Thursday, January 15, 2009

Amateurs at Prayer

I don’t know about you, but I constantly feel like an amateur when it comes to prayer.  I do pray – for you, for the church, for myself, for the world.  My prayers are not always smooth or eloquent or even consistent.  Sometimes, I get distracted.  Sometimes I get bored.  Often, I’m simply at a loss for words.  I know people often consider pastors professionals when it comes to the spiritual, but truth be told, I’m no professional prayer.  Maybe, that’s not a bad thing. In the book of James, the apostle presents Elijah as an example of prayer, not because he had some supernatural gift of intercession, but precisely because he “was a man just like us.”  He could get frustrated, tired, doubtful, just read his story a little later on in 1 Kings 17 and 18.  Clearly, the man had his ups and downs.  And yet, he was a man whose prayers changed the world.

In our slick, glossy, overly marketed world we’ve been taught to think poorly of amateurs.  Nobody wants to do an amateur job at anything, we think.  But the word amateur comes from the verb to love and means “for the love of it.”  Being an amateur means doing something for the sheer love of it.  Amateur athletes play the game not for a paycheck but because they love the game.  So too, we amateur prayers.  We pray for the love of it, or more specifically, for the love of the one who first loved us.  We pray because we serve a God who makes himself known in the depths of our troubles and the heights of our joys.  We pray, because we serve a God who heals our broken bodies and makes whole our broken souls.

We could (and often do) wish prayer was easier, like so many of the sermons and books and talks make it out to be: a method, a formula, a magic incantation.  But prayer, biblical prayer, is not magic and there’s no set method.  It’s communication.  It’s a relationship with the God who is able.  So pray when you can, and where you can, and how you can.  Mess up and make mistakes.  Be an amateur like Elijah and pray for the love of it that the world might be changed (and you right along with it!).

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. – James 5:13-16

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Accident-Prone

A recent self-study at Willow Creek Church in Chicago found that at least a fourth of the folks in their church who described themselves as “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered” felt stalled in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the Church’s ability to help them grow in Christ. My guess is that Willow Creek’s numbers reflect the general rule and not the exception for churches across the country. I know many folks who at one time or another have felt “stalled” in their spiritual growth. I know one of them pretty intimately – me.

At Southland, we’ve begun the discussion of what it means to join God on his mission of redeeming the world. At the forefront of that discussion is not strategy or technique, but simply knowing God and being formed into his image. This coming week’s sermon and small group Bible study will focus on the topic of spiritual formation, that is, the process by which we as God’s children become more like him. In the past we might have called that discipleship. Regardless of what name we give to the process, we often think of spiritual formation by thinking of the tasks or disciplines that a believer engages in – prayer, meditation, Bible study, fasting, service, etc.

No doubt these are a part of the process. We often, however, misunderstand the part they play. We think that if we master the “tasks” of spiritual formation that we will be spiritually formed. There are several problems with this approach. First, we make ourselves the ones responsible for the change in our lives. The problem with this way of thinking is simple – it moves us away from the gospel of grace to a gospel of works. This leads us to the second problem. Because we put the emphasis upon what we can do or accomplish, we’re bound to fail. Who can master any one of these tasks? No wonder we keep stalling in our spiritual growth.

“To be formed in Christ,” writes Daniel Vestal, “means to receive grace, to believe in grace, to experience grace, and to live by grace.” Therefore the goal of spiritual formation isn’t to master certain tasks, but rather to place ourselves in the position of being mastered by the love of God. The goal isn’t to become better prayers or students of the Bible or whatever. The goal is to become better receivers of God’s grace in our lives. What these tasks or disciplines do is place us in the proper position to receive (not achieve!) that grace.

Philip Yancey gives an insightful story on this front in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? He writes, “A rabbi taught that experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.’ His student asked, ‘Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?’ The rabbi replied, ‘To be as accident-prone as possible.’”

May we, God’s children, be as accident-prone as possible today.

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence – 2 Peter 1:2-3.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What are you doing here?

In the reading for today from the It's Time materials (a study Southland Baptist is going through) Bo Setzer Jr. commented on the time his pastor kept repeatedly asking a group of guys in their church who were gathered for breakfast, "What are you doing here?" After answering a few times - "Uh, we're eating breakfast" - they realized the pastor was looking for more.

It is one of those ultimate questions we must all ask ourselves from time to time. Why am I here? Why is our church here? Does my life have a purpose? Does it matter that my church exists? At Southland we've begun to hone in on 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 which informs us that we are ambassadors of reconciliation - that is representatives of God's coming kingdom in this world. Now, the application of this ministry of reconciliation can be and is pretty broad taking many shapes and forms. But the purpose remains simple, we are to be signposts of the God whose own mission is to reconcile the world to himself. As his children, our purpose or our mission in life cannot be separated from his. If we forget the mission, then we cease to really be the church. The missiologist Darrel Bosch once put it succinctly, “There is a church because there is a mission, not vice versa.”

Pancake breakfasts can certainly fit into that equation, especially if at that breakfast there is a collection of folks who other than their unity in Christ would find little reason to be together: blacks and whites, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, people with higher education and high school dropouts - all gathered around the common table of Christ. That gets to the heart of what it means to be missional. It means to begin to recognize that in the simplest things of life, eating, drinking, playing, working we can be ambassadors of God's Kingdom of peace and love. What are you doing here? We're here to eat, yes, but to eat together in the name of Christ as a testimony to his coming kingdom where all of God's children will have a seat.