Tuesday, August 19, 2014

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

It seems that each time I have written or taught on prayer, many people feel challenged to pray, but struggle to actually spend time in prayer. It would appear that the disciples had the same challenge as they all asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 4:1]; I remember dealing with the same thing several years ago. I would sit down to pray, but felt like I only had a few things to say, and they were always repeats of the day before. Two things happened that helped transform my time in prayer. One was the A.C.T.S. acronym as a guide for prayer, and the other was Isaiah 6. 
First, the acronym A.C.T.S.:
A: Adoration
C: Confession
T: Thanksgiving
S: Supplication 
Before we look at each piece individually, let me first read you the passage that helped it all make sense for me.
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people…”  [Isaiah 6:1–9a]
Isaiah invites us into his time with the Lord. It also gives us an idea of how we might spend time in prayer. Let me now work through the acronym.

Adoration is defined as “deep love and respect”. The definition of worship is the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for [God]. The idea of starting with adoration (or worship) in prayer, is for us to start by focusing our hearts on God. Way too often our prayers are our so focused on what we want from God, that we forget to give God what he is due - our worship! 
Just as Scripture begins with “In the beginning, God…”, so all good theology starts with God. Our Reformed liturgy begins with God, preferably in a trinitarian proclamation. Isaiah begins his time focused on God, and so our prayers should begin with God. I can say this with some emphasis, as Jesus started his famous prayer with, “Our God in Heaven, hallowed by your name.” Jesus called God’s name holy (hallowed), before he began anything else. 
Beginning our time by worshiping God not only focuses our hearts, but also sets our priority on God. I would rather give God his due worship before asking him to meet my needs. Isaiah spends more time on this portion than any other (see vs. 1-3).
Beginning in worship sets us with a right view of God. We remember he is all powerful (omnipotent), before we seek to ask him to intervene in our lives. We remember he is all knowing (omniscient) before we seek him for answers. 
Also, by getting our view of God right, by worshiping him in Spirit and truth, we get a right view of ourselves. That leads us to our next phase, “confession”. 
Let me say this as a final thought on worship before moving on: adoration is different than thanksgiving, though many people confuse these. When we are thankful, it is for something done (an act or service). When we worship (adore) it is for an attribute. I often explain it in this way: if I were to ascribe worth to my wife (adore) for washing the dishes and making me dinner, would she feel loved? If I am to adore my wife, it needs to be for her character, her beauty, and her amazing heart. I adore her for these things, and I appreciate her for the things she does - separately. That will be in “thanksgiving” (more on that in a minute). What we are doing in worship and adoration is giving God worship for who he is, not just for what he has done. We worship God for his holiness and his justice, not just for him giving us a job when we needed it. 

Confession is simply admitting our guilt and sin before God. All of us have things we need to confess whether we like to admit it or not (1 John 1:10, Romans 3:23). We are called to confess our sins in prayer (James 5:16), and we are taught that this is a part of the forgiveness process (1 John 1:9). Since I think most people get this, let me offer a challenge to this: corporate confession.
Isaiah not only confesses his own sin, but confesses the sin of people in his day. He writes, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5) I see the same thing in Nehemiah:
5 And I said, “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, 6 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. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. [Nehemiah 1:5–7]
God does amazing things through Isaiah and Nehemiah. I am challenged by both these men of God to confess the sins not only that I have committed, but the sins of my community, nation, generation, and church. I am compelled to believe that corporate confession has great merit, as even Jesus did so from the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

Thanksgiving flows naturally out of confession because we know God has forgiven us, and removed our sin from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Being forgiven prompts us to being thankful, but we can be thankful for so much more.
It is a great moment in Isaiah’s passage, where he hears, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” He knows his sinfulness is gone. What a miserable existence it would be if we had to confess sin and just leave it there stinking before God! This is not so in Christ. We are forgiven! And, we should show our thankfulness to God for his mercy and grace. 
Just as God is deserving of our thankfulness for forgiveness, what are the other things we thank God for? How about our families, or our church? How about the ministry he has given us to serve in? What about the prayers God has already answered for us? There is so much to thank God for, this should be a long list of gratitude. 
When talking about worship being about character, and not actions done, I used the example of adoring my wife for her attributes. It is true that once I have adored her, she loves to know what I appreciate. Our God is the same way. He is due our worship and adoration, but he also is to be appreciated and thanked for all he does for us. 

Supplication is defined as the action of asking for something earnestly or humbly. When we bring our needs to God, it is to done with both an earnest and humble heart. We all have needs, and we all have desires. To seek God for all that we need or desire him to “supply” in our life is the easiest part of prayer for most people. Let me offer some suggestions for this time. 
Pray for others first, and yourself last. If you are married and have kids, let your prayers be about your family first. If you are a pastor, pray for your church and their needs before yourself. It is always a good practice to seek God on behalf of others before yourself. What is the worst thing that can happen, you run out of time and can’t pray for yourself? God knows your needs! He will care for you.
Most importantly, leave room for God to speak. It is during the time after worship, confession, and thanksgiving that Isaiah hears from God, and writes, “I heard the voice of the Lord saying…” (vs. 9). Bring a journal and a Bible, and allow for room in your prayer time to listen. We all too often make prayer time a monologue, and not a dialogue. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“My House Shall Be Called a House of Prayer”

The synoptic gospels all record Jesus as saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” [Matt 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46], which is a direct quote from Isaiah the prophet:
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” [Isaiah 56:6–7]
The challenge for us today is to to honestly ask if Jesus would consider our church a “house of prayer”? Do we really understand the call of Jesus’ church to be a people hallmarked by prayer? Do we truly see the link between the power of prayer and God’s movement in history? Do we commit to both corporate and private times of prayer as a church? Sadly, for too many churches and pastors, the answer is no.
If we can honestly assess both ourselves and our churches we will come up with the answer that corporately we are not as prayerful as we are called to be. As leaders, what are we called to do about it? Let me offer a simple answer through a common pattern we see in Israel.
The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother. The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)
Consider the following pattern as not only what has happened in the days of Israel, but what takes place today. In simple terms, here is what takes place:
  1. God is good to his people and they enjoy his blessings. Whether it is Israel inheriting the land God gave them, or the first century church being empowered by the Holy Spirit, whenever people are walking rightly with God, things are good. 
  2. God’s people tend to get complacent. Sin enters in, God’s people capitulate to the cultures around them, and allow their hearts to wander away from God. If God’s people do not course-corrected at this point, things go downhill fast. 
  3. When God’s people don’t repent, God tends to lift his hand of blessing. That can be as severe as Israel’s loss of land and being taken into captivity, or something far less like just being outside the blessing God desires to shower on his people. For us in the church today it seems to be appearing as an impotence in being the Church Jesus empowered us to be.
  4. When God’s people return to God, he hears their prayers and returns to them. 
In the Judges passage an all too common story arises. Israel, after enjoying the covenant blessing of God for a time, inevitably gets complacent. As they allow their hearts to wander, they move further away from God and into idolatry. Eventually God lifts his hand of blessing off of them, and they lose what God had given them. After enough pain and heartache they remember God, and reach out to God in prayer. The highlight of the passage is God faithfully returning to them, pouring out his Spirit on them, and restoring them. 
This story is common with Israel. It is common with the church today too. Just imagine the timeline of Church History and compare it to the history of Israel in the Old Testament. We see the same thing: times of blessing, times of idolatry, and times where God moves mightily again. But, where are we today? Not many who study the church in America for overall health and effectiveness would say that the church is doing well. It doesn’t take a statistician or biblical scholar to see that Jesus commissioned a powerful church, enabled them to do incredible things, and sent them on a God-sized Kingdom mission. If all that is still true, if we are still that church, why don’t we look a bit more like the church Jesus designed us to be? Could it be that we have lost our orientation for prayer? 
The church was designed to be under God’s blessing. Jesus clearly commissioned his Bride to be a powerful community that would take his gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus teaches us that we will do even greater things after he is gone (John 14:12). Why then when we measure ourselves by Scripture do we find a church that seems so impotent?
The early church gathered often for prayer together (corporate prayer particularly). Luke records words like, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer”, and “we will devote ourselves to prayer” [Acts 1:14 and 6:4]. It was during times of prayer that God did amazing things like pour out his Holy Spirit on the people, commission leaders for ministry, miraculously setting Peter free from jail, and even raise the dead. So why not us? 
What do we do when we find ourselves outside of where God has called us to be? What do we do if we find that we as a church have become complacent and too much like our culture? How has God called us to return to him, when we find that we are no longer the people he created us to be? The answer is simple: return to God in prayer. 
What if we used the famous passage in 2 Chronicles written to Israel about just such a time in their lives? God told Israel that he was with them, and would remain with them, but they were prone to walking away. He provide for their complacency and sin before they even acted it out.  
Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
God provides the answer for Israel’s departure, even before they do it. In short, God says when Israel wanders away he will lift his blessing from to get their attention. However, when they return to him, he will return to them. He promises to do so when Israel returns in prayer. God even repeats himself again saying, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”

This brings us back to where we began: would God consider our church to be a “house of prayer”? If we desire to see another “great awakening” sweep our country, if we desire to see more empowering like the first century church, and if we desire to accomplish the mission that Jesus set us on, we need to return in prayer.