Listening When We Pray

“Long ago, at many times and in many  ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1)

A healthy relationship requires healthy communication.  When I talk with my wife, I pause (probably not often enough) to listen.  Our relationship with God works in much the same way.  If we speak and cry to God in prayer, but do not pause to read his revealed message in the ministry and teachings of Jesus,  we may fail to hear the answer to our requests. We learn from Hebrews chapters 1 and 2 that God spoke through prophets, but that he revealed himself uniquely in the life and message of Jesus, his Son, who as Son of God listened to humanity’s pleadings, but also came down to our level to hear and to understand more fully. When our prayers ascend, he who walked among us understands, and responds based on his having been tempted as we are (Hebrews 2:18).

Praying for guidance on a moral or ethical decision includes an awareness that we should read and heed what the message of the Bible is in regard to that matter. We will note, perhaps, subtle differences in context that may require us to adapt our response to our time and situation, but God’s message is revealed there in ways that have striking relevance to our quandaries in rearing our children, in persevering when discouraged, in conducting business,or  in the treatment of the poor and immigrants.

It is most urgent that we listen when we pray for healing or salvation, either in a physical or a spiritual sense. Our survival depends on our hearing the message correctly!

O God who speaks,

We rush like children to tell you our hurts and our wants. As the child who pulls at his mother’s arm to plead for candy while she pays for groceries, so we sometimes cajole and beg that you will grant our desires – for food, for health, for romance, for wealth, and for so much more.  When we hurt, or we fear, we cry out, also.  Hear our prayers, Lord, but help us also to listen carefully for your answer.  Help us to remember that you have already answered many of our questions and conquered much of what we fear through your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Increase our patience when your timetable requires us to wait. Calm us when we realize that your love requires you to say “No” to our fervent desire.. Help us to pay attention so that we may be free from fear. I pray in the name of your Son, Jesus, who walked among us as one of us, Amen

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The Empty Pews Sing Softly

The empty pews sing softly, echoing back melodic tones

Wafted by faithful worshipers scattered in erratic zones

Through a hall reserved for moments of joy and grief,

Exultation and lament, fervor and hopeful belief

In Messiah Jesus, Son of God, Messenger of the Most High,

Sent by you, O God, to expose Satan’s greatest lie,

A bald-faced assertion that we need never repent,

An insistence that we never request, that we need not

Your forgiveness, a denial of need for redemption bought

By your Son’s blood, a ghastly, obscene sacrifice

Decried as amateur stagecraft, a vain artifice

Meant to deceive, so we are told by the great Deceiver,

Who argues skillfully against one becoming a believer.

We still sing, and we still pray, so his wily lies to drown

With songs and calls for fire that you his quest will down.

The empty pews sing sadly of Christian faith surrendered,

Of Time denied to the Creator, but to Satan tendered,

Homage given and worship rendered as though just play,

Worship wrongly directed, your Word’s study in disarray.

The empty pews sing sadly, hear O Lord, this prayer;

The empty pews sing sadly, ignite again faith’s fire.

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A Prayer when We Slip

“When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Psalm 94:18-19).

These words of gratitude and joy remind us of God’s love. They may awaken memories for you, as they do for me, of times when when I lost my spiritual (or physical) bearings, yet learned that God stilled care through the care of his people or reminders from his Word, the Bible.  Reading the Bible is a necessary companion for prayer. When we join the two spiritual disciplines, we hear God’s voice more often in the conversation. I think that is rather important.

Surprisingly, this prayer of gratitude and thankfulness surfaces in the middle of a prayer for vengeance. The prayer in fact begins with these words,

“O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve.”

The prayer continues by listing the sins of the proud: arrogant words, crushing God’s people, killing the widow and the sojourner, murdering the fatherless. The prayer laments that the proud exult in saying, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive” (verse 7). The person who prayed this prayer first, however, had a foundation of faith in a God who hears, who sees, who teaches, who knows our thoughts. He also believed that the “God of vengeance” would avenge his people. He prays,

“Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. For the LORD will not forsake his people who will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it” (verses 12-15).

After the words of confidence that I noted as I began this post, the psalmist asks a rhetorical question, “Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute?”  This person of prayer assumes that those who condemn the innocent to death cannot be allies of God.  He is not afraid, however, and continues his prayer, “But the Lord has become my strong hold, and my God the Rock of my refuge” (verse 22). He concludes his prayer with his certainty that God will avenge the righteous.

When frustrations with politicians or others who seem to delight in hurting the vulnerable or innocent discourage, or setbacks depress, we too need to remember the character of God. He is a God of justice and of love. When we believe ourselves to be under attack, we need to reach for more ammunition (reading the Bible and seeking the company of other believers) and call for fire (pray).

O God who avenges and consoles, May we remember your legacy of love in your relationship with us and others who follow you. May we listen to your assurances, but also to your words of correction and discipline, for both will enable us to persevere when tested.  Protect those whose lives are endangered by people who do not value life or who do not recognize your care for the weak and vulnerable.  Awaken those who rebel to the reality of your justice and your discipline.  May we always make you our fortress, the rock of our refuge.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Prayer of Despair

“I cry to you for help and you do not answer me: I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind ; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm. For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living Yet does not one in a heap of ruins stretch out his hand, and in his disaster cry for help? (Job 30:20-24)

Job, driven by despair by the deaths of his children, economic ruin, and loss of his health, demanded a hearing from God. Near the end of what appears to be a quest for a legal remedy in a celestial court, the broken man explains his cry.  Job has prayed for relief. God has ignored him, from Job’s perspective.  Indeed, he thinks God has attacked him.  There seems no relief.  Yet Job persists in his plea for rescue, his call for fire.

As every other thing in which he might place his confidence and his pride disintegrates or fails, Job maintains faith in a God who lives and can rescue.  Like a soldier trapped under withering enemy fire and rocked by explosions who has used all his ammunition and has eaten all his food, Job seems to have no reason for hope, yet continues to send out calls for rescue.  His cry may resonate with the battered wife, the betrayed husband, the parent whose child has died, the homeowner who watched his house burn to the ground. “I cry…and you do not answer…I stand, and you only look.”  “Act,” the victim wants to scream, “save me!”

In catastrophic times, hope seems faint.  Job’s prayer of lament assures us who may suffer also that even in the worst of times, faith can endure; God who has rescued will redeem again. When all seems lost, we must not “curse God and die,” but with urgency continue to stretch out our hands and call for God to act, even while we question why he has not acted yet.

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Rejoicing in God

In the midst of a prayer for deliverance, after expressing fear, a man of faith exclaims in Psalm 70,  “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’

His next words reveal that he does not find it easy  to rejoice: “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!” We too sometimes find it hard to rejoice in God.  Too many distractions erupt in our lives to permit enjoying our Creator’s world and his care for us.  We have bills to pay, and may fret about whether we can pay them.  A neighbor may tax our patience with loud music, yard work at odd times of the day and night, or with a pesky habit of cutting our decorative shrubbery to the ground without warning (The last happened to me the day before the closing meeting for a house I was selling.).  Some may question whether we should rejoice in God rather than fear him.

The Bible tells us that we should both rejoice in and fear God. This passage in Psalm 70 yearns for all God’s people to rejoice in him, but also recognizes the pain that awaits those that ignore God’s sense of justice.

How do we balance rejoicing and fear? Loving our salvation includes what Paul urges when he calls for Christians to let God’s word work in their lives (1 Thessalonians 2:13) and to seek justice and to live righteously before God.  It includes loving other Christians and praying for them. Our spiritual balance improves when we pray, when we slow our pace so that we can both hear God’s message in his Word, and reply with words of praise and petition. When people take harsh actions against us for reasons we do not understand, we shriek (if only in our thoughts) in anguish. We crave justice and may wish they will hurt as they have caused us to hurt. It requires effort to remember that God is our source of help when all else goes awry.  Psalm 70 ends with these words, “You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!”

We can rejoice in God when we seek joy and see what is good in his world.  I encourage you to open your Bible and read Philippians 4:8 slowly, then put its principles into practice.  That verse gives us a strategy to follow when seeking to rejoice in God and love our salvation.  The English Standard Version of the verse  says,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Thank God for the good that surrounds us.

O God who surrounds us with beauty and warmth, open our eyes to see that beauty. Enhance our senses’ ability to feel that warmth of friendship, of love, of possibility. When a neighbor speaks, help us to note the positive, but also help us to identify wounds that you can help us heal.  Our own pain clouds our perception; our disappointment darkens our interpretation of what happens around us. Restore our joy! Open our ears to hear the music of your world.  You provide for us. You are our help and our deliverer. Give us the courage and the common sense to reach out and grasp the hand that you extend to us.In Jesus’s name, Amen.

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A Prayer the Day after Presidents Day

This past weekend, as I reflected on President’s Day, I thought of President James A. Garfield, the only preacher yet to be elected President of the United States. His unique personal history as preacher, educator, soldier, and statesman brought to mind our responsibility as Christians to pray for our civic and religious leaders. As it says in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Calls for fire take on a special urgency when the sender is under attack. Dissension, defamation, and lies mar our public conversation right now. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, slandering leaders or other citizens does nothing to persuade others of one’s own integrity and honor. Let’s pray for our nation that we may know peace. Let’s pray for President Trump that he may grow in wisdom, discernment, and righteousness. Let’s pray for ourselves as individuals that we may repress the urge to express ourselves crudely and stop ourselves before we lie about another person. Let us pray, also, that we will grow in courage and in the ability to stand up for what is right in a way that will convict but also persuade. President Garfield is quoted as having said, “It is a brave man…who dares to look the devil in the face and tell him he is a devil.” Just as a soldier should make sure that his weapon is in good working condition before firing, and that he sends the correct coordinates to artillery or air support when calling for fire, so we too must be sure that we sre correct in our assertions when we rebuke or make charges against others. Pray hard, my friends, and live faithfully.

 

“O God who rules the rulers, we pray for our nation, for our President, for our Governors and our legislators, and for our judges. Give these men and women wisdom and courage to act justly on behalf of their fellow citizens. Give them discernment and a capacity for discretion when speaking to the public. We pray that truth will characterize our public conversation. Help us to identify lies quickly, and avoid spreading them. We pray that all will come to knowledge of your will and obey it. In Jesus’ name, Amen

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Praying with Awareness of a Legacy of Sin

As in my last post, I will consider what the prayer of returned Jewish exiles to their parents’ homeland can teach us about prayer. In that previous post, we observed the prayer was offered to the God who created the universe and who continues to sustain his people. The exiles, as they continue their prayer, note the legacy of faith(lessness) that led to the praying of this prayer. They pray,

“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abraham and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (Neh. 9:7-8).

We pray to a God who takes initiative. God chose Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham. God reached out to an individual intentionally and revealed to him a plan that would bless humanity. The plan would involve Abraham and his descendants living according to a formal agreement between God and his people whom he had chosen.
We pray to a God who remains faithful even when we do not. The prayer recounts the history of God’s relationship with Israel from Abraham through the Exodus to the exile of Judah to Babylon and the return of the children and grandchildren of those exiles to Palestine. The people pray, “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea…,you divided the sea before them so they went through the midst of the sea on dry land… ,you led them…, you…gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments…,you gave them bread from heaven for their hunger.. their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell…you gave them kingdoms and peoples….you multiplied their children…, you gave them saviors…, when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many time you delivered them according to your mercies…you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets…you are a gracious and merciful God” (From Neh. 9:9-31). God sustained and protected his people. He provided for both their physical and spiritual needs. He kept his promises.
They noted, however, that “our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them…they rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them…” (From Neh. 9:16-30). They confessed the sins of their ancestors. Even though they themselves had resolved to turn from those sins, and in many cases had not committed those sins themselves individually, they recognized that the sins of their forefathers had created consequences that persisted in their generation. They prayed, “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves” (Neh. 9:36). The sins of their ancestors still resonated through their society and caused them harm in their relationships with God and with one another.
We still pray to a God who remains faithful even when we do not. Consequences of sin by previous generations still persist and harm later generations. Almost certainly, some who joined in this prayer of Nehemiah 9 were descended from courageous servants of God who had remained faithful even as the society around them rebelled against the law of God. They still recognized that as part of a people, they shared responsibility for the consequences of sin committed by that people. When we reflect on the prayer of Nehemiah’s people, we learn what it means to be part of the people of God. We learn how to pray when a national legacy in which we share contains both elements that we cherish and elements that we find repulsive. Nehemiah, Ezra, and their contemporaries took pride in their ancestors’ historical relationship with God – God’s covenant with them, his sustaining of their ancestors, their conquest of a land and building of a great nation. They also recognized that many of their ancestors had acted shamefully. They suffered still from those sins of prior generations. Even when some of them did not, others did. I have struggled with praying about sins of previous generations when I have no evidence that I or my family had any part in committing that sin. This prayer made aware that I can pray the consequences of previous generations’ sins may end, even when I have no personal (or perhaps even familial) guilt for that sin. I realize that I share responsibility, if part of a group that sinned in the past, to correct aftereffects of that sin, even if I am not guilty of the sin myself.
The people prayed the prayer of confession in Nehemiah ended it by telling God that they were signing a written commitment to follow his commands. When we are baptized into Christ, we plead to God for a good conscience and we promise that we will follow his commands. When we partake the Lord’s Supper with other Christians, we confirm that we will follow God’s commands. We serve a God whose character does not change. He still creates, protects, and sustains. He still remains faithful even when we do not. Let us pray that, regardless of what previous generations have done or what our contemporaries may do, that we will remain faithful also.  Let us pray that we may recognize the shadows of sins from previous generations and bring light where darkness still reigns. Let us pray that peace will replace fear, and that every person will be treated as if his or her life matters. Let us pray that we will review the word of God as Nehemiah and his contemporaries did, then do as they did by confessing the sins whose shadows still darken our lives, and by choosing to live faithfully for God, even when those who have gone before us have not.

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