Prayer: What is it Good For?

Have you ever struggled with how to pray? Have you ever felt like you are supposed to say nice things and be thankful, but you really don’t know how to do that? You’re not alone.

Jesus’ followers asked him to teach them how to pray. It was (and still is) very common in the Jewish world to have memorized prayers for different situations. There was a routine set of prayers that you used every day, and in every situation in which you find yourself. Acts shows us that the early church continued the practice of “the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, 3:1, etc.)

Because of this practice, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers wanted their Rabbi to teach them a prayer. Afterall, John had done that for his disciples. (Luke 11:1) And in Luke’s account, due to their request, Jesus gives them a prayer to recite.

 “When you pray, say: 

“ ‘Father, 

hallowed be your name, 

your kingdom come. 

Give us each day our daily bread. 

Forgive us our sins, 

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. g 

And lead us not into temptation.’ ” 

 Lk 11:2–4 NIV

Notice that it’s Jesus’ expectation that his disciples will pray these exact words. For some reason in my past that rote prayers became akin to vain repetitions, but Jesus doesn’t see it that way at all! He expects his disciples to repeat these words over and over again. “When you pray, say…” The Greek word for “when” is hotan, which means “whenever.” Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer over and over and over again until it became second nature to them.

Why? Because in this prayer we find the heart of Jesus revealed. What he prayed for is of first importance to him and his mission, as it should be for us today when we recite this prayer. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith talks about the habitual practices we all encounter every day. Even your morning routine, or work routine, or shopping routine, or school routine program and shape you into a product of the world, not a product of the Kingdom. We need reprogramming, and Spiritual habits like prayer do just that!

“If our loves can be disordered by secular [routines], it’s also true that our loves need to be reordered (recalibrated) by [counterroutines]–embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith, pgs. 57-58

This is exactly what prayer, and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is designed to do in our life. Prayer isn’t so much moving God into our will, but being shaped into the mission and will of the Father.

I hope you’ll join us Sunday morning at 9:30 CST as we talk about Prayer: Grasping the Heart of God.

Daily Prayer – 7/20/2020

God of all comfort, grant us peace. We pray that as Jesus calmed the storm on Galilee, you would also calm the storms of our lives. May you grant us faith over fear when we face the tumults of health crises, hateful political climates, and blatant injustice. Remind us that though this world is not our home, we do have a mission to fulfill here and now. And help us to show your kingdom, your power, and your glory through our lives this day. Through Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Morning Prayer for 7/13/2020

God of peace, teach us to live according to your will. May we learn your wisdom so that we may reach those dying in sin around us. May we receive your strength to build your Kingdom while living as foreigners in this land. And may we hear your voice above the noise of this world so that we may go wherever you call. Through Christ, our brother, Lord, and Savior. Amen.

Worthless Idols & Temporary Kingdoms

For those who follow me on Facebook, you have noticed that I’ve begun writing prayers throughout the day (usually morning). I’ve only been posting those to Facebook, but will begin to post them here as well. I pray that this serves not to elevate my words, but to share my heart in hopes of moving you to prayer as well.

Father, the world is full of worthless idols that occupy our time and attention, and the earth full of temporary kingdoms that demand our allegiance. Captivate our hearts Lord, that we may keep our focus on your mission and use our energy to build your Kingdom here, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Morning Prayer, 6/15/2020

Midday Prayer

Draw us into your love, Christ Jesus and deliver us from fear.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Midday Prayer from Common Prayer

Daily Psalms – Psalm 3

Even though this Psalm of David was written thousands of years ago, we can hear echos of Christ, as well as a lesson on how to pray during the Coronavirus pandemic.

LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”

Psalm 3:1-2 NIV

David was anointed as the next king of Israel while Saul was still on the throne. God had rejected Saul as king, and now David finds himself surrounded by Saul’s army. The taunt “God will not deliver him” was intended to break David’s spirit into believing that God had somehow abandoned him. It’s as if his enemies were saying “There is no hope for you David! Even God has left you!” We can hear similar taunts as Jesus was crucified (Mt. 27:43).

But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain.

Psalm 3:3-4 NIV

The Hebrew here is difficult to translate, and the tense can work either in present tense (as the NIV chooses), but could also be translated in the past tense (as the ESV chooses). It seems to work better in past tense as David has already committed to God his requests in prayer and it is as if God has already answered him. Because David has faith that God will deliver, he treats his situation as if God has already completed the work.

Verse 5-6 remind us that God protects, even when we are the most vulnerable. No matter the size of the foe, or how helpless we seem, our God never sleeps and is never weak. We have nothing to fear because of the power and strength of our God. Also hear the echoes of resurrection. Though physical death brings us sleep, that is not our eternal fate. It is God who sustains.

David pleads for God’s deliverance to defeat his enemies decisively. And verse 8 brings us a powerful reminder.

From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.

Psalm 3:8 NIV

Deliverance comes from God alone. It will not be by our efforts that we overcome, but by God’s blessing alone.

This week as we are reminded once again that we are not in control, and we are surrounded by fear and foe, let us place our hope firmly in our God. Let us pray for deliverance, hope in resurrection, and rest in the assurance that he has heard our prayer and has already conquered on behalf of his people.

Shalom.

Goodbye to Eliphaz – Book Review

I recently read Goodbye to Eliphaz (ok, I finished it about 6 weeks ago and am just now getting to write this book review. Sorry Rob!)

Rob Coyle has written a book that I believe every Christian needs to read. Seriously, it’s that important of a book, and here’s why. Have you ever heard, or said, anything like this?

  • “I guess God sent that earthquake to teach those people a lesson.”
  • “We wouldn’t have so many school shootings if prayer was allowed in them.”
  • “You know how sinful that city is. No wonder God let a hurricane land there.”
  • “She must have died because God needed another angel.”
  • “With as much pain and sickness as that guy is facing, it makes you wonder what sin he’s hiding that’s causing all of this.”

If you’re anything like me, you have heard someone give answers like these to very difficult problems. That means you’ve met Eliphaz. (And if you’ve said similar things, sadly, you are Eliphaz.) But just who is Eliphaz?

In Goodbye to Eliphaz, Rob Coyle addresses our overly simplistic and often harsh attempts to explain life, Scripture, and God. Coyle uses the example of Eliphaz, a character from the book of Job, as an archetype. The book then elaborates on the various reasons we, as followers of Christ, need to say Goodbye to Eliphaz. Through additional examples from Scripture, media reports, and real life events, Coyle makes an engaging and clear case against the Eliphaz mentality.

The book of Job begins with this statement:

There once was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil.

Job 1:1 NLT

Did you catch that? Job did nothing wrong. He’s blameless. Job has done nothing to deserve what unfolds in the following pages of his story. Yet Job’s friend Eliphaz thinks he knows better. As Coyle points out:

“…Eliphaz, though backed by a multitude of passages from the Law and Psalms, spoke wrongly about who God is, how God works and how Scripture can be used to guide us through life. It was because of this that God was unhappy with Eliphaz and his two friends.”

Goodbye to Eliphaz, pg. 202 – Rob Coyle

The book highlights this flawed reasoning that plagued the characters of the Bible just as much as it plagues our actions today. We want life to be easy to understand. We want all of our problems to have a neat and tidy solution. The problem, of course, is that not everything we face in this life can be easily explained.

Goodbye to Eliphaz focuses on a number of misunderstood, strange, or difficult passages of Scripture, and shows the shortcomings of simplistic attempts to understand them. As Coyle points out, we fail miserably when we try to place God, who is beyond the limits of our understanding, into the confines of our own reasoning. Through the stories of Uzzah, Moabites, sacrifices, strange fire, and the teachings of Jesus, Coyle helps us see that Scripture isn’t always as straightforward as we would like, and our understanding of the mind of God is woefully inadequate to explain all of life’s struggles.

Coyle reminds us in an intriguing and transforming way that life isn’t always easily explained by quoting a verse of Scripture. Going through life blaming every disaster and heartache on the sins of the people involved is simply unbiblical. It’s the very thing that causes God to chew out Eliphaz!

So what are we to do when life becomes unexplainable?

“If you are Eliphaz, let go and enter the mystery that is life. Enter into a world of unknowns, a world where uncertainties are acceptable.”

Goodbye to Eliphaz, pg. 204 – Rob Coyle

Not having all the answers all the time is ok. That’s a truth this book has helped me (a chronic fixer) to remember, and I’m guessing you probably need the reminder as well. Perhaps one day, as the old hymn states, “We’ll understand it all by and by.” Until that time comes, you need to read this book so that you too can say Goodbye to Eliphaz.

“Can God Hear the Prayers of Sinners?”

“We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will.”

John 9:31 NIV

Upon first glance that seems like a pretty definite statement doesn’t it? “We know that God does not listen to sinners.”

I have read an article floating around Facebook recently that asserts basically the same thing. It cites many verses indicating that God hears the prayers of the righteous (and he does.) It gives examples of God’s promises to look out for the righteous (and he does.) And the article gives the impression that if one is “unrighteous” or a “sinner” that God doesn’t/can’t hear those prayers. In fairness to the context of the article, it seems the reason for its writing was to refute the idea that all you have to do to be pleasing to God is say a prayer. I would agree with that last statement, but let’s not argue an accurate point by stating an inaccurate point.

Context matters. The verse quoted above from John’s Gospel is not stated by Jesus or his apostles. It is an assumption on the part of the blind man that Jesus healed Jesus, and he uses that assumption to back his claim that Jesus is working through the power and will of God (which he was.) But that leaves the question, does God hear the prayers of sinners? Let’s look at a few passages.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians…”

Exodus 3:7-8 NIV

The question is “were the Israelites unrighteous/sinners when God heard them?” That’s a good question. Context seems to indicate that they did not know Yahweh at this point in history because Moses would need to introduce them to their God (Ex. 3:13-15). Also note that the text does not say that Israel cried out to Yahweh, simply that they cried out and Yahweh heard them. What is clear is that God did hear their cries, and it had nothing to do with their righteousness, but rather the mistreatment they were receiving a the hands of the Egyptians.

One day at about three in the afternoon [Cornelius] had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” 

Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. 

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.”

Acts 10:3-4 NIV

The timeline in the story of Cornelius is very clear. Cornelius worshipped God and prayed to God under what he knew through the Jewish worship practices. It seems clear that Peter’s presentation of the Gospel is the first time Cornelius and his family have heard this (Acts 10:47-48; 15:7-11). Cornelius was not saved by the blood of Jesus because he didn’t know about the blood of Jesus, yet God heard his prayers.

I share these two examples with you so that you think about the question a little, and maybe ask a better question. The Bible nowhere limits what our God can do. He is not limited to work in a certain way, and he is not bound by any rules we place upon him. So to ask the question if God can hear the prayers of sinners is shortsighted. Let’s stick with the question that one of the heavenly visitors asks Abraham:

“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

Genesis 18:14 NRSV

Our God is the God of the impossible. He’s the one that brings 90 year old women and 100 year old men supernaturally born children. He’s the God that sends an 80 year old man with a stick to free his people from Egypt. He’s the God that parts the Red Sea. He’s the God that raises the dead. He’s the God that poured out his Spirit at Pentecost. He’s the God that appears to unsaved gentiles and then pours out his Spirit on them too. He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and nothing is too wonderful for the LORD!

Of course he can hear the prayers of anyone who cries out to him! And making that statement does not negate what the Scriptures teach about salvation.

Women Praying & Prophesying With Their Heads Covered?

Why does Paul ask women to cover their heads while praying and prophesying? (1 Cor. 11:2-16)  Most people will assume something cultural is going on here, and they would be correct! But what exactly?

Women’s hair was seen as a major object of lust in the ancient world, as well as in some cultures in the middle east today (remember a lot of the Bible was written to people in middle eastern cultures). It seems foreign because hair doesn’t really cause us to lust. But as a means for cultural understanding, let’s equate the “uncovered head” of these women to wearing a very revealing bikini.

Now imagine someone dressing in such a way in front of the congregation on Sunday morning. Now you’re starting to understand the problem. In the ancient world an uncovered head meant you were sexually promiscuous; not such a crazy idea because this is one of the ways pagan temple prostitutes would wear their hair. The idea of a bikini in worship in our culture, and an uncovered head in theirs, is clearly inappropriate.

One of the greatest physical shames a woman could have in this culture was having her hair shaved off. What Paul is saying here is that if you see nothing wrong with uncovering your head in a worship assembly then you might as well go ahead and shave your head. The female readers would understand the level of shame Paul is equating to what they were doing in the assembly.

Why were they doing this? Keep in mind that churches met in homes, not church buildings. It was perfectly acceptable for a woman to have her head uncovered at home in front of her family, just like you might walk around in clothing at home that you would never wear in a public setting. When a more formal gathering (worship assembly) gathered in the same homes, it seems that some of the women were leaving their heads uncovered – again, inappropriate for male non-family members present. 

This was new territory for most of these Corinthian people. We are having a public gathering in a private home. How do we act? Paul here is teaching modesty within the assembly. How do we know this is the assembly? Paul tells us so in verse 16. “Churches” is the Greek word ekklesiai, the plural form for “assembly.” There is no assembly that practices uncovered heads (again cultural) while women are praying and prophesying.

But did you notice what is assumed in this passage? Women are clearly praying and prophesying (v. 5) openly in the presence of men in the assembly (v. 16), and that is totally ok! It is never questioned if women can pray or prophesy in the assembly, but rather can they do so with their heads uncovered. 

Somehow, women praying and prophesying in the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11 is not a violation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. But how can that be? We’ll take a closer look at that next week. But as a starting point, read all of 1 Corinthians 14 while asking yourself this question: 

What goal does Paul have in writing this chapter?

Hurry Up and Wait…and Pray

Our reading for this week is Luke 24. We read of the resurrection, the road to Emmaus, and some instruction and encouragement Jesus gives to his disciples before his ascension. Let’s focus on the last words Jesus speaks to the disciples as recorded by Luke.

This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. – Luke 24:46-49 NIV

Here we have Luke’s version of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20). Jesus is clearly calling his disciples to preach the “forgiveness of sins…in his name to all nations…” But did you notice something strange? Jesus has this awesome mission, and I would add urgent mission, for these disciples. They have been called to the most important work someone can do: preaching the Gospel to the world. These men and women would bring the Good News of the resurrection to all people. The work they accomplished is the reason you are even reading this article. But did you notice something strange? The greatest mission that anyone was ever called to begins with waiting.

…but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

How often do we do things backwards? How often do you set out to do something powerful and meaningful, but fail to wait on God to equip you for this work? How much time do you spend in prayer preparing for your mission?

The book of 2nd Luke (also known as Acts) tells us that:

“They all [the Eleven] joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers…(a group numbering about a hundred and twenty.) – Acts 1:14-15 NIV

Notice that before this group entered into the work of the Lord, they spent time in prayer and waited until God was ready for them to proceed. Why don’t we take this approach more often? It clearly worked for the disciples! Here’s a few takeaways from this passage:

  1. Because you know of the resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, you are called to be a witness of this to all nations…that means to everyone you encounter.
  2. By the time of Acts 1, the entire ministry and miracles of Jesus netted 120 disciples. Don’t be discouraged (or overly encouraged) by the size of your congregation. The course of human history was forever changed by the Spirit working through these 120 people.
  3. Before you begin a new ministry, or continue in a current one, bathe the entire process in prayer, and rely on the “power from on high” to power your ministry.