Thursday, 19 July 2012

Praying with Scripture - Part Four - Checking our priorities

What do you pray about most? Do you say the same things or pray about the same issues every time you pray? Sometimes, persisting in prayer is necessary. Yet, at other times, it may be that our balance is not quite right and that we could do with changing the tune and praying about something else.

It is easy for us to get too focussed on one or two issues in prayer. This might be because they matter to us, or it might be because we have run out of ideas. Praying for our needs, e.g. health, is a good and right thing to do. Yet, do we remember to pray for our spiritual needs as well? Similarly, how much do we pray for other people's spiritual lives as well as their health and general well-being?

If we look at some of Paul's letters, we see some interesting ideas for praying for ourselves and others:

  • "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God." (Philippians 1:9-11, NIV)
  • "Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." (1 Corinthians 14:1, ESV)
  • "making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power" (Ephesians 1:16-19, NKJV)
  • "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you," (Colossians 1:3, TNIV)
  • "And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding," (Colossians 1:9, ESV)
  • "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should." (Colossians 4:2-4, NIV)
  • "My dear friends, we always have good reason to thank God for you, because your faith in God and your love for each other keep growing all the time." (2 Thessalonians 1:3, CEV)

Even if we don't use this precise language, we can still pray along these lines for one another. They were themes that clearly mattered to Paul and they would have helped the churches he planted to get a sense for his priorities in prayer, particularly in pastoral prayer for others.

Perhaps you could take one of these ideas and add it to your prayer for today? 

Praying like this for others is an act of love. Praying intelligently about details of people's lives and following up to find out if prayers have been answered are great ways of building relationships and communities. Perhaps our vision as individuals and churches can grow through thinking pastorally and theologically about how we pray.

© Joe Lenton, July 2012

Monday, 16 July 2012

Praying with Scripture - Part Three - "Negative" Emotions

Is prayer just for praising God and asking politely for things we'd like? Maybe that is what happens if we think God is an Englishman - we can't go round showing emotions, can we?

The "stiff upper lip" doesn't seem to have been an Israelite trait. The Psalms are full of direct, searching questions, born out of frustration, fear, loneliness, desperation and other "negative" emotions:

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer..." (Psalm 22:1-2, NIV)

"Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;  there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin" (Psalm 38:3, TNIV)

"O Lord, all my longing is before you;  my sighing is not hidden from you." (Psalm 38:9, ESV)

"O God, listen to my complaint. Protect my life from my enemies’ threats" (Psalm 64:1, NLT)

"Our God, why have you  completely rejected us?  Why are you so angry  with the ones you care for?" (Psalm 74:1, CEV)

"Listen to my prayer, O Lord, and hear my cry for help! When I am in trouble, don't turn away from me! Listen to me, and answer me quickly when I call!" (Psalm 102:1-2, GNT)

It is not just the Psalmists that are so frank with God about how they are feeling, others do it too:

"O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me... Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?" (Jeremiah 20:7, 18, NIV)

"'It's too much, Lord,' he prayed. 'Take away my life; I might as well be dead!'" (1 Kings 19:4, GNT)

"'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Everything is meaningless!'" (Ecclesiastes 12:8, NIV)

Yes, it is true that in many instances these feelings are turned around and a positive attitude of faith then follows. However, this does not mean that the initial feelings didn't occur, were invalid or inappropriate to bring to God. The turning point seems to have come after these emotions were voiced.

So, how honest are we about our feelings in prayer? Do we tell God how we really feel or hide behind a veil of piety, saying what we think we are "supposed" to say?

© Joe Lenton, July 2012

Friday, 13 July 2012

Praying with Scripture - Part Two - Praise & Worship

Do we instinctively know how to praise? Is the language of Christian praise and worship something that comes naturally or do we need to learn it?

Some of us, at least, find praise and worship difficult. We don't necessarily know what to say and perhaps don't really know what we mean when we say "praise God". Given that praise and worship has always been part of the life of God's people, we thankfully have many experiences and much teaching to draw on. This post explores learning the language and ideas of praise from Scripture.

In 1 Chronicles 29, David "praised God in the presence of the people" (29:10). So, what did he say? Essentially, David runs off a list of God's attributes. He acknowledges that everything is God's and lists qualities he associates with God such as greatness, power, glory, majesty, splendour, the source of wealth and honour, etc. (29:10-12). David's praise was like a description of God's character, attributes and abilities.

In Nehemiah 9, the people stand to praise God and confess their sins. Their praise, similarly to David's, speaks about God's character, who He is and what He does. God is acknowledged as creator (9:6-7), the one who chose Abram and made a covenant with him (9:7-8). God has kept His promises, freed His people, done miraculous things, given a covenant at Sinai - all these things form part of their praise.

"Praise His name", or "blessed be Your name" are common themes in prayer passages, such as the Psalms. God's name is His character, His reputation, the picture that He has built up of Himself through what He has said and done. So, it would seem that praise and worship may simply be retelling what God has done and who we know Him to be. Praise rightly describes God and reminds us who we are dealing with.

We might use different "names" to help us to describe God and offer our praise and worship. For example, Lord, creator, redeemer, saviour, father, Sovereign Lord, my shepherd, our rock - these are all "names" found in the Bible to speak of God and there are many more, too.

How might this help us to praise and worship God in prayer? Maybe we could draw directly from Scripture, using other people's words and making them our own. Perhaps we could think of what we know God has done for us and the kind of God we know Him to be.

Are there any "names" you might consider using to praise God with? Do you have any favourites? Have you found any of your own creative ways of expressing your praise - maybe a name not found in Scripture?

Praise can also spill over beyond words. If we know God to be the creator, maybe we find ourselves drawn to attending closely to His creation. Perhaps taking careful photos to express nature's beauty or planning how our garden might look best could also be described as acts of praise.

When we think creatively about all the attributes and acts of God, we can find many ways to connect in praise & worship. From thanking God for our food or wage packet to retelling the story of what God has done for us in Christ - our prayers of praise can be wide and varied.

How do you like to praise God? Is all praise & worship prayer of some kind?

© Joe Lenton, July 2012

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Praying with Scripture - Part One - Form & Creativity

Over the coming weeks I hope to post a few ideas about praying with the Bible. Today's focus is on the topic of form and creativity.

Are you creative? Chances are, if you are made in the image of a creative God the answer is "yes". Perhaps you might not think of yourself as creative because you think it means "arty", but there are many forms of creativity. What form our creativity takes reflects who we are as individuals and our personalities. Some are better with words, others with pictures, others with music, still others with food, carpentry, flower-arranging, finding novel solutions to problems, etc. Prayer is an intrinsic part of the Christian life and it can be enriched by finding creative ways of praying.

The Psalms provide us with a wide variety of forms. They have long been recognised as prayers that may be said or sung. This suggests that we might bring music into play in our prayers - turning them into songs, perhaps, or using music as a backcloth to set a mood, for example. Even if melody or harmony is not used, we might still find rhythm helpful - whether it is a rhythm behind the words, like a poetic "meter", or the rhythmic repetition of something akin to Psalm 136 ("...His love endures forever" at the end of each line).

The variations of poetic forms in the Psalms might provide creative inspiration for new forms of written or spoken prayers. Some use an "acrostic" pattern - starting each new line with the next letter of the alphabet. Others take us through a transformation from dark to light moods. There are no set rules about how a Psalm must always be written - the authors have exercised their creativity. By imitating them in this regard, we can find new ways of praying familiar themes. This can help relieve boredom in prayer and bring a freshness to our thinking. 

It doesn't have to be poems, though. Creative form can vary greatly. Paul's letters often include sections that are prayers of some sort, e.g. Romans 16:25-27. We might even wonder if the stories of Jesus collected into John's Gospel are perhaps a kind of prayer - "these things are written that you may believe (and go on believing)..." (John 20:31). Is John offering his narrative/"biography" as a "prayer"?

Sometimes we just want to speak to God quickly and naturally; we don't always have time to try something else or aren't always feeling in a creative mood. Yet, occasionally, it might be worth spending some time crafting our words carefully, focussing on bringing out what we really want to express. This can be a gift of worship to God - a bit like a letter or poem to a loved one. It can enable us to express emotions and ideas more deeply and personally. It might also be something that could help others with their prayers - our creativity is not just something between us and God. Others can benefit from our prayers, perhaps by being inspired to be creative themselves or by connecting with the experience and emotion of our words/pictures/music.

Have you ever tried to write a prayer down before? If not, why not have a go? Try writing it like a letter or a poem, for example. You could take a particular passage such as a Psalm and have a go at doing your own version. Especially if you are finding prayer a bit hard or dull at the moment, I would encourage you to use something of whatever creative skill God has planted in you to enable you to connect in a new way.

A few prayers based on Scripture can be found on the Going Deeper With God website. The prayer based on Psalm 145 is particularly relevant to this post. These prayers are not offered as models showing "the right way" to do things, but as examples of one person's attempts to connect creatively in prayer. I hope they may encourage you.

© Joe Lenton, July 2012