Monday, May 11, 2015

Spiritual Knowledge


Followers of Jesus do not need to divorce reason and faith. A good deal of knowledge supports Christian convictions, including evidential, experimental, and experiential forms of knowing. The Bible itself asserts God has revealed Himself (in various forms and times), and we can know Him relationally. Sadly, many have rejected this knowledge of God, exchanging the Creator for the material world and a false sense of autonomy. This sermon encourages Christ-followers to own what they know and know the One who owns them.


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hearing God by Organizing Our Prayer Lives - Part 5 of 5

"What is an area of your spiritual life that needs work?" I asked. A forty-plus year old man, rugged and tender, sat opposite me.

"My prayer life," he replied, adding, "I'm not sure I've ever understood prayer."

"Join the club," I said.

As we continued to discuss prayer, it became clear what was lacking in our prayer lives was actual time praying. We could define prayer, explain prayer, model prayer, and validate the centrality of prayer from the pages of Scripture. Unfortunately, our knowledge of prayer did not translate to the practice of prayer.

Praying is a challenge. It is the hard work of turning our anxieties into pleas for dependence and deliverance. It is the difficult task of making others' worries into our concerns, which we present with empathy and zeal before God. And it is the discipline of quieting our fears so we can hear from our heavenly Father.

This last aspect of prayer is critical, because I want more than the assurance of God's ear. I want the encouragement of His voice.

The simple (but not easy) solution to hearing God better results by creating space for conversational prayer. And creating space is not the same as finding space. We can all discover an extra twenty minutes in traffic, on the toilet, or in between meetings. Rather than sinking our faces into mobile devices in these margins, we can turn our eyes to the heavens. Without a doubt, discovering prayerful moments is a great habit. Better, however, is disciplining a prayerful life.

The organized prayer life sets aside times and seasons for deliberate prayer. It creates patterns and liturgies to guard against distractions. Over time the structured prayer life results in spontaneous moments of prayer.

For a more thorough discussion the matter, I suggest purchasing and reading Timothy Keller's recent book entitled Prayer. The final chapter offers detailed steps to crafting healthy prayer patterns. To remain blog-friendly (i.e. concise), I'll suggest a few organizing principles.

  • Daily Prayer: Pray through the Lord's Prayer daily (Matthew 6:9-13). Take time thinking through the various aspects, so its not the mindless repetition Jesus warns against (6:5), but worshipful reflection on God's character, kingdom, our needs, our sins, and our threats. Let the Lord's Prayer start or close your day.
  • Weekly Prayer with Others: Whether your prayer partner is a spouse, mentor, or friend, establishing a time to intercede together weekly is a bonding experience. My wife and I have a Saturday night prayer date.
  • (Bi-)Monthly Prayer Retreat: In my monthly schedule, I devote the first Thursday afternoon to prayer. My routine includes journaling, singing, reading psalms, petition for my family (biological and church), and listening.
  • Dedication Prayers: Mix short prayers of dedication into everyday situations, asking God to bless Bible reading, meals, work day meetings, school day interactions, personal projects, and extracurricular events. These prayers make every moment sacred, and provide a natural window to pray with others.
  • Use Prayer Guides: While my love for novelty has make me skeptical of liturgy, I have come to appreciate prayer guides, such as Kenneth Boa's Drawing Near or the Book of Common Prayer. These works organize Scriptures to serve as prayer prompts for each day of the month.
An organized prayer life lends itself to hearing God. When we create space for conversation with our heavenly Father, He will greet us at the beginning of the day and bless us in our closing hours.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Trinity


Trinity is a mystery, but the greatest distinctive of Christian faith. Articulated by theologians and confirmed through the entire biblical narrative, Trinity describes God as Three distinct Persons - God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit - perfect in unity and essence. The metaphor of the dance (perichoresis) captures the eternal love and dynamic relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. So grand was this love, it compelled the Triune God to create. The greatest love always gives out and invites in. As mirrors of God, His people are called to get personal with the Trinity and give His love out to the world.


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

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
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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

Satan


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.

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Next we'll discuss Hearing God in Prayer