Monthly Archives: January 2014

No End in Sight

5660034145_79fe2136d7In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins the his teaching on prayer with the words, “and when you pray,” setting his followers on a course of prayer.  “When you pray” is almost a command as it assumes an individual and corporate practice of prayer such that Jesus only needs to give it shape.

Prayer is very much on my mind as I think about the foundation we lay for this new church in Worcester and how to inculcate both an ethos and specific practices of prayer.

I feel both equipped and inadequate to do this as I’ve had teachers, mentors, and friends who have taught me much about prayer.  On the other hand, a quote from an old scottish pastor, Robert, Murray M’Cheyne, comes to mind.  “You wish to humble a man?  Ask him about his prayer life.” My hope is that the remainder of this post will be teach and humble you as it does me.  I remember the advice of a seasoned pastor who told me to put my thoughts and plans in writing as it forces clarity.  Even in this writing I learn and am challenged to grow.

1.  “Our” – The Lord’s Prayer assumes that we are always praying with and for our fellow siblings who also call on God as father.  I was alerted to this first word and the plural language that runs through the prayer – “us,” “we,” “our” – by a seminary professor who spoke of the global implications of these small words.  I never simply ask for my daily bread, forgiveness for my debts, or rescue from my temptations.  I must pray with all of God’s church in mind, knowing that we have been joined together in Christ.  This corporate language deepens my prayer life as the seemingly basic petitions of the Lord’s prayer take on new meaning when I think of the needs, flaws, and hopes of the Church.  It also should push me to pray with others.   While it is appropriate to say the “our,” “us,” and “we” alone it makes more sense to do so with God’s people.

2.  In Matthew 18 Jesus states, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”  While this verse appears in a specific context, I believe that there is a wider application in that Christ is uniquely present among his people as they gather, seeking to align themselves with his will.  This principle should lead us to pray together with great expectancy and hope of encountering Jesus.

3.  When Christians pray together it can both amplify and challenge our self-centeredness.  If, for example, you gather a group of people who’s individual prayer lives are characterized by an excessive focus on health, comfort, or success, you will simply have this dynamic perpetuated on a grander scale.  It could actually be worse because rather than having a few minutes of primarily self-centered prayer you’ll have a much larger stretch in which adoration of God, confession of sin, and pleading for the advance of God’s kingdom is neglected.  On the other hand if there is one person whose prayers have a broader orientation beyond themselves this can alter the dynamic of the whole meeting.  Our self-preoccupation can be so powerfully exposed by prayers of praise, repentance, longing for God, and pleading for his ways which arise from the lips of fellow believers.  There are all sorts of bad patterns* we can get into when it comes to prayer and praying with other believers is a way to break the cycle.

4.  When Christians join for pray, an excellent way to avoid bad patterns is to pray God’s word.  This could mean praying a Psalm or portions of it word for word (which Jesus did);  paraphrasing a section of scripture and adapting it to the current situation; or remembering a narrative from the bible and drawing out themes to inform prayer.  While this may sound like it would lead to a dull or dry prayer time it is just the opposite.  Praying the bible brings a richer understanding of who God is, more balanced requests, more emotionally robust experience, and incredible certainty that God is listening.

5.  When we pray together it is a wonderful opportunity to know God in new ways.  When others pray we gain a glimpse of the unique way in which each child relates to the father.  Consider this quote from C.S. Lewis

“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God.  For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”

The language, tone, emotion, and posture of another believer’s prayer helps me to know more of God and to better understand prayer.  This happens especially as other Christians pray according to God’s word (see #3).

6.  As Christians pray together they grow in unity.  The subtext of prayer is our insufficiency, our need of God to act, our need of forgiveness, and our unmet longings.  When you embrace this vulnerability it invites those praying with you to greater intimacy and a deeper level of trust. It is impossible to open your heart to God in prayer together without in some measure opening yourself to others.  In a similar vein, when our prayers are directed beyond ourselves to God’s great purposes in this world, we are brought to further unity by our common mission.  If each person in the church is primarily focused on getting his or her needs met we will often find ourselves irreconcilably opposed to each other.  However, when we each submit ourselves to God’s purposes and plead together for one common goal, we are reminded of and actually join in pursuit of the church’s true end.

7.  When Christians pray together it is easier to pray for longer periods of time.  While there is not virtue per say in a longer prayers, there are many biblical examples of earnest prayer that continues for an extended period of time (Daniel 9; Acts 1-2).  On my own I am more easily distracted and can run out of things for which to pray.  But I pray with other Christians I am stirred up by their prayers, view more of God’s character and mission, find greater boldness, and am renewed in my ability to pray.

*Praying for our needs is commanded by Jesus (Matthew 6:11) but is only one aspect of our prayer lives.  The problem isn’t in praying for ourselves but in becoming preoccupied with ourselves.  Other bad patterns are: hypocrisy, empty repetition, emotional imbalance (too much or not enough joy, fear, love, sadness, etc.).

Signs of life – The “Quiet Revival” in Boston

It was four, maybe five years ago when I heard from some fellow pastors of the “quiet revival” in Boston.  “Revival” can have all sorts of connotations but I had never heard it paired with “quiet” and was particularly surprised that it was in Boston.  The following definition is from the Emmanuel Gospel Center, a Christian organization engaged in applied research, consultation, and program development in the city

The Quiet Revival is an unprecedented and sustained period of Christian growth in the city of Boston beginning in 1965 and persisting for nearly five decades. The number of churches in Boston has doubled during this period, though the population is about the same now as then. Today, Boston’s Christian church community is characterized by a growing unity, increased prayer, maturing church systems, and a strong and trained leadership. The spiritual vitality of churches birthed during the Quiet Revival has spread, igniting additional church development and social ministries in the region and across the globe.

The above link has more detailed materials and you can find an article in Christianity Today on the same topic.  This revival is “quite” in a few ways:

First, it is primarily occurring among and driven by minorities.  In general it is not the large historic church with the steeple led by a highly educated and professional WASP man but the store front church who’s sign is in Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, or is in English with clear ethnic ties.  Second, there is not a personality, denomination, or organization that is sponsoring, organizing, or providing the driving force to this work of God.  Third, it has happened gradually and like most gradual changes it is easy to overlook.  If you’re going by impressions versus data, have a narrow time frame for analysis, or lack continuity of contacts over the years.  Fourth, the establishment of new congregations has played a major role in this movement.  These congregations can easily exist under the radar as the outward evidences of a church may not be so clear (building, meeting on Sunday morning etc).  Consider this next quote from Emmanuel Gospel Center

The pervasive mental model of what the Church in Boston looked like, at least from the perspective of white Evangelicals, needed major revision. To open our arms wide to the people of God, to embrace the whole Body of Christ, all of us, black and white, needed to repent of our prejudices and look for the places where God, through his Holy Spirit, was at work in our city. We learned to define “church” to include all those who love the Lord Jesus Christ, who have a high view of Scripture, and who wholeheartedly agree to the historic creeds, regardless of doctrinal distinctives, denomination, language, race, ethnicity, age, or neighborhood.

This quiet revival has impacted us in a couple different ways:
First, it is an encouragement that God is able and willing to work in places that others consider spiritually cold or dead.  Ministry in New England has significant challenges and looking at God’s work in Boston over the past fifty years helps me to stick it out when I feel discouraged.  I am pushed to grow in expectancy and ask for God to do great things in Worcester.
Second, I directly benefit from the quiet revival as I meet monthly with a group of church planters from my denomination who are serving in Boston and connect with other believers in the city.  At one of the meetings a seasoned pastor who has been in the city for a number of years said, “guys, these are exciting times to be involved in ministry here.  God is doing something and we are going to look back and realize that in some small way we were part of it.”  I can learn from and in some way, soak in what is happening in Boston.
Third, when we were considering Worcester as the place where God might call us to begin new church, I spent time talking with clergy in the city.  When these different ministers spoke of the spiritual climate of Worcester and what God was doing, particularly among minorities, there were echoes of what has been seen in Boston.  This was a significant factor in bringing us to Worcester, as we had been asking God to bring us to a place where he was already at work.  As we’ve been here now five months I, along with others, see more indications that God is doing something in Worcester that is similar to what has been happening in Boston.
Fourth, the dynamics of the quiet revival encourage me to form partnerships with ministers and churches of different ethnic backgrounds.  This should happen anyway as Jesus is the one who reconciles diverse people to God and thus to each others. Even more though I am reminded of my need for the larger body of Christ.  I need to learn from these brothers and sisters in Christ who seem to be more more aligned with what God is doing.  I don’t want to overlook or miss out joining in a movement of God in the city because I am unwilling to look and connect to those different than me.

Better late… resolutions

With the holidays I’ve been a little off in my writing schedule, but I’m back on the horse.  In the New Year I tend to think about resolutions and all that is bound up in making them (or not) so here are some thoughts…

Implicit in the whole prospect of making resolutions is this great hope that we can change.  Somehow as the clock turns there is the possibility that we can take on new patterns, yet we all know how often we fail. The New Year is this small window into the distance between who we hope to be, who we actually are, and the difficulty of moving from here to there.

Second, we all need to reflect.  There is a line from Psalm 90 that says, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  This occurs in the  context of our brevity in light of God’s transcendence and the goal of accomplishing something with our lives.  We have performance reviews with our bosses, audits of companies, state of the union addresses, report cards, and curriculum reviews at all levels.  The individual Christian and the church as a whole need to reflect on where we have been and where we are going since we have a purpose and limited time to accomplish it.  Also in this line from the Psalms we see a bias against reflection and awareness of our passing days.  God needs to teach us to number our days.  It is hard to look at our lives, measure where we are versus where God wants us to be, and how we might get there.  For some of us it will be easier and for others harder, but I don’t think you can get around it.

Third, for me goals are better for the new year and resolutions for all of life.  “Resolution” speaks of purposeful commitment to a certain norm or value that is larger than a specific behavior, while a goal is an expression of a resolution.  A resolution is to live a healthy lifestyle while a goal is to work out three times a week.  I see this in the resolutions of Jonathan Edwards which chart this course for his life.  Personally there is the broader framework of who God wants me to be and specific goals for each year along three major axis: personal, professional, and family.  There are subcategories under each of these which flesh out some of the particulars and give strategic elements of how I’ll get there.  This is my second year of doing it this way and we’ll see how it goes.

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