Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Power of Presence

Few things communicate love quite like spending time together.

Copyright: weerapat / 123RF Stock Photo
In the New Testament, the followers of Jesus are commanded to visit those in prison (See Matthew 25:36-40; Hebrews 13:3). The concern for prisoners likely stemmed from the fact that believers often found themselves in prison. Peter, John, Paul, and Silas all spent time behind bars. It was also because Christianity is at its best, a ministry of presence. God made his love known to us by becoming present with us in the person of Jesus Christ. We make God’s love known by being present in the lives of others. This is especially true when we are present with those who find themselves in times of great need.

Just this past weekend, the adult choir spent the weekend ministering to inmates in one of the correctional facilities in Gatesville, Texas. Everyone I’ve talked to who went on the trip has gone on and on about how God moved during this trip. Both the inmates and the choir discovered God’s presence as they spent time being present in one another’s life. This is how God often works. He shows up among us when we show up in each other’s lives.

In our church, there are those who regularly visit those in prison through a jail ministry here in town. I want to take the time to thank these volunteers for their faithfulness. These men and women go weekly to the Tom Green County jail and lead Bible studies for the inmates. Tonight, Pastor Matt will go and baptize fifteen inmates who have recently accepted Christ. Matt knows that he is reaping the fruit, but it's these faithful men and women who sowed the seeds by being present in the lives of others over the long hall. They’re living testimonies to the power of being present in another person’s life.

You don’t have to be a prisoner to know the importance of love made known in presence. I am grateful for those who have made God’s love known to me by being present in my life. I think of the director if the Baptist Student Ministry, the late Bob Mayfield. Bob wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t cool. He wasn't young. He was present in my life. We’d regularly spend time together just to spend time together. Even though Bob had been in ministry for decades at that point, he treated me like an equal. He’d ask my opinion about things and then took the time to listen to my answer. Years later I’ve forgotten almost all the cool conference speakers and preachers I heard during my college years, but I’ll never forget Bob. Love, made tangible through being present in each other’s life, leaves an imprint that’s not easily forgotten.

I wonder, who are the people whose presence left an imprint of love on your life? On whose life is your presence leaving a similar imprint of love?


Additional thoughts:

  • Show Up by Jill Phillips. Alyson and I enjoy Jill’s music. This song reminds us “If you want to change the world, all you got to do is show up.”
  • Sitting with Suffering by Richard J. Foster. We know that true love weeps with those who weep. Still, being present with those who are suffering challenges the best of us. What do we say to those who are hurting? What do we not say? Richard Foster has some helpful suggestions on the Renovar√© blog.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jonah: Reluctant Prophet, Merciful God

I'm grateful to Smyth & Helwys for the opportunity to write this year's Annual Bible Study. You can get your copy today here.

Book Description

Jonah: Reluctant Prophet, Merciful God is a four-session Bible study for individuals and groups. The study guide revisits the classic story of “Jonah and the Whale” and discovers a rich and complex tale that proves far more interesting than we might suspect. First, the Bible makes no mention of a whale. Instead, we learn about a great fish that has only a minor role in the narrative. The main character of the story is not the fish or even Jonah; the main character of this story is God. Furthermore, the book of Jonah invites readers to ask important questions about who God is and who God calls us to be in response. Along with the prophet, we ask questions such as What kind of God is the God of Israel? and Who falls within the sphere of God’s care? Most importantly, perhaps, we find ourselves asking How will I respond when I discover that God loves the people I love to hate? These sessions invite readers to wrestle with these questions and others like them as we discover God’s mercy for both the worst of sinners and the most reluctant of prophets.

Jonah Teaching Guide

This Teaching Guide for the Smyth & Helwys Annual Bible Study on Jonah includes teaching options, suggested worship and sermon outlines, and approaches to leading discussions and group study. This study also includes relevant lesson plans for including youth and children in a congregational study of Jonah.

Jonah Study Guide

This Study Guide for the Smyth & Helwys Annual Bible Study on Jonah serves three purposes: to educate the learner on major issues of appropriate interpretation, to offer an overview of theological themes, and to build the learner’s Bible study skills by reviewing significant interpretations. Each session comes with thoughtful questions for reflection and discussion.

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Favorite Books on Prayer

Sunday's sermon explored the ways that prayer for others is a form of love in action. Below, I've listed a few of my favorite books on prayer for those interested in exploring more on the topic. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home by Richard Foster. In this Ephesians 6:18, the apostle Paul writes, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests." In this classic work on prayer, Foster explores twenty-one different types of prayer giving us some idea what Paul might have meant by "all kinds of prayers." Drawing on a variety of Christian traditions, Foster's list will likely include some prayers you are familiar with and some that are new to you.

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey. I started reading Philip Yancey's work in college. His writing is purposefully accessible to anyone regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey. At the same time, he blends this accessibility with a willingness to press readers just beyond their comfort zone. He continues this pattern in his work on prayer exploring many of the questions we have about prayer but are too afraid to ask.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott. In this simple little book, Anne Lamott contends that the three basic prayers all of us pray are "Help," "Thanks," and "Wow." If you are new to Lamott's writing, be prepared. She does not fit the traditional religious writer's mold. More confessional than guide and aimed as much at the skeptic as the already religious, this book will encourage anyone who has struggled to find their voice in prayer.

Check out a fuller review I wrote for The Baptist Standard.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Amateurs at Prayer

Copyright: tomsickova / 123RF Stock Photo

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 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


Further Reading on Prayer
  •  5 Misconceptions that Hinder Prayer by Richard Foster. Foster, author of the classic book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home helps us move past five common misconceptions about prayer.
  • A Prayer That’s Not Just for the Pulpit by Mark Roberts. Roberts reminds us that Psalm 19:14, a prayer I’ve prayed in the pulpit many times, is a good prayer to offer throughout the rest of your week.