armour-plated praying

This bloggage was first written as a ‘Thought for the week’ sent to all of the ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…

Isn’t it interesting how easily we can overlook things? I have recently been reminded that when reading the New Testament letters it is important to  remember whether they were written to an individual or to a whole church. That can help us apply and unpack what is being said in revealing ways. (It doesn’t mean, of course, that God won’t speak to an individual through a ‘church’ letter or a church through an ‘individual letter’).

This Sunday I am preaching on Ephesians 6 – the armour of God.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

I know that I have often applied this individually to myself and to others as a guide for how to protect oneself spiritually. But when you consider that the letter to the Ephesians was written to a whole church the passage takes on a different tone. If you think about it, one soldier on their own is not going to last long in a battle. It’s only when soldiers are together in a platoon, a company or battalion that they are effective. Paul’s injunction to put on the armour of God is for all of us so that we may be effective together. Roman soldiers were an extremely powerful force when they locked their shields together and stood side by side or when they moved forwards together – look at how far the Empire extended!

Ephesians 6:10-20 is about prayer. Verse 18 begins with the conjunction ‘and’ which means it is a continuation of the preceding thoughts. There’s no doubt in my mind that the last three verses are another way of saying the same thing as the preceding seven. Pray together, pray for each other. Did you notice how many times in the passage the word ‘stand’ or phrase ‘stand firm’ is mentioned? It comes four times in just four verses. One of the main reasons for us to pray for one another is to enable each other to stand firm. Wobbly Christians don’t last very long so it is important that we are able to stand firm together and we need the prayers of others to help us. Pray that we (collectively) may be a people of truth, righteousness, good news, faith, salvation and the word of God.

And this is one of the reasons why I lament the demise of corporate prayer in our churches. How can we expect to stand firm as followers of Jesus if we are not praying together and praying for one another regularly? How can we expect to be a spiritually strong unit together if we are not collectively listening for our Commander-in-Chief’s orders? How can we expect to make an impact on the communities we serve if our armour is uncared for, rusty and falling apart?

If any of you have found ways that help your church to pray together I would love to hear from you. if you don’t mind I would like to compile them and put them on our website as a resource to help.

And of course we are part of a bigger movement – the Church. We are encouraging all of us to join in with the Thy Kingdom Come movement leading up to this Pentecost. You can find plenty of resources here: https://www.thykingdomcome.global/ And we will be inviting you all to join in with another Wave of Prayer in the weeks leading up to our Gathering (which will be on September 28th at Billericay Baptist Church). And we are blessed to see how many of you pray for your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ through the weekly prayer focus and this email.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

faq

Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.

pexels-photo-221164.jpegBut it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?

Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?

What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant:  they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.

So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?

*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):

11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

praying mysteriously

The following bloggage began as a ‘Thought for the week’ I shared with the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association.

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Ephesians 6:18)

I don’t know about you, but I still find prayer to be a deep mystery. We know that God wants us to pray, that Jesus gave us a pattern for praying, and that the Spirit helps us to pray (including interpreting our deepest groans when we can’t find the words). But why does God want us to pray, and how can our prayers make a difference to the Sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the Universe?
 
There’s no easy answer to this – prayer is a mystery, and a complex one at that. There’s no way I will give a comprehensive answer in this email. But here are a few things that we already know:
 
We know that part of it is because it’s one of the ways in which we express and enhance our relationship with God: our prayers are part of the way in which we communicate with ‘Our Father in heaven’.
 
We know that part of it is that prayers change us – when we pray ‘thy will be done’ not ‘my will be done’ we open ourselves up to the possibility that our attitude and action may be different because we have prayed with an open heart and an open mind.
 
We know that part of it is about us investing ourselves in God’s kingdom purposes (‘Thy kingdom come’) and lifting our eyes up from the things of life that vex, distract and consume us so that we can see and get involved in what God is doing.
 
We know that part of it is about restoring our relationship with God, other people and his creation as we pray for and offer forgiveness.
 
We know that part of it is about reaffirming our dependence on God for all that we need and (the corollary of this) restating our willingness to surrender control of our life and our dependence on our own resources and ingenuity.
 
All of that, and so much more, is true. But I still wonder why prayers make a difference to God. Are they like power cells that recharge his ability to act? No! He is all-powerful. Does he need them to motivate him to act? No! He says, “Before they call I will answer…” (Isaiah 65:24). I have pondered why prayers are so precious to God and why he responds to them throughout my whole faith journey. And I think that part of the answer lies in “Our Father…”
 
Perhaps because he is Our Father God graciously chooses to involve us in his work in the same way that a parent makes room for a child to help with chores because they enjoy doing things with their child (even though they might be able to it quicker and better on their own); perhaps he gracious chooses to respond to our praying in the same way that a parent will respond to a child’s request – seeking to give them the best; perhaps he graciously chooses to cherish and value our prayers in the same way that a parent cherishes and proudly displays a child’s naïve artwork on the fridge.
Whatever you think of my answers, there is no doubt that prayer is further evidence of God’s grace – it is not a right, it’s a privilege. So let’s pray…

Be blessed, be a blessing

Holy Hamsters

This is Sandy. She was the first of our family hamsters. As you can see she was a very holy, prayerful hamster.

.pray sandy

It may be that she was actually eating a sunflower seed, but it looks like a praying hamster to me (as opposed to a praying mantis).

I use that image to illustrate a reflection card, which I still use. The reflection goes as follows:

At the end of every day take a few moments to review the day as you and God together watch an action replay. As you do this, have these questions in mind:

  1. How did I experience God’s love today?
  2. How did I express God’s love today?
  3. Where did I act out of selfishness rather than love today?

Let the answers to these questions lead you into gratitude (for your experience of God’s love), encouragement (for your growth in service) and confession (for the times you missed the mark).

These are simple, but profound questions that I find enhance my relationship with God and others.

I don’t always remember to do it: I have tried to associate it with cleaning my teeth at night so I remember to do it, but sometimes other things push it out of my mind. However, when I remember, I find that this sort of reflection is helpful. Perhaps you will become a holy hamster too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the best laid plans

Today I am having a day off, and it is proving to be quite a mixed event. In anticipating the day ahead of me I had some plans in mind of what I was going to do to relax. And since I woke up other things have started to invade the space I have today and are taking control. I had planned to go out, but as Robbie Burns wrote: “The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gan aglay.”

For example, it’s a nice sunny day today. So we could do with me doing a couple of loads of washing. But that means me being around to load and unload the washing machine and then to hang out the wet clothes. This is best done in the morning so there is a good opportunity for the clothes to dry. So I need to stay home this morning.

And then I had some messages that several different items that have been ordered online are going to be delivered today. One is a pair of concert tickets I ordered months ago, the other are a couple of items I only ordered yesterday and which were despatched in record time. It is good to receive notifications that these items will be delivered today, but I don’t know when so I have to wait in for both of those to be delivered. And one of them contains a light that will need fixing up outside the house, so that’s another job for the day. If you have read any of my bloggages about deliveries then you will know I have low-level paranoia about this so I have already checked that the doorbell works and that the sign showing where it is is still visible.

And then there’s the reason for this photo. No, I am not intentionally pointing to the frown lines on my head, I am trying to show the mark on my head that was caused by me getting dressed this morning. I bent down to open a drawer in order to get some clothes out and made several misjudgements: (a) how far away I was from the chest of drawers (b) how long my arms were to reach down into the bottom drawer (c) that my head was connected to my torso and when I bent forwards my head would move towards the top of the chest of drawers (d) how dopey I am.

I leant forward and down into the bottom drawer but before my hands could reach the clothes I was trying to get my head reached the top of the chest of drawers. It wasn’t a major impact. I am not concussed or in need of a visit to hospital. It was more of a surprise. But for a while there was a noticeable red mark and it may be that a bruise emerges (hypochondriac? me?). The initial red mark was much more noticeable than this photograph shows and it made me wonder about going out today as people might stare at me.

The combination of all of these things (coupled with me taking the time to write this bloggage) means that I may well not go out today because of a number of circumstances beyond my control.

How often do we have to adjust our plans and ideas because of circumstances beyond our control? Unless you have decided to become a hermit and live a self-sufficient lifestyle in a remote cave somewhere (in which case how have you got internet access to read this?) you will be living in the reality that other people will make an impact on your life. Sometimes that may be negative, other times it may be positive. But we have to respond and react to all of these other people as well as to many other unforeseen events.

It has been said that if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans. I think that’s rather a sad parody of how things are. I think God really does want us to share our thoughts, ambitions, plans and hopes with him. But not so he can mock us and hit the ‘smite’ key on is computer. Rather it is with the attitude that as he is God it would be a rather wise thing to consult and involve him in our life. The pattern for prayer that Jesus taught encourages people to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I believe that if we pray and share our plans with God in that attitude it makes him smile rather than laugh – smile because he delights to work with us to help shape our lives, to walk with us in the tough times and dance with us in the joyful ones.

Although there may have been a divine snigger when I banged my head this morning!

Be blessed, be a blessing

replacement service

Image result for rail replacement busesHow frustrating do you find it if you have bought a train ticket and then find out that some or all of the journey is on a ‘rail replacement service’ – also known as a bus? Some operators have tried to introduce some levity to the situation by changing the electronic sign on the front of the bus from ‘Rail Replacement Service’ to ‘Choo choo I’m a train’.

The first time I saw a picture of that it made me smile. Perhaps it even calms down some of the more disgruntled passengers. But the levity does not change the reality of the situation: part or all of a paid-for rail journey has been replaced by a bus. Can you imagine how people would react if they turned up at an airport and found that a bus was waiting at the departure gate rather than their holiday flight to Spain?!

 

A while ago I found myself feeling stressed on a rail journey when part of it was replaced by buses. The railway station was crowded to overflowing with people who needed to get to their destination and the staff at the station were politely doing their best to direct them to different buses that were going to different places. A person in front of me verbally abused one of these staff members about how unacceptable it was. The railway employee looked shocked and somehow managed to utter an apology on behalf of the railway. As I passed the employee I tried to redress the balance by telling them how impressed I was with how well they were coping with the situation and how grateful I was that they were there to show us which buses to catch. The railway worker said thank you and I got on the bus. I heard others behind me trying to encourage her too.

On the onward journey I wondered whether the railway employee would remember the positive comments as much as she would the verbal assault. Human nature is such that we often remember critical comments more than we do positive ones. We can focus on negative things that are happening and forget to think about good things. Paul begins so many of his letters with thanks and praise to God for the people to whom he is writing. Even the heavy-duty correctional letters to the Corinthian churches start with thanks before he gets on to the business of trying to sort out the mess they have got themselves into. But how often do we skate past the ‘thanks’ sections almost as part of the prologue and get into the meat of the letters? Paul often writes how he always gives thanks for these people when he remembers them. He has an attitude of gratitude. And that must have included the difficult people!

In my first church I was asked to speak at the women’s group ‘Pleasant Monday Afternoon’ at their anniversary. The theme I was given was the line from the hymn “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” I wasn’t sure about it (it wasn’t a Bible verse and I was fresh out of Bible College and needed to show everyone that I could speak from the Bible). But I remember that as I pondered the theme I realised that it was an important one because of the human tendency to forget the blessings as we concentrate on the woes. Without wishing to diminish the significance or impact of some of the negative things we experience I would like to invite you to participate in an exercise: The next time you have time to spend with the Lord, why not count your blessings and name them one by one. Write them on a piece of paper. And use both sides if you need to. Offer thanks to the Lord in response to all that he has done for you. Keep that tucked in your Bible as a reminder.

Perhaps that way we can create a welcome gloom replacement service!

I leave you with two verses from the start of Psalm 9 that I think convey the same message:

I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

view from my pew 13

Dear Internet

Mr Grenville-Stubbs here again. Did you miss me? I have been busy trying to make a positive difference in cyberspace. I had an idea for a search engine that I have been trying to get off the ground with what is known as ‘crowd funding’ – where lots of people offer small amounts of money to help make something a reality.

My idea was to create a Christian internet search engine. I did think of calling it ‘Ask Mr Grenville-Stubbs’ but my friends suggested that this might be a bit of a long name for people to type in. They suggested something easier to remember, too. So I came up with ‘Goddle’.

searchGoddle works like any other search engine you can think of: you type in a question, a word or something that you want to find out about and click ‘pray’. (I think ‘pray’ is better than ‘search’ for a Christian search engine).

After you have clicked ‘pray’ the clever software will go to work and find a Bible verse that relates to that question / word / thing you want to find out about. So, if you wanted to search pray for information about ‘wrestling’, for example, Goddle would provide you with Psalm 13 verse 2: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

I put this idea on a website for crowd funding ideas and have been waiting for donations to flood in. I think there must be a bug in that website because even though my idea has been available for the past month so far nobody has offered anything.

I am sorry to have to say that my Minister, Revd Philip Inneck-Tucker was not much help at first, either. I mentioned the idea to him on a Sunday after church but he had one of his mysterious coughing fits and had to rush off to get a glass of water. I tried to talk to him several times later that day but he always seemed to rush away just as I got close to him. In the end I managed to talk to him by waiting outside the church until he had locked up and was unlocking his car in the dimly lit car park.

I came up behind him: “So what do you think of Goddle?” I asked.

He uttered something unintelligible (or it may have been ancient Hebrew) as he clutched his chest. “What are you doing sneaking around in the shadows? You almost gave me a coronary!”

I apologised for surprising him, but insisted he gave me his opinion.

“Why would anyone want to use Goddle?” he asked. “If I want to find a recipe for chili con carne I don’t want to be given some obscure verse from Leviticus about regulations for food preparation.”

“But the Bible has answers for everything,” I said.

He gave me one of his funny looks and that’s when he gave me a brilliant idea. He suggested that if that was my attitude to the Bible I could save myself a lot of time and money by making the answer to every question: “Jesus.”

Why didn’t I think of that?

Yours faithfully

Mr QR Grenville-Stubbs