prayse

Photo by Shirley Şerban from FreeImages

Continuing my apparently occasional series on praying that began with the buffet I reach the more well-known subject of ‘praise’. I have to confess that in more naive times I wondered why we should praise God: not because he is not praiseworthy but for two other reasons. Reason the first – if he is GOD, what difference will my praise make? Reason the second – God doesn’t need his ego massaging, he knows he’s God.

Now both of those show a significant misunderstanding of what praise prayers (or prayses – yet another new word from the wonderful world of Nick’s brain) are about. I don’t think they are as much for God’s benefit as for mine. Praise prayers don’t do anything for God other than perhaps make him blush (if you don’t mind the anthropomorphism) and make him chuffed that I am talking with him. But for me they expand my understanding and experience of God, they give me an increased sense of who he is (albeit limited by the finite nature of language and human comprehension).

Prayses are enhanced by things such as imagination, experience – mine and what others have shared, encounter, emotion, insight and much more beside.

Let’s have a look at one of the psalms and you will see what I mean (I hope) as I annotate it with some observations:

A psalm of praise. Of David.

I will exalt you, my God the King; [David has experienced God’s sovereignty]
    I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
    and extol your name for ever and ever. [David has grasped the eternal nature of God and that in relationship with him he will be able to praise for ever]

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    his greatness no one can fathom. [we can never fully understand God – he is greater than we are]
One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts. [we are blessed by the praises and experiences of previous generations and build on their praise with our own.]
They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty –
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works.[b] [reflecting on the experiences of others leads David to think of what God does in his own experience and understanding]
They tell of the power of your awesome works –
    and I will proclaim your great deeds. [being reminded of what God has done in the past leads David to praise too]
They celebrate your abundant goodness
    and joyfully sing of your righteousness. [the experience of others is to celebrate and sing joyfully and David can join in]

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
    slow to anger and rich in love. [David has experienced this for himself as well as having the stories of others to remind him]

The Lord is good to all;
    he has compassion on all he has made. [a reminder of how God views all of creation]
10 All your works praise you, Lord; [Creation points to God]
    your faithful people extol you. [those in a relationship with God want to shout about it]
11 They tell of the glory of your kingdom
    and speak of your might,
12 so that all people may know of your mighty acts [those in a relationship with God not only want to shout about it they also want to tell others]
    and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and your dominion endures through all generations. [another reminder of the eternal nature of God]

The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises
    and faithful in all he does.[c] [David’s experience and the stories he has remembered remind him that he can trust God]
14 The Lord upholds all who fall
    and lifts up all who are bowed down. [God is on the side of the weak and downtrodden]
15 The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food at the proper time.
16 You open your hand
    and satisfy the desires of every living thing. [the entire ecological system of this planet is dependent on God]

17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways
    and faithful in all he does. [God is good]
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth. [God is close]
19 He fulfils the desires of those who fear him;
    he hears their cry and saves them. [God’s desire is to save]
20 The Lord watches over all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy. [evil cannot survive in his pure presence]

21 My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord.
    Let every creature praise his holy name
    for ever and ever. [the choir of creation speaks of God’s greatness and I will join in]

David’s experience and understanding of God was expanded as he praised and, I dare to suggest, so might ours have been as we reflected on the psalm ourselves.

So when or if you feel like praysing, remember it does you good! And maybe linger on the praysing before starting on the asking… you may find that the answer is already there

Be blessed, be a blessing

lament

This is the next in the slightly-less-frequent-than-I-had-hoped series of bloggages about prayer, beginning with buffet. Do explore the others if you fancy expanding your experience of praying. This one is, I confess, one that is mostly ignored in my tradition of church (Baptist). But I think we need to recover our ability to lament.

Laments are a strange form of prayer. They are neither one thing, nor another, they just are… well… laments. They are expressions of emotions (often painful or angst-ridden) about situations and circumstances. They can be articulate rants and they can be distressing howls of pain, they can be shouted at the heavens and they can be whispered through tears. And, for me, the most amazing thing about them is that they don’t have to have a resolution.

In a lament you express to God how you are feeling, you may beg him to do something about it, and you leave it with him. From a therapeutic point of view you might say that it is good to express how you feel and get it ‘off your chest’, but that is not the main purpose of a lament even if it is a positive by-product. I reckon the main purpose of lamenting is to enable us to be honest with God.

If there’s a tragic event that has taken place and you are angry that it has happened – lament.

If you don’t understand why God allowed something bad to take place – lament.

Even weeping aloud or silently about a situation can be a form of lament.

And by not requiring a resolution we do not have to worry about discerning an answer or articulating an outcome that we may not be able to see. We can simply tell God how it is for us. We can even complain about him to his face. He is able to take it, and because he knows all of our emotions he already knows that is how we are feeling so there’s no point in hiding it.

The danger of laments is that they can become part of a downward emotional spiral if that is all that we do. A good lament may not have a resolution but it does ask God to do something about it. It has an expression of faith that may be full of questions, doubt and anguish, but it is still an expression of faith that God might be present and act.

Laments are not often articulated in the churches I attend. Why not? I think we are afraid of admitting how we feel, exposing our doubts and pain, and not having a good answer at the end of it. This coming Sunday I am going to be part of a church service where we will be lamenting about events in the recent past of the church and part of that will be expressing regret, sharing painful memory and yet also declaring a hopeful resilience about the future.

How about you? What do you lament? When do you lament? Do you lament? God welcomes it if you have the courage to give it a go…

Be blessed, be a blessing

wrestlemania

Image result for wrestling ring

This is another part in my ongoing series looking at different types of praying. Today I want to explore what it means to wrestle with God. Let me start by saying that I don’t mean we should be trying to get him in a headlock and force him into submission. Nor am I alluding to the event recorded in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestled with a stranger, possibly even an incarnation of God himself. There’s so much that I would want to explore and unpack in that encounter that it would take several bloggages on their own.

What I want to consider today is that in the Bible many of the prayers that are recorded seem to involve wrestling: wrestling with conscience; wrestling with submitting to what God wants; wrestling with circumstances and so on. There aren’t many (any?) occasions when prayers are reduced only to the ‘shopping list’ style of praying that I mentioned earlier in the series.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, where we are invited to ask God to supply our physical and spiritual needs, we are previously urged to pray that God’s will is done and that his Kingdom prevails… and that may involve us in some wrestling if it’s not what we have in mind, or involves a greater cost to us than we are willing to pay.

The prime example is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the hours just before he was arrested, put on trial and crucified he wrestled with God. He knew what lay ahead and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 NIV)

Having gone back to his friends and found them asleep he want back again an prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42 NIV)

This looks like wrestling with God to me. The first prayer was emphatic – I really don’t want to do it, but I will submit to your will. The second has a subtle difference that suggests that Jesus knew there wasn’t another way, but hoped there might still be one, yet he was willing to do what his Father wanted. In being completely honest with God and wrestling with what he was experiencing and what he believed his Father wanted Jesus was able to be changed by his praying.

Let’s bring it to the present day. What if someone has done something that has hurt you deeply and you do not feel able to forgive them? You know that the Bible says you should, but you can’t get past the hurt. What do you do? Wallow in guilt that you can’t do what the Bible says (compounding the sense of hopelessness) or wrestle with God about it? The wrestling might look something like this (over a period of time).

“God, I know you want me to forgive, but I just can’t. You’re going to have to help me here. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, but I just can’t, help me to want to forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive but I just can’t. Help me to let go of the hurt. ”

” God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive and I will – one day. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive and I will – soon. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I do forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt.”

Did you notice that often the wrestling results in us changing, rather than God? The wrestling is real because we are being honest with God. If we are not being honest with God the wrestling is as fake as the wrestling that used to be on Saturday afternoon TV in the UK.

But if we are honest, God is able, by his Spirit (and sometimes with the help of a wise friend, pastor or counsellor) to help us. In Colossians 4:12 a chap called Epaphras is described as ‘always wrestling in prayer’. If you want more reflections on this read the excellent bloggage by my friend and collegue Graeme.

Be blessed, be a blessing

shopping list prayers

This bloggage continues my short series looking at different ways of praying. It started last week with ‘buffet‘. I was going to call this ‘Christmas List’ but you’ll hopefully see why I have called this ‘shopping list’ instead.

SHOPPING LIST

When I was a child I would often look at written shopping lists and mark them as if they were spelling tests. Not only that but I would also write things like ‘Could do better’ or ‘See me!’… I bet my Mum loved it! (Her spelling was not as bad as the list above!).

But it’s difficult to resist the temptation to mark shopping list prayers. Are they self-indulgent or are they outward-focused? Are they based on wants or needs? Are they accompanied by any other sort of prayer or is it all about the list? And so on. I want to try to avoid that. I think God loves any sort of prayer, but we can always do better.

What do I mean by ‘shopping list’ (or Christmas list) prayers? I mean the long lists of things we can bring to God for him to sort out / provide / intervene / change / bless and much more. Because he is a gracious and generous God there is the temptation to treat him as if he is a spiritual vending machine where we if we put in the right amount of praying we will get what we want. Remarkably, because he is so gracious and generous, sometimes he does respond to this sort of praying, but that can have the undesired effect of encouraging us to keep going.

Now hear me loud and hear me clearly. God does want us to bring these things to him. He does get involved in our lives at a micro-level and in the world at a macro-level and he does respond to our praying because he loves to interact with us. We might call it ‘interceding’ for others or ‘relying on God’ and those things are good, important and healthy. Do not stop with the shopping lists because of this bloggage.

But there are a few things we can do to improve our praying.

  1. Be less prescriptive. If I am shopping and my shopping list says ‘Cheese’ I have a wide range of possibilities to choose from. If it says, “X brand Danish Blue cheese” the choice is much more limited. Have we decided before we pray what we want the answer to be? I can remember one of our children going through a shopping catalogue before Christmas and circling the items they wanted. That way we knew exactly what they wanted to receive. Again, hear this correctly: there is nothing wrong with saying to God what outcome we would like. But there is a difference between doing that and prescribing to God the only acceptable outcome. That’s vending machine praying. God wants a dialogue rather than a shopping list, so even if we have a desired outcome, why not ask him what he would like to do? That brings me to the second thing we can do…
  2. Whose will is it anyway? In the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we are taught to pray ‘Your (Thy) will be done’. That’s a nuanced difference from the shopping list if it has become ‘My will be done’. If we are asking God what he would like to do, we need to be willing and ready to accept that his will may be different to ours. And recognising who God is and who we are may help us to accept that his desired outcome may be different from ours. Which is likely to be best?
  3. Be willing to be changed. This follows from the previous way of improving our shopping lists. Do we pray to try to change God’s mind or to allow him to change ours? I think he rather likes using our prayers as an opportunity for a conversation with us about the issues we are praying about. But a dialogue surely contains within it the possibility of being shaped by the other person, doesn’t it? The amazing thing about praying to God is that sometimes I find that the first outcome is that I am changed even before anything else happens. And even more amazing is that God accommodates himself to my prayers too. I am not sure he always has just one prescriptive answer to every prayer. Sometimes he gives me a range of choices and all of them are good (such as which songs to sing or who to visit). Doesn’t that sound better than a mere shopping list?
  4. Be ready to be a part of the answer. I have found that when I pray with a shopping list I find that it is more often the case that the answer lies with me than I am willing to admit. In the Bible Jesus’ friends came to him when they were confronted with a mahoosive crowd of hungry people. They had a planned solutions to the problem – send the people away and let them find some food in the surrounding villages. Jesus answered: “You give them something to eat…” If I am praying for someone who is upset part of the answer may be for me to go and comfort that person. If I am praying about injustice part of the answer may be for me to campaign against that injustice. If I am praying about someone who is hungry what should I do…
  5. Be open to receiving a new list. If this praying thing is a conversation then isn’t it possible that God will respond by saying, “Well your list is interesting, but have a look at my priorities and see what you think…” My shopping list may have been rather ‘bland’, may have lacked faith or even been selfish. So seeing God’s list of priorities is worth exploring and you can find them writ large across the pages of the Bible.

Let’s not stop shopping, but let’s be open to being more conversational!

Be blessed, be a blessing

more from the buffet

Continuing some musings about prayer, here is another of my categories of prayer:

Image result for anybody there

is there anybody there PRAYER?

This sort of prayer can be the beginning of a relationship. It is a tentative exploration of whether there is a God and hoped-for responses range from a gentle feeling of reassurance through to a full-on multisensory display of the Almighty’s power. The reality is that it is more likely to result in the former than the latter, although occasionally people have had such a life-changing experience. If it is a fuelled by a genuine hope that God is there he will respond although maybe not in the way that a person expects.

Why doesn’t God give everyone the full-on show? I suspect it is something to do with him not wanting to overwhelm us. The occasions when he does are perhaps occasions when he knows that subconsciously that person is ready and willing for such a display. The rest of the time he gently cultivates the faith expressed and offers an almost imperceptible increase in awareness of who he is over time in order that the individual’s free will and fledgling faith is not stamped on by incontrovertible evidence of his existence that makes it impossible not to believe. God values our freedom to choose him or reject him so highly that he goes out of his way not to overwhelm it.

(By way of an aside, whatever you think God’s Judgment ultimately is perhaps it is nothing more than him honouring the decision we have made about whether we want to be with him or not: he’s not making the decision, we are!)

If you don’t hear him at first, don’t give up. This sort of prayer often requires persistence – not because God is silent but because we are not always well-attuned to his voice because we have not heard it before. We may not notice that he is there in that sense of peace or wellbeing. We may not recognise him in the way that other people speak to us or treat us. We may not sense him in nature around us. We may not find him in the words we read in the Bible. It doesn’t mean he’s not there, it’s just that we have to learn to recognise him (and that process continues throughout our life). We may need the help of a more experienced follower of Jesus to help us.

If so, do find someone – a friend, pastor, Spiritual Director…

More to follow.

Be blessed, be a blessing

buffet

File:Breakfast Buffet (21720094978).jpg

Imagine that you are staying at a hotel. Breakfast is included in the price you are paying and, after a good night’s sleep, you get ready for the day and head down to the restaurant where there is a wonderful breakfast buffet spread across lots of stations. You look at the wonderful variety of food on offer – cereal, many different types of bread and pastries, continental breakfast, fruit, yoghurt, cooked breakfast and more beside. Having looked at everything that is on offer you fill your plate from the delicious array of options and head back to your table. Your companion decides that they will just start with a piece of toast.

But that’s just the first visit to the buffet.

After you have finished you head back with an empty plate and indulge again from the wide selection and come back to your table. Your companion also returns from the buffet.

With another piece of toast.

You do this several times and each time your companion only has a piece of toast. Eventually you ask why they are only choosing toast from the wide range of food on offer.

Your companion thinks about it for a moment and then says, “It’s what I am used to.”

How do you feel?

Is our approach to prayer like your companion’s approach to the breakfast buffet? Do we limit ourselves to what we are used to? Is there more on offer for us to experience? Absolutely and there are some excellent books on prayer that these bloggages can never hope to emulate – God on Mute by Pete Greig and The Message of Prayer by Tim Chester are two that I have read and value.

I am going to look at prayer in the following categories over the next few bloggages: today it’s 999. Subsequent bloggages will look at prayer categories such as: is there anybody there?; Christmas list; sorry, wrestlemania; lament; praise; gratitude; chattitude; and listening

You could say they are are the official nukelearfishing prayer categorisations, but before you go diving in please note that there is nothing wrong with any of these. If I appear critical it’s only if that’s the toast we eat every time and we don’t expand our diet. What I am seeking to encourage is a much wider breadth of engagement with the whole variety of ways of praying. I am also hopefully not so arrogant that I expect to make this an all-inclusive list but hopefully it might encourage you to try some new items from the buffet…

999 (or 911 in USA)

Some people pray in a moment of crisis or when they feel out of their depth trying to invoke the help of a higher power to get them out of trouble rather like calling 999 to request the assistance of one of the emergency services.

These prayers can sometimes be freestanding or can sometimes be linked to a promise / bribe – ‘If you will help me then I will…’ – and can be generated by self-interest or self-preservation which is a motive that can lead to amnesia if the prayer is answered positively and the promise / bribe is forgotten.

Linked to these are prayers offered on behalf of someone else who is in peril. This can also be linked to a bribe / promise and the commitment to those is similar to above. This more altruistic approach to praying is nonetheless still relatively limited in scope and expectation beyond an immediate resolution of the problem.

Acceptable answers to these first 2 categories of prayer may often be limited to fulfilling the request in the desired manner and any deviation from that answer can be seen as evidence that the prayer was not answered or that the higher power was unwilling / unable to assist or does not exist at all. This un-nuanced approach to answers to prayer is to be expected when prayer is seen more as a call to an emergency service than the lifeblood of a relationship.

There is nothing wrong with praying in these circumstances but it’s a shame if the mustard seed of faith expressed here is not cultivated when the moment passes. They are moments of engaging with the Almighty and can be gateways towards faith, but if our expectations are limited to getting what we want the faith expressed may not be much more than the faith expressed when we put money into a vending machine and hope to get what we asked for. It’s a shallow faith and if it is not deepened is likely to lead to an abandonment of that faith at the first sign of disappointment.

Be blessed, be a blessing

honouring

Those of you who have read previous bloggages of mine may get the impression that I am not the greatest advocate of our current government’s policies and approach. You may well be correct. I did not greet yesterday’s news that Boris Johnson has been elected as leader of the Conservative Party (and hence going to be the new Prime Minister*) with any sense of joy.

And now I am torn. Because although my political views are at odds with our government there is also a strong mandate in the Bible for Christians to pray for those in government and, so far as there is no conflict with my faith, to remain a good citizen of my country, I can do that. Heaven knows that our country is greatly in need of those prayers!

And I have to accept that, however much I disagree with the current government and however much I am astonished or dismayed at the choice of the new Prime Minister, I am supposed to honour them.

Really.

1 Peter 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

This picture is about honour – the paper is ‘on her’. (Yes, I can hear you groaning!)

Honour is difficult. It is often something that we feel should be deserved or earnt. But in the Bible it is (usually relating to God, but also to parents and others) something that is due because of who the person is and the role they fulfil.

So if I am meant to honour the emperor, what does that mean? I think it means that I am to honour the office, the role, and the task. It means that I should be respectful of those who have the incredibly difficult job of leading this fractured country, whether or not I support their policies. It means that I should be praying for them, especially if I disagree with them. And it means I will try not to make derogatory comments on social media, or ‘liking them’ no matter how much I may agree with them or find them amusing. To do so dishonours those who are our leaders.

But let’s be clear about this: praying for and honouring does not mean endorsing. Being a good citizen does not mean acquiescing when I believe that something is wrong. Doing those things does not mean that I support the government. It does not mean that I cannot protest against injustice and campaign for the poor and marginalised. It does not mean I can’t write to my MP about issues that concern me (I am not sure whether I am on his blacklist now after all the letters I have written).

So don’t expect me to keep quiet about what I believe is wrong, but do expect me to be respectful, prayerful and honouring in the process.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Rant warning: please can we remember that Prime Minister is two words. It irritates me no end when it is reduced to Pry-Minister by lazy reporters on the telly. Harrumph.