Category Archives: Faith

Follow up on prayer and fasting

Our church had a voluntary day of prayer and fasting Wednesday.  Some of us opened and closed the day with a short prayer meeting, and went out for a meal afterwards.  Here are some concluding thoughts:

It was much easier with a group than it would have been to do this on my own.  The feeling that “we’re in this together” helped out immensely.  I don’t think I would have done it on my own.

Going without food was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.  I expected to have hunger pangs throughout the day and that every minute would be a battle of the will.  The only time I felt slightly bad was right before lunch, but there was no question of breaking the fast then.

It did give me a greater awareness of the need to pray and the desire to pray.  Since the day was to be focused on prayer, I thought more often of the need to pray and ways to pray.  I wasn’t able to spend that much time in prayer because I had a full day’s worth of work to accomplish, but I was able to “fill in the corners” of my schedule.

Thoughts for next time:

I would prepare more in advance through planning times and material for meditation and prayer.  This would have made a great difference.

I would attempt to get work done in advance so that I could devote more time to prayer.  I didn’t realize that to be as effective as possible, planning should go into this for how to make the time to devote the day to prayer and preparation in how to invest the time.

Voluntary Prayer and Fasting

Our church is having a voluntary day of prayer and fasting.  We began with a prayer meeting that was available in person and remote (I chose to attend remotely so that I could be in front of the fire in my living room with my pajamas on) and will close with a prayer meeting at 6:30 pm.

I have not done this for a long time, and I felt intimidated at the prospect of fasting for a day.  Of course, I had to fast prior to my surgery in September.  But that was different.  I was laying in a hospital bed with every conceivable need cared for, except for food.  Today, I’m trying to live more or less a normal day, but with times of prayer instead of meals.

This morning was surprisingly easy.  We had our corporate prayer time, and then I engaged in my normal prayer routine.  Afterward, I went to the gym to do my rehab (I’m still rehabbing the knee I had surgery on in September).  Other than feeling a little light-headed on some of the exercises, it was fine.

Now that’s it’s after lunch, it’s a little harder.  It’s tempting to say, “it’s only five-and-a-half hours until I can eat.”  It’s not like I’m going to break down and have a snack or anything.  But I am experiencing a feeling of deprivation.  What do I do with this?

Well, first of all, many people all over the world, perhaps the majority of the world’s population, is not able to have adequate nutrition.  So, this is a normal feeling for most of the people in the world.  Many of these people are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  So, it’s good for the soul to be able to participate, even for a short while, in their deprivation for them, and to pray that the Lord would give them this day their daily bread.  This is something that I can meditate on and be more intentional in my prayers.  I often pray for the spiritual concerns of the church around the world, and for the persecuted church, but how often do I pray for my brothers and sisters the simple request that they will have enough to eat?

Another benefit is that this slight momentary deprivation reminds me of the poverty of my spirit, and is hopefully developing a hunger for God.  I long to treasure his words more than my necessary food, as Job did.  My hope is that I can devote time to prayer, or a least some more time today, rather than just devoting it to work.  Lord, help me to do so.

A final benefit is that this is another opportunity to pray in solidarity with others.  In most churches, the Wednesday night prayer meeting is a thing of the past.  For our church, I don’t think it’s a lack of desire, but it’s because we are a “destination church” rather than a parish church.  People in Houston typically have long commutes, and often, this includes church.  It may be worthwhile to consider having get-togethers for prayer in neighborhood homes, even occasionally or “one-time” events.   We do have Bible studies, which I enjoy.  But it may be worth exploring inviting people to pray together, and making it easier to do so.

So, this invitation from our elders to participate in this day of prayer and fasting is opening my eyes to some things I haven’t thought too much about, and is stretching me, and I hope it will do so for others.

Habit No. 6: Fast from something for 24 hours

We constantly seek to fill our needs with tangible items.  We were made for abundance.  But the Fall turned abundance into scarcity, and it turned us, as John Calvin puts in into “idol factories.”  We continually replace the fullness of God with things that become as gods to us.

Even in the days when my wife and I were young and poor, we were far better off materially than almost any of our forebears, or most people living in the world today.  Jesus said that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  So, even though we were poor by American standards, we were rich by the world’s standards, and have always been in a position to trust in the abundance of possessions rather than in the promises of God in Christ.

This is where fasting comes into play.  For a set period of time, we abstain from something.  Ideally, we will use the time that we would have spend — on eating, on watching TV, on using electronic or social media — to pray.  Fasting is a voluntary period of deprivation for the purpose of entering into deeper communion with God, the One who truly satisfies.  It’s “leaning into” the scarcity  that is a product of the Fall, in order to gain the fullness of the One who gives us the true bread from heaven to eat and living water to drink.  Prayer with fasting is a living demonstration that along with Job, we prize God’s Word “more than our necessary food” (Job 23:12), and that we value communion with God more highly than the habits that we take for granted.

Honestly, I have to give myself an F minus on this habit.  A number of years ago, I practiced semi-regular days of prayer and fasting.  But I haven’t put one on the calendar in years.

The elders in our church have initiated one voluntary day of prayer and fasting each month, which I plan on participating in.  It’s much easier to pray and fast if a community of people commit to doing it.  I hope to be able to keep this up in the coming months and to grow in my desire and ability to engage in this habit.

Habit No. 3: One meal a day with others

I’m continuing to work through Justin Whitmel Earley’s  The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction.  One of the habits that he recommends is sharing one meal a day with others.

I’m surprised to find out how difficult this actually is.  It was easy when we had children at home.  Family dinner time was a non-negotiable.  However, our children are gone now, and my wife and I can get caught up in our various projects and eat on our own sometimes.  Also, I went for the past nine weeks without being able to sit at a table because of my knee injury.  This made it much easier for us to eat in the living room and turn on the TV,  which I’m not counting in the “one meal a day with others.”

Earley writes that in our quest for efficiency, eating with others is a luxury.  The big takeaway from this habit is that it forces us to orient our schedule around others, which is a big part of making the transition of our default of self-centeredness to lives that are centered on serving others.

Right now on this habit, I’d probably give myself a C- on this habit.   We have a standing Sunday evening get-together after church in our home, and I’m part of two Bible studies that have meals every other week.  So, we do enjoy meals with others regularly.  But this is an area where my life would be much enriched if I pursued this more zealously.

Habit No. 2: Begin and End the Day with Prayer

I’ve spoken to the first habit of “prayer and Scripture before phone.”  The next habit that I’ll speak to is beginning and ending the day with prayer.

By beginning and ending the day with prayer, we are committing everything that takes place in between to the Lord.  Each time, we confess that we are dependent creatures.  We confess our faults and our failures, our needs and our fears.  We give thanks for God’s mercies.  We ask God to meet our needs.  We bow the knee before the Almighty, acknowledge our need of a Savior, and confess that Jesus Christ is the Savior that God has provided for us.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been fairly consistent in beginning the day with prayer.  But in the past, I’ve gotten involved in reading, or watching a game or a TV show, and not left any time for more than the most perfunctory prayers.  I’m trying to build in the habit of honest-to-goodness prayer at night.  Generally, I will begin with the Order for Compline from the Book of Common Prayer and add my own intercessions.  It doesn’t take too long — maybe five or ten minutes.

The important thing here is formation.  I need to be active in the process of conforming myself into the image of Christ.  The point is not to have a profound religious experience or to spend a long time in intercession, but to continually commit myself to the Lord, and avail myself of his grace as the one thing needful in my life.

Habit No. 1: Prayer and Scripture before phone

We shape our habits, and our habits shape us.

The phrase that the Church Fathers used to describe this effect is:  lex orandi, lex credendi.   That is, the law of prayer shapes the law of belief.  It is true that what we believe shapes how we pray.  Moreover, praying shapes believing.  If we don’t pray, we won’t believe for long.

We live in a world that is driven by urgency.  Text messages, notifications, emails, carpools, work deadlines, sports schedules, music lessons . . .  Our phones drive us to what is urgent, which, if not reined in, can crowed out the important.

If picking up our phone is the first thing do upon rising, we are choosing to prioritize the here and now, the immanent over the transcendent.  We are allowing our phones to shape us.  We are not cultivating the need to pause before the Lord, to “be still and know that I am God.”  We are forgetting that somehow, God managed to run the world while we were asleep, and that he will keep doing so whether we are awake or asleep, and long after we are gone.

Prayer and Scripture before phone is a deliberate decision to choose eternal matters before temporal matters.  It’s a decision to place our communion with God before our careers.  It’s a choice that reinforces that we are dependent creatures, that we are finite rather than infinite.  It’s a recognition that only God is “eternal, infinite, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 4).  It’s a commitment to the Lord to form us instead of the world forming us.

This habit will not change you in a day.  Or perhaps a week.  Habits are the building blocks of our lives.  They change us over time.

We cannot expect to be virtuous people apart from developing habits of virtue.  We cannot expect that when trouble comes that we will “rise to the occasion” apart from rising to the occasion in small ways each day.

Prayer and Scripture before phone is the beginning of this.  As we sit or kneel before God, we entrust himself to us to keep his promise, that he provides all that is needed for life and godliness.  We live as people of the promise.  We reset our recognition each day that our identity as Christians is “in Christ” rather than “of this world.”  And this recognition shapes every portion of our lives.

Reflections on The Common Rule by Justin Earley

I’ve been reading Justin Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction.  Here, Earley advocates developing a “rule of life,” or a set of habits to commit oneself to in order to be more rooted in the pursuit of God and in loving others.

This concept is not new.  Church Fathers such as Augustine and Benedict of Nursia developed rules of life.  The Rule of St. Benedict dating from the 500s is the most famous rule of life.  Benedict was the abbot, or the spiritual leader of a monastery, and developed “house rules” for the conduct of the monks under his care that would lead to piety and good works.

While one may not find all of the precepts of Benedict or Augustine to be appropriate for life in the 21st century, the wisdom of committing oneself to a pattern of habits and a schedule comes not only from ancient wisdom, but is backed by secular research such as Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.  A rule of life is also a wise response to many of the “default settings” of 21st century Christians.

1.  Connectivity.  Many of us feel the urge to be connected 24/7.  We can’t go to bed or get up without first checking our email, responding to text messages, or checking the scores of ballgames on our ESPN app.  By allowing ourselves to drift into this way of life, we miss out on communion with God and one another.  We need a plan to keep our devices in their proper boundaries in our lives and not allow them to take over and rob us of life’s most precious experiences.

2.  Slavery to the “to do” list.  I live in Houston, which is a busy, busy city.  I’ve met many people who have moved to Houston from all over the world because of economic opportunity.  Houston has a booming economy (until the price of oil goes down) and has a reasonable cost of living.  With long commutes and people seeking to take advantage of the opportunities here, work becomes a harsh taskmaster.  Add to this all of the demands of school on one’s children and the pressure of extracurricular activities, and there is not much room for true rest and leisure.  We are humans, not machines.  We are creatures, not gods.  Only God gets everything done. A well-thought out rule of life will place the essentials of well-being first and put secondary things in their place.

3.  The evangelical urge for spontaneity.  It would be interesting to see how many evangelical Christians schedule their workday in 15 or 30 minute intervals but believe that prayer must have an element of spontaneity in order to be sincere.  If we believe that our main priority is communion with God, because he will be our companion for this life and the next, we need to schedule time for this and develop a framework for Bible reading, prayer, and family devotional activities.  This takes planning, commitment, and building habits.  A rule of life will take this into account.

Where I plan on going with this next is developing a rule of life, trying to keep it, and reflecting on how well I do in keeping it.  I look forward to sharing the results.

Will God ever give you “more than you can handle”?

Last night at Bible study, the question was asked, “is it true that God will never give you more than you can handle?”

Many of us in Christian circles have experienced people hoping to encourage us by saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Christians commonly see this as an implication of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which reads:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

I’d like to offer another interpretation, and one, I think, is more in keeping with the rest of the Scripture.

Certainly, no temptation that any of us face is unique to us.  And God’s faithfulness is unquestionable.

But God did not create us to be independent beings, able to fight sin and temptation in our own flesh.  We live “in Christ,” who says, in John 15:4-5:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Apart from abiding in Christ, even the least temptation will overpower us.  So in this sense, God always gives us more than we can handle!.  Because our sufficiency is in Christ, and not in ourselves.

Once again, Job is perhaps the paradigmatic illustration of this.  Could Job have faced his suffering and remained blameless if he had been content with the moralistic advice of his friends?  At best, it’s highly unlikely.  As he receives their counsel, he becomes more and more repulsed by their easy answers and platitudes.  As his torment grows, he rests in God more, and trusts in God more.

In a sense, Job is the “heroic ideal” turned on its head.  Job endures.  Job perseveres.  Rather than winning glory through heroic deeds in battle and overcoming his enemies through great force of arms, Job just stands there.

God is the hero.  It is God who vindicates Job.  It is in Him that Job endures trial.  Apart from the mercy of God, even the least dose of suffering would have overcome Job.  But Job stands there, and pleads his case before God, and God vindicates him.

Our flesh profits nothing. But Christ has overcome the world.  And it is only in Him, that we are able to overcome sin, temptation, and the devil.

 

Job and the Prosperity Gospel (3)

The Book of Job takes on the message of the prosperity gospel head-on.  Job’s counselors show us the effects of unbiblical theology.  Doctrine is not simply an intellectual matter, but it penetrates the heart.  A Biblical view of God leads to comfort, hope, and assurance.  A view of God that deviates from the Bible robs people of the knowledge of the love of Christ, that God is for us and not against us, that he who did not spare his own son, how shall he not freely give us all things?

Here are some of the effects of the theology of Job’s counselors.

1.  It brings God down to a human level.  One of the first things that I learned about God as a child is “God is great, and God is good.”  If God is not great, then he is at the mercy of human action.  If God is not good, then we cannot trust him, and we are at the mercy of our own devices against one much more powerful than we are.  Job’s friends alternatively speak of God as one whom we can please through mere human effort, and a God who is remote and uncaring.  If God is not great, evil may be greater than he is.  If God is not good, he doesn’t care about human suffering.

2.  It promotes human performance.  God cannot be a debtor to any human being.  Yet, by bringing God down to a human level, we can gain the impression that we either can please God by our own efforts, or that we can come to the bargaining table as equals with God.  Both the Creator/creature distinction and the holiness of God tell us otherwise.  God is pure being.  We are subsistent beings whose life is in God.  God is perfectly holy in all his person and in all his works.  In contrast to the holiness of God, we, as human beings, are radically damaged by the Fall.  We are “conceived in born in sin,” and we continue to reject God’s will for our will.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, properly presented, presents the sinfulness of sin in its fullness, which magnifies the grace and love of God exponentially greater than that which we can conceive, apart from the Spirit of God.  This puts God in his rightful place, us in our rightful place, glorifies God, humbles us, and shows us our utter dependency on the mercy of God in Christ.

3.  It deprives Christians of the comfort of Christ in the midst of suffering.  If the only function of suffering is to correlate with “what a man sows, he shall also reap,” where is the comfort of Christ in this.  Yet, through suffering, Christ conforms us to his image, which is the greatest good imaginable (Romans 8:28-29).  While we may never know God’s specific purposes in our suffering, this is far different than saying that there is no purpose.  The comfort that we are able to have is that Jesus promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us.  If suffering is merely “what we deserve,” the presence of Christ does not accompany us in our suffering, and our suffering is in vain.

4.  It destroys people.  Bad theology destroys people’s souls by giving them a false vision of God.  Humanly speaking, apart from the grace of God, how could one help but walk away from God when all one has heard is falsehood.  This is like being in a marriage and finding out that one’s spouse has been pathologically dishonest for the entire marriage.  It destroys marriages, families, and churches.  It robs Christians of the hope and assurance that is rightfully theirs through the finished work of Christ.

Job corrects our vision, and points us, as Francis Schaeffer writes, to “the God who is there.”  This is the God who cannot fail his people.  He demonstrates this through sending his son to take on the sins of his people at the cross, and granting his people the righteousness of Christ.

On Books and Reading

     If I am at all successful in keeping up the writing habit, you will see that I make many references to the books that I am reading.  I recognize that I am a prodigious reader.  I’m not sure if I count this as a virtue or not.  Most of my friends do not have the kind of reading habits that I do.  They add much-needed balance to my life.  But I really do enjoy opportunities to talk about the books that have made an impact in my life.
     So, why do I keep this habit ?
     As a “knowledge worker” (I hate that phrase!), I need to be constantly learning and growing.  The 2008 recession precipitated a change in the labor market.  The trend since then is for employers to hire “younger and cheaper.”  In order to continue to be relevant, I need to continually push myself that “my progress may be evident to all.”  Resting on one’s past achievements is not an option in today’s market.
     Books are tools, rather than collectibles.  As much as I love books, I’ve never gotten into the hobby of book collecting.  I don’t need first editions.  I would even say that “paperback is better.”  It takes up less space.  In some ways, it’s easier to write in.  Yes, I write in my books rather copiously.  If somehow, my former students happened to acquire one of my books, they said that it was “more valuable” that way.
     When we lived in Cincinnati, I had a friend who was an auto mechanic.  He and his family lived frugally.  Yet, he had a “tool payment.”  He needed the right tools to be able to do his job.  For students and teachers, books are your tools.  Don’t skimp on them.  For most students, learning and studying is hard enough as it is with the tools that they need.  Don’t handicap them.
     The book habit is cheaper than going back to school.  Also, no tests, no essays, no term papers, no restrictions.  I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite writers.  He couldn’t afford to go to college, so he got his education at the library.  It served him quite well.
     As tools, I’ve learned to hold books lightly.  My desire is to have “an open heart and an open hand.”  I used to be quite possessive about my books.  Then, I had to give many of the away when we went through a period of life when we had limited storage space.  This was good for my soul.  Most books, even out of print ones, can be replaced.  Hopefully, people who borrow my books and don’t return them are more blessed by them than I am.
     I recently went through my library looking for a couple of books that I had purchased some time ago that I really wanted to read.  Then I remembered that I had lent them out.  At first, I was a little peevish.  But then, I realized, “what an opportunity to pray for that person.”  Not imprecatory prayers, or prayers that this person would “repent and acknowledge the depth of their sin,” but that that person really would be blessed, and that I may be able to be a blessing to them, and that the Lord would make his face shine upon them, lift up his countenance upon them, and give them peace.
     That prompting and opportunity for prayer was far more precious than those books.  That sign that God is working in my life, turning the vice of covetousness and acquisitiveness into a desire to pray and a genuine prayer for another’s well being, giving me a generous spirit when I’ve previously  had a tight-fisted spirit, was a priceless gift to me.  I pray that would be able to continue to recognize that I possess nothing that has not been given to me, that I brought nothing into this world, and that I will take nothing out of it.  Blessed be the name of the Lord our God.
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