Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Praying as a Conversation - Part 4 of 5

I like listening to my wife talk on the phone. When she speaks, her free hand sweeps through the air in dramatic gestures unseen by the receiver. When she listens, she laughs, sighs, and makes affirming noises. I'm privy only to half the conversation, but I can always tell if my wife is engaged by her tone and body language. The more invested she is, the harder I try to interpret the other half of conversation.

I suppose most of us do not look as invested in the other half of conversation when we pray. If I were to observe the casual prayer encounter, I would not see swinging arms, nodding heads, or hear grunts of agreement. I would guess we're not too engaged. I would move on without trying too hard to eavesdrop.

Sadly, for many of us, prayer is not much a conversation. We tend to lead with requests and end with Amen. Listening for God and to God is not natural. Timothy Keller provides a helpful corrective in defining prayer: What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense? Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him. (Prayer, 48).

Both in his preaching and writing, Keller stresses our need (and privilege) to approach God as Father. As Jesus taught, we are to lead with worship (Hallowed be Thy name), so that God's character dethrones the idol of our needs. When we move into submission, petition, and forgiveness, we must take speaking breaks. Conversation implies times of listening. Active listening.

Jesus provides an essential first step to listening prayer in His sermon on the mount. "Go into the closet," He implores. "Isolate yourself noise and get close to the Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:6)." If anyone modeled a conversational prayer life, it was Jesus (see John 11:41-42). Time and time again, he found quiet places for prayer (see Mark 1:35; John 6:15).

Periods of isolated prayer give way for conversation to unfold. In these encounters, it is helpful to invite God to speak. And when we make the invitation, it is worth quieting our minds and withholding our requests for a period of time to listen for God's voice. 

In The Table of Inwardness, Calvin Miller uses three verbs that call us to interpret what we are hearing: discerning (impressions)…quieting (needs)… expecting (Inwardness, 70-77). Not ever thought to pass through our minds when we pray is a word from God. We must weigh these thoughts against the character of God, His special revelation, and the shape of our spiritual life. In my experience, God does not always speak in paragraphs or full sentences. He gives impressions (peace), phrases (it's not finished), or words (generosity). The effect of His communication is conviction, clarity, or calm. God does not seek to confuse or condemn.

Like all good relationships, conversation is not limited to extensive dialogue. A great deal of important communication happens en route or in passing. We need both types of talking. But the more we set aside time for listening to God, the more likely we are to integrate conversational prayer throughout the day.

Summarizing the Steps to Conversational Prayer:

  • Isolation
  • Invitation
  • Interpretation
  • Integration
Up Next: Structuring our Prayer Lives

Monday, April 20, 2015

Heaven and Hell

Jesus spoke about heaven and hell. He did not always use those terms, but He was well aware of life after death. The longing for eternal life originated in the Garden of Eden, and God kept it alive by glimpses of heaven through the tabernacle, covenant blessings, and prophetic promises. New Testament authors confirmed the hope of heaven and reality of hell. The latter describes the place of separation from God, where those who have never walked with God will continue to live apart from Him.

Surely, there is confusion about heaven and hell because the Bible does not always speak clearly on the topic. Moreover, many near-death experiences cloud the conversation with vivid first-hand witnesses. This sermon aims to clear up some confusion by tracing the redemptive threads of heaven and hell. By the end, our hope for restoration should dissolve our fear of condemnation.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, April 13, 2015


Jesus does not talk about Satan much in the Gospel of John, but what he has to say is not flattering. The devil (and ruler of the world) is a murder, deceiver, and enemy of God's purposes (John 8:44). This sermon traces the thread of Satan's nature, tactics, and end from Genesis to Revelation. The spiritual battle continues today because we continue to live in a spiritual world where Satan, demons, and powers have influence. The task of the church is to know our Enemy (and it's not liberal politicians or agnostic neighbors) and his end.

This is the first in a 7-part series entitled Our Spiritual World.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, March 30, 2015

Starting a Conversation with God - Part 3 of 5

Starting a conversation with God is not like initiating chatter with the cashier or a stranger in the park. While we may have common points of interest with our neighbor -- "What lovely weather!" or "How about the price of cantaloupe?" -- real connection will not take place if no one takes initiative.

The conversation with God began when He uttered the world into existence. He spoke heaven and earth, evening and morning, plant and animal into existence. He spoke to Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, David and Hezekiah, Isaiah and Elijah. In the last days, he spoke to us through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2), who is the Word of God (John 1:1). 

While the Divine Conversation has had its share of dramatic pauses, the Triune God has never ceased to take initiative with His creation. Having a conversational relationship with God begins with the recognition that we are receivers.

And what exactly do we receive? His revelation: general, special, and specific.

Hearing God in General Revelation
"The heavens declare the glory of God," the Psalmists opens the Nineteenth Psalm. "God does not leave Himself without witness," Paul preached in Lystra (Acts 14:17). "He did good and gave rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying hearts with food and gladness."

The problem with general revelation is it rarely changes a heart from unbelief to belief (see Romans 1:18-32). A skeptic will not look at budding trees and cry out, "Hallelujah." A follower of Jesus, however, can watch a sunrise and praise her Creator's transcendence. 

Those who want to hear from God may begin to open their eyes and ears to hints of glory in the created world. We may hear Him whisper of his beauty or shout of His power.

Hearing God in Special Revelation
God's written revelation speaks in ways nature cannot. It amplifies our understanding of God's nature and will. Like the men who traveled with Jesus on the Emmaus Road, there will be times of Bible reading where our hearts burns with conviction, compassion, or deep understanding (Luke 24:32). 

A few months I asked God to challenge me during my morning reading. In one of Paul's vice lists, the word greed reached from the page and squeezed my heart. The reality of my greed demanded I confess and repent. While these epiphanies do not take place daily, they give evidence of the Holy Spirit serving as my Tutor and Guide (John 14:26; 16:8-10).

Of course, we can read the Scriptures with no sense of urgency or attentiveness. Reading often digresses into dry duty or random habit. And if we study God's word without allowing Him to shape our character, we effectively turn down the volume of His voice.

Hearing God in Specific Revelation
Specific revelation may be the most prone to misunderstanding. It comprises prophetic words, dreams, visions, and impressions. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter indicated the age of specific revelation had arrived with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14-21 cf. Joel 2:28-32). Several examples in Acts provide evidence: Stephen's vision of Jesus (7:55-56); Cornelius' and Peter's visions (Acts 10-11); Paul's vision of need in Macedonia (Acts 16); Agabus' vision of famine (11:28) and Paul's imprisonment (21:10-11).

Specific revelation was common enough in the early church that apostles felt compelled to pen rules of engagement (1 Corinthians 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, see also 2 and 3 John, Didache 11-13). Just as in the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 18), a prophetic word was legitimated by its effect (i.e., it came true) and alignment with the rest of God's Word.

In every day experience, specific revelation may take the form of a mental picture or impression that cannot be quickly dismissed or shaken. Several weeks ago I felt a strong urge to visit someone. I stopped everything and did. I cannot cite any profound reason or result, but I felt God led me. I've missed these opportunities as often as I've embraced them.

Finally, God may give specific words of comfort, encouragement, or guidance. You may hear the words, "I am with you," or "Don't be discouraged," or "I am your advocate," intrude into your mind. These affirmations come from God. He speaks yet today.

Next we'll discuss Hearing God in Prayer

City Gets a King (John 12)

Jesus' triumphal entry turns our understanding of "triumph" on its head. Following the controversial healing of Lazarus (John 11), and scandalous anointing of Mary (12:1-9), Jesus enters Jerusalem with pomp and palm leaves. He rides a colt (Zech. 9) and hears shouts of Hosanna (Psalm 118), but the scene does not change the politics of the Jews. Instead, he dives into a sermon about salvation, light, and judgment. For today's listeners, we are reminded not to make the tragic mistake of trading our triumphs for Christ's. His definition of success is not finances, celebrity stunts, power, or dogma. His triumph was serve. His church must follow suit.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Impediments to Hearing God - Part 2 of 5

As I've learned from thirteen-plus years of marriage, intimacy with another human being does not demand incessant dialogue. Silence may suggest a level of comfort and understanding that words cannot improve upon. Thus, God is often silent because He is not compelled to fill the void with noise: He's happy just for us to be with Him.

There are, however, other reasons for muted conversation with God. Like taking our cell phone to a dead zone, our attitudes, actions, and circumstances can make hearing God (and His active listening) suffer. The three obstacles listed below do not constitute every reason. But when we acknowledge and address the three impediments below, we can do our part to clear the lines of communication.

First Impediment: Rebellious living affects the conversation
I often hear people cite Psalm 66:18 as an example that God will not listen to our prayers when we 
sin. "If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (NET). The equation can be converted: If I had harbored sin in my heart, I have not listened to the Lord. In both the Old and New Testaments, the verb for obedience can be translated "to hear" (See Deuteronomy 6 or James 2). Of course, some obedience may be in outward form alone, so we cannot insist every act of righteousness means we will hear (or have heard) from God. But we can dogmatically state, if rebellion marks our life, our ears are not attuned to the voice of our Heavenly Father. In Hebrews 3-4, the author makes a strong case for keeping one's heart soft to God's word. Disobedience leads to drifting and eventually to spiritual deafness.

Second Impediment: Rival voices affect the conversation
God does not always shout. Unlike my phone that gives constant push notification, my computer that rings and whirs with updates, and my television that amps the volume when commercials air, our God speaks quietly (see 1 Kings 19). Psalm 46 calls God's people to stillness (v. 10) in the midst of a raging world (vv. 2-3, 8-9), so that we may know Him. Such knowledge goes beyond theological information. Knowing God implies an intimate, yea verily, conversational relationship. 

Media are not God's sole rivals. Each of us brings enough internal dialogue to quench the voice of the Holy Spirit. I can obsess about a project, stress about a problem, or retreat to my "mind palace" for solace. In each situation my voice rings in my ears and crowds out God. A good indicator the thoughts in my mind are from me rather than God is the level of self-centeredness. God affirms His children. He speaks words of truth, comfort, consolation, and rebuke. He neither dotes nor condemns.

A final rival in the conversation is Satan. From the beginning of the biblical story, his words drip with cunning, charm, and deception (see Genesis 3). During a dispute with a Jewish crowd, Jesus accuses his opponents of listening to the voice of the devil - their father and the originator of lies (John 8:44). The clearest indication that Satan has intercepted the conversation is its tone: he tends toward seductive or shaming speech. If he cannot lure us into new rebellion, he will chain us to former failures. These include envy, criticism, hatred, self-loathing, and greed.

Third Impediment: Selfish motives affects the conversation
In many of his books, C.S. Lewis remarks on the fine line between pursuing intellectual stimulation or an emotional experience and the pursuit of Joy (or Glory) itself. For Lewis, Joy (or Glory) are metonymy for God. We have all experienced exalted moments, where Joy (or Glory) swept us away. Naturally, we want more. We crave it like Edmund's lust for Turkish Delight, but the object always loses its original power because it was never the ultimate goal. 

People who want to converse with God may confuse the conversation with the Creator. I'm guilty of this pursuit. In Cambodia I prayed for the gift of interpretation for the experience of it. In prayer circles I've asked God to shake the room (see Acts 4:31) to say I felt it. In worship services I've called out for revival to be swept up in a movement of His. God never did capitulate. 

In his timeless work, Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence warns against seeking an experience of God rather than God Himself. 

"There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us. "

An experience of God and a relationship with Him are easily confused. When we love Him, we are better able to hear His voice, silence rivals, and curb our rebellion. And we love Him when we truly accept He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

In Part 3 we consider conversational starting points.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sheep Get Shepherded (John 10)

Jesus uses the imagery of a shepherd to illustrate the guidance, care, protection, and intimacy he provides his sheep. His primary tool in shepherding is not a staff or rod, but His voice. He calls his sheep by name. They hear His voice. Sadly, too many Christians do not seem to experience a conversational relationship with God. This sermon encourages us to believe it's available, and to silence rival voices.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon