Saturday, August 25, 2007

Praying in Public Dreaded

Everyone sits around the table. We eagerly start to dig in, but then someone says, "Let's pray for our food." Maybe we are a youngster and mother is asking us to pray for the Lord's blessing and give thanks. Maybe we are at a church gathering and the pastor has asked us to do the same. Still, we feel a sense of awkwardness. It comes upon us so suddenly. "Pray? Pray for the food? Give thanks? Uh, ok." And then we rattle off something and begin to eat.

Why is this? Why would we prefer someone else pray? It may seem like something silly to discuss. Who cares -the person just doesn't like to pray in front of others. Well, ok, but why? I have felt this way, and here is what I think is probably operating within the heart, under the covers.

There are ostensibly two classes of reasons for which we would rather not pray, though I believe they certainly interrelate.

First, I believe we may not like to pray before others because of shame before fellow men. We may feel that our words are not eloquent. We may feel like we are spiritual dwarves compared to those we share this moment of fellowship with. We think, "What will they think of me?" Finally, we may feel ashamed because we fear it will become plain to others how little our hearts are drawn to God in prayer. They will be able to tell how rusty our prayer machinery is and how little it is used. They will know how stale we are toward God, and that will makes us feel ashamed. This leads us to the next general reason.

Second, I believe we may not like to pray before others simply because we do not like to pray at all. It may be because we are living in a particular sin. It may just be because our hearts are dead toward God. We know that we have no affection for Him, and we sense that standing before God in prayer essentially strips us of our robe and shines the light of God's eye upon us in our hiding. We know that if we pray, we are standing face-to-face with the Living God, and we know that there is nothing within us which holds scarcely the smallest joy or affection toward Him. In fact, we hardly think of Him at all. Our life is full of so many other things that draw our attention and our heart. We spend our time thinking of what is on television or what thing we will do next for amusement. Or we spend our time thinking solely of what tasks need to be accomplished or what things we would like to get for ourselves. And now, we are put in an uncomfortable position. We must stand before the one who captures almost none of our thoughts at all. It makes us feel ashamed, naked, embarassed, and maybe a bit scared. We know that God is worth much more than that, yet we also know that our hearts are far from Him and are consumed with just about everything else the world has to offer us.

Regardless of how thankful we are for it, let us meditate upon the truth of the gospel and pray that God would rain down His Spirit to open our eyes to its blessedness. That is why we can stand before God, and that is what brings us to delight in Him and seek Him all the more.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Personal Plea to Preachers

Contained here are some comments on preaching and some desperate pleas regarding it. There are the things that I need so badly that I generally don't see or hear coming from pulpits (with some exceptions). But it isn't just that I need them or like them or prefer them. I see them in Scripture, especially in the epistles to the churches. This is one of the reasons why I believe expositional preaching is necessary. You can miss so much if you do not take and handle directly the very words themselves.

I just finished reading through Colossians and 1 Thessalonians. I see so much in there that I crave and long to hear proclaimed to me every Sunday, from the pulpit. I need to do my own study, for sure, but I need leaders taking the prophetic place of a Paul or Peter and leading me, proclaiming God to me, encouraging me, admonishing me, warning me, etc.

Maybe we don't see much of it because we live in middle-class America. We live as though life will just keep going on and on and on from one day to the next. We will get up tomorrow and do our routine all over again. Therefore, we hear practical life tips and get some "good information" about God and the Bible. When I look at the epistles, I see so much more than life tips and a data-dump of information, and I believe preaching must be more than this, as well. This is part of it, but it is not all of it by any means. There are practical things in the epistles, for example, but they are encased and unfolded in the backdrop of God's glorious grace in Jesus Christ. Please, if you are a preacher, hear the needs of my soul!

First, I need God and the gospel. I see the apostles unfolding God over and over and over again to these people. I realize that each church had different issues, but it all came back to God and the gospel -every single time, no exceptions that I have seen. I need preaching that understands this and seeks to give me what I hunger for most. I don't primarily need practical life tips, although they can be helpful. I need God! That is where I obtain the power to do what He wants me to do in the first place -by having God brought to bare on my soul through the proclamation of the Word of God. I need God, and specifically, I need God who is for us in Christ Jesus on the cross.

Second, I need some seriousness and urgency. Paul knows he is writing to people who are, in some cases, seriously enduring persecution. Regardless, Paul understands that he writes about serious things of eternal consequence. He writes with urgency. We may not know it, but our life may be mostly complete. We may not live but another day. Furthermore, the Lord will return. In 1 Thessalonians, this is an important theme. I almost never hear this talked about from the pulpit. Jesus is coming back, and it might be tomorrow! It is not sufficient to have that bumper sticker that says, "Jesus is coming back soon. Look busy!" No, I need to know what is so great about that. I need to know the hope. I need it more than mentioned. I need it unfolded and hammered into me. I need to be reminded that He is coming back, and He will judge. When I read Paul's letters, I get a totally different vibe than I do listening to most preaching today. It sounds like Paul is ordering a batallion or platoon. "Pull it together, men! Don't give up the fight!" What fight? I hear very little on there being a "fight."

Third, and with this, I almost never hear serious warnings. I don't know if all the preachers assume that everybody is elect or if they assume that people don't need to be seriously warned about sinful attitudes or behaviors and their eternal significance. Yes, we know that these behaviors are bad. Yes, it will ruin relationships. But where is the warning about the soul! Forget the now, my relationships now. Those are important, but if I am lost and destroyed in hell... then what? Where is the eternal, weighty, God-ward significance of sin? Where are the warnings? Where are the admonitions?

Listen, everybody has their own preaching style, and they need to say it in the way God has built them. I am not saying everybody needs to be John Piper or John Bunyan or Tim Keller or R.C. Sproul. I'm also not saying that I could somehow do better. This isn't about that. I know that I really have no idea how difficult being a pastor/preacher can be. I'm saying that I need preaching that is the in the spirit of the apostolic preaching. I need God, the gospel, seriousness, urgency, warning, admonition, and hope. I don't just prefer it. My soul really needs it. Otherwise, I starve. I hope this does not come across pridefully, but if others do not want these things, I submit that it is because they are so starved that they have lost the taste for food. They don't know what they need or are hungry for.

Sage Exhortation for a Church

This is from my (albeit brief) morning reading. There is much in here for any church, but I specifically thought of the church I am involved with, naturally (since that is "my" church -the context, generally, in which I experience and see "church"). Let us listen to the apostle's exhortation -or, more properly, God's commands to us through the apostle Paul.

1Th 5:9-22
(9) For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,
(10) who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.
(11) Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
(12) We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,
(13) and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
(14) And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
(15) See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
(16) Rejoice always,
(17) pray without ceasing,
(18) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(19) Do not quench the Spirit.
(20) Do not despise prophecies,
(21) but test everything; hold fast what is good.
(22) Abstain from every form of evil.

Some observations:
1. The basis for these commands is God's grace toward us, that He has saved us, and that we are "children of the day," awaiting the return of the Lord.
2. These commands are addressed to everybody, not just the leadership. In fact, verse 12 indicates that, at least for that command, he is addressing those under the leadership.

Let's list some of the commands outright:
1. Encourage one another.
2. Respect your leadership, which admonishes you. Don't be stubborn or grumbling. Esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Submit to them, respect them, listen to them, and stop grumbling and not trusting God.
3. Admonish the idle. Tell them to wake up.
4. Encourage the fainthearted. The word comes from two Greek words that, together, mean "little spirited." Encourage those who want to throw in the towel. Comfort them.
5. Help the weak. Do not overlook them, do not forget about them, and do not drop the ball after giving them one little nudge. It isn't enough.
6. Be patient with them all. This is one of the hardest. It is easy to start pointing blame when things start going wrong. Be patient with others. This requires humility, and it requires trust in God.
7. Do good to one another always, rather than getting even with each other for sins and faults.
8. Rejoice always! Why? See observation #1. Rejoice because of Christ, the gospel. This is something to rejoice in... always... even when we are wasting away otherwise. (tough one)
9. Pray without ceasing. Do not stop praying. We are to be a praying people, a praying church, corporately and individually.
10. Give thanks in all circumstances. Within the context of church, this can be difficult sometimes. If we are not experiencing trials and persecution, then we may be experiencing trouble in the church itself. Give thanks in all circumstances. Why? See observation #1. With this, we know God is in control and works it for our good.

There is much for me to think about, here. Things in many ways seem up in the air with the church I am involved in. We have new leadership coming in, and things have not been exactly exploding up until now, as it is. However, with new leadership, combined with older issues, it is easy for us to worry and for the picture to look uncertain or different from our expectations. We take any form of discouragement we already have and project it into fears and concerns about the future, or extrapolations based on assumptions and personal feelings. Who knows, they may be accurate, but let us follow at least these ten commands (there are more in there).