Advice about Prayer from Great Men and Women of the Past

Recently, a simple brochure fell out from the pages of a book I wrote many years ago on church membership. This little brochure was intended to help ministers I was mentoring in their practices of prayer.

I had begun and ended my recommendations by quoting some things great Christian leaders of earlier times have said about prayer. I offer some of them here because they may encourage you, too. 

We have to pray with our eyes on God, not on the difficulties. Oswald Chambers

Prayer is where the action is. John Wesley

Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work. Oswald Chambers.

A golden thread of heart-prayer must run through the web of the whole Christian life; we must be frequently addressing ourselves to God in short and sudden utterances, by which we must keep our communion with him… Matthew Henry

 Accustom yourself gradually to carry prayer into all your daily occupation. Speak, move, work in peace, as if you were in prayer. Fenelon

Prayer is for Jesus not nearly so much connected with resignation as it is with rebellion… Practically all that is said in the New Testament about prayer is said not in the interest of being reconciled to things as they are but in the interest of getting things changed. John Baillie

Don’t pray when you feel like it. Have an appointment with the Lord and keep it. [Christians] are powerful on their knees. Corrie Ten Boom

Prayer is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings. Chrysostom

You may find among these promptings one or two that especially strengthen your resolve to pray more regularly and intentionally in the days ahead. If so, consider writing one or more of them on the fly leaf of your Bible to encourage you!

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How to Make Our Prayers Seem More Real

Several times I have heard fellow Christians say: I pray, but my prayers seem to lack a sense of reality.

They say: I start with good intentions, but my thoughts are interrupted by something I have to do or they just wander off subject.

Having had the same experience myself, I have a strategy that helps greatly. It is biblical and is in fact taught to us by Jesus, our Lord. I begin by taking time to reflect on who God is.

This is what Jesus intended when he said to his disciples, “This is how you should pray: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’” (Matthew 6:9). It’s a very short prayer but it begins by sharpening our awareness that God is our Father. And this is how our prayers are to begin.

The Gospel of John uses this title for God at least 111 times. It is often used by Jesus in address to his Father, and is to be used by us, although in a different way, when in prayer we address God as our Heavenly Father (John 20:17).

Even if your earthly father has not set before you a good model (an all too common complaint), don’t let that rob you of the reality that God is in every respect an unflawed Almighty Father and he can be fully trusted. Jesus is our authority on that.

After Jesus establishes that God is our Father, he adds, our Father in heaven. This means the God we address dwells in the unseen world that has a reality as great or greater than the world we experience with our human senses.

Our Father is above us as our Sovereign at the same time as he is a caring Father right with us, although unseen. When we give time to this exercise of focusing on God as our Father in heaven, we will experience God’s Holy Spirit intensifying a sense of who God is to us.

Jesus also teaches us to attribute to God, “Hallowed be your name.” John Wesley comments on this, May you be truly honored, loved, feared by all in heaven and in earth, by all angels and all men.” It matters that we take the time to address our Heavenly Father as holy, pure, loving and majestic.

We too easily skip over reflection on the holiness of our God. As a result, we rush into prayer with only a vague sense of God’s holy Fatherhood; thus we fail to identify ourselves as profoundly loved by him. So in reflecting on our God’s holiness and majestic rule we thus see our creaturehood as we should.

You may say: It takes time for such thoughts to sink in. True. So that is why it’s good at the outset of our daily prayers to get in mind the greatness, grandeur and goodness of God, our Father, and to consciously address him as such.

This title for God focuses our attention, clarifies our perspective, and the earthly plane on which we live becomes quiet. It was Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who said, When you pray, first say “Our Father.” That is advice from the highest source, and if we take time to follow it, rewards will be abundant.

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Do You Recognize Five Faces of Anger?

Someone has said a baby’s first cry is an expression of anger. Whether or not that is true, anger is a feature of our humanness. None of us is born without the capacity to be angry.

This is important to know because in our fallenness every aspect of our beings is marred by sin, and this powerful emotion can be legitimate and appropriate but when misused, is often destructive.

Upon returning to the Israelite camp after being absent for many days, Moses found the people indulging in pagan practices. In a show of legitimate anger, he smashed the sacred tablets upon which were written God’s law — the very law that they were breaking.

As recorded by Mark, when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees arrogantly condemned him for “breaking” the Sabbath. Jesus saw their great lack of compassion and he looked around upon them “with anger” — but with complete and holy control.

His anger was the right emotion for the situation, but is probably the emotion hardest to manage well. Sadly, it can wrongfully destroy property or human relationships. In the extreme, for example, consider the terrible consequences of road rage, air rage, or domestic abuse.

Consider five faces of anger.

Sullen Anger. This anger is kept below the boiling point; face muscles are taut; the air seems charged. It’s better than an explosion but not as good as words that could convey meaning or a good walk to dissipate the emotion and regain perspective.

Nice Guy Anger. Some call it frozen smile anger. Kathleen and I took a short trip into the mountains in California on a narrow gauge railroad. The car was open on all sides, and seating was arranged around the edges. A couple with a child boarded at one of the stops and took more spaces than needed.

At the next stop another couple with several children boarded and chose to sit next to the first couple. Seating was tight and the first couple made no effort to give up space for the family. After the exchange of a few unpleasant words, the second woman sat with her back to the other couple. On her face was a fixed smile that appeared to say, “I’m too nice to be angry.”

Misdirected Anger. A cartoon in four frames first showed a boss talking harshly to his employee. The next frame showed the employee at home chewing out his wife. The third frame showed the wife talking harshly to her little girl. The fourth frame showed the little girl angrily scolding her rag doll. To pass on the emotion of anger to an innocent party rather than owning it and dissipating it is unfair and hurtful.

Anger Used to Punish. Insults, loud talk, swearing, or slamming doors do the work here. The abuser may walk away relieved by a kind of catharsis but his or her victim must deal with the aftermath. Anger used to punish that is not acknowledged can make ongoing relationships cautious and superficial.

Denied Anger. Children who, for example, grow up in the home of an alcoholic parent may be left with unrecognized anger that never goes away. This sort of anger is smothered in an unhealthy way, sometimes denied by practicing a three part mantra — “don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust.” I have met adults who were surprised when counseling helped them to discover they were living out this mantra and were encouraged to seek professional help.

The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Ephesus: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Anger is clearly acknowledged. Indeed anger is a strong and sometimes necessary emotion but tainted by sin needs to be managed in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s why the Apostle goes on to say, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). By God’s grace, destructive anger does not need to be a feature of the Christian life.

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Did the Eclipse Prompt You to Reflect?

Recently, the moon totally eclipsed the sun even though the far more distant sun is 1000 times larger than the moon. It was a rare spectacle.

Advance notice of this phenomenon brought people from far and near — tens of thousands of them — to be under the total eclipse’s charted path all across America, and to witness the phenomenon.

How could it be known almost to the second where the total eclipse would manifest itself at any particular time of that day? And that the total eclipse in every case would last for two minutes?

The moon performed magnificently.

One telecaster, microphone in hand, moved among a crowd of viewers sprawled across a large area in Oregon, asking: What word describes it for you?” One after another said with enthusiasm, “Awesome.” “Awesome.” Awesome.” Awesome was the only word that seemed adequate.

Awesome: “Causing feelings of fear, or wonder, or awe.” Or “causing overwhelming feelings of reverence.”

For Christians, our awe at the mystery and magnificence of the heavenly bodies is amplified dramatically by the opening words of the Scriptures: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1).

God exists, and the universe he spoke into splendid order exists. Both sun and moon are his doing. Verse one of Genesis 1 is like the topic sentence of the Bible.

The Bible quickly takes us beyond the heavenly bodies themselves to insist that a Divine Mind creates and sustains the order of Nature and He, maker of sun and moon and everything else, is to be worshiped.

The prophet Jeremiah prays, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). Think of that!

Or turning to the hymnbook of the ancient church, the Psalter, we come across these words to guide us in our reflection: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).

We cross into the New Testament and find the call to reflection on God’s creation becomes even more revealing. Consider, for example, a portion of the Apostle Paul’s hymn to the supremacy of Christ:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:15,16).

The crowds that gathered all across America on August 21 of this year with their special glasses and picture-taking devices dispersed as quickly as they gathered. I assume some will reflect again and again on what they viewed. It was spectacular. Others will perhaps soon forget the wonder of the moment and go on to other things.

May those who enjoy the wonders of nature also treasure their Creator and his revelation to humankind through the coming of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, recalling with awe that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3)

Photo credit: Bernd Thaller (via flickr.com)

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Decisions, Decisions, Decisions – How We Make Good Ones

A two-month-old infant tastes the first spoonful of baby food. His tongue touches the tip of the spoon and his face reports his decision. A one-year-old child meets a grandfather for the first time and again, facial expression and body language show she is deciding whether or not to trust herself to his arms.

Decision-making begins early in life.

All the way from infancy to the end of life, we are daily faced with scores of decisions. Shall I study or surf the web? Is there time to stop for the yellow light or shall I continue through the intersection? Shall I go on with the relationship or ease out of it? Do I blow a whistle or just quietly leave this organization?

Our grandson, Zachary, told me about a talk he heard on this subject at a Christian Medical Fellowship meeting. The speaker’s outline was simple enough: To make good decisions there are two reference points that should always be reckoned with.

The two reference points are righteousness and wisdom.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). If we are true believers we want to honor God by making our decisions demonstrate moral uprightness. We are tested every day.

God actually “guides us in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake” the psalmist tells us (Psalm 23:3). But we must be concerned that our life-shaping decisions grow out of our openness to and awareness of his directions.

So, where do we discover this core of the righteousness to which God calls us? We visit the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17). Commandments one through four tell us how we are to relate to God, and six to ten, how we are to relate in our social settings — family, church, and state.

But we are often confronted by a dilemma that may not have one explicit answer or a particular verse of scripture to hold onto, such as shall I speak my mind on a certain issue or shall I remain quiet?

That calls into play the other reference point: wisdom.

According to the speaker Zach heard, we must depend on the application of common sense in concert with our understanding of righteousness. That is, we apply the two together to the specific decision we must make.

This wisdom may be given to us by God through his Word, or in the form of our prior life experience, or the insights of others, or our own instincts. This righteousness + wisdom formula helps us to choose our friends wisely, to avoid reality-distorting drugs and other harmful activities, to make good vocational decisions, and yes, even to speak or not to speak.

Wisdom helps us to maintain our commitment to righteousness as we wrestle with the uncertainties and perplexities of life. When we face life’s decisions with righteousness and wisdom guiding us to the best of our ability, always asking for God’s blessing, we are saved from the paralysis of second-guessing ourselves.

We believe that the Lord God can take our decisions and bless their outcomes because we have used the best resources at our disposal — righteous standards to which we are clearly committed with the help of his Spirit, and wisdom for which we earnestly pray (James 1:5).

Photo credit: Dennis Hill (via flickr.com)

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Is Regular Church Attendance Good for My Health?

An article on the internet this week makes reference to “hundreds if not thousands” of studies that have been done to explore connections between church attendance and health and longevity.

The findings are positive. For example, one study indicated that people who attend church regularly show lower stress in their lives and tend to live longer.

From infancy onward I was in church twice on Sunday with parents and sister. At 16 years of age, I tried to win freedom to make up my own mind about church attendance but my disciplinarian mother insisted that attending church was non-negotiable as long as I was at home.

Even after leaving home to work in another community I continued the practice into my late teens and young adulthood and then, of course, also during my years as a pastor and overseer. Throughout these years, gathering with God’s people on Sundays has been a joy.

Seven months ago, at age 91, I found myself in the hospital diagnosed with a smouldering form of leukemia. It took a few months to get back on my feet, and two setbacks interrupted my regular church attendance.

In those months I missed more Sundays than I attended. But the love to meet with God’s people in the worship of God in Christ remains unabated.

Last week, and again this week, we have reinstated our regular attendance. When our pastor begins the service with, “Let us stand for the call to worship,” I hear that call with greater intensity. I hear it as a summons to believers of diverse backgrounds, occupations, ages and ethnicities, to worship the Almighty — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as one people.

We sang hymns and spiritual songs with fresh awareness. The prayers of the people were led by a layperson. Announcements were made to bring the congregation up to date on activities and interests; the children sang for us jubilantly; we presented our offerings, and the pastor gave a message from God on the power of Pentecost.

She had obviously spent significant time preparing it. As a pastor I had prepared fresh Sunday morning messages for many years. I knew the cost of preparation. I knew of the pastoral heart behind it. Her message was biblical. It was Christ-honoring.

There was something in it for me and I assume for others who had come to the gathering with their joys, perplexities or even sorrows. Anyone present who needed salvation would sense the call of the Spirit.

By the time the service was over, I felt in fresh touch with God my Creator and Sustainer of 91 years. The service was dismissed and there were handshakes and hugs. Worshipers showed evidence of joy as they dispersed.

Was this all really health-giving for me? For others in attendance? It appears that statisticians would say yes, and I would agree drawing on my own experience.

Jesus spoke to all people of all ages when he said, “For where two or three come together in my name there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). How inviting! How could public worship weekly giving thanks to God and shared with a company of his followers mean anything but health to both body and soul?

Photo credit: John Twohig (via flickr.com)

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How Our Worries Are to Give Way to Peace

We grieve in the night over a relationship broken irretrievably decades ago. We imagine a long-range missile flying from North Korea towards Los Angeles. We also stress about looming mortgage payment deadlines, the threat of unemployment, street shootings in a nearby city, the meaning of campus unrest, and even political corruption. Such worries rob us of the peace of God.

There is a formula in the New Testament that addresses such debilitating fretfulness and offers an assurance of God’s care and protection. It is written by a man who is in jail. He knows that even as he writes the authorities may be deciding whether he should be released — or executed. His name is Paul.

Here’s his formula and its promised result as found in the New Living Translation: 

Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace which is far more wonderful than the human mind can fathom. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Consider a breakdown of his advice.

First, we take inventory of the issues that hold our minds hostage. The operative word in Paul’s instruction is “anything.” We must leave nothing out lest what we omit becomes like “rust” that keeps the prayer wheels from turning freely.

Second, turn every worry into a prayer. Tell God what is on your mind, and what you need. This can be in a quiet, worshipful way, or it can be intense as you cry out from a heart in anguish.

We can do this in our times of devotional prayer, during a bout of insomnia, or as we drive the highway to work. The more constant our prayers, the greater our reliance on God and his response to us.

Third, make sure that thanksgiving is the unifying attitude. Giving thanks tempers our anxieties. We give thanks even as we present our petitions. Thanksgiving is to be like a prayer rug that underlays all our prayers from beginning to end.

And now for the result: Paul assures us that our prayers will be followed by the peace of God, beyond our comprehension!

However, he does not promise that this peace of God will necessarily obliterate or remove what assails us. When we open our eyes the threats may still be there. But he does promise God’s peace will post a guard around us, like an army of angels. This peace will at the same time clear our thinking and calm our hearts.

Paul offers this gift of peace to us in Christ Jesus who is our Savior and Lord. It is from our blessed position in Christ that we inventory our worries, pray them out to God, and receive his peace.

Photo credit: Jason Lander (via flickr.com)

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