steady, even rain. And God answered Honi’s prayer.

Now Christians are being told to follow the example of Honi and draw circles around their requests and not budge until God answers.

Sounds good, right? What Christian doesn’t want more from their prayer life? Who doesn’t want God to tell us what His impossibly big dream is for our lives?

But it’s that desire for something bigger, better, more exciting that gets us into trouble.

Too often as Christians we are too eager to accept anything that is new, revolutionary, or exotic. We want something – anything that will take us to the next level in our spiritual lives. We’ll try anything that looks like it will work. And because of our eagerness we are spiritually gullible instead of discerning (Philippians 1:9, Hebrews 5:14).

Here’s the point. God has given us all that we need! The Apostle Peter said as much: His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us (2 Peter 1:3). You don’t need prayer circles to pray better you just need to search the Word of God and learn to pray biblically.

What we need isn’t an experience, yours or someone else’s. It isn’t a new method of doing Christianity. We already have what we need to live a godly, spiritual life; to be effective; to make a difference in the world. All we need is the Word of God.

Don’t be taken in by the new and exotic. Don’t look for shortcuts. It’s all there for you. Pick it up and read it.

Oh, if you want to read a Biblical evaluation of prayer circles check here.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

I’m Tired of Easy Answers!

I don’t know when it happened but somewhere in the past of Christianity we began to look for easy answers to the complex issues of life. How often has someone said to you, when you were in the middle of a spiritual struggle – Prayer changes things or God will give you peace or Just Trust God or Just Believe. Maybe you hear the echoes of your own voice here. We have reduced the struggles of our faith to a series of clichés. To sound bites.

All of the above statements, and others, have an element of truth in them and perhaps that is why we find some comfort when we repeat them. But they are not the entire truth – there is so much more and that is why they ultimately do not satisfy. A partial truth can never be the answer to the spiritual struggles of life.

I’ve already addressed the issue of trusting/believing God in my post of January 27, 2014, The Problem With Faith, but what about prayer and peace?

It is true that prayer can change things – but it’s not always the case. And sometimes we find peace but at other times we just don’t have any peace. Why? Because those are easy answers.

Prayer really isn’t about changing things, it’s about getting to know God. What most Christians mean by prayer changing things is, “God did what I wanted him to do.” As if prayer was a button to be pushed to release exactly what they wanted from the vending machine. Prayer is not a button to be pushed; it’s a relationship to be pursued.

Prayer does ‘work,’ but it works very differently than we’d like. It still ‘works’: When we can’t trace out any direct result from our prayer. When the opposite of what we prayed for happens. In those moments when we feel very distant from God. When we bang down the door of heaven for years and are not sure anything is going on up there at all.

There are scores of people inside and outside the church whose spirits are crushed because they prayed (fervently) and: They didn’t get the job. Their mom died of cancer. Their child was born without a heartbeat. They ended up in a car crash that left them permanently disabled. Prayer doesn’t ‘work’ because I got what I wanted and they didn’t.

The parade of saints across the centuries would have been shocked to see prayer reduced to God-doing-what-I-asked-him-to-do-when-I-asked-him-to-do-it. God is not a puppy to be trained or a chef in the kitchen who prepares food to suit our every whim. He is sovereign.

As Richard Foster says: For those explorers in the frontiers of faith, prayer was no little habit tacked on to the periphery of their lives; it was their lives. It was the most serious work of their most productive years. Prayer—nothing draws us closer to the heart of God. Do things happen supernaturally when we pray? Well, yes they do. But often in ways we cannot understand or even trace out.

I think Christians can take consolation in the fact that when we pray, we often don’t know what to pray for or even how to pray, yet the scriptures tell us the Holy Spirit will translate the prayer into something better than we could phrase in the moment.

So pour your heart out to God. Pray about the things the scripture says are close to God’s heart. And when something ‘goes your way,’ be grateful and offer it back to the God who gave it to you.

And when things don’t go your way, understand that God is still very much in control and very much loves you. Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is absent.
(from Carey Nieuwhof, Pastor at Connexus Community Church near Toronto, Canada).

Another example where we need more than easy answers is the area of peace. I wrote about this last week in a post titled Is it Really Possible to Have Peace? Let me just add this to what I wrote there. God promised peace to His followers (John 14:27) and He told us to let peace be the ruling force of our lives (Colossians 3:15). But too often we glibly throw out the line to the hurting soul – God will give you peace. Only that’s just half the answer. The other half is that God will give us peace when we begin to live in what we might call the way of peace (see last week’s blog for a more complete explanation). Having peace in our lives hinges on living a life worthy of peace. You can’t expect the result without the effort.

Make no mistake about it God has answers for our problems – they just aren’t easy answers. The problem is that life is complex and we can’t throw easy answers at complex issues. In addition to that Christianity itself is complex. God’s way of doing things is often hard and difficult and causes some messy situations for us. Don’t get even with the person who hurt you – be a blessing to them (Romans 12:19-20). Don’t hate your enemies – love them (Matthew 5:44). Don’t try to avoid trials – rejoice in them (James 1:2).

The truth is that Christianity can’t be reduced to a series of clichés. Whenever you reduce our faith to sound bites it cheapens the Christian life. Do you really want a faith that is that easy, that simplistic?

Don’t look for the easy answers. And please don’t offer them to someone who is struggling with life. Get into the complexity of the Christian life. Learn what it means to pray. Learn how you can have peace. The work will enrich your spiritual life and make the struggle worth the effort.

God Does Not Answer Prayer

At least not always. I know we like to let God off the hook by saying “sometimes He says yes and sometimes He says no and sometimes He says not yet”. But how much better is a no or not yet then a non answer? It doesn’t really tell us much. In fact we can’t be sure what it’s telling us. A no can mean many things: no, not now, or no, not like this, or no, you need to change something, or no, this is the wrong way, or no, you don’t understand, or a hundred other things. You have to be omnipotent to know what no means. A non answer is not very comforting and sometimes not very helpful (although I do like the finality of no).

Sure, there are reasons that God does not answer prayer – we pray for our own selfish purposes (James 4:3); we pray without taking care of sin in our lives (Psalm 66:18); we pray but we don’t really believe that God can answer (James 1:5-7); we pray for our own will instead of God’s will (Matthew 5:10). But what about the times when none of these are true and there is still no answer? When you are trying to live for God in the middle of unbearable pain and God is nowhere to be found?

There’s another reason that God does not answer prayer – but it’s difficult for us to accept. God may not answer your prayer to release you from your pain because He wants to use you and your pain for His kingdom. God is building something eternal, something glorious and whatever it is that you are going through, in some inexplicable way, factors into His plan. Your pain is the best way for God to accomplish what He wants to accomplish. I know that doesn’t make the pain any easier to accept, but it does give it value and meaning.

So here’s where we need to bring personal change to the way we pray – when you pray, instead of asking God to remove your pain, ask Him how you can bring glory to Him and build His kingdom through your pain. Offer your pain to Him as your sacrifice of service. Ask Him to show you how your pain can be used to build His Kingdom. Don’t run from your pain – embrace it as an opportunity to be used by God in His glorious Kingdom plan.

What if God could use your pain to bring someone else into the Kingdom? What if the way you faced your pain gave hope to another struggling sinner? What if the unbearable pain of your life could somehow be the source of comfort another needs just to get through their day? Would it be worth it to you to suffer so another life can experience the grace and mercy of God?

There is a wealth of insight in the Apostle Paul’s thoughts in Romans chapter 8:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Vs 18).

Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope (Vss 23-24).

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Vs 26).

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Vs 28).

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Vss 31-32).

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who love us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Vss 37-39).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Godliness – When it Counts

The people who were involved in the Christmas story are interesting figures. I’m not talking about Santa and his elves or Frosty the Snowman. I’m talking about the real characters of Christmas, Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds, the Wise men.

Take Joseph for instances. After the Christmas story he’s only mentioned briefly in the gospels when Jesus was twelve years of age (Luke 2:41f) and again at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:22). We actually know very little about Joseph or his life. But we do learn one essential thing about Joseph and that is he was a just man (Matthew 1:19). Joseph was a man who was more concerned with doing the godly thing than he was with doing the popular thing (think of the stigma he faced if he married an adulteress!). Do you think for a minute that the people in Nazareth ever believed Mary’s story? The stigma was always there. The covert glances and the quiet whispers never stopped. But Joseph was more concerned with what God thought than with what people thought. That’s what it means to be a just man (or woman).

The challenge for us today is to imitate Joseph; to stand up for righteousness; to be godly when it counts. I received the following story in an email from one of the ladies in our church. It’s a true story (you can verify it on www.snopes.com). In fact this statement was read into the Congressional Record by U. S. Representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee on September 20, 2000. It was originally read over the public address system at a football game at Roane County High School in Kingston, Tennessee by the school principal, Jody McLeod.

It has always been the custom at Roane County High School football games, to say a prayer and play the National Anthem, to honor God and Country. Due to a recent ruling by the Supreme Court, I am told that saying a prayer is a violation of Federal Case Law. As I understand the law at this time, I can use this public facility to approve of sexual perversion and call it an alternate life style, and if someone is offended, that’s OK. 

I can use it to condone sexual promiscuity, by dispensing condoms and calling it, safe sex. If someone is offended, that’s OK. 

I can even use this public facility to present the merits of killing an unborn 
baby as a viable means of birth control. If someone is offended, no problem.

I can designate a school day as Earth Day and involve students in activities to worship religiously and praise the goddess Mother Earth and call it ecology.

I can use literature, videos and presentations in the classroom that depicts 
people with strong, traditional Christian convictions as simple-minded and ignorant and call it enlightenment.

However, if anyone uses this facility to honor GOD and to ask HIM to bless 
this event with safety and good sportsmanship, then Federal Case Law is violated. This appears to be inconsistent at best, and at worst, diabolical. 

Apparently, we are to be tolerant of everything and anyone, except GOD and HIS Commandments. Nevertheless, as a school principal, I frequently ask staff and students to abide by rules with which they do not necessarily agree. For me to do otherwise would be inconsistent at best, and at worst, hypocritical. I suffer from that affliction enough unintentionally. I certainly do not need to add an intentional transgression. 

For this reason, I shall render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and refrain from praying at this time. However, if you feel inspired to honor, praise and thank GOD and ask HIM, in the name of JESUS, to bless this event, please feel free to do so. As far as I know, that’s not against the law—-yet

One by one, the people in the stands bowed their heads, held hands with one another and began to pray. They prayed in the stands. They prayed in the team huddles. They prayed at the concession stand and they prayed in the Announcer’s Box! The only place they didn’t pray was in the Supreme Court of the United States of America – the Seat of Justice in the one nation, under GOD.

You may never have the opportunity to stand for righteousness in such a public arena, but you can stand for righteousness in the places God has put you. The world needs to see Christians who care about godliness and what God thinks. People need to see Christians who, like Joseph, are in the sight of God, just and righteous. 

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34).Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Does Prayer Really Work?

Hurricane Tomas made me stop and think about prayer. Many of you know that I have been involved in a number of ministries in Haiti for the past twenty years. Since January 12th of this year you have also become aware of the devastation and poverty in Haiti. Now we are almost ten months removed from that terrible day and yet tens of thousands of refugees are still living in tents, under tarps and in make-shift shelters. And hurricane Tomas is threatening to make landfall in Haiti later this week. Can you imagine living under a lean-to in the middle of a hurricane? That brings me to the issue of prayer.

Prayer is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. We believe that it is right to pray because the Bible teaches us to (Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Timothy 2:1, 8, James 5:17). It also teaches us that God listens to our prayers (1 Peter 3:12). But we struggle with whether prayer really accomplishes anything. Does it really work? Is it possible to change circumstances by praying? The ultimate question is: Can you change God’s mind through prayer? If we pray for God to protect the Haitian people who have already suffered so much and change the path of the hurricane, will He do it?

There is an interesting story about prayer in Daniel chapter nine. Daniel understood that the captivity of Israel was because of sin. This reality is reflected in his prayer; we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled (verse 5). Captivity was God’s response to the sin of the nation; it was God’s will. Yet Daniel prayed for God to remove His judgment and restore His blessing on Israel; O Lord, according to all your righteousness, I pray, let your anger and your fury be turned away from your city Jerusalem (verse 16). Then he concluded his prayer with this statement; we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies (verse 18). In that statement is a wonderful truth. We will never fully understand how prayer works, but we do know this – we can pray for God’ mercy.

And that is how I (along with thousands of Haitian and American Christians) am praying – for God in His mercy to turn Tomas and spare the Haitian people even greater suffering. Do they deserve God’s mercy? No – but then neither did Israel and neither to any of us. Yet God is a God of great mercy (Psalm 145:8).

That same mercy is available to you. When you face the problems of life, pray for mercy. When life gives you more than you can handle, pray for mercy. When you don’t know what to do, pray for mercy.

And as you pray this week, remember to pray for God’s mercy on the people of Haiti.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve