Praying With An Undivided Heart

In the midst of Psalm 86’s barrage of “calls for fire” (14 petitions) is a penetrating insight enclosed within a request,

Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name. I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave” (Psalm 86:11=13).

The Psalmist prays for unity of effort within his own mind. In the New Testament, James focuses on the same thought when writing, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double minded man, unstable in all he does” (James 1:5-8).

When under attack, as was the writer of this Psalm, we may lose focus. The prayer of Psalm 86 reminds us who can save us: “Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with you…For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God” (Psalm 86:8, 10). The writer also prays, “But you, O Lord, are compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (86:15). Earlier in the prayer he noted, “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding love to all who call to you” (86:5). In an age where technological innovation is common and we take for granted inventions that would have amazed our great-grandparents, we may succumb to the same temptation that captured the imagination of the builders of the tower of Babel, wanting to be like God (Genesis 11). This prayer captures a sense of God’s transcendence; even if there were other gods, they would fail in comparison with God – no deeds can compare with his.

This prayer praises God and remembers his love and mercy. It still is a prayer of lament. The Psalmist needs help, for he is under attack from people who have no regard for God. This threat underlies his cries for help, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long. Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (86:3-4). In our time and in our culture, where antagonism toward faith seems on the rise, we may want to pray along with this Psalmist, “Give me a sign of your goodness, that my enemies may see it and be put to shame, for you, O LORD, have helped me and comforted me” (86:17).

The prayer, a cry for help, confesses the tension we feel when we know help is possible but it has not yet occurred. Just as Soldiers may worry whether artillery or close air support will drive back the enemy before their position is overrun, we too long for God to rescue us in a way that will win over our enemy to God’s cause. Recognizing that tension returns us to the need for self-awareness and focused faith when we pray. We must pray with confidence that God hears.

God who helps and comforts, help us to pray with undivided loyalty. Strengthen our moral fiber so that we may stand firm in the moment of testing. Help us to live what we profess to believe. We pray in the name of the One on whom we fix our gaze, through Jesus, Amen.

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Reflections on Prayer, Fellowship, and Disaster Response

I traveled to two other states this past week in connection with ministry training and preparation. Speakers told us of their ministry to victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and bombings. I heard others discuss their losses to fire and mudslides. Hearing such testimonies puts one’s own suffering in perspective. It reminded me how important prayer, Bible study, and fellowship are in building resilience. Acts 2:42 says this about early followers of Jesus, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Most of the speakers I heard this last week emphasized the importance of community in their surviving loss and their ability to help others who suffered.

God who sustains when the world around us collapses, open our eyes to avenues of deliverance when we become discouraged or afraid. Help us to remember your acts of rescue in the past. Thank you for life and for friends who keep us focused on you when distractions obstruct our view. Thank you for the opportunity to help others. In Jesus name, Amen.

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As a Runner Prays

In this deviation from my normal posts, I share with you an attempt to merge my loves for God, poetry and running:

A squirrel scurries up a nearby tree,
Startled by a heavy rhythmic tread.
The leaves of trees and bushes rustle,
I ponder prayer and run, I look ahead;
A deer crosses my path with little bustle
As I thank God for what he has said
And all that he has caused to be.

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Praying Without Fear

The prayer of Psalm 56 is a true call for fire. Its composer has identified enemies who threaten him. They pursue (or “trample”- NRSV) him. They conspire against him; he says that “they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life” (verse 6). He has already said, “All day long they twisted my words; they are always plotting to hurt me.” The superscription of this Psalm identifies its historical milieu as when the future King David was in Gath. 1 Samuel notes two occasions when David was in Gath; on both visits, enemies threatened him. Whatever the psalm’s setting, the writer’s life is in peril.

The Psalmist prays with purpose, identifying the target and proposing an end-state: “On no account let them escape; in your anger, O God, bring down the nations. Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll – are they not in your record? Then my enemies will turn back when I call for help. By this I will know that God is for me” (verses 7-9). The objective is to bring down the nations and cause the Psalmist’s enemies to turn back. The means is to record his lament, either by writing it in a scroll (NIV) or storing his tears in a wineskin or bottle (NRSV). The psalm reminds us of the value of water in a desert society; at times, even tears may be saved. The threat and its related danger is not what we focus on as we study this prayer. Although endangered, the Psalmist prays with confidence:

“When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” (verses 3 and 4).
“In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise – in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (verses 10 and 11).

The poetic structure of the prayer drives home its author’s assertion of trust in God: he will not be afraid. This person of faith does not ignore danger; he recognizes his peril, but conquers fear with his confidence in God’s power to save. Like many psalms of lament, this prayer ends by regarding salvation as already accomplished:

I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank offerings to you. For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (verses 12-13).

When we pray because we are under attack, we may describe the nature of the threat. We, however, pray with confidence to a God who can redeem the situation. We do not need to fear, for he retains the power to save. We demonstrate our confidence and our gratitude by walking in the ways God has prescribed in his word. Because he has saved us, we will do his will.

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Prayerful Leadership and Samuel’s Farewell

The transition from prophet and judge Samuel to King Saul was an awkward moment. Moses had warned centuries earlier what would happen if Israel decided to enthrone a human monarch. Now, after decades of what they will admit was just and wise leadership by Samuel, Israelites demand a king so that they may be like the nations around them. We might imagine Samuel would be hurt by this demand, and that he might stalk off into an angry retirement, refusing to help the new king who replaced him as leader of Israel. Samuel, however, did not relinquish his role of spiritual leader even as he surrendered his political role.

In 1 Samuel 12, the aging prophet asks his countrymen, “Whose animals have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? Have I accepted a bribe?” He offers restitution if he has committed any of those offenses. His fellow Israelites will admit that he has sinned against them in none of those ways. He has been an exemplary leader. The prophet then notes that it is the time for the wheat harvest, a time when it typically did not rain, and he “calls for fire.” In his prayer, the prophet calls for God to send thunder and rain, which at this time of year would have the same ruinous effect on the harvest. The prayer and the thunder and rain that followed it caused the people to be “in awe of the LORD and of Samuel” (1 Samuel 12:18). Realizing that they had rejected a divinely appointed leader in Samuel by pleading for a king, they ask Samuel to perform one of the duties of a prophet, to pray for them to God so that God would not destroy them for their sins.

Samuel answers, “Do not be afraid…You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart” (1 Samuel 12:20). In rejecting Samuel as prophet-judge, they had rejected God as king. Samuel tells them that the remedy for their sin is to serve God whole-heartedly from this time forward. They cannot undo what they have done. Consequences of sin often remain even after repentance. In this scenario, Israelites offer to turn back from the move to monarchy, yet Samuel rejects their offer. They have repented, but he does not allow them the option of restitution. Instead, from this point onward, they must “serve the LORD with all [their] heart.” The prophet zeroes in on one potential obstacle to spiritual success: “Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless” (1 Samuel 12:21).

Samuel will not rule Israel, but he does not abdicate his role as spiritual leader. He assures Israel that God has not rejected his people. Rather than retreat bitterly, he asserts that he will continue to perform his prophetic function in two ways: He will pray and he will teach. Prophets prayed for the people of God. Samuel pledges:

“For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own. As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. But be sure to fear the LORD and to serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away” (1 Samuel 12:22-25).

Note the implication that the prophet would sin if he failed to pray for God’s people. Samuel also links the “way that is good and right” to teaching. Once more the necessary linkage for successful communication emerges: talking to God (prayer) and listening to God (learning the way that is good and right from teaching of God’s Word). The prophet must pray and teach; the people must learn and act righteously. Praying teachers and leaders of God people (including Jesus, Peter, John, and Paul) appear throughout the New Testament. A faithful leader will pray for God’s people.

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Jesus and Temptation in the Garden of Olives

Michael Summers:

Happy birthday for Call for Fire Seminar! This blog is now over one year old. I began with no knowledge of how to use tags or other ways to increase readership. Consequently some of the earliest posts were not ready by many people. I published this post one year ago today about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. I pray that you will find this anniversary post helpful in your spiritual walk.

Originally posted on Call for Fire Seminar:

Jesus executed a “Call for Fire” when facing death. “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place he said to them, ‘”Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stones throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:39-44).  The humanity of Jesus emerges when we consider his practice of prayer. He often goes off alone to pray. Here, as he speaks to his disciples before he leaves them, he links prayer to defeating temptation, telling them to pray so that they will not fall into temptation…

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When God’s People Humble Themselves and Pray

If Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15 could describe himself as chief of sinners, then King Manasseh might have argued that he was next. Manasseh ruled fifty-five years, more than any other monarch of Judah or Israel. During most of his reign, he apparently was a compliant vassal of the Assyrian Empire. Perhaps because of Assyrian influence, Manasseh revoked the religious reforms of his father Hezekiah that had returned Judah to exclusive worship of Yahweh. Manasseh himself participated in the rites of indigenous Canaanite gods and burned one of his sons as a religious sacrifice. This king practiced divination and sorcery. He remodeled the Jerusalem Temple, adding altars to additional gods. In addition to his religious heresy, 2 Kings 21:16 notes that “Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end.” The author of 2 Kings regards Manasseh’s reign as the tipping point that persuaded God that the nation of Judah must be punished for its spiritual rebellion. 2 Kings 21 notes no positive aspects of Manasseh’s religious or political influence.

2 Chronicles 33 also relates the history of Manasseh’s long reign. Its writer repeats verbatim much of what we read in 2 Kings 21:1-10. However, while 2 Kings portrays Manasseh’s reign as consistently evil and assigns responsibility to the heretical monarch for Judah’s subsequent exile to Babylon, 1 Chronicles records that Manasseh, exiled himself for a time by the Assyrians to Babylon, repented of his multitude of sins and prayed to God for forgiveness. While the Bible does not record Manasseh’s prayer, centuries later someone wrote a prayer based on Manasseh’s repentance as described in 1 Chronicles 33. This apocryphal prayer of Manasseh ends with this plea to a gracious God:

“Do not destroy me with my transgressions; do not be angry against me forever; do not remember my evils; and do not condemn me and banish me to the depths of the earth! For you are the God of those who repent. In me you will manifest all your grace; and although I am not worthy, you will save me according to your manifold mercies. Because of this (salvation) I shall praise you continually all the days of my life; because all the hosts of heaven praise you, and sing to you forever and ever” (“The Prayer of Manasseh,” from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, Garden City, New York: Doubleday& Company, 1985, p. 635).

In 2 Chronicles, a forgiven Manasseh returns to Jerusalem, where he initiates religious reforms and building programs that demonstrate the genuineness of his repentance. The Chronicler’s account of Manasseh’s life ends: “The other events of Manasseh’s reign, including his prayer to his God and the words the seers spoke to him in the name of the LORD, the God of Israel, are written in the annals of the kings of Israel. His prayer and how God was moved by his entreaty, as well as all his sins and unfaithfulness, and the sites where he built high places and set up Asherah poles and idols before he humbled himself – all are written in the records of the seers” (2 Chronicles 33:18-19).

Manasseh begins his reign by arrogantly turning away from the God of his father Hezekiah. He brings both religious and political ruin to his nation by his policies. Only after being exiled does he humble himself and pray. His repentance and prayer echoes God’s words to King Solomon centuries earlier, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face an turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). God’s promise is extended to people who already are in covenant relationship with him, but have violated the terms of that covenant. Such was the case with Manasseh and Judah, the nation he ruled. In modern times, it applies to Christians who have strayed from God’s will rather than to secular nations.

Manasseh’s prayer demonstrates the efficacy of calling for fire when one realizes that through his or her own disobedience, they have placed themselves in great spiritual danger. Just as Peter and John counseled Simon to pray for forgiveness in hope that God might forgive him (Acts 8), so worshipers of God who have lost their way today may ask for forgiveness. Manasseh sinned horribly, killing at least one of his children, causing the death of many others, and leading a nation into apostasy and toward political suicide. Even after his repentance, the aftershocks of his earlier sins continued to influence Judah’s history for generations. Even when we repent, we cannot always undo the effects of the wrong we have done. On the other hand, God does forgive him, and Manasseh, despite the magnitude of his earlier sin, accomplishes great acts of service for God during his remaining years. No sin is too great for God to forgive when God’s people, who are called by his name, humble themselves and pray.

God of grace and glory, Remember how you granted forgiveness to Manasseh and Saul, who became Paul the apostle. Extend the same grace to those who recognize the horror of their own rebellion. Forgive them when they humbly return to you. Saul had thrown disciples of your Son into prison, and assisted in the killing of others, but when he arose and was baptized, calling on the name of the Lord, you forgave him and gave him a mission which transformed his weakness into strength. Give us strength and courage to do your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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