Monday, 18 September 2017

Praying on the edge

Sometimes, our most powerful prayers rise up to God when we feel we're standing on the edge of a steep cliff with nowhere to go but down.

Why is that?

Perhaps because we have no other options but depending entirely on God.  Perhaps because the results of our prayers will bring glory to God.  Perhaps because the answer to prayer fits into a larger story than just this moment of desperation.

The prayer of the young Jewish captive Daniel in Daniel 2 is a good example.

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had a bad dream one night and challenged his astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed as well as the meaning of the dream.  It was a supreme test because none of the astrologers could guess what the king had dreamed.

Daniel and his young Jewish friends, who were servants of the king, heard that they, too, were slated to die.  So Daniel asked the king for time to determine what the king had dreamed and what was the dream's interpretation.

That night, Daniel and his friends sought God's revelation of the king's dream.  God's answer came to Daniel in a vision.

When Daniel went to the king, he not only told him what the dream was but also the interpretation.  He did not claim credit for himself and his friends but gave all the glory to God.  His life and the lives of others were saved.

Daniel knew that he could not save himself.  It had to be God.  So, he went to God and after receiving the vision, he poured out praise to the Lord.

Why did God save Daniel?  Why did he allow Daniel to face this frightening test?

From the vantage point of history, the Lord had plans for the young man.  He knew Daniel's heart and his commitment to God.

The young man was on the bottom step of a life of sacrificial service to God that would stand as an example for all believers through the ages.  This incident helped shaped the man who was to become a great prophet.

We don't all go through experiences as spectacular and life-threatening as that.  But most of us run up against problems that seems overwhelming at the time.

Then, we must throw ourselves upon God in prayer, surrendering ourselves to whatever he will do.

God works best in our lives when we depend entirely on him.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Look, think, and thank

God takes thankfulness seriously, but do we?

I must say I take for granted so many blessings in my life - things that people in other countries long for.

But Jesus valued thankfulness greatly.  In Luke 17, Jesus healed 10 lepers but only one came back to thank him and give him praise.  He asked where were the other nine, noting it was a foreigner - not a Jew - who returned and gave God glory.

As well, the apostle Paul said we should give thanks in all circumstances for that is God's will for us. (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  And in Ephesians 5:20, he said we should always give thanks to God for everything.

Let's think of that for a moment.  We are called to always thank God for everything and in every circumstance - good or bad.

Charles Spurgeon, a great Baptist preacher in the 1800s, said many people "receive many blessings without making a note of them or even seeming to know that they have them".

He noted such people benefit from good health and other good things in life.  "And they live as if these things were so commonplace that they were not worth thanking God for."

How can we learn to thank God always for all things?

John Flavel, a Puritan writer in the 1600s, gives us a clue in a little gem about thankfulness which was reprinted recently in a book titled Thankfulness (Free Grace Broadcaster 190).

First, he says we should pay attention to the mercies or good things we receive.  So we should keep our eyes open to what God is giving us and doing in our lives - even in our normal routines.  We must make a conscious effort to take note of these things.

Second, we must not only see the mercies but think about them - what they are and how we received them.  This is an act of reflection, of our minds.

Third, we must value these mercies.  We must not be like the wandering Israelites in the wilderness who complained about the manna God gave them. (Numbers 11)

Fourth, we should record these mercies.  "Forgotten mercies bear no fruit," says Flavel. "A bad memory in this case makes a barren heart and life."

It is easy to forget, he admits.  But he notes the ancient Jews wrote about God's doings, recalled them in special feasts, and in other ways.

For us, we can jot these mercies down in a journal, or make a special point of recalling them frequently so that they settle down solidly in our memories.

Fifth, Flavel says "the thankful person must be suitably affected with the mercies he receives".

"Mercies are not mercies, deliverances are not deliverances to us, if we that receive them are not glad of them."

In other words, we are to meditate upon the goodness of God to the point where we rejoice in the Lord.

Finally, we are to respond to God's goodness and mercies by loving others as he loves us.

We benefit from thanking God, too.

A thankful heart is a joyful heart.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Many voices, one heart

Group prayer can be uplifting and dynamic if everyone prays as one - many voices, one heart.

A good example is Acts 12 where Peter escapes miraculously from jail after being arrested by King Herod's men for preaching the gospel.

While Peter lies in chains between two soldiers in jail, his friends are busy praying for him in a long vigil.

The result?  An angel appears in his cell, breaks the chains as the guards sleep and escorts Peter out of the jail.

His friends are so surprised when he knocks on the door of the prayer gathering that they can't believe it is him.

Dennis Fuqua uses this and a number of other examples from scripture and history to show how united group prayer can change things.  His book, United and Ignited: Encountering God through Dynamic Corporate Prayer, is a treasure trove of ideas for group prayer.

In his eyes, praying with others should focus more on seeking what God wants rather than what we want.  We should "behold him rather than just behold our circumstances".

"I am suggesting that dynamic corporate prayer has more to do with a group of people catching what is on God's heart than telling him what is on their heart," Fuqua says.

In this approach, people listen to others before praying - catching a theme and developing it with their own prayers.  They are influenced by the prayers of others and, in turn, influence the prayers of others.  The focus is on agreement and harmony.

These prayer gatherings begin with worshiping God.  They then move on to other things - perhaps personal needs or broader issues in the church or the community or the world.

Fuqua says the value of praying together in this way is that we get to know God more as we hear people pray who have a different background, personality or theological perspective.  We also understand someone else better as we hear him or her pray to the Father in a deep and personal way.

One way to bind a group closer together and deepen their spiritual understanding is to select one person to pray for himself or herself about "the one thing you would most like the Lord to do in or for you personally", writes Fuqua.

Rather than sharing the concern with others, this person and others in the group are to pray to God about aloud about it.  While one person is praying, others are listening and then join in with their own prayers about that individual's prayer concern.

"It allows a group to worship together, listen together, make common requests, and rejoice together in his answers," Fuqua says.

I have found this kind of free-flowing prayer - centred on God - can lift my spirits and build faith and hope.

And, as Jesus said in Matthew 18:19-20, he will act upon our prayers if we pray in harmony with each other and with God.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Battlefield

Stormie Omartian had a sense of foreboding about her 18-year-old daughter working that night.

So she began doing what she knew best - praying urgently and persistently.

She had reason to be worried.  Her daughter was in the middle of a frightening incident.

Omartian tells the story in her book Prayer Warrior to illustrate the spiritual battlefields Christians face when they become believers.

She states that no Christian can escape Satan's attacks on their minds, their families and their marriages. But Christians have the power to overcome these attacks through the Holy Spirit and prayer.

What happened that scary night to Omartian's daughter demonstrates how Christians can fight back effectively against Satan's malignant efforts.

That evening, Stormie's daughter agreed to go out for coffee after work with a young man she had chatted with occasionally over the previous months.  She did not know him well, but he seemed pleasant.  He suggested they could continue a conversation they had begun earlier in the evening.

They got in her car and he told her he would give directions to the coffee shop.

But the young woman began to be alarmed when he directed her onto a narrow road winding up a mountain side thick with trees.  She wanted to turn around but there was no room on the road.

She began crying, but he did not respond.  The young man, who had seemed so friendly, became cold and unfeeling.

She began praying out loud: "Jesus, help me! Jesus, save me!"

Stormie's daughter knew she might not escape this situation alive.

When they reached the top of the hill, there was a small clearing.  He told her to stop and get out of the car.  He climbed out, leaving the car door open so she could not lock the doors and escape.

She told him she was coming, but picked up her cell phone to call her mother.  She spoke in a normal voice to say she was on the way home so that he could hear - and realize someone was expecting her.

Then, she locked her door and decided to stay where she was.

As she was thinking about how to fight him, he dashed out of the darkness - terrified - and jumped into the car.  He yelled: "Go! Go! Go! There is something horrible in the woods."

He urged her to drive faster and faster - a dangerous thing to do on a narrow, unfamiliar road in the darkness.

The young man was unable to describe what he saw.

When she dropped him off at this car, he jumped out, climbed into his vehicle and roared off.  She never saw him again.

She wondered how he could see anything in the pitch-black darkness.  And why could he not describe it?  If it was an animal or a person, he would have been able to give a description.

"She told me that whatever it was in the forest, it gave her peace," Omartian writes.  "She knew it was from the Lord."

Omartian then told her how she had prayed that night.  She said she prayed for her daughter's protection and that "no weapon formed against her would prosper, and no plan of the enemy would succeed in her life".

"I prayed specifically, over and over, that the Lord would surround her with angels," she added. "At that moment we both came to the same conclusion - that whatever that man saw that suddenly weakened him with fright was sent by God."

As described in the Bible, angels can be frightening creatures - so much so, that they say "Do not be afraid" to the believers seeing them.

Omartian's prayers - and her daughter's - were answered that night.

"We went to battle in prayer and the enemy was defeated," Omartian said.

No believer is immune to attack from the evil one.

But believers have the power to resist and defeat his plans.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

In God's presence

Our pastor today shared a striking thought about praying to God.

He quoted an ancient Jewish Rabbi, Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus, who told his disciples on his death bed: "When you pray, know before whom you are standing."

Immediately, I thought: How would I react if I stood before the Lord?  What would God be like?

I would certainly not treat him in an off-hand way as I often do in my prayers.

I would be facing the Lord who terrified some great men of the Bible.  They were frightened when they entered the presence of God because they realized how sinful they were and how pure and just and good God is.

The prophet Isaiah, for instance, saw God in a vision in the temple (Isaiah 6:1-7).  God was seated on a throne, "high and exalted", surrounded by seraphs who were calling out: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."  And the temple shook and was filled with smoke.

Isaiah cried out: "Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."

A seraph flew to him with a live coal and touched Isaiah's lips, declaring his sin was atoned for.

Now, Christ has atoned for the sins of his followers, so we need not fear death in coming before the Lord.  Still, our God is not a toy, but a very impressive being - a just god as well as a loving god.

So, I am called to be reverent before the Lord, knowing how great he is and knowing that he is powerful beyond anything or anyone I can imagine.

Knowing something of this great, all-powerful god, I must listen to what he is saying to me - through the scriptures and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  I cannot treat what he says lightly - something I can throw away.

Yet, in Jesus, we see the image of the Father.  And there we see another aspect of God - his immense love and compassion.

God wants to talk with us and give us good things, as Jesus said (Matthew 7:11).

So, the writer of Hebrews tells us that we can "approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive grace and find mercy in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).

I like that idea of approaching God with confidence.  I know he loves me and wants the best for me.

Those are the two sides of the picture I have of God - awesome and yet tender and loving.

That image should shape how I pray before the Lord.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Praying in dark times

Years before the Second World War, Winston Churchill warned Britain that the Nazis were gathering a war machine to conquer England and Europe.

But political leaders at the time scoffed and sought accommodation - even sacrificing Czechoslovakia to Germany - to avoid war.  They thought they could prevent war by being nice and giving ground in hopes that Germany would be satisfied.

Are we Christians today under the illusion that the growing darkness in our world - not only political but also social and spiritual - can be stopped by hoping things will turn out well?

I believe we need to pray hard for our country and for our people.  We need to pray against creeping evil.

Above all, I believe we need to pray for ourselves as believers.  Are we part of the reason for the spreading sickness in our society?

It's interesting that God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ.

John was not a handsome superstar with an impressive resume.  He came from the wilderness, wearing skins and eating locusts and wild honey.

But he spoke truth - truth that deeply disturbed the ruling powers in the Jewish religion and politics.

He called people to repent of their sins and drew a huge following.  Ordinary people were struck to the heart by what he said and came forward to confess their sins and be baptized.

Jesus said this man was a great prophet and grieved after Herod executed him.

John's preaching opened the way for the world-changing mission of Christ.  The hearts of many were prepared by the strange prophet who urged the people to repent.

In the Old Testament, God moved in response to the repentance of his people in hard times.  In fact, he promised King Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that he would heal Israel if the Israelites humbled themselves and confessed their sin and prayed for forgiveness.

Is it time for us Christians to admit that we have turned away from God in many ways?  Are our hearts far from him?

Pressured by society, we have come to accept anti-Christian social views even among ourselves.

And if I saw Christ face to face today, I would be embarrassed because I know there is a lot of hardness in my heart.

We have become so accustomed to the way the world is that we doubt that it will - or even can - change.  But God has proved many times in human history that he can transform societies with the gospel of Jesus Christ, aided by the power of prayer.

Jesus believed in prayer.  He spent nights in prayer to the Father as he prepared for the overwhelming crowds of needy people the following day.

If he believed prayer can change things, why don't we?




Monday, 7 August 2017

Fear and prayer

I will make a bold statement: Most people fear something or someone.

"Fear influences human behaviour in many ways, and it's probably no exaggeration to say that it is at the root of most human problems," says Roy Lawrence, author of How To Pray When Life Hurts.

Can God and prayer help?  Most definitely, says Lawrence.  As a British pastor, he has helped many deal with their fears through healing prayer over the years.

I have had fears over my long life - among them fear of people, fear of the future, fear of failure. With experience and God's help, I am better able to deal with fear than I once was.

I have never been crippled with fear as some people have.  But Lawrence says that people severely affected by fear have one advantage over the rest of us - they're willing to admit they have a problem.

"Because they acknowledge their problem in a straightforward way, they have already taken the first steps along the road that can lead to healing," the author writes.

Many people do the opposite.  They try to hide their fears from others through various defence mechanisms.  They may become attention-seekers, or appear super-confident, or go into a shell and pretend indifference, or descend into fantasy.  And there are many other schemes we use.

After admitting our insecurities, Lawrence says that "we can then go to our Lord and avail ourselves of his healing resources."

There, we will find that Jesus truly understands our anxiety.  After all, he called out to the Father on the cross that he felt forsaken, alone in the face of a horrible death.

"He assures us that we are loved by God and that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18)," Lawrence says.

He continues: "How then do you pray when you are anxious and fearful?  You just meet Jesus and allow him to surround you with his own special love - and the power of that love cannot be overestimated."

Lawrence says that a medical doctor named Meryl was so emotionally afraid that she could no longer work.  Doctors felt she was incurable.

A Christian friend had searched the Bible and presented Meryl with a sheet of 22 verses about fear and God's love and asked her to read through them prayerfully morning and evening till they made a difference.

Meryl agreed and then a "slow-motion miracle" began to unfold.  In six months, she was completely healed.

It would take too much space to include all those passages in this blog entry, but anyone interested can search a Bible concordance and find verses speaking about God's love and care for his fearful creatures.

"If we are willing to be loved," says Lawrence, "God is willing to love us, and to go on and on loving until love's healing work is done."

Once healed, we can help others who are plagued with fear.