Leave room in your theology for mystery

“…I know not; God knows.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2)

Some things you will never figure out in this life.

Some mysteries you will eventually see–or the Spirit will reveal them to you or someone much smarter than you will explain it to you–but you haven’t so far.

Until then, humility is the order of the day.  (And, yes, afterwards, humility is still in order.)

Here’s one that has me going.

In Romans 8:26, one of my favorite “prayer” verses, after informing us that “we do not know how to pray as we should”–I knew it; I’m just surprised that Paul admits it!–and after saying “The Spirit also helps us in (that) weakness”–we read that “the Spirit Himself also intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

Okay. That sentence carries mystery enough to occupy me for the next few years.

There’s more.

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The dumbest prayer I ever prayed

“When He has tested me, I will emerge as pure gold” (Job 23:10).

No one volunteers for testing. Not if they know what’s good for them!

However, one day not long ago I prayed this prayer:

“Lord, please let one of the churches where You send me to minister give me an offering so abysmally small that I will have to reaffirm that my trust is in Thee and not in man, not in money, not in things.”

Okay. I don’t ever intend to do that again.  (smiley-face here)

Here’s the background…..

First: The Lord is my Source.

“The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel” (I Corinthians 9:14).  The laborer is worthy of his hire, as Scripture says in numerous places.

But the Lord is the Source for all of us who labor in His vineyard.

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A praise sandwich: The most fundamental lesson in the Lord’s Prayer

“Our Father, who art in Heaven….” (Matthew 6:9)

The Lord’s Prayer is a praise sandwich. Okay, maybe a “praise parenthesis.” Envelope? (I’m searching for the best metaphor. Anyone got a good one?)

This prayer begins and ends with praise. In between are the personal requests we make for ourselves.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with a concern for Thy Name, Thy Kingdom, and Thy Will.

It ends with Thy Kingdom, Thy Power, and Thy Glory.

In between, we have Give us, Forgive us, Lead us, and Deliver us.

What could be simpler?

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What I told her when she said her prayers were so weak

“It’s not all up to you.”

She had given me a burdensome list of prayer needs.  Her husband was battling a terminal illness, her daughter was in a bad situation, the grandchildren were at risk, and she herself felt so far away from the Lord.

I’m breaking no confidence in sharing this.  First, she gave permission, and second, her needs are not unlike a dozen people whom I know. There is a lot of this going around.  A few minutes ago, a mother whom I do not know, but who found us on the internet, wrote with a similar list of prayer needs.

She asked me to pray for her. She did not ask for advice. However, while I am indeed lifting her needs in prayer, the next best gift I can give is to encourage her own praying.’

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What priests do that you and I do also

(Fourth in a series of article based on the little incident in Mark 2:1-12)

“Then they came to Him bringing a paralytic, carried by four men.  Since they were not able to bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above where He was. And when they had broken through, they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic was lying….”

A priest stands between God and the people. He is an intercessor before God on behalf of the people.  He is a witness (whether teaching, preaching, or simply speaking) before the people on behalf of God.

The priest has two strong attachments: to the Lord Himself and to the people in his care.

The four men of this story demonstrate both:  Their confidence in Jesus is what inspired them to go to all this trouble of getting their friend to Him;  Their commitment to the friend drove them to do whatever it took to see that he had the full opportunity to be healed.

With one hand on the Lord and the other on the friend, both hands locked into steel grips, the “priest” refuses to turn loose of either.

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The most frightening thing about preaching

It’s actually several facets of the same thing:  I’m speaking for God.

Imagine such a thing.

Lives hang in the balance.

People are making decisions about God based on something I say.

People are making choices about their eternal destiny based on something I say.

Is this frightening or what?

What if I get it wrong?

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You don’t pray very well. Here’s why that is all right.

“We do not know how to pray as we should….” (Romans 8:26)

My wife and I used to have this running discussion over the philosophy that says, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing….(what?)”  She would say “It’s worth doing well,” and I said, “Poorly.”  (I would remind her of our friend Annie who says, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing!” lol)

Case in point: Prayer.

Prayer is worth doing, regardless how poorly we do it.

And we do it poorly, make no mistake about that. “We do not know how to pray as we should.’

The Apostle Paul said that.

My friend, if Paul didn’t know how to pray as he should, it’s a lead-pipe cinch you and I don’t.

But that’s all right.  God knows this and has no problem with it.  In fact, He did something about it: He gave us a Divine Intercessor.

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The pastor is the worship leader

“I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord'” (Psalm 122:1).

(Note: I write as a Southern Baptist with little familiarity with how other denominations do their worship services.  Therefore, what follows may be of limited value to some of our readers.)

Some tasks we cannot shunt off to someone else. Some key responsibilities we cannot hire others to perform for us.  Leading the worship service is one of the pastoral essentials. The pastor is the leader.

This is not to say the minister will physically lead the hymns.  (In some churches, he does, but in most someone else does this.)  He will not pray every prayer or be the only one reading the Scripture or promoting upcoming events.  But ultimately, it all goes back to him.  The pastor is like the stagecoach driver.  He does not pull the coach but holds the reins to the six horses that do.

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Short prayers.

My brother in Christ Dr. Vander Warner Jr. got me started thinking about this by his recent article on “Short Prayers.”  (Do what I did and google it.)

Frank Laubach, literacy pioneer and beloved brother in Christ, used to call these “prayer arrows.”  Short sentences sent heavenward to praise, give thanks, intercede or summon the Lord’s assistance have a potency all their own.

The hypocrites think they will be heard for their “much speaking.” (Oh, I pray for two hours every morning. You mean you don’t?)

Professor Dan Crawford remembers someone saying, “A sentence prayer is not a life sentence.”

Pagans think they will be heard for their loud praying. (“God must be far off and we have to summon Him to draw near to us.”)  The Baal-worshipers on Mount Carmel are the poster children for this foolishness (I Kings 18:26).

The overly righteous think they will be heard for their religious praying.  (“Let me pile scriptural phrases on top of more scriptural phrases.  The Lord is impressed by that sort of thing.”) See what Ecclesiastes 5:2-3 has to say about this affliction.

Our Lord said, “Those who worship (God) must worship Him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).  That seems to be the standard: My spirit with His truth. And definitely not, “My mindless body with someone else’s thoughts.”

The length of one’s prayer seems to be irrelevant.  Measuring our prayers (the time, the volume, the length) is an exercise in foolishness. Weighing our prayers on any kind of human scale ranks as the ultimate in silly.

When the sweetheart goes into her house at night, she does not gauge the depth of her fellow’s love by the length of his monologues.

Just speak to the Father.

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What good does prayer do?

“And He was giving them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not faint” (Luke 18:1).

At all times we ought to pray.

She knew I was praying for a certain family member who seems forever in some kind of predicament.  She asked, “Why do you pray?  I don’t see it doing any good.”

When I caught my breath–I could not believe a Christian asking such a question–I said, “Ask me why I breathe air.  It’s what I do to live.”

She did not let me off that easily. “Do you really think God is going to do what you ask? Is that why you pray?”

By now, I had settled down enough to try to verbalize a reasonable answer.

“That’s not up to me. How He chooses to answer my prayer is His business.”

“My job is to pray. To ask, intercede, to speak in faith what someone else needs. And so I ask for it.”

“How He answers is strictly up to Him. Or whether He even answers at all.”

Her question will not leave me alone. I imagine everyone who prays regularly–and keeps it up over the years, through good times and bad–has to answer this for themselves repeatedly, as well as for friends and skeptics alike.

It’s not as simple as it sounds. “Why pray?”

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