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

champion

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I was at a Church Meeting last night (and was immensely blessed by the experience). As a frequent ‘outside observer’ of Church Meetings I have a few ‘hunches’ (not caused by uncomfortable seating):

The way a room is set out may have a correlation with the mood of the meeting. If those leading the meeting are sat behind tables at the front it may suggest that there is likely to be confrontation. If everyone is in rows facing the front it may inhibit discussion. If the room is set out with people in a circle (or a version of a circle depending on numbers and space) it might encourage people to listen to one another more because they are facing each other.

Church Meetings that describe themselves as ‘Church Business Meetings’ have a different atmosphere to those that don’t. If it’s a formal business-style meeting then the approach (with proposers and seconders and lots of voting) may lend itself to more business-style topics. I have not done any research on this but my hunch is that those that are described as ‘Church Business Meetings’ may lead with things like finance and the running of the church rather than what church is really there for. And those meetings can feel more like democratic meetings where strident majority views carry the day rather than discernment meetings where we listen to the small uncertain voice as well as the loud.

Another hunch is that where a Church Meeting is explicitly a discernment process, seeking to listen for what God is saying to the church through one another, the focus of the meeting is likely to be more about mission and serving the community. Those meetings are often characterised by the number of times the meeting prays together about issues and different ways of listening to the gathered community other than just be plenary discussion. And everyone’s comments are listened to and respected because they could be the one God is speaking through.

Last night’s meeting included an epiphany for me. Quite often in the meeting there was a request for people to ‘pray about this’. That’s brilliant. That’s how churches should operate. And we did pray during the meeting. However I wonder how many of those ‘pray about this’ issues remained with people at the end of the meeting, and how many still remember them this morning?

I was given the opportunity at the end of the meeting to feed back to the church what I had experienced (this is something I often do – with permisssion – as a visitor). I remarked on how often we had been encouraged to ‘pray about this’ and wondered whether it might be worth having someone in the meeting designated to record the points for prayer. At the end of the meeting they could remind the meeting about these things (things to thank God for as well as requests) so that the meeting could do what it had been asked to do, and then perhaps those prayer items could be circulated to the church membership for them to continue to be in prayer about them. Of the cuff I suggested that they could perhaps be the ‘Prayer Champion’ and I am not convinced about the name, but I am warming up to the concept.

If you’re in a church that holds meetings, what are they like?

Be blessed, be a blessing

satnav software problem

My satnav is an invaluable resource. Because it gives me live traffic updates it can navigate me around jams and queues. It has saved me hours of frustrated sitting in the car going nowhere.

But in the last few days it has irritated me. The first occasion was when it alerted me to a lengthy queue ahead and offered me a route that would be longer in distance but shorter in time. You may be wondering what’s wrong with that.

Timing.

It offered me the new route just as I went past the exit it was recommending and the queue started just around the corner. Why didn’t it tell me earlier?

The second was this morning when as I was happily going along a route I use regularly I turned off onto an exit only to find myself joining a lengthy queue on the slip road and beyond. Why didn’t it warn me? Was it sulking because I was unhappy with it at the weekend?

As I reflect on both situations I think there’s a common problem. A software problem.

image

Me.

You see I think, on reflection, that in the first case the satnav probably did offer me an alternative route sooner than I realised but because I was wearing sunglasses I couldn’t see it clearly. In the second situation I did hear the satnav say something but assumed it was telling me to turn off rather than keep going. I wasn’t listening properly because I was confident in my own ability.

I make the same mistakes with God. Sometimes I ignore him or I am distracted by other things or I am overconfident in my own ability. And then I wonder why he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.  Note to self: pay more attention to God and my satnav.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

radio control

IMGP0410My sailing boat is radio-controlled (It’s the one with the green hull). I have discovered that there are two types of radio control units. The radio signal from my controller tells the receiver unit in the boat what I want it to do and the boat responds. But the two types of controller are different:

One, the type I have, is analogue and the signals are broadcast over a particular frequency but in a way that any other boat that is tuned into the same frequency will also receive the same instructions. So I have to have a second set of crystals tuned to a different frequency to change over in that event.

The other type of control system is digital. The controller and receiver are linked together in a unique way and nothing else shares that unique ‘signature’. There is no interference, no fear that someone else might be affected by my transmitter.

In my mind it’s the difference between a loud hailer and a mobile phone. A loud hailer (megaphone) broadcasts loud and clear to anyone and everyone in the vicinity. Anyone can hear what is being said. A mobile phone has a unique number and only the person who has that phone can receive what is being said (unless they are on a train in which case everyone hears).

Sometimes God speaks in the same way as an analogue signal, or a loud hailer. His words and thoughts are for everyone to hear. An appreciation of his creativity is available to anyone who looks at the wonders of nature. An awareness of his love for us and how much he values us is available to anyone who cares to read a Bible (if you never have I suggest you start with one of the Gospels – Luke is my favourite). A sense of awe about who he is available to anyone who attends a service in church or who gets to look at the night sky without any light pollution. You get the idea.

But sometimes he speaks with a digital signal, through direct phone number. Those words are specifically for us. The amazing thing is that sometimes that comes even when I am listening to a wider ‘broadcast’ from him. Specific words and thoughts come through to me (perhaps in the same way that my boat receives and responds to the analogue signals intended for it). And sometimes the words come to me through a person who unwittingly says exactly what I needed to hear. And sometimes they come as I read the Bible and see words that were written thousands of years ago that are exactly relevant to me today (not surprising if the One who inspired them is also the One to whom I am trying to listen).

But, as I said in my earlier bloggage, the art is to be listening to him. He never stops broadcasting analogue and digital signals. My job is to tune in to him, to be receptive to him and to respond.

Be blessed, be a blessing

can you hear him?

This next few days are very busy and my opportunities to inflict bloggages on you will be limited, so this will have to do for a while. Let me explain why…

Today I am planning to enjoy a day off. I am planning to go sailing with Sally (model yacht sailing) and this evening I will be with my friends at Mid Essex Magical Society.

Tomorrow I am spending the day in Newport Pagnell in a meeting that will be making recommendations about the level of support that can be given to churches that cannot afford a Minister on their own. And in the evening I will be at a leaders’ meeting for one of the 60 churches I serve.

On Thursday I will be at Spurgeon’s College Conference. It’s the annual get together for students (former and current) who have trained at the College and this year the incoming President is Juliet Kilpin who I believe is one of the prophets of our day – speaking out for those whom society (and churches) often ignore.

Friday will be spent catching up on emails that will have flooded in over the next 3 days and in preparation for our EBA Annual Assembly which will be taking place in Felixstowe over the weekend. I hope too to spend some time reading and reflecting before travelling to Felixstowe.

Saturday is the main day of the Assembly and there will be lots of opportunities for conversations with people, seminars to attend where I can learn, meetings to enable through the medium of PowerPoint, magic to perform in the afternoon free space, all age worship to enjoy, and an England football match to enjoy or endure.

Sunday will conclude the Assembly in the morning with a service, and then it’s a drive across the country to collect our daughter from University.

Then on Monday it’s some more meetings and in the evening I have my interview at the Magic Circle – part of the application process for me joining the prestigious organisation.

But just because I am not expecting many opportunities to write bloggages, it does not mean that I won’t be looking out for what God is saying to me. I fully expect to encounter him in all of the scheduled activities I have mentioned, and also in the gaps in between. In fact it’s often in the gaps that I find God speaks more obviously.

For example, he’s speaking through the dawn chorus at the moment as I type – reminding me that Jesus said that if God cares for a sparrow, how much more does he care for me? He speaks through the calmness and gentleness of quiet moments, encouraging me to relax in him. He speaks through a song on the radio as I am driving. He speaks through an unexpected encounter with someone while I am out in the street. He’s always speaking: the question is whether I am listening.

soundI am going to post a second bloggage today that reflects on sailing my boat, which I hope will expand on this thought. In the meantime be blessed and be a blessing.

 

to vote or de-vote?

Embed from Getty Images

This week I voted. It did not take long. It was not difficult. It was an election for my local Police and Crime Commissioner. The ‘campaign’ has been very low key around here – no leaflets, no phone calls, no posters. I had to look up the candidates for myself in order to make a decision about where to put my ‘x’. If I hadn’t had a polling card I would not have known there was an election at all.

It was tempting to think that my vote won’t make a difference: why should I put myself out by walking around the corner to the local school that was hosting the polling station – it’s only one vote, after all. That thought did cross my mind this morning, but then I dismissed it. Not just because if we all thought like that then nobody would get elected, or even the thought that there are countries where the people are denied that privilege, and when they are given it they vote enthusiastically. There was a bit more thought than that. I have written to my MP several times recently: about the clearing of part of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, about the way that our Government could do more to help those fleeing persecution, and most recently about the ‘Dubs amendment’ to the Immigration Bill. But if I don’t participate in the democratic process as fully as possible (with whatever flaws I might think it has) then it’s much more difficult for me to voice my opinion with as much integrity as I would like. If my voice is to mean anything then I feel that I should vote.

Of course democracy is not really mentioned in the Bible. Nobody voted for Moses or Joshua, or the Judges, or the absolute monarchs of the Old Testament. In the New Testament nobody voted for Caesar, or any of the Herods, or even Pilate, Felix, Festus or King Agrippa. And the appointment of the early church leaders seemed to have more to do with whether they had known Jesus and the length of a straw (or whatever ‘casting lots’ meant) than democracy.

I believe that democracy has no place in the church (even though it’s the best (or least worst) political process). Don’t get too hot under the collar just yet, please read on because, as we all confess as good Baptists, I believe that if we vote in a Deacons’ or Church Meeting we are not voting democratically (although it looks similar) we are seeking to express what we are collectively discerning to be God’s will. Deacons’ and Church Meetings, at their best, are places where we can disagree agreeably, discuss graciously and then seek to discern wisely what God is saying to us.

In the book of Acts there are two contrasting approaches to discerning God’s will. The first is from the mouth of Gamaliel in the Sanhedrin when they were working out what to do with Peter and the Apostles who had been arrested (Acts 5):

34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’

I have often heard Gamaliel’s wisdom commended as a good example of how to deal with a tricky situation. But to me it seems like a cop-out. He did not commit himself to discerning God’s will, he hedged his bets: he uses ‘if’ twice in the last two verses. (As an aside I note that the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before they released them, just to make a point and the Apostles rejoiced because they had been considered worthy of suffering for the Gospel).

Then there’s Acts 15 – the Council of Jerusalem – where the Christians tried to work out how Jewish God wanted you to be to follow Jesus. People of opposing views shared their opinions and then they discerned together (we don’t know how) and decided:

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

I love the phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” as that, to me, seems to capture the essence of how a Deacons’ or Church Meeting should come to a conclusion. Whether or not votes are cast in order to help us discern, at the end we should all affirm “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” and then work to put that into action – even if it’s not our own personal preference – because we believe we have collectively listened to God through each other and heard what he wants. And that’s where Gamaliel’s words, with a slight alteration, make more sense: “But because it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

one small voice

One of my guilty pleasures is supporting Ipswich Town Football Club. It’s good for humility and helps me learn to cope with disappointment. A couple of times a year I like to go to watch them at their home ground, and I like getting there early to watch the preparations for the match – watching the teams ‘warm up’ (if I had warmed up as vigorously as that before a match when I used to play I would have been worn out before we started); seeing the grounds staff set up sprinklers (secretly hoping to squirt one of the opposition players as they warm up – it happened once) and then sort out any rogue divots before the match starts; seeing the interaction between the Ipswich Town mascots (Bluey and Crazee (usually messing around too)) and the crowd; and generally soaking up the atmosphere.

wpid-wp-1428480027272.jpeg
Crazee

2013-03-02 15.57.02

When you arrive early there are not many people in the stadium. If I tried shouting a football chant or cheering nobody outside the ground would hear me – very few people in the stadium would hear me, and those who did might move away a bit. But slowly the ground fills up and the noise level rises. Then, during the match, when the crowd chants together or cheers people a long way away from the ground will hear them. Indeed I have been told that when there were Sunday lunchtime matches a nearby church had to make sure they finished their services before the match started otherwise they would be drowned out by the crowd.

I was reminded of that this morning when I got an email. This is what it said:

Dear Nick Lear,

Parliament is going to debate the petition you signed – “Jeremy Hunt to resume meaningful contract negotiations with the BMA.”.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/121262

The debate is scheduled for 21 March 2016.

Once the debate has happened, we’ll email you a video and transcript.

Thanks,
The Petitions team
UK Government and Parliament

On my own my voice would not have been heard. But when lots of people collectively gather together and raise their voice it can be heard and can make a difference. I think it’s part of what we call ‘democracy’. But if lots of small voices hadn’t spoken up nothing would have happened.

(I also wrote to my MP about the Refugee Crisis in Calais and got a letter back on official Houses of Parliament headed paper – but sadly it was a stock reply that didn’t answer any of the points I made. Still, at least my voice was raised and perhaps if lots of voices speak together someone might listen).

It’s funny how many Baptist churches think that they are democracies because they vote in Church Meetings. People think that it’s all about a majority of people getting their way. Yes, we believe that God speaks through a Church Meeting. Yes, one of the mechanisms for seeking to discern God’s voice is through voting. But it’s not a democracy because God doesn’t always speak through a majority. Part of the art of leading a church is to listen for God in the small voices as well as the loud ones. We also have to listen to him speaking through the unexpected, unanticipated person. We have to listen for him in the still small voice. And when we sense him speaking, it makes sense for us to stop and listen because he seems to enjoy speaking through the small, marginalised, apparently insignificant…

Consider Samuel hearing God speak when he was a small boy; Elijah in the cave sensing God in a gentle whisper rather than an earthquake, storm or wildfire; Mary the pregnant teenager; and of course the carpenter’s son from the back of beyond.

Your small voice can make a difference, and it might be that God is speaking through you. He might want you to join your small voice with others. So don’t be silent. And when lots of small voices join together sometimes the powerful stop and listen (which is a lesson to learn both if you are a small voice or if you are powerful).

Be blessed, be a blessing