“Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.” - Jonathan Edwards -

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Prayer II

I apologize for going so long without a post -- it has been a fairly hectic week.

As I have been thinking more about prayer lately, I have picked up several prayer books. I am astounded by the depth of many of these prayers -- they are incredibly beautiful!

I began to wonder why we hear prayer such as this so rarely anymore. Most of the great prayers that I have been reading were penned long before the technology-driven world of today. And I don't simply mean the Internet, but before TV, and the myriad technological advancements that have infiltrated our lives in the last 60-100 years.

It dawned on me, after examining my own life, that we really don't meditate on the Word of God like our antecendents did. These people did not have the many interruptions/distractions vying for their attention that we do today. These were people who spent HOURS in the Word and in prayer EVERYDAY! They were truly saturated with the Word of God, and it shows in their prayers!

The Psalmist talks of this in that great and magnificent Psalm: Psalm 119 -- Psalm 119:9-24 -- How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word. Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me! My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times. You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones, who wander from your commandments. Take away from me scorn and contempt, for I have kept your testimonies. Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes. Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.

There are many more places in Psalm 119 that discuss this, but we can also turn to Psalm 1, and we find this -- Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Is it any wonder, in this day when many pastors prepare their message by downloading a sermon from a repository of on-line sermons, that our prayer lacks depth? When pastors may not open the Bible all week, instead opting for 'tools' on their computer to do their 'research'? When one may not even pray before reading the Word, instead doing a google on their topic, and then 'cutting and pasting' the information into their sermon?

Am I a Luddite who believes that we should not take advantage of the technology available? No, I use some on-line tools, so that is not what I am saying; however, if the bulk of our study is done via a mouse, then yes, I believe that this is wrong.

Nowadays, pastors don't have time to study the Word, or spend time meditating on it (I have heard some say this), but they are consumed with administrative/CEO type work. Brothers, this should not be! Our task, first and foremost, is to study/teach the Word and be in prayer, NOT be the CEO of our church! I have heard great communicators; men who have very 'successful' churches, but when it comes to their prayer life it is either non-existent, or so insipid as to be useless. When pressed for time, most of us will ensure that the business aspect of our church is taken care of, to the neglect of our prayer life.

I once read an interview with a well-known pastor explaining how he developed sermons, and for 16 pages he described his 'technique' -- how he and his 'team' put together sermons by 'white-boarding' ideas, and thinking up grandiose illustrations to wow the congregation, yet not once did he mention actually opening the Bible or praying. It was so blatant that the interviewer actually asked, "where is the place for prayer and Bible study?" The pastor immediately said this -- "Oh, we pray...." And that was about the extent of his response!

Brothers, we need to put away our white boards, our mice, our laptops, and our multimedia, and get on our knees, read the Word, meditate on it, and then PRAY that the Father empower us with His Spirit. When the pastors' prayer life is vibrant, then the congregations will be!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Prayer I

To start the prayer series, I wanted to address something that I am guilty of; therefore am qualified to address... :-)

I have noticed in my own life as a pastor, and in the ministries of most of the folks I know, that our extemporaneous prayers lack a certain aspect that I believe to be vital. That is, starting prayer with the recognition of who God is.

In my prayer life I used to always open my prayers, both liturgical and extemporaneous, with Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam -- "Blessed are you, Lord God, king of the universe". Thereby addressing the King of the Universe with the proper protocol -- yet, I find myself anymore being much more 'casual' and just jumping into 'what I want to say'. So many prayers, by pastors and congregational members, start off by jumping right into what interests/concerns us.

When we look through the Bible and examine the great prayers, we find that these prayers are God-honoring -- i.e. Nehemiah 1:5, 6 -- O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned.",

or Matthew 6:9, 10 -- “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Sadly, I think that our overall lack of understanding, or even recognition of a holy, transcendent God leads to a cavalier and even arrogant approach to the throne. And this is reflected in prayers which lack depth and honor.

Now, do not get me wrong, there are many types of prayers, ranging from prayer as simple as Peter sinking into the water and crying out "Help Lord!" Matthew 14:30, to the fantastic prayers of Solomon, David and others. Prayer can take many forms, but again, I am addressing this as a pastor -- I think that pastoral prayers have become a lost art in so many corners of Christendom, and as I said, I am guilty of this.

I have been reading through several books on prayer and here is a pastoral prayer opening that highlights what I am trying to illustrate:

O Lord, You are our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. You have given to us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification in our Lord Jesus Christ. You have supplied all our needs according to Your riches in glory in Christ Jesus. We can do all things through Your strength.

Do you see the focus there? It starts with God and not with us and our needs/concerns etc. How rarely we pray with a central focus on God anymore.

We need to get back to a proper focus on God in all things; starting with our prayer life!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Series

I will be starting a series on prayer shortly. I have been praying about the new series. I have been very focused on improving my prayer life, so I feel that this would be a good subject.

This will not be an exhaustive series on prayer -- many others have written on this subject with more eloquence than I will. This is going to be from a pastor's perspective, as he works through his own prayer life.

I hope to have something up within the week.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hunger & Thirst

This Sunday at church I spoke on Matthew 5:6 - "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied...", and yesterday as I looked through the news, I was again reminded of the truth behind Messiah's statement.

I found that we still have the remnants of the Anna Nicole Smith debacle going on, the tour of Michael Jackson through Japan and the death, apparently by his own hand, of Richard Jeni. Not to mention the capture of the baby-snatching young woman in Clovis N.M. Nothing unusual; just the normal news, sad to say.

But, after spending the last week immersed in studying for yesterday's sermon, I find that these four news articles crystallize my thoughts regarding Matthew 5:6.

First, Anna Nicole Smith, quite possibly the most over-exposed news celebrity since anything-Britney! This, to me, is an incredibly sad story. Almost a Horatio Alger story; Anna Nicole Smith a.k.a. Vicky Lynn Hogan came from nowhere in Mexia, Texas to the front page of almost every newspaper in a short 39 year period. She seemed to 'have it all', or at least be in line for it all! She married into money, was a Playboy playmate, had a television show, and was a model for Guess jeans. She had everything that the world touts as important -- money, looks, fame, men, everything but what she really needed -- peace. And she died alone in a hotel room on a Seminole reservation.

Michael Jackson started out as a young star with the Jackson 5. They had a string of hits for Motown, and then Michael broke out on a solo career, and what a career it was! 'Off the Wall', was a big hit for him, but 'Thriller' was the one that put him over the top. Michael Jackson was the unchallenged KING OF POP throughout the eighties, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Everything was turning up roses for the man -- he even married Elvis Presley's daughter thereby solidifying his spot amongst the truly greats of POP!

Have you seen him lately -- his face is virtually falling off, his hands are swollen and overall, he is very scary looking. Not to include that he is having legal and financial issues at every turn. Is this man happy?

Richard Jeni was one of the most successful stand-up comics around, and yet, for some reason, it appears that yesterday he took his own life. Again, a successful, well-to-do, respected person (in the world's eyes) apparently driven to the brink. Sadly, many comics, who spend all of their time making others laugh, often have lives that are filled with loneliness, and despair.

And finally, Rayshaun Parson, the woman who snatched a baby from a hospital in Lubbock, Texas. What drives people to do things such as this? Well, there are probably myriad reasons, but many of these incidents have a common thread: A woman desperately wanting a baby to 'complete' her. What a tragic statement -- that someone feels this way.

These people, and so many more, hunger and thirst for the food of the world, wealth, fame, self-esteem, self-centeredness, and they find it empty. And now we have the 'radical' atheists stepping up and promoting the blasphemy challenge to our young folks. These people promise the same food that the world has promised man for millenia, the empty calories of the worldly pleasure.

I was listening to an interview with one of these atheists and they said that they (atheists) are the last group that can be vilified and hated by everyone, from Muslim to Christian to Deist. Well, I have news for that person -- I don't hate them, they are more properly pitied. If my hope was centered in myself, or the world's approval, what a sad life that would be.

Messiah says that those who hunger and thrist for righteousness will be chortazo, which can properly be translated not simply as satified or filled, but filled to abundance. Those who are hungering after the things of this world find them to be a 'mirage' that disappears every time one gets close. I think of Michael Jackson -- he seemed to be on top of the world, yet he is tortured, trying to change his looks, searching for love and acceptance in all the wrong places, seemingly under constant legal scrutiny. This does not seem to be one who has 'made it' in worldly terms. And then, we can even go back to Elvis Presley, a man who likewise found no spiritual sustenance in the things of this world.

And you may think that these are only anomalies, but truth be told, they are more common than not. Think of the litany of people who would fit this mold -- we mentioned Elvis, and Michael, Anna Nicole, and Richard Jeni, but what about Britney, Kurt Cobain, Peter Ham.... The list is endless... Those who seem to have EVERYTHING that the world holds for them are generally unhappy!

Why is that? Because when you store up riches here on Earth, moth and rust attack them and thieves break in and steal them, yet when your treasure is in Heaven, then no one can break in and steal it.

Oh Christian! How our hearts should break for those in pursuit of worldly acceptance, how our prayers should be lifted up to the Lord, asking that He open the eyes of those lost in mire of this world!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Thoughts

The recent spate (and here and again here) of teachers having sex with students is frightening, isn't it?

These are but a handful of the news items. Why is this happening?

Well, I have a theory -- our society has been raising children for several generations now with a "if it feels good, do it" mentality. Nothing is forbidden, nor should it be!!! "Just do it", and "You deserve it" are the holy mantras being played out by advertisers, teachers, and even parents, which in turn create children who are completely self-absorbed.

So, why are we surprised when this is taken to its logical conclusion? I mean, if I train up a child with the notion that nothing is, or should ever be, forbidden to them, am I not creating an environment where they grow into adults who continue to live by that rule?

The culmination of this mindset was personified in a president who felt no pangs of conscience whilst having sex with an intern in the Oval Office; his only regret seems to be that 'he got caught'. The outcome of this 'feel-good' mentality seems to be that one should 'be 'safe' or at least undetected, (I assume that 'safe sex' is the kind where you don't get caught?)

We are currently reaping what we have been sowing for at least forty years -- the concept that nothing should be taboo. And sadly, the church is no better than the world, we now teach people that the Gospel can mean whatever they want it to mean; that sin is relativistic, and that ALL people are going to heaven. When we have this kind of mentality, I am only surprised that we do not have MORE of these news items than we are experiencing!

Pray for the people caught up in these situations; especially for the children who have been damaged or influenced.

2nd Timothy 3:1-5 -- But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Politics of it all

This will be the final post in this series -- we have discussed many aspects of working with the dispossessed and the needy, but I wanted to cap this off with a final post regarding the church as a force for change in society.

How do we go from where we are today to once again being a force in our society? Some would say that we are a force, like never before in this country. I mean, look at the influence of Joel Osteen and Rick Warren -- does that not speak of the force of the church in the US? Sadly, not at all -- these men and many more like them are feeding the world what they want: a safe Jesus, effectively neutered from saying anything transformational -- He is no longer "the way, the truth and the life...", and He certainly would never say "No one comes to the Father except through me." Now, sad enough, Jesus has become another choice in our pantheon of choices in this society. We, (the church), have become another benevolence society -- a safe, nice, clean place -- but without any power at all!

You may say, "Ray, what does this have to do with the needy?" Much; you see, we may have 'societal' or 'political' clout with the world today, but we do not have GOSPEL clout. This is the clout that the needy require! Some pastors may have grandiose plans for curing AIDS, but without the transforming message of the gospel accompanying the cure, we have confined people to a far worse fate than wasting away with a terminal illness. For, in the end, we will all die, should the Lord tarry, and then comes judgment -- at that point, having a Purpose-Driven Activism will be superfluous.

We, the church, will never be able to navigate the storm-tossed waves of this world alone -- as Paul says -- Ephesians 4:11-14 ...he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

As long as we depend upon ourselves, and as long as we have cowardly pastors, leaders and speakers who will not edify the saints, nor proclaim the Gospel, we may be a temporal force, providing momentary shifts in the doomed trajectory of this lost and dying world, but we will never be a true force for lasting, eternal change.

This incredible saving, transforming message which we have... in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. This message my friends, is what the dispossessed, the needy, and the poor need more than anything else that we may bring to the table!

Friday, March 02, 2007

We Interrupt This Series....

For most in Christendom this Sunday will be much like any other Sunday, but for our church, we will be celebrating Purim. As some may know, I am Jewish and at our church, we celebrate Purim by reading through the book of Esther every year at this time.

On Sunday we will have all the requisite shouting, booing, and cheering as we read through Esther; I love the book as it so beautifully displays the sovereignty of God. As I read through it this week in preparation, I was reminded that the 'good' Jews had left Babylon by this time, and the remaining ones had voluntarily stayed, bringing into question their devoutness.

Yet, as we read through Esther, we find Mordecai, a devout Jew, who is in the right place at the right time, bringing to Queen Esther's attention the predicament that was created by Haman's edict regarding the Jews within the land of Babylon. We also read of King Ahasuerus' sleepless night and the serendipitous reading of the chronicles which highlighted Mordecai's efforts towards the king. We also see Queen Vashti's impertinence being the catalyst which places Queen Esther into position to be able to affect the outcome of Haman's treachery.

Does this sound like a soap opera? Well, if you have not read through the book of Esther in a while (or ever, for that matter), I highly recommend that you open to it and read through the story; you will find the fingerprints of God all over this story, and it may well bring comfort to you as you face difficulties in your own life.

This was not meant to be an expository sermon on Esther, but simply something to whet your appetite, spurring you to go and read for yourself this fun, and often overlooked, book.