Archive for January, 2012

Speaking of watching your step…

Wow, there are times that you would love to just crawl back in bed and start the day over. This is one of them. Shortly after posting a blog about the Elephant Room, I received an email from a friend, who had received one from another friend, pointing out an enormous and careless error on my part–the post that I critiqued was by Bryan Crawford Loritts, not Crawford Loritts of The Gospel Coalition.

This was a very serious and careless mistake on my part. Although I doubt that Crawford Loritts will ever hear of my post, I want to apologize as publicly as I made the criticisms. I’ve trashed the other post because I need to do a major re-write of it given this significant error. Bryan said things that deserve to be challenged, so I may replace it with a new one. For now, though, the important thing is for me to correct the record clearly.

I also apologize to the readers of this blog for my carelessness. I’m humbled by the reminder of the Preacher’s statement about dead flies right now (Eccl 10:1).

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Pray like you mean it.

 

We finished off our church’s Prayer Week yesterday afternoon with a wonderful time of praise to the Lord through song and testimonies, followed by worship at the Lord’s Table. There are times when my heart just melts as I stand before our congregation as they sing full-hearted praise to the Lord. We closed the praise service with “My Jesus, Fair”, a song which our congregation has come to love very much. The last verse is absolutely powerful as it proclaims the triumph of Jesus Christ—“My Jesus, strong, shall come to reign, to reign in majesty—the Lamb arose and death is slain. Lord, come in victory!” What a glorious day that will be.

Yesterday morning we spent time thinking about three prayers recorded in the OT. Two of them were by Hezekiah (Isaiah 37 and 38) and the third by Nehemiah (1:4-11). The specific focus of our attention was the way in which each man framed his petition before God; specifically that they joined reasons for God to answer to their requests. They were earnestly seeking God about a matter that they considered very important, so they boldly expressed its importance to God.

I’ll not re-preach the message here, but I do want to lay out three possible reasons why I think we, in our day, don’t pray like these men prayed: (1) spiritual—we don’t sense the seriousness of our situation like they did; (2) theological—we don’t genuinely believe that prayer makes a difference in the outcome of things; and/or (3) methodological—we have learned bad habits of prayer that reduce it to something like reading a list to God attached to a few “bless them” and “be with them” type prayer clichés.

The main focus I intended for the sermon was to address the third problem. The other two are vitally important problems to be faced, but unless we move on to the third we will almost never pray the way we ought to pray. I’m burdened about the state of prayer among contemporary believers (which includes me!) in that it seems that a lot of our praying is so lifeless and cold. It can almost seem, at times, as if we don’t really care whether we receive the things for which we are asking. I should be clear about the fact that this is not unique to our day. Consider what Charles Haddon Spurgeon had to say in the 19th century about his day:

a great many people play at praying, it is nothing better. I say they play at praying, they do not expect God to give them an answer, and thus they are mere triflers, who mock the Lord. He who prays in a business-like way, meaning what he says, honors the Lord. The Lord did not play at promising, Jesus did not sport at confirming the word by His blood, and we must not make a jest of prayer by going about it is a listless unexpecting spirit (“Pleading,” in Twelve Sermons on Prayer, p. 51).

His concern is mine. I define pleading with God in prayer as fervently presenting our requests before God along with reasons for God to answer those requests. Requests plus reasons. Too often we simply run through a list of requests, but don’t take time to talk with God about the reasons we are asking for these things. Unless we are praying in a completely mindless way, we have reasons, so it is important that we express them in prayer.

Why is it important to join reasons to our requests? It is tied to the very nature of prayer. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines of prayer as “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” The front end of that has two parts: “our desires” and “things agreeable to his will.” If we don’t truly desire the things we seek from God, then our prayer lacks sincerity. If we desire things that are contrary to God’s will or without regard for God’s will, then our prayer lacks integrity.

Identifying the reasons which support our request pushes us to subject our desires to the light of God’s Word. This can have the effect of purifying and intensifying them. We are more confident that what we seek is in line with God’s revealed will, and that ought to stir us to seek it more fervently. It produces more thoughtful, focused praying, and focus is an essential aspect of fervency in prayer.

Let me encourage you, therefore, to consider whether you need to slow down your prayer life a little in order to deepen and strengthen it. Instead of running down your prayer list in order to make it quickly through, pause to think about what exactly it is that you’re seeking from the Lord and why, based on Scripture, you are seeking it from Him. Make specific, meaningful requests that spring from God-centered, Scripture-saturated reasons.

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Moralism or Allegory? Are these the only options?

I am a pastor who wants to preach God’s Word faithfully. I also happen to teach preaching to seminary students who also want to preach God’s Word faithfully. I want, by God’s grace, to teach them well and help them “rightly divide the Word of truth” for God’s glory. I spend, therefore, a lot of time studying hermeneutics and homiletics. I am very thankful for the influences in my life that shepherded me toward expositional preaching by example and training. I am also very thankful that we live in a day with a renewed emphasis on expositional preaching, and that this emphasis is not satisfied with technical accuracy, but longs for Christ-honoring exposition of the sacred text. We live in a great day to learn how to preach.

One important discussion about preaching which is happening in our day is about how we read the Bible. In an over-simplified way, that discussion focuses on whether we read the Bible as being about us or whether we read it as being about Christ. I say over-simplified because I think that framing the discussion like this is an unhelpful false dichotomy. Is it about Christ? Absolutely, it is. Is it about us? Absolutely, it is. It is not about Christ to the exclusion of us, nor about us to the exclusion of Christ.

I completely agree with the critique of some preaching that it ends up being not much more than moralistic self-help. I don’t think, however, that the proper answer to this is to swing the hermeneutical pendulum toward spiritualization and allegorization. There is New Testament warrant for seeing, for instance, Old Testament texts as addressing the kind of life believers should live (cf. 1 Cor 10:6 “so that we would not crave” and 1 Cor 9:10 “for our sakes it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope”). And there is clear, direct statement in the New Testament that the “Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

This post is prompted by a video done by Matt Chandler promoting the Gospel Project. Now, I’m not familiar enough with that project to opine on its value, so don’t read this post as making comment on it. The video is what caught my attention and evokes my concern. In it, Chandler sets up the kind of false dichotomy that is becoming much too common and popular, even choosing to illustrate it with the same biblical account that is used by Timothy Keller and others—David and Goliath. In a nutshell, Chandler’s point is that we aren’t David, Jesus is. Goliath isn’t the problems in your life, he represents sin and death.  IOW, you can either read the Bible as being about you or about Jesus.

What Chandler does, though, is leave us with only moralism or allegory as the options, neither of which is an acceptable approach to the Scriptures. It isn’t about how we can kill the giants in our lives, but it also isn’t an allegory about Jesus and sin. (Chandler’s appeal to the shadows mentioned in Colossian 2 misses the mark considerably since v. 16 tells us what things were shadows—food, drink, festivals, new moons, Sabbath days.) Read in its literary context, the account of David and Goliath is showing us why David was chosen by God to be the next king and precisely where Saul failed so badly. God called David “a man after [His] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) because David was confident in the Lord’s promises and committed to the Lord’s glory. Saul, on the other hand, did not trust the Lord and was committed to his own safety and kingdom more than God’s. The trajectories for the two men are going opposite directions and cross paths in 1 Samuel 17.

Does reading the text this way result in moralism? Not at all, because the center of the story is God—the battle is the Lord’s! David provides a pattern of trusting God, not self-effort or works. God uses people who trust Him enough to risk their lives for His glory. God’s leaders should be that kind of person because He is that kind of God. Does reading the text this way exclude Christ? Not necessarily. Setting the text within its larger contexts will lead us to Christ—the historical books leave us longing for a better King than any we find in them; the ultimate victory will be provided for by God because the battle is His. Is Christ sometimes ignored? Sadly, yes. In fact, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this. The answer, though, is not to position Christ as the allegorical key to interpreting the Scriptures. That shifts the authority away from the text of Scripture to the creative thinking of the interpreter, and that kind of shift is neither proper nor profitable.

P.S. I recently preached on 1 Samuel 17 in a college chapel, so perhaps it can serve as a test case for those wishing to examine this further. I don’t think I reduced the text to moralism, but perhaps those of you more attuned to that will differ with me. If you think so, I’d welcome your critique to help me see where I’m mistaken on this. As I said above, I am a preacher and I teach preaching, so this is not a theoretical discussion to me. I want to handle the Word properly and help others do so as well. If I’m mistaken, I want to change. I don’t think I am, but I’m open to challenge on it.

Addendum: After I had written the post above I received two emails with a link to a post by Mike Riccardi addressing the same video and subject. Mike says many of the same things I do plus more. I’d encourage you to read it.

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One of These Things is Not Like the Other Ones…

From Russell Moore:

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8-16).

After all, while Phillip was leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, Saul of Tarsus was still a murderer.

What is it about Teresa that puts her on a list along with Edwards, Wesley, Graham, and Spurgeon? Personally, I don’t think Graham belongs in that list, but that’s a debate for another time. The real question, in my mind, is how can a conservative evangelical include Teresa on a list like this? Does Russell Moore believe that Teresa’s life represents the transforming power of God’s Spirit? Is there some evidence somewhere that she renounced the false gospel of works salvation? I’ve not seen it, but I’ve seen pretty clear arguments to the contrary.

I hope this was a careless mistake by Moore. It ought to be corrected. I fear it is too common a mistake among those who wish to expand the mission of the church into the kind of work that Teresa did. It certainly represents a dangerous tendency, as I’ve written previously.

What I wrote above was actually done on Monday, but I didn’t want to drop a post right on top of the one about prayer, so I waited until this morning. It seemed wise to check back on Moore’s post to see if he had updated it or made any corrections that would influence this post by me. To my chagrin, not only is there nothing by Moore to clarify, there are plenty of commenters who defend what he has done against the concerns expressed by others.

I’d encourage you to read Moore’s defenders in the comment section for a real time illustration of what is wrong with evangelicalism. The defenses range from the typical “well, he didn’t really say that” argument down to claiming that the book of James somehow backs up his inclusion of Teresa in that list. It is encouraging, though, to see objections as well. The state of things is very muddled and won’t get any better while leading evangelicals hold up folks like Teresa as examples of the Spirit’s work to transform lives and provide leadership for the church.

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Devoted to Prayer

It is our custom as a church, at least for the past 16 years, to mark off a week near the beginning of the year as Prayer Week and give special attention to congregational prayer. It runs from Sunday to Sunday, concluding with an afternoon praise service that God always uses to encourage hearts. I use the sermons during prayer week to direct our attention to matters related to personal and/or congregational prayer, but also matters generally related to our devotion to God and service for Him. We don’t do “revival meetings” as a church, but this week always serves as a great time of spiritual renewal at the start of the year.

I love the prayer meetings we have during Prayer Week. Each morning we gather in two groups (men and women) at 6:30 to pray for about 50 minutes. We prepare a prayer sheet built on the acrostic P-R-A-Y (praise, revival, ask, yield), with Scripture and suggested items under each section. I’ve not be in the ladies group, but with the men we make only a few comments at the beginning and then dive into prayer. We work our way through each section with men leading the group as God puts it into their heart to do so. I tell the men at the beginning that I will pray at the transitions between sections so they know it is time to move into the next one. The prayer time flows seamlessly and passes very quickly as we seek the Lord together. After we finished praying as a large group, we break into pairs to pray for each other before head off for the day.

We also have a Concert of Prayer during the midweek service. That name is drawn from Jonathan Edwards’ call for prayer. We cancel all of the regular ministries that happen on Wednesday night so that we can gather everybody together for prayer. We devote the entire time to prayer, some of which is expressed in song to the Lord. The basic format involves praying with a partner, in a small group, and as a full assembly. That requires some organized chaos near the beginning of the meeting where I ask folks to find a partner and then join a group of six to eight people. We separate the men and women on different sides of our auditorium, something which is not necessary, but seems to produce a more comfortable arrangement for praying together.

I lead the Concert from the pulpit, giving some brief instructions about prayer and presenting the subject about which we will pray. I’ll ask them to pray together as partners for a specific topic, and then let them do so for a few minutes. I’ll present a subject for prayer in their groups, and have them pray together for 5-7 minutes. Following the group prayer, we’ll have 1-3 folks lead the entire congregation in prayer for another set of requests. We cycle through this format (partners—group—assembly) at least twice during the course of the prayer meeting. Generally, the first time through focuses on spiritual renewal in our personal lives (partners), congregation (groups), and among Bible believing churches in our area (assembly). The second time focuses on the spread of the gospel through our personal witness (partners), congregational ministries (groups), and missions (assembly). Following each cycle we sing a song directed toward the Lord as expression of our desire to serve Him.

This year we also have used the first two Sunday nights of the year for prayer meetings, mingling prayer in small groups along with having designated men lead us in prayer for specific requests that they were given in advance. There are few things that encourage my heart as much as listening to an auditorium full of people praying together for God’s work and blessing on our lives and congregation. We pray in small groups for a few minutes every Sunday evening, but there is something powerful and refreshing about spending a full hour in prayer together. It’s good for our souls, draws us closer together, and exalts the Lord.

The words of Paul to the Colossians constantly challenge me, “Devote yourselves to prayer…” (Col 4:2a). He’s writing to a congregation, so we should hesitate before we immediately jump to the conclusion that this is a call for private devotions. I think he means that the church was to be devoted together to prayer. We’ve got a long way to go, but by God’s grace, we want to be that kind of church. May He graciously pour out the Spirit of grace and supplication on us and beyond for His glory!

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