Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Voice – leading in prayer #4

4115463516_3132476487Can you listen?  Can you listen?  Close your eyes.  Don’t be distracted by your sense of sight, by the feel of your back against the metal chair, or the hum of lights overhead and traffic outside.  Ask and you will hear…

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” -Psalm 29

This recent series has been focused on leading in prayer.  I find that my thinking is clarified by having to explain what I’m doing and I hope this will be a quick introductory resource as we train leaders at our church.  This week, we’re focusing on the prayer of illumination which comes before the sermon.  I usually do this after the reading of the sermon text but will sometimes do it before the text is read so I can jump right into the sermon. Behind the prayer of illumination stands both my theology of preaching and of the bible itself.  As these are both way too big to get into you can draw conclusions based on what I say about prayer.  I’ll give seven thoughts that shape my prayers for preaching and then four examples.  These seven points will overlap and I’m sure that I don’t hit them all each week, but over time these are the things that most come up.

1. He is not silent: Christians believe in a God who has revealed himself to us.  This is a source of thanksgiving and incredible hope as we do not wander in a grey mist, but have something solid to hold which can guide us.  I thank God for making himself known and in someway try to communicate both the challenge and incredible blessing of his objective truth.

2. We are known: The drive to church, the argument at work, the hidden fears, and how these all fit together are not hidden from God.  Furthermore, God speaks to us in these circumstances.  We do not somehow magically leave our lives behind, rather the living God addresses us with all that we bring.

3. Dead ends and highways:  Each of us carries both obstacles and pathways for the gospel to enter.  We all respond to our environment and circumstances in such a way that there are unique barriers which we use to shield ourselves from God.  Similarly we each have chinks in the armor.  In thinking about a sermon text and the people who listen I try to articulate some of the obstacles to receiving God’s word and incite longing for his truth as I pray.

4.  Encounter:  Each sermon is not only a means to hear about God but encounter him.  While I sometimes remember to pray for learning, I always pray for the presence of the living Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  I forget the name but one Presbyterian theologian described the purpose of preaching as mystically encountering the risen Christ.

5.  The Spirit’s work:  I ask for the Spirit’s activity in both me as a speaker and in all who hear.  I need truth, love, conviction, appropriate emotion, and divine power.  The listener’s need protection from the evil one, hearts that are tender to receive the word of God, faith to believe, and empowerment to obey.

6. Going Viral: Whenever the word is preached it is meant to spread from the original audience in their spheres of influence.  So I pray that as we meet God and experience his grace, it will touch others through us.  This is an excellent time to pray for the many in our community who are doing other things that somehow they would be brought in contact with the life chaining message of Jesus Christ.

7. Skill:  I desperately need God’s help to preach.  Yes, there is the spiritual component.  There is all the preparation that goes beforehand, but each time I enter the pulpit there is no guarantee of eloquence, a dependable memory, or even the ability to concentrate – much less communicate as a representative of the true and living God.  So, I simply ask for help. Below are four concrete examples of prayers for illumination, our outlines.  The first is a link from a pastor in San Francisco who I heard preach while in seminary.  I listened to more of his sermons and what most struck me was the way he prayed at the beginning.  

The three prayers which follow are not polished but come from my sermon notes when I decided to write something out.  Often I’ll jot some ideas or have an outline.

Fred Harrell – he begins praying at the 2 minute mark.

Preaching on Haggai 1:15b-2:9 -Lord, wherever we are coming from, it is both compelling and unsettling to hear from you. We are never really prepared to hear from the maker, sustainer, judge, and savior of heaven and earth. Yet even more we are floored by that fact that you would seek us out and speak to us. Please do so. We need to hear from you. Our various circumstances require the same solution that is found in Jesus Christ. Open our hearts by your Spirit. We look to you expecting that you will answer for our good and your glory. We pray in Jesus’ name.

Preaching on Isaiah 50:10-11 O God… look upon us with your jealous eyes. Regardless of where we come from, draw us… for some of us the darkness, the pain this passage describes is right there at the surface…. Even now our fears and anxieties drag us down; or it’s the disappointment that is settling into hard cold bitterness; some of us controlled compelled no rest desires for success, acceptance, power, pleasure drive us; others feel the chains of indifference, boredom both wanting and fearing anything of significance. Some us have tried to escape, avoid difficulty through lives of triviality and shallowness. Some of us have a religious optimism that always says the glass is half full. And some of us right now have been led by your kindness to a place of refreshment, joy, and rest. Among all of our diverse circumstances though, we look to you and your grace knowing that wherever we are we need your undeserved kindness. Whether we’ve been here for years or are surprised to be in a church we know that we are all messed up, broken, in need of your healing touch. So speak to us. That is our expectation. We look forward to what you will do among us by the work for you word and Spirit. Pour into us so that your healing waters would flow through us to all the people in our lives who need you as well. We ask in Jesus name. Amen.

Mark 1:1-13 Lord you know us… mix of belief and doubt: -Our background issues with the Holy Spirit -Our skepticism, can God dwell in man? -Our feeling that we’re on our own -We’re not sure about the cost -Others of us long for you You have been at work from the beginning, planning to impart yourself to human flesh.   We ask now that as we consider, that you would pour out your Spirit – truth made plain, power, life.  As you poured your Spirit in your servant Jesus do so with your servants today – ask because we are in union with him.

Photo Credit: ssoosay via Compfight cc

Our Stain – leading in Prayer #3

3731108469_ed5a63c09dI think of a politician’s worst nightmare, where he or she stands behind a podium with the constant click of camera lenses and the silence of reporters waiting.  Then comes the forced admission of indiscretion, addiction, infidelity, or whatever failure has become public and shipwrecked their career.  Even in this confession, the person making the admission is a moving target, evading the full weight of their failure the powerlessness and vulnerability that comes when every card has been laid down.    I also imagine a trashy talk or reality show where “guests” and “contestants” vomit their indiscretions, relishing this opportunity to “tell the truth” and let everyone know what is real, without a single regret.  Rather than evasion there is confrontation.  “You are just as bad as me.”  “Your misery is deserved.”  And the emotions overflow.  In both of these the atmosphere is charged with shame, condemnation, even mockery – regardless of whether those up front are touched by it.

These two distorted images of confession are well known and provide telling contrast with Christian confession.  Each week in our worship services we have a time of confession, which is described “Rather than shifting the blame or groveling in guilt we openly acknowledge our addiction to self and the ruin it has caused as we look to God’s grace in Jesus.”  This confession takes the form of hearing who God is and who we are meant to be then praying, both individually and in unison.  What does it mean to lead people in prayers, confessing their sin?  Here are seven thoughts – some of which stand in tension with each other.  These are are based on three scriptures:Daniel 9Psalm 51Psalm 32

1. Leading in public: Public confession is not the same as praying prayers of private confession.  In Psalm 51 the prescript makes clear that this confession follows David’s adultery with Bathsheba, yet the prayer itself does not contain any reference to this specific failure.  This prayer has been used countless times because it is tied to a real situation but recast for public use.

2. Common stain: Everyone who leads public confession is themselves guilty.  The leader is not the reporter listening to the broken politician or the talk show host mediating between feuding guests.  The language of us and our will predominate, and God is the only one who stands innocent.

3.  It is owed: While confession certainly benefits us (“when I kept silent my bones dried up” “let me hear joy and gladness”), it is first owed to God as our maker, holy judge (“against you only have I sinned”), and redeemer.  Our confession, like our thanksgiving and adoration, is centered upon God himself.

O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame…

4. Hope: Each of these prayers comes with the expectation that God will forgive and restore.  They appeal to God’s character, his promises, and his faithfulness in the past.  In Christ this is true all the more.  Our prayers of confession are not based on our future reformation, but clearly teach that God’s forgiveness will not let us remain as we are.

5. Specificity: All three of these passages use a breadth of descriptive language to communicate the ways that we have turned against God (deceit, stubbornness, transgression, rebellion, defilement, pollution etc.).   These reflect a rich understanding of sin describing it as legal matter, a betrayal of relationship, and self-destruction.  In biblical confession is a clear acknowledgment of responsibility without a hint of downplaying the significance of the action or of shifting the blame to someone else.  There is a similar specificity in acknowledging all that God will do to forgive and restore his people.

6.Emotion: Along with an accurate acknowledgment of sin against God there is heartfelt emotion which conveys the horror of sin, it’s polluting effects and helps those praying along with these passages to feel the appropriate disgust and shame.  The verses below express great hope of what God will do in response to confession but think of what is implied about the horrors of sin:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.    – currently I am defiled and cannot cleanse myself 
 Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.                   -the spirit within me is wrong 
 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.          -I in no way deserve to be in your presence

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    or it will not stay near you.
Many are the sorrows of the wicked,                  -in your sin you are like a stupid animal

In the midst of these rather devastating descriptions of sin there is no wallowing or self-pity.  Mournful reflection and joyful expectation are woven together in emotionally forceful language.

7. Our Sins:  In Daniel 9, the righteous servant of God confesses sins of his people, of which he himself is innocent.  Thus there is precedent not only for confessing the sins people in our church commit, but the sins of those to whom we belong.  In my case this would mean confessing the racism that is a dark stain in the history American Presbyterianism.  As a resident of Massachusetts, I could confess our greed and self-interest as we have one of the highest per-capita incomes and ones of the lowest rates of charitable giving.  As an American I can confess our country’s increasing tendency to incarcerate the mentally ill (an example).

 In addition to meditating on the scriptures mentioned and others with similar focus I find that prayers of confession that have stood the test of time are a great help in learning how to confess sin both publicly and privately.

Photo Credit: SixRevisions via Compfight cc

Beginning in Prayer

photo 2Thanks so much for your prayers for our service Sunday night. It got off to a rocky start when the church was still locked five minutes before the service was supposed to begin, but once that “minor” detail was settled we were able to pull things together rather well. This experience is a good reminder that we need to pray and that we are not in control. We will have continued opportunities (and challenges) to trust God and not freak out when things do not go according to our plans.
I for one was a little flustered but for a first service I am encouraged. Music worked out overall and it was good to have different people from our launch team participate in the service. All things considered I am encouraged and we’re pressing on in anticipation that Sunday will come every week.
One funny anecdote, in the midst of all that was happening with delayed entrance and set up I forgot to take my sunglasses off and had them on top of my head for 3/4 of the service! This will be a good story years down the road.

From the initial days of planting Grace (it was two years ago that I was hired as a church planting fellow to explore the possibility), till the we began worship this Sunday, and then beyond we want to be grounded in prayer. I just read today, “if you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life. You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy. But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.” – A Praying Life Paul Miller. 

Specifically in our worship services prayer is an essential part to how we begin. In this prayer my thoughts go along three lines: God as maker, God as redeemer, and asking for his presence. In worship we meet the great king through whom and for whom all things exist. He is the one before whom mountains quake and seas roar. He is the holy and living God. This God is also our savior who has come near and claimed us as his own through Jesus Christ. I try to pray in such a way so that we sense these two realities. Psalm 95 weds together both God’s greatness and graciousness:

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

Implied in this scripture, but made explicit in our opening prayer is the petition for God to draw near to us. With expectation we ask for the presence of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. As we make this request I call to mind God’s promises to reveal himself to us and what that will mean for different people. One scripture that regularly comes to mind is from Matthew 11.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Here Jesus encourages us with God’s delight in revealing himself to his children and then describes how his presence will lift us up. There is also a warning to the “wise and understanding” that his presence would be hidden from them. As I think about what God’s presence would mean for the different people assembled together and for our community at large I will pray briefly for the progress of the gospel among the many who do not believe.

Leading in prayer

709465I’m not sure exactly when I read this but distinctly remember it sharpening my ability to lead others in prayer, especially in worship services.  This book has been on my mind as I thinking about training a summer intern and equipping those who will pray in our services.  This will be a running series that I’ll add to now and then as I write about the different prayers in our service: Invocation and Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Intercession, Illumination, “post sermon” (I don’t have a good name for that one), and Communion .  Let’s start though with a quote from Hughes Oliphant Old regarding prayer…

A second theological foundation of intercessory prayer is the doctrine of the person and work of Christ.  In his ministry on earth Jesus healed the sick, restored fallen women, and blessed children.  In his Passion he interceded for both his friends and enemies.  WE believe that the same Jesus who was open to the needs of men, women, and children here on earth his risen an and ascended to heaven.  now in eternal glory he is still open to our needs.  He is, true God and true man, even now at the right hand of the Father.  In his person our true humanity in all its need and dependence is brought into the presence of the Father.  Our prayers, our tears, our cries of anguish are brought before the throne of race because the Son is our brother.  It is he, seated at the right hand of the Father, who is our intercessor.  The intercessory prayer of the Church continues the ministry of intercession that Jesus began on earthier and completes in heaven.

Praying publicly, especially as part of a worship service is a little different than praying privately and this difference should shape our prayers in a few ways:

1.  Truth:  it is always important to pray in a manner that aligns with who God is and what prayer is meant to be.  This is especially so in a worship service as prayers which are off will distract, confuse, or mislead those at the worship service.  Even more importantly prayers which misrepresent God diminish his greatness and offend him.  Practically it is easier to pray true things through including scripture or basing our prayers on scripture, using ancient prayers of the church, and simply via Christian maturity.

2.  Expression: we all develop various habits of expression in prayer whether they be tones of voice or the use of certain phrases.  These become quite apparent when someone is leading in public.  A few that come to mind are: the overuse of  the word “just” (God, would you just do this , just do that… “); outdated expressions (“being a good steward” is not about flight attendants but keen management) or unnecessary biblical terminology which confuses (asking for a “hedge of protection” based on Job 1, when “hedge” today the hedges in our back yards could protect no one).  These unnecessarily distract and confuse.

3.  Preparation: writing out a prayer beforehand is one aspect of preparation for prayer but not the only one.  Do we pray for the preaching and the musicians in worship services?  So we should also pray for those who pray.  Should a preacher simply read his manuscript word for word or in some manner absorb at least a bit of the content into his heart so there is greater freedom and emotional engagement?  Our aspiration should be the same in prayer.  We should try to prepare our words, minds, and hearts when we know we’ll be leading in prayer.

Thanksgiving and Intercession

While the offering is being received we’ll sing and then afterwards the person reading our scripture lesson will offer a prayer of thanksgiving and intercession.  To spur thoughts on “thanksgiving” a great place to begin is with a familiar passage from the bible on giving thanks to God.  If nothing comes to mind, simply try entering “give thanks” in an online bible and you’ll be amazed at what you find.  As the prayer leads the church in giving thanks there is so much to potentially cover: health, friendship, family, shelter, food, work, pleasure, civil and church leaders, God’s creation etc.  In our particular setting we’ll want to give thanks for God’s leading and provision in our efforts to establish Grace Pres.  There are clear and concrete answers to prayer along with the harder to quantify but essential elements of love, unity, and the Spirit’s power.  Crowning all things for which we could give thanks is the great salvation which is ours in Christ.

In shifting from thanksgiving to intercession there are three particular areas in which I’d like this prayer to focus:  God’s ongoing provision for us individually and as a church, the leadership of the church, and the civil leaders who serve and govern us.  The reason I choose these three items for prayer is that they are biblically mandated and flow naturally from our thanksgiving.  Furthermore, other areas of prayer will be addressed in the prayer following the sermon and our communion prayers.



The Acts of the Apostles

14th C. Minuscule (Greek text of Acts 1:1-2a)  This summer as we begin worship at Grace Presbyterian Worcester I’m going to be preaching through sections of the Acts of the Apostles which is one of New Testament documents contained in the Bible.  As I’m reading through background materials I thought I’d pass along some of the essentials for two reasons.  First, knowing the context of a document helps you understand it better.  Second, knowing some of the details behind the bible buttresses faith.

Approach: Does the book of Acts give us a straightforward historical narrative describing the emergence of the Christian church or is it simply a recreation of events, loosely tied to what actually happened, that is written to encourage the church?  These two perspectives are held by scholars today and while writing a historical narrative and writing to encourage the church are not mutually exclusive I believe that if you lose historicity you loose the encouragement this text brings.  The place to begin answering this question is with the text, which gives the author’s intuition of relaying events with a purpose in mind.  At this moment skeptical scholars will jump in and argue that pre-modern authors were not concerned with recording history as we know it today, but felt free to adjust the facts according to their purpose in writing.  This position has significant challenges from such ancient historians as Poybius and Thucydides and tends toward historical pride.  Just as there are good and poor sources of information today, so there have been through history.  Yes, Acts is written with a clear theological and pastoral purpose but the author clearly roots these purposes in actual events.  Furthermore these events are embedded in a story in which accurate descriptions of political, social, and geographic details push us to take the author seriously and not merely dismiss him as a novelist.

Author: While there is no name attached to the Gospel of Luke or the Acts of the Apostles, which form a two volume work, Luke the companion of the Apostle Paul is the best candidate.  What we learn about the author of Acts fits our best reconstruction of Luke (education, gentile background, and Apostolic connections for example), is confirmed by evidence from the 2nd Century, and goes unchallenged for the next 1600 years.  Furthermore, there is no other likely candidate for the author.

Significance:  If Luke, the companion of Paul who takes part in the book, truly is the author (and a reliable one at that) then in the book of Acts we have access to the key figures and events from the origins of the Christian faith.  The book of Acts is not a picture with a hidden image underneath the surface which we must unveil by pulling apart the seams and seeing what the clothes hide.  Rather, Acts is a window to another time and place.  Yes, there is a certain direction the window faces through which part of the landscape is visible and part is hidden but we are truly looking at a events and people of incredible importance.  There should even be a sense of awe that suffuses our interaction with the Acts of the Apostles.

Date: Acts tends to be dated in two time periods, either between AD 62-70 or AD 80-95.  Those who opt for a later date believe that Acts must be completed before the reign of the Roman Emperor Dominition in the mid-90’s.  The optimistic tone in Acts towards the Roman Empire, would not have been possible under Dominition’s persecution.  Furthermore they do not think the Author of Acts, was aware of Paul’s letters which were also in circulation in the mid-90s.   Those holding to a later date also do so because they attribute a later date to the Gospel of Mark (which precedes Luke/Acts) and believe that the Jewish life in Acts reflects circumstances after the fall of the temple in AD 70.  The most significant factor favoring an early date is the abrupt ending of the book in which Paul is languishing in prison but still able to proclaim the gospel.  This abrupt ending makes the most sense if it describes the circumstances of the apostle when Luke is completing his work.  If Luke knew of Paul’s release or eventual execution why not record these?  I believe that the arguments for a later date (situation of Judaism in Acts and the relationship between Acts & Paul’s letters) actually point to an earlier date and think that Acts was written in the early to mid 60s.

Significance:  If Acts is written in the early to mid-sixties then he is narrating events that have occurred in the past thirty years.  This should increase our sense of the reliability of Acts.  There would have been many sources for him to draw from and significant feedback if he inaccurately portrayed events of such significance.  Even if Luke wrote during the later time frame we should still have great confidence in his work as there would still be eye witnesses to the ministry of Jesus and rise of the early church.

Structure: Acts is structured around the witness of the Apostles in fulfillment of Jesus promise (1:8) that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Furthermore there are growth and summary statements through the book which show the progressive fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.

Significance: Rather than looking to the courage, eloquence, or leadership of the Apostles our primary focus in reading Acts should be the faithfulness of Jesus in building his church by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This should encourage us in the midst of our own frailty, weakness, and doubts as we pursue Jesus’ ongoing mission in this world.

Thesis:  In seminary I remember one of my professors having a central thesis about Acts that went something like this: the gospel progresses, strengthened the church internally and growing it external despite opposition from without and weakness within.  I think this is a great way to look at the book of Acts which enfolds other purposes such as promoting an accurate theology, reconciling Jewish and Gentile Christians, and communicating the gospel to those outside the faith.

Significance:  While we should read Acts to learn about the history of the church and better understand what it means to be a Christian in a specific time and place, if this is all we do, we fall short.  We must see Acts as the continuing ministry of the ascended Christ in which his gospel spreads throughout the world by the power of his Holy Spirit which energizes his body – the church.  Practically this will mean engaging the ascended Christ ourselves when we read acts and connecting what God was doing then to what he is doing today.  Jesus’ promise that his disciples will spread his gospel to the end of the earth is still being fulfilled today.  In the life of every Christian the central thesis of Acts should find expression.

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