Friday, October 28, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 4)


"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors ” (Matt.6:12). Prayer reminds you of God’s daily call to give the same grace to others as God has given to you. Prayer requires you to love others as you have been loved. Prayer makes no sense if it isn't rooted in recognition that God has placed his love on you even though you could never have earned, achieved, or deserved it. Prayer makes sense only when its rooted in the reality that you’ve been gifted every day with patient forgiveness and empowering grace. Prayer humbles you as it forces you to acknowledge that the most valuable thing in your existence, the love of God, is the thing that you had no capacity whatsoever to earn. And as prayer calls you to celebrate undeserved love, it requires you to commit yourself to love others in the same way. There is a direct connection between self-righteousness and an inability and unwillingness to love others.

It is a contradiction to seek God’s help yet be unwilling to help your neighbor. It is a contradiction to celebrate God’s love yet refuse to love others. It is a contradiction to be deeply aware of your moment-by-moment need of grace yet unwilling to give grace to the person you live near and say that you love. It is a contradiction to know that your only real hope in life is God’s forgiveness yet refuse to forgive that person who has sinned against you. It is a contradiction to know that God will only listen to your requests because he is patient and kind and then turn and respond to others in irritation and impatience.

It makes no sense to participate in an act that, by its very nature, recognizes that you’ve been blessed by divine love and grace, yet to have no practical commitment to love and grace in your relationships. It makes no sense to celebrate God’s forgiveness and then refuse to forgive others in those moments when forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration are so obviously and practically needed. As prayer calls you to celebrate vertical forgiveness, it requires you to offer horizontal forgiveness as well.

Prayer reminds you of God’s call to love. It reminds you that you’ve been designed to live a lifestyle of willing self-sacrifice for the good of another. Prayer reminds you that successful living is all about loving God above all else and loving your neighbor as yourself. Prayer reminds you that your relationships are always about the daily dynamics of a sinner living near a sinner, and because it is, there is no more important commitment in relationships than the commitment to forgive. Prayer reminds you that there is never a day when you aren’t called to give another grace that hasn’t been deserved or earned.

Here is the thing that happens to many of us. Pay attention to the cycle that I am about to describe. As we lose sight of our daily need for forgiveness, we quit being so willing to forgive others. As we quit forgiving others and putting away their offenses, we begin to keep a record of the others' wrongs. As we keep a daily record of wrongs, we're increasingly aware of how much we’re affected by the weakness and failure of others. As we carry this awareness with us, we become increasingly irritated, impatient, and intolerant with others. So we deal with our disappointment with others by protecting ourselves from them with distance and busyness; living in networks of terminally casual relationships.

A mutual commitment to give grace daily is the only hope for a relationship of a sinner to a sinner, which is the only kind of relationship there is. Prayer reminds us of God’s call to love and forgive, and it reminds us that this call is most needed when it is most undeserved.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 3)


"Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). Prayer requires you to see yourself as needy. The prayer for something as normal as bread for the day makes no sense unless it pictures something true about you. We are needy and dependent. We were never hardwired for an independent, self-sufficient existence. Prayer makes no sense at all unless it is really true that you are dependent upon God for the basic necessities of life. Prayer always requires you to acknowledge personal inability, weakness, and need. Daily prayer acknowledges daily need. Daily prayer acknowledges God’s call for you to be content with what he gives you today and to trust tomorrow into his hands. And if you are dependent on God for something as basic as bread, then there is a whole catalog of things necessary for your life that you are unable, in and of yourself, to provide.

I cannot and do not control all the things that need to be controlled in order to guarantee that I will have a job that can support my family. I do not rule all the circumstances that must be in place to ensure that my family has an adequate home to live in. I do not control all the things that will result in those I love and me being healthy and safe. I do not determine all the things that must be in place for my children to have a good school to attend. I do not exercise authority over the things that will ensure that I will have a solid church to attend. There are many important needs in my life that I do not have the power to independently meet.

But there is more. If you take obedience to God's call seriously, you need to know that you can’t become these things or do these things by yourself. You do not have the ability to turn yourself into a person who is loving, kind, patient, thankful, gentle, forgiving, faithful, and self-controlling. And you surely have no power whatsoever to ensure that the people near you will be these kind of people. These essential character qualities of life are only ever the fruit of the transforming work of the Spirit of God in your heart. They only come as he progressively delivers you from you and forms you into the likeness of Jesus.

Prayer yanks you out of your delusions of self-sufficiency and reminds you of how deeply needy you really are. Prayer reminds you that you will never be what you need to be and do what you are called to do without divine rescue and restoration. Prayer humbles you, and as it does, it makes you more patient and more understanding of others. No one is more patient with the weaknesses and needs of another than the person who has admitted that he is also deeply needy.

For many of us, somewhere in the early days of good commitments, wise choices, and loving responses, we quit seeing ourselves as needy, and the result is devastating. At some point we begin to feel that we have figured it out. More and more it seems as though we have arrived. We don't know it, but we are turning gifts of God’s grace into an occasion for personal pride. This pride in our wisdom, ability, and strength is subtle and deceptive. It almost always is. Then we announce, in some moment of theological change, “We don’t need God anymore.” And we don’t quit praying before a meal and at the end of the day, but our prayers are more a spiritual routine than an indicator of what we really believe about ourselves and God. We never quit participating in the programs and ministries of our church, but there's a clear separation between the Sunday celebration of God’s grace and the self-sufficiency of the rest of the week.

In fact, in a real way, we effectively quit praying, because we quit seeing ourselves as needy. Sure, we mumble well-rehearsed religious phrases with heads bowed and eyes closed. But these “prayers” are no more true prayers than the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple in Christ’s illustration in Luke 18. Often our prayers are devoid of a deep sense of personal need, and because they are, they are also devoid of heartfelt appreciation and celebration.

I wish I could say that I’ve never been in this position, but I have. Much of the trouble that I experienced in the early years of my marriage was due to my pride and my impatience with Luella, who was “not as righteous and mature as me.” My prayers were more an act of external religiosity than they were an honest expression of the cries of a needy heart.

Real prayer transforms you as it requires you to acknowledge how fundamentally needy you actually are.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 2)


In life, prayer pushes us in all the right directions. It reminds us of the kinds of things we’ve said are so important to life with God and with others. Daily prayer reinforces all the commitments we’re tempted to forsake but that are vital to maintain. Prayer opens our eyes and our heart. Prayer is a necessary ingredient of healthy life and relationships. On our knees is the best posture for living life.

Using the Lord’s Prayer as a model, here are some things that prayer does in you and will do through you in the heart of others.

Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matt. 6:9). Prayer reminds you that you are never left alone to the resources of your own strength and wisdom. Many of us not only lose sight of one another and the commitments we've made to daily, active love, but we've forgotten the Lord as well. Yes, we continue to go to church, and we wouldn’t think of forsaking our faith, but in the hallways, bedrooms, and family rooms of everyday life, we’ve begun to feel that it was all up to US, all on our shoulders. Part of the slow devolution of our spiritual lives was a view of the responsibilities, opportunities, struggles, and blessings of marriage that tends to forget God. Here is why this is so devastating to many of us: when you forget God’s presence, promises, and provisions, either you tend to get overwhelmed and give up, or you try to do God’s job. Neither is a workable option.

Perhaps the most powerful way in which daily prayer for yourself has the power to transform you is this: prayer reminds you that you are never alone. Prayer reminds you that you are never left to your own righteousness, wisdom, and strength. Prayer reminds you that each location or situation where you exist is not only inhabited by God but, even more encouragingly, that each is ruled by him. The one who controls the situations in your life is not only a God of awesome power but is the definition of everything wise, true, faithful, gracious, loving, forgiving, good, and kind.

But there is even more that the Lord’s Prayer confronts you with. It’s that this God who is powerful and near is your Father by grace. If you are God’s child, there is never a moment when you are outside the circle of his fathering care. Like a father, he loves you and is committed to faithfully providing what is best for you. When you’re facing those disappointing moments of life, when you’re not sure what to think, let alone what to do, prayer can rescue you from hopelessness and alienation. Prayer encourages you to say, “I’m not sure how we got here, and I’m not sure what we are being called to do, but there is one thing I am sure of—I’m never, ever alone because I have a Father in heaven who is always with me.”

Acknowledging God will protect you from yourself. It will protect you from discouragement and fear and the passivity that always follows. It will protect you from the pride of self-reliance and self-sovereignty. If you are ever to live life as God designed it to be lived, you must begin with this humble admission: you have no ability whatsoever to produce the most important things that make for a wonderful life. The changes of thought, desire, word, and action that re-create, rebuild, mature, and protect you are always gifts of God’s grace. As you choose to do things God’s way, he progressively rescues you from your own self-interest and forms you into a person who really does find joy in loving him and others. It’s only a God of love who will ever be able to change a fundamentally self-oriented, impatient, demanding human being into a person who not only desires to love but actually does it. There is a word for this in the Bible—grace.

Prayer reminds you that you’ve been graced with a Father’s love and that love will not let you go until it has changed you in every way that is needed.

“Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9–10). Prayer reminds you that God’s purpose for you is always bigger than you. You’ll never understand your life or be content in it until you understand that it’s part of something bigger that’s meant to define and shape how you respond to it. Remember people lose their way because they have no bigger vision for their lives than the establishment of their own little kingdoms. When there’s no larger kingdom to capture my allegiance, my life sadly becomes a war between my kingdom purposes and the kingdom purposes of others. Whether I and they know it or not, each is working in the mundane moments of life to realize their dream for their life.

Prayer reminds you that real life is found only when you forsake your little kingdom of one for the bigger and better call of the kingdom of God. Prayer reminds you that God gives you his grace, not so much for the purpose of making your kingdom work but to welcome you to a better kingdom. Every time you pray, you’re acknowledging God’s rule over you and your life. Prayer is an act of submitting your purposes to God’s. Prayer is all about confessing the self-focus and self-sovereignty of sin. Prayer is a willing offering of your life and all it contains to the loving and wise authority of God. Prayer is an active part of what it means to live for a bigger kingdom than your own.

Real life begins when we quit trying to be sovereign over our lives. Real life begins when we quit trying to set the agenda for our lives and begin, in practical everyday ways, to pursue God’s agenda. Real life begins when we quit being kings and begin to willingly and joyfully submit to and serve the King of kings. Prayer reminds you of a King greater than you and a kingdom better than your own.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 1)


Here is where prayer is so important and so powerful. Prayer makes no sense unless two things are true. First, our lives do not belong to us. Since we have been created by God, everything we are, everything we have, and every situation and relationship in which we live belongs to him. Because we are his creatures, our number-one calling in every area of life is to worship him. Everything we do and say in every situation and relationship of our lives must be done in recognition of his existence and for the purpose of his glory. We were created for his pleasure, and we are called to live in constant worship of him. So, everything in our lives has verticality to it. Everything we do must be done in recognition of God’s presence and his rightful ownership of our lives. We must live in our marriage in a way that is distinctively and comprehensively Godward, even in the most mundane moments of life.

There is a second thing that must be true for prayer to make any sense. It is that sin makes us comprehensively needy. Every area of our personhood has been in some way damaged by sin.
We don’t desire what we should. We don’t think as we should. We don’t speak as we should. We don’t act as we should. We need help. We need rescue. We need wisdom. We need forgiveness. We need strength.

So, here is what prayer does for you. In a way that is powerfully protective and relationally transforming, each time you pray, you are reminded of the context of your life. The context of your life is not a situation or a location. The context of your life is a person. The context of your life is God. He is above, around, below, and in you. He created everything that makes up your existence. He controls every situation and relationship you are in. It is his power that keeps you and your world together. He has written the story of your life from beginning to endless end. His plan, purpose, and will are meant to be the reason for everything you do. He alone offers the help that reaches to the deepest areas of your personal and relational need. He is the rightful owner of you, your life, and your relationships. He is the conceiver and creator of your all that makes up your world, and because he is, he is best able to diagnose what is broken and to cure what needs to be fixed. He is the only reliable one who can define what is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, and wise or foolish. He is not only near you, but because of the cross of Jesus Christ, he is now living inside you by his Spirit. He is your life and the hope of your future. He is your counselor, protector, advocate, teacher, guide, and friend. He surrounds you with his love and bathes you in his grace. It really is that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the context of your life.

But prayer does something else; it reminds us of the reality of our life. The reality of our life is a constant, moment-by-moment dance of sin and grace. Every day, sin rears its ugly head, and every day, grace gives us what we need to deal with sin. In the same way that we cannot understand life without understanding God’s existence, his ownership, and his power, we cannot understand what we experience in part of our lives and how to deal with it unless we understand sin and grace. Sin is the reason for all the struggles of life and grace is the only reliable hope of being able to deal with them.

Because of the fact that sin still remains in you and in your world, you need to be reconciled to God every day, and every day you need to be reconciled to others. Every day you do something that offends God in some way, and every day you do something that offends another. As we have observed before, these dynamics of sin, struggle, and rescue take place in the smallest and most mundane moments of daily life, moments so normal and in all ways so unremarkable that they pass by without getting our attention. We get used to the daily pace of our lives, we get used to our daily schedule, and we get used to our daily relationships and responsibilities. At some point we quit observing and we quit examining, and we settle into the routine, day piling upon day, month piling upon month, year piling upon year.

This is why we look back during one of those moments that God sends to get our attention once again, and we ask, “What happened to us? How in the world did we end up here?” It feels to us that we‘ve driven into some kind of life fog. It feels that what was once bright and sunny has suddenly gone dark. But nothing has been sudden. The changes in you and your life have taken place in progressive, little steps. In those unremarkable moments that occur in everyone's life, wrong thoughts, desires, words, and actions changed the character and direction of their living; they took place in little moments, and no one was paying attention.

We all do it. It’s not that we suddenly quit loving God and one another. No, that’s not what typically happens. Our living doesn't typically change with an explosion. Our living typically changes by the process of erosion. Even where explosions take place, they usually take place at the end of a long process of erosion. The movement of a life from an active commitment to God and an active lifestyle of unity, understanding, and love with others rarely takes place in one step. Rather, this movement takes place in ten thousand little steps. The problem is that as these changes are taking place we tend to be asleep at the wheel. What we once committed to value and protect has progressively become the thing we take for granted. What we were once deeply appreciative of, we have become used to having over the long haul. The God we once worshipped everyday becomes a formal religious icon and the people that were so much the focus of our affection and attention have morphed into little more than the people that we live with—you know, a part of our environment and daily schedule.

What does this have to do with prayer? Well, prayer not only attaches you to the wonderful resources of a God of grace, who is present, powerfully near, and willing, but prayer reminds you of what you are (needy) and what God is (gracious). Prayer awakens you from your sleep and calls you to pay attention again. Prayer is about affirming weaknesses and blessings. Prayer is about getting your identity and God’s glory right. Prayer confronts you with what is and preaches to you about what is important. Prayer is a very important part of a lifestyle of paying attention.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Listening to Lewis

"Most people, if they really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise...if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

I give painful
evidence every day.
I experience it in
predictable and unpredictable
moments.
I guess I should know
better,
but I am often
caught off guard.
There is an
insatiable longing
inside of me,
a thirst that never
seems to be
quenched.
This deep hunger
doesn't go away
no matter how busy
I get
or how hard I work to be
distracted.
I long for
Justice
Love
Hope
Peace
Perfection
Satisfaction
Mercy
Contentment
Rest
Harmony
Joy
and none of these
longings
ever gets fully
satisfied.
And so in my quest
for more
I am faced with
the incontrovertible
daily evidence
that this simply is not all
that there is
and the sure truth
that I was
hardwired
for another world.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

I know I should watch
my meditation.
It is important to guard
my thoughts.
It is a battle to not
be taken captive.
It's hard to think
after you.
There are so
many things that compete
for my thoughts,
so many things that call after
my desires.
It really is war, fought in the neighborhoods
of my mind.
"If only" commands too much of
my meditation.
"I wish" controls too much of
my thoughts.
"I need" fights for
control.
It is so easy in the midst
of it all to forget
the one thing I was created
to remember:
You.
I now confess
it is so easy to lose sight of
Your presence
Your power
Your kingdom
Your glory
Your plan
Your grace.
In my right mind I know that
forgetting is the
first step in losing
my way.
So, I humbly ask once again,
O, Spirit of wisdom and grace,
please empower me to
meditate on You,
please enable me to fight
distraction.
Please deliver me from the
one thing I cannot escape:
my fickle heart.
So that everything
I do would bear the mark of
remembering You.