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

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

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