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Friday, January 25, 2008

The Perfect Prayer

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer's ear.
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

This hymn by John Newton, more famous for writing "Amazing Grace", is one of my favourites because I have experienced the truth of its words.

Whisper His Name
Just recently I had the privilege of being prayed for by a group of dear friends. It was wonderful to hear their love and concern through their prayers. But the thing which always touches me most at such times is hearing a brother or sister, eyes fixed on the Lord, whispering the name of Jesus under their breath. There is no name sweeter than that of our Saviour and, I've found that hearing it spoken tenderly from the lips of another believer does have a restorative effect on the soul.

Use His Name
It intrigues me that we sometimes seem so reticent to use this name. The Jews were, and still are, unwilling to use the name, Yahweh, that God gave to Moses by which He might be known. Their reluctance is perhaps understandable in the light of the third commandment which instructs against misusing the name of God. In a similar way, evangelical Christians often prefer to talk about "God", "Father", or "The Lord" rather than to use the name of Jesus.

Yet the name of Jesus is absolutely central to our faith. It literally means "saviour" and according to Peter (Acts 4:12) "there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."

The Perfect Prayer
The Lord Jesus Himself taught us that when we gather together in His name He is there with us (Matt 18:20). This is why, when we are struggling in any way, we should make an extra effort to meet and pray with our spiritual family. When we do, we are exposing ourselves to the healing presence of Jesus. The awareness of that awesome, gentle presence inevitably draws a response of worship most eloquently expressed by quietly speaking the most precious name of Jesus. It becomes the perfect prayer, especially when we are incapable of finding any other words.

Prayer College Assignment
In your personal devotions take some time to simply speak the name of Jesus aloud, perhaps as just a whisper. I do not mean that it should be used as some kind of mantra, but that it should be spoken as an act of loving tenderness towards the Saviour who we know has a passionate love for us.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mind Control

"Be clear minded & self-controlled so that you can pray." 1 Pet 4:7

I don't know about you, but there have been times when I've not been able to pray. This week has been difficult for me as I've been laid up with what seems to be some sort of gastric 'flu. I've experienced a lot of discomfort and felt physically exhausted, sleeping for extended periods during the day. There haven't been many moments when I've been able to concentrate sufficiently to intercede for others. My mind has not been clear because it's either been subsumed in sleep or distracted by pain.

Mind & Spirit
Paul talks about praying with the mind and the spirit (1 Cor 14:14-15). Both are important. Those with the gift of praying in tongues should not neglect that gift since it is a resource given by God to build us up personally (1 Cor 14:4). In a situation where we are not able to be sufficiently clear minded to pray intelligently, the gift of tongues opens up the opportunity for the Holy Spirit Himself to guide our prayer (Rom 8:26).

This is a fantastic way to pray because we know that we will always be praying in conformity with the will of God which means, of course, that our prayers will be answered. That knowledge may tempt us to think that there is no point in praying any other way. But the same man who tells us that he wants everyone to speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:5) and boasts about how much of it he does himself (1 Cor 14:18), insists that praying with the mind is as important as praying with the spirit (1 Cor 14:15).

Clear Minded and Self-Controlled
God wants us to pray with our minds, that bit of us which is capable of thinking and reasoning. James talks about the double-minded man who should not expect his prayers to be answered (Jms 1:6-8). In fact, I'm not at all sure whether someone, who is not clear in their own mind about what to ask God for, can actually be praying. There may be thoughts passing through their mind, but they're probably just arguing with themselves rather than asking God. He wants us to be clear about what we're asking for.

To remain clear minded requires self-control. We all have those moments when we're praying for someone and our mind wanders off to things it thinks are more important, such as the need to make a particular phone call later in the day or what we should buy at the supermarket. We need an element of self-control to keep bringing the mind back to the task in hand. My experience is that this becomes easier with practice, but I'm also convinced that the wandering mind is a feature of our fallen nature with which we will have to contend as long as we have breath to pray.

Time Poverty
We also need self-control, or discipline, in setting aside time to pray in the first place. Every single one of us has 24 hours in the day. God may not have blessed us all equally with financial riches, but when it comes to time He has been completely egalitarian. I've heard the phrase "time poverty" to describe the plight of busy people. But there is no such thing. The problem is not how much time we have but how we choose to spend it. We get just one opportunity to use each of the precious minutes the Lord gives us & we need to be self-controlled & disciplined in what we do with them.

I believe it was John Wesley, the great Methodist preacher, who said that he had so much to get done that he had to spend 2 hours in prayer at the beginning of each day in order to accomplish everything. I used to think that was a bizarre statement. Surely spending more time in prayer meant there was less time for work. Anyway, in the 21st century there are so many demands on our time that it is more difficult for us than for Wesley.

Sowing Time
What I've discovered is that the principle of sowing and reaping, so often applied by preachers to money, actually works with time. Somehow, if I give a bit more time to God at the beginning of the day, I manage to get more done in the hours that remain.

The other great truth is that we always manage to find time for the things that are really important to us. Indeed, it is fair to say that we can measure the value we place on things by how much time we give them. The Lord says that He will allow us to find Him when we seek Him with all our heart (Jer 29:13). This implies that we are to put Him in first place in our lives. It may not be possible for us to give Him our undivided attention for the same number of hours that we need to devote to work or family. But if we can be self-controlled enough to focus our first thoughts at waking on Him, we will begin to discover that He finds His way into our thinking throughout the rest of the day.

Prayer College Assignment
Some time ago I was horrified to discover how much time I was wasting in front of the television. The little one-eyed god in the corner of the room was getting a tithe of my time! I radically cut the amount of hours I spent on it. It not only freed up space in my schedule, it stopped a lot of pollution flowing into my mind which had been detrimental to my spiritual health. Take a careful look at how you use your time. What do you do with your 168 hours each week? Are you content with how many of them are given to time for intimacy with God. If not, look for ways to change your priorities.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Write Way To Pray

One thing I ask of the Lord,
This is what I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
And to seek him in his temple.
Hear my voice when I call, O Lord;
Be merciful to me & answer me.
My heart says of you, "Seek his face!"
Your face, Lord, I will seek.

Ps 27:4, 7-8

It is interesting to read the psalms of David and see how he casually slips between speaking to God, to others and to his own soul. I have found few prayer meetings which have been that free, but it is a great blessing to be part of such times.

Finding Fresh Ways To Pray
Human beings are creatures of habit so we tend to repeatedly do the same things in the same way. Often it doesn't matter. It's not really important, for example, if we always sit in the same place at church. But we shouldn't allow our prayer lives to get into that kind of rut. We should be growing and moving forward, developing our intimacy with the Lord and closeness with our brothers and sisters. The church prayer time where participants always have closed eyes and bowed heads throughout will become stifled. Over time people will begin to lose their passion for prayer and will either come only out of duty or will stop attending altogether.

One thing that can be said of David's prayers is that they are never boring. We can learn a lot about how to reinvigorate our prayer times by studying his approach.

On Paper
Not only is David very liberated in his prayers, he has clearly often thought carefully about what to pray and worked at creating a poetic structure. Psalm 9, for example, is an acrostic poem with each stanza beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. As someone who's dabbled in writing poetry I can tell you that kind of construction takes hard work as well as inspiration.

We benefit from the fact that David committed his psalms to writing. I'm sure this fact blessed David himself as he was able to look back over past prayers and see how the Lord had responded.

In the past I have kept journals which have been a record of my walk with the Lord. It is very encouraging to review them and see answers to prayer and how I have grown in my spiritual life. It was also quite common for me to slip into prayer as I wrote so, like David, I have records of prayers I prayed in the past.

Prayer College Assignment
This week I heard a well-known Christian writer and broadcaster confess to writing love letters to Jesus. I felt a tug at my heart as I heard that. Although I frequently used write in such a way in my journal it hasn't happened for a very long time. I would like to offer you a challenge. Join me this week in taking paper and pen (or computer if you prefer) and write such a letter to Jesus expressing your devotion to Him. I know from past experience that it will be a genuine blessing to you.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Listen To Yourself

On Wednesday I was shopping with two of my children when we came across a street preacher. I have a great deal of admiration for such people because I don't have the courage to make myself that vulnerable. But on this occasion I was upset by what was going on as he seemed to be doing just about everything wrong.

I should explain that my husband worked with OAC (formerly Open Air Campaigners) for a while and received extensive training in street evangelism including the use of a sketchboard so I'm not simply pontificating over something I know nothing about.

Where Did He Go Wrong?
Firstly, the man was working entirely alone. He had no supporters to form the nucleus of a crowd. Without a small handful of co-workers it is next to impossible to attract bystanders because no-one wants to be the first to stop. Rent-a-crowd can perform two other vital functions. They can pray for the speaker and for passersby and they can engage interested people in conversation.

Even with a group of people already hanging around it is difficult to drag shoppers out of their own busyness and persuade them to stop long enough to hear more than a couple of sentences. The second mistake this preacher had made was that he had done nothing to grab people's attention. There are all sorts of ways of doing this. The sketchboard mentioned above is one, but musicians, drama, puppets and "magic" tricks can all be extremely effective in drawing a crowd. The preacher in the High Street had none of these. He was simply shouting at people.

His third mistake was in what he was shouting. This is what I heard as I walked past.

"There is a difference between saved & unsaved, regenerate & unregenerate."

I contemplated stopping to ask him if he thought that the unregenerate would know what "unregenerate" meant!

Failed Communication
The sad thing is that the courage and passion of this street preacher were wasted because he was completely failing to communicate with the dozens of people passing by at a distance of at least 20 feet. To be honest, the whole situation was rather embarrassing.

What has all this got to do with Prayer College? Well, it struck me with renewed force just how bad Christians can be at communicating. We fail to engage with "the unregenerate" because neither our language nor our lives speak of the huge compassion our glorious Saviour has for them. We fail to engage with our brothers and sisters in Christ because, instead of being honest with one another, we hide behind the masks of the way we think we should speak and behave as believers. And we fail to engage with God because we think prayer has to comply to a particular format.

Prayer Styles
It's very interesting to be in a prayer meeting and listen to how others pray. There are those who have a "prayer voice" in the same way that some people have a "telephone voice". They change their tone and sometimes even their accent so that they sound more formal or respectful. Then there are the ones whose vocabulary completely changes so they sound as though they've been transported back to Shakespearean times or are regurgitating a theology text book. Some pray-ers seem to want to preach a sermon to God and still others decide to tell Him every detail of a situation with which He is already completely familiar. There are the list pray-ers who gabble off a whole series of requests like a customer at a drive-through fast food outlet and the repetitive ones whose prayers you could recite by heart because they've said exactly the same words every time you've heard them pray.

Friendship Prayer
Do any of these people sound as though they are talking to their best friend? Both Moses (Ex 33:11) and Abraham (Jms 2:3) are described as being in a friendship relationship with God. Jesus has called us His friends (Jn 15:14-15). It is an awesome privilege to be able to talk to the Lord as a friend and not one to be taken lightly. We should not diminish the value of what is available to us in that friendship.

I would be deeply offended if my dearest friends were to approach me in any of the ways I've listed above. We have intimate access to the Lord and it is nothing short of an insult to fail to communicate with Him at a heart level.

Friendship is about sharing joys and struggles without the need to weigh every word carefully. I want my friends to feel they can tell me anything that concerns them. I'm not bothered whether they use exactly the right words and I'm certainly not going to correct their grammar or pronunciation if I think they've got it wrong. All I'm interested in is whether we have understood and empathised with one another. The best friendships are the ones where neither person feels the need to put up any guards and there is complete mutual trust. Our prayer lives should be like that.

Prayer College Assignment
Listen to how you pray and think about whether you talk to God as to a friend. Do you put on a performance or are you being completely yourself? Perhaps you have a liberty in your personal devotions but not in corporate prayer times. Of course, there is a degree of intimacy with the Lord which may not be appropriate in a public meeting, but we have to be wary of praying to impress other people rather than simply talking to God. Make it your goal this year that the way you pray in public will encourage other, less experienced, pray-ers to open their mouths and pray simple prayers.