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Friday, August 24, 2007

Worship in Personal Devotions

Over the past couple of months I've heard several people comment that they find it difficult to worship within the context of their personal devotions.

For myself, I'm in agreement with the man who talked about how rewarding worship can be, so I want to spend some time this week thinking about what worship is and make some practical suggestions which I hope will be helpful.

What Is Worship?
I am absolutely convinced that part of the problem people have with personal worship is that they get it mixed up with adoration. The two are not the same for one very important reason. Adoration requires the involvement of emotion but worship does not.

I might say that I adore my children and you would understand that I mean I have deep feelings of love towards them. But I do not worship them.

The best way to understand worship is to look at those passages of Scripture that describe the worship of heaven. One such is Rev 5:6-14. Here we have the vision of the Lamb and the scroll. The living creatures and the elders fall before the throne in worship and begin by saying, "You are worthy." Our word 'worship' comes from the Old English word 'woerthscipe' which literally means to tell someone their worth. This is exactly what we see the worshippers doing in this passage. They tell the Lord that He is worthy because ... He was slain, He bought men for God through His blood, He has created a kingdom of priests. All of these are statements of fact. There is little emotional content here.

When we come to personal worship, the place to start is with telling God facts about Himself. In doing this we are acknowledging to Him, before all the powers of the spiritual realm, and to ourselves that we recognise He truly is God. We are reminded of His nature and His character. This takes a lot of pressure off us. We don't have to worry about how we feel or whether we're worthy to come into His presence. We simply worship because He is worthy to receive our worship, not because we feel like it. In fact, if we wait until we do feel like it we may never enter in to worship at all.

I want to emphasise that there is no need for any emotional content at the very beginning of worship. I do not have to say, "I love you because you are the Prince of Peace." I can simply say, "you are the Prince of Peace." It is a statement of fact, it is fundamentally true, it is what Scripture tells me the Lord is like, and to tell Him so is worship even if the concept does not initially excite me. Worship is something we have to discipline ourselves to do.

However, my experience of this kind of worship is that it immeasurably enhances my devotional times. Firstly, acknowledging and recognising who God is gets my perspective right. When we are privileged to call Him our Father and to come to Him as little children, it is all too easy to become overly casual with God and to forget how holy and awesome He is. Secondly, when I worship in this way I find it inspires me to adoration. Where I might not have been feeling much love towards God when I started, the emotions well up inside of me as I focus on His character and nature. Thirdly, the Lord often responds to this kind or worship by making His felt presence a reality. If I am feeling far from God a simple decision to offer worship can be all that is required to restore a sense of fellowship with Him. Fourthly, it is often in these times of worship that the Lord puts His finger on something in my life that needs to change, especially if my focus has been on His holiness.

How Do We Worship?
So, how do we actually do this thing called worship? I have a number of suggestions.

For many people the easiest place to begin is with singing. We find this simple because we are used to doing this corporately. Get a hymn book and look for songs and hymns that are truly worshipful and speak directly to God (you'd be surprised how many things we sing are really only addressed to ourselves or other people and not to the Lord). In your quiet time you can read the words or sing them.

Look through Scripture for statements about who God is and what He's like and simply repeat them back to Him. The Psalms and Isaiah are particularly good sources for this when you are just starting. But you could keep a note pad and record any phrases you come across in your daily readings which you can use in your worship times.

Use your own life as a source for worshipful thoughts. How have you seen God work in your life in the past? What does that show about His nature? That He is faithful, long suffering, kind, tender, powerful, your healer, your comforter, your best friend? Tell Him that you have seen that these things are true from your own experience.

Some people find that particular postures in prayer enhance worship. I tend simply to follow my heart and do what feels appropriate at the time but if I am aware that I am struggling to focus on God in worship I find kneeling or "bowing down" in what might be described as the Muslim posture can be helpful. But the most important thing is attitude of heart rather than our physical position.

Prayer College Assignment
Make a list of 20 statements from Scripture which describe the nature and character of the Lord. Write them down in the form, "You are ...". Use some of them at the beginning of each prayer time over the next few days. Don't just rush through them but think about the meaning and implications of each one and try to expand on them in your own words.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Big Red Answer To Prayer

"You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." (Jn 14:14)

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things (that you need) will be given to you as well." (Matt 6:33)

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Matt 7:7)

Last weekend our family experienced a jaw-droppingly amazing answer to prayer which illustrates beautifully some of the important concepts we have to understand if we want effective prayer lives.

Let me say right at the start that I give all the glory to God. It's not my intention to boast about my ability to pray - I'm still wearing "L" plates when it comes to prayer. My intention is to boast about our awesome God who loves to give good gifts to His children (Matt 7:11).

The Request
For some time our growing (in size, not number!) family has been complaining every time we try to squeeze all 5 of us into our Ford Escort. I love that car. It's nippy. You put your foot down and it goes, unlike its predecessor which almost seemed to be saying, "do we have to?" whenever it pulled away. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Escort except that it has become too small. The general consensus in the family was that we needed something bigger. But there was simply no way we could afford to replace it.

So about 6 months ago I started praying for a new car. I could have just asked for a bigger car, but having recently been challenged about being specific in prayer and asking the Lord for what you really want I decided to ask for a red (yes, red) people carrier. Why red? Simply because every car I've ever owned has been one shade of blue or another and all of us wanted a change. Childish? Maybe, but aren't we supposed to come to God as our heavenly Father? And He's quite capable of saying "no" if we're asking for the wrong thing.

I didn't mention the request for the new car every day in my prayer time. I didn't plead for it with any great fervor. I simply asked, every so often, "please can we have a red people carrier" and occasionally I would remind the Lord how much we needed it - most frequently when all three children (two of whom are adult size) were squeezed in the back of the Escort.

The Answer
At the end of last week, completely out of the blue, a family member, who knew nothing of my prayers (and isn't even a Christian), phoned and asked me to look at a silver Nissan that was for sale at their local dealership. I explained that, yes we did need a bigger car, but there's no way we can afford to buy one at the moment. He said he'd like us to take a look at it anyway. But by the time we got there the vehicle had been sold.

Well, it hadn't actually been a people carrier and it certainly wasn't red so I wasn't greatly disappointed. But our benefactor declared that if he could find the right car at the right price he would buy it for us. So I sat back and waited while he made calls, looked in the newspaper and surfed the net hunting down second-hand 7 seater vehicles. Every single one he found was too old or the mileage was too high or the price was unreasonable or it had a dubious history. He looked at dozens of adverts for people carriers but the first one he found that he thought was worth looking at was a 5 year-old RED Renault Espace!

I was excited. But we were on holiday in Taunton and the car was 140 miles away, in Walsall, just 20 minutes drive from our home! Steve (hubby) phoned the seller to find out if it was still available. It was, but the owner was going on holiday the next day himself. We made a decision. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Steve, our generous relative and I jumped in the car and were inspecting the potential purchase within 3 hours of first making contact with the seller.

To cut a very long story slightly shorter, we drove back to Taunton the following day in a red people carrier which had cost us not a single penny.

Lessons Learned
I've learned so many things about prayer through this experience. Here are just some of them.

Yes, do be specific in prayer. Not only does our heavenly Father love to give good gifts to His children, the little details help give you confidence that you've found the right answer.

Prayer is not complicated. You don't have to find the right form of words, take up a particular posture, or even have oodles of faith. Simply ask for what you want and wait and see what God will do.

Persistence in prayer doesn't require you to nag God. We should keep asking, but we don't have to take the , "can I have a new car please, can I have a new car please, can I have a new car please" approach that children sometimes do.

Seek first the kingdom of God. When you are praying diligently for God's kingdom to be extended you get more answers to personal requests.

Seek His righteousness. Obey God in even the small things. A few weeks ago I felt God was challenging me to drive within the speed limit, something I struggle with as I like to get everywhere as quickly as possible. But I've made a real effort to get my driving speed down and whilst I sometimes forget and the speed creeps up, I'm getting better at it. I didn't make the connection at the time between my prayer request and that decision to be obedient and it certainly wasn't a case of trying to twist God's arm by being extra good! But I now wonder if we would have the new car now if I hadn't responded to the prompting of the Spirit to be more righteous in my driving.

Don't go running on ahead, be patient. We actually looked at the possibility of hiring a people carrier for the holiday and borrowing the money to pay for it! Instead we had our very own people carrier for most of the holiday, and beyond, and it was free.

God doesn't leave you in any doubt when the right answer comes along. He adds little details that show you His hand in the situation. The colour of the Espace was listed in the advert as Mars Red. That would be a completely insignificant detail to most people. But my husband's big hobby is amateur radio and he belongs to Midland Amateur Radio Society (MARS). He goes to MARS weekly! It was almost as though the Lord was saying, "just in case you're in any doubt, here's another little clue," signed God. Actually, according to the Renault dealer in Taunton, the car is not Mars Red or any other shade of red - it's just plain red!

God's not going to allow anyone else to get their hands on your blessing. If it's meant for you he will keep it for you. This car had been up for sale for at least 5 weeks - listed on Autotrader on the web, three "for sale" posters in the car. The seller had not had a single enquiry about it until Steve phoned him.

The Lord can use anyone, even unbelievers, to bless his people. The seller was not a Christian, the benefactor is not a Christian but the Lord brought the two of them together to pour out a blessing on His children.

God's resources are not limited by our circumstances. The day before the original phone call from our generous relative a verse in Jeremiah had leaped off the page during my quiet time - they will find blessings even in the barren land (Jer 31:2). I didn't know what the Lord was specifically saying, but I knew it was something to do with blessing us where we couldn't provide for ourselves. That's exactly what happened.

Prayer College Assignment
The kind of dramatic answer to prayer I've described here doesn't happen to us every day, or even every year. But it does illustrate how, when we partner with God in prayer, miracles can happen in the lives of ordinary believers. Whatever it is you're asking the Lord for, take encouragement from this personal story and persist in prayer.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Time And A Place For Prayer

"Every time and every place is a time and place for prayer."

Catherine of Sienna quoted in Listening to God by Joyce Huggett

Prayer and Service
Much of our thinking in Prayer College has been about personal devotions within the "prayer closet". But maturity in prayer requires us to learn how to take that spirit of prayer and the sense of the Lord's presence out into our world.

It is clear from the gospels that the Lord Jesus spent extended periods alone in prayer. He also devoted huge amounts of time to giving of Himself to others. Last week we compared Mary's worship with Martha's service and saw how the Lord commended Mary for her devotion. But in Jesus we see the perfect marriage of prayer and service.

The Priority of Prayer
The really important thing to grasp as we attempt to live the Christian life is that both prayer and service are important, but prayer must come first. Service must flow from what happens in our personal devotions. Not only so, our service should be saturated in prayer. Once we have learned the art of fellowshiping with the Lord in the quiet place of our sacred space, we need to learn how to maintain that awareness of His presence in the noise of our daily lives. As Catherine de Hueck Doherty says in her book "Pustinia",

"The Lord is calling us to stand still before Him while walking with men. Yes, the next step ... is the ability to walk with men and be contemplatives while we are walking."

Joyce Huggett quotes Guy Brinkworth as saying,

"A background yearning for God can be sustained in the middle of any activity as a kind of 'celestial music while you work'".

The Fragrance of Jesus
The goal is to take "the fragrance of Jesus" wherever we go, to be so filled with His love that it overflows and touches the lives of those with whom we come into contact, not in any ethereal way, but in practical expressions of compassion and service. If we haven't taken the time to saturate ourselves in the love of God our service will be dry, lifeless and of limited effect.

At first it is not easy to maintain that awareness of the Lord when we leave our place of prayer. It is an art that has to be learned. The 17th century monk, Brother Lawrence, described this learning process as practising the presence of God. As he performed his menial tasks within the kitchen of his Carmelite monastery he made the conscious effort to keep turning his thoughts towards Jesus and to worship Him. It is not easy because the distractions of daily life call for our attention with louder voices than that of the Spirit. But there are very simple things we can do to get started and, as is always the case with prayer, when we take just a few faltering steps towards the Lord, He runs with giant strides to meet us.

Prayer College Assignment
In her book The Power of Simple Prayer: How to Talk with God About Everything Joyce Meyer says, "prayer needs to be like breathing - regular, easy, second nature - and we need to just pray our way through life as part of the way we live". Try these few simple ideas to help you "turn your eyes upon Jesus" throughout the day: play worship songs or get hold of the Bible on CD (several versions available in the Prayer College bookstore) and listen while you drive; pray a blessing on people as you pass them in the street; look for opportunities to thank God for things like the bargain you find in the discount aisle at the supermarket; ask Him to help you find your misplaced keys; pray as you watch the news for the situations being reported and the people involved; and simplest of all, tell the Lord you love Him at any and every opportunity. He never gets tired of hearing you say it and you may even hear Him reply, "I love you too."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Thirsting After Jesus

Thirst after Jesus and He will satisfy you with His love. - St Isaac the Syrian

Seeds of Desire
This week I have been re-reading Joyce Huggett's classic book on prayer, "Listening to God." It's been a good number of years since I last picked it up but doing so has been like renewing an old friendship. Her journey towards a desire for deeper communion with the Lord in prayer, which she describes in the book, has not been the same as mine. But we seem to share many of the lessons learned and the discoveries made.

One of those discoveries is that when the Holy Spirit plants in our heart the seed of a desire for greater intimacy with God the only thing that can satisfy our soul is to experience the love of Jesus in a deeply personal way. It is clear from Paul's prayer in Eph 3:14-21 that this was his desire for the Ephesian believers.

Song of Songs
Throughout Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, the relationship between God and his people is described in terms of a marriage. The word "bride" is frequently used as, sadly, is "adulteress" when there is a turning away from the Lord to foreign gods. In Paul's teaching on marriage in Eph 5:22-33 he makes it clear that marriage, including in the "one flesh" aspect of the relationship, is designed as an illustration of Christ's spiritual relationship with His Church. As Paul says, this is a profound mystery but, if the physical intimacy between husband and wife is intended as an illustration of the spiritually intimacy the Lord desires with His people, our longing should be to cooperate fully with the Holy Spirit in developing our prayer lives.

Many of us as evangelicals are uncomfortable talking about personal prayer in these terms. Perhaps the language sounds too close to that used in Catholic mysticism or monastic spirituality. But then we are faced with Solomon's Song of Songs. What is this account of passion doing in our Bibles? I have been told it is there to show us that physical intimacy between a husband and wife is a God-given gift to be enjoyed. If that is the sole reason for its inclusion then, we evangelicals, have an even bigger problem because, as Anne Atkins points out in her book "Split Image", the wedding doesn't occur until the end of chapter 3 and there is much love-making before that! The primary reason for the inclusion of the song in Scripture is that it is, like the relationship it portrays, an illustration of the depth of spiritual communion possible between the believer and their Lord.

Too Indulgent?
Is it too indulgent for a Christian to take time simply to develop their love relationship with the Lord? Shouldn't prayer be for intercession on behalf of others? Wouldn't an hour that has been given to basking in the love of Jesus be better spent performing some act of service?

It is impossible to have an encounter with God and not be changed. The mark of whether genuine intimacy with the Lord has occurred in prayer (or whether it is purely a self-satisfied delusion) is the extent to which the rest of our lives are different. The evidence will be a greater awareness of sin and increased desire for obedience to the Lord; more heart-felt intercession; a longing for corporate worship; a passion for Scripture; and an increased, divinely inspired love for people which shows itself in practical ways.

Prayer College Assignment
Read Lk 10:38-42 and Jn 12:1-8. Mary is twice commended for putting time with Jesus before service for Him. Martha is focused primarily on service in both narratives. Yet it is clear from the account of Jesus raising their brother, Lazarus, from the dead (Jn 11:20-27) that Martha had genuine faith in Jesus. Are you satisfied with the balance of worship and service in your life?