Category: Books

Insights on Prayer

In his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (if that subtitle doesn’t hook you, I don’t know what will!), Tim Keller outlines a pattern for prayer. He suggests five elements to form a framework for prayer: evocation, meditation, Word prayer, free prayer, contemplation (240-262).

Keller is not saying this framework should be written in stone or practiced woodenly, but that does bring together necessary elements for a thriving relationship with God. If you’re a church leader, it would be wise to assess which of these elements need attention, not only in your own life but also in general in your own community.

I thought I’d share a few reflections on prayer that were triggered by this framework.

Prayers That Go for a Walk

A few years ago, I began praying the Lord’s Prayer every morning, personalizing each phrase. It has been wonderfully instructive. For instance, opening with “Our Father” has helped me ground prayer in relationship and not request. When my opening address to God is as “Father,” I am immediately reminded that I am “son,” his son. I haven’t earned my way into this relationship, nor can I disqualify myself from being heard by him.

However, I noticed over time, despite this rich sonship, I began to feel badly if I didn’t get all the way through Jesus’ pattern prayer. This would make me want to pray longer or, more likely, pray quicker. Keller reminds us that contemplation  is a time to sense God. Drawing on Luther, he notes that Luther described it as a time to “let his thoughts go for a walk” (251). When one thought stood out, Luther felt free to follow the Holy Spirit into it, and that here

the Holy Spirit himself is preaching and one word of his sermon is better than thousands of our own prayers…

This insight has brought me greater freedom when praying the Lord’s Prayer, but more importantly, encouraged me to follow the Holy Spirit more, to participate with him in prayer, and in freedom follow his leading in prayer. When our prayer is “on the clock,” it can be very difficult to get lost in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. Allow yourself the freedom and joy of prayers that go for a walk.

Pray the Text

Before moving to free form prayer, Luther often found something in the biblical text as a basis for praising repenting, or resolving. People often struggle to know what to pray or what God’s will is. When we are moved to prayer with God’s word, we can have full confidence that we are praying his will (properly interpreted). Textual prayers are answered prayers. God loves to keep his word. When we “pray the text,” we not only gain confidence but also power. The Spirit works through God’s revealed word to accomplish his will in and through us.

Not too long ago I spent some time discussing public prayer with a group of elder candidates. Among other things, I encouraged them to pray the Word. It is important that our prayers are shaped by God’s word, and that God’s word shapes our church. I encouraged them to pray the Word into our church. If small groups and discipleship groups grasped this, it would unleash greater power in prayer. Why? Because God keeps his word, and delights to reveal his will through it. We are, after all, a Word-shaped people.

Experience What You Have

In Christ, we all have things–blessings–that we don’t experience (166-67). Prayer affords us the opportunity to experience those blessings, to encounter our theology so to speak. Keller points out that Paul frequently prays for churches to experience things they already have: “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” or “to know the love that surpasses knowledge” (see Eph. 3:14-19). There is knowing, and there is knowing. Prayer brings us into an intimate knowledge of God. Keller writes:

It is possible for Christians to live their lives with a high degree of phoniness, hollowness, and inauthenticity. The reason is because they have failed to move that truth into their hearts and therefore it has not actually changed who they are and how they live.

Prayer bridges the gap between knowledge and knowing. When we humbly seek God, and ask that we would experience what we already have, we begin to change, to encounter, to see the unseeable beauties of God and be floored. There are tremendous truths that need to be experienced such as: “fully loved, fully accepted” or “forgiven and free.” Ask God to allow you to experience what you already have in Christ Jesus.

For a brief time you can get Prayer at Westminster Bookstore cheaper than Amazon, plus your purchase supports a kingdom ministry instead of the Amazon behemoth. They also have one of my favorite books on sanctification on sale for 3.99.

Learning Burnout Before its Too Late

Remarks about “celebrity pastors” are everywhere (mind you it takes “celebrants” to reach such status). Unfortunately, some of these pastors have followed a tragic, Aristotelian arc–starting in a good place, gaining influence, and then falling. Before joining the scoffers, we do well to heed the wisdom of Solomon,

I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Prov. 24:30-32).

It is foolish to mock those “who lack sense,” but it is wise to watch and learn. This is true and helpful for everyone, not just pastors.

Learning the Signs of Burn 

A few years ago I began watching pastors burn out and leave their churches. Some left out of exhaustion, others out of moral failure. Aware that, I too, could face a similar fate, I began reflecting on my own motivations for ministry and evaluating my habits. During this time I read Leading on Empty, which helped me identify the physiological warning signs of burn out. It helped me understand that a general lack of motivation may be the result of overworking and under-resting, which depletes serotonin levels. We’re not made to run full throttle for long. As a result, I stepped away from speaking engagements for about a year. I focused on my family and church.

It was also helpful to read about the tendency to withdraw from things the pastor finds difficult, such as counseling or preaching, depending on the pastor. Burnout is accompanied by a malaise that dulls a person’s senses. He begins to lack excitement for anything. Natural strengths slowly become weaknesses. A couple of these warning lights lit up, which with my fresh understanding, helped me make changes. Burnout is preventable. And the pastor is responsible for how he responds to ministry pressures, congregational expectations, and outside demands. Most of all, he has to be aware of God in Christ, to walk in the Spirit. Studying about God is not the same as walking with God. Awareness is very important.

Reactivating Devotional Habits

In addition to these warning signs, I reacquainted myself with life-giving habits. Knowing my soul lifts when I spend time in creation, I began to walk the quai next to Town Lake, praying out loud and listening to God. I returned to one of the two devotionals I read, Near Unto God by Abraham Kuyper. While most of his writings are theologically robust, his devotional takes those seeds of strength and waters them with contemplative reflections, all relating to the necessity and goodness of being near to God. It was in this season that I fell upon a quote that flies me:

Love for God may be fine sentiment. It may be sincere and capable of inspiring holy enthusiasm, while the soul is still stranger to fellowship with the eternal, and ignorant of the secret walk with God.

In essence, Kuyper is saying that it is possible to love the ideas of God without loving God himself. While we may be tempted to judge this slicing the theological bread too thin, this warning is not without warrant. After all, it was Jesus who warned “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:23-24). You can preach, perform miracles, and grow a church all in the name of Jesus without Jesus even knowing you. This led me to some deep repentance, and the quote continues to pop up and correct me. I recently preached a sermon on this.

I also reread some of Eugene Peterson’s grounded, incisive, and pastorally enriching books. These things helped me revalue time with God for a season, as well as adjust some habits. I began to pray on my knees more, where I sense God’s greatness in a way that is hard to grasp sitting or standing up. My devotional line continued to be jagged but evened out a bit. The sense of God’s nearness rises and falls but he remains ever-present and with me. Faith has to lean forward or its not faith. It has to grasp at promises that are true, not be bullied by feelings that moor in untruth.

Then, this summer in the midst of a difficult season, I retreated to the Avon valley in Colorado, where I collapsed on a bed and began reading Clay Werner’s On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-out PastorI’ll pick up with some of the gems from Werner’s book in my next entry.

13 Quotes on Parenting

Dr. Michael Goheen served as the Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids; a Senior Fellow of the Newbigin House of Studies, San Francisco; and is currently focused on his work as Director of Theological Education and Scholar-in-residence at Missional Training Center—Phoenix. He is also known for his writings on biblical theology and mission.

His book The Drama of Scripture is, in my opinion, the best single volume book summarizing the big story of Scripture. 

With all his great academic credentials, I’ve been pleased to get to know him also as “Mike.” He and Marnie are humble in presence and earnest in faith. They just love the Lord. It shows. When Mike and his wife Marnie spoke at our parenting seminar, they shared from their mundane and funny experiences, as well as insightful reflections on raising four children. We also had several couples from our church with grown children sit on a panel. The evening was littered with wisdom. I’ve collected a few of the quotes for you.

Family Life

We always played hard with our kids after dinner for half an hour. They still remember it.

Your best disciples should be in the home.

Give your kids lots of unstructured time. Play is a gift to kids; it sparks the imagination.

Our kids don’t need to try everything. Our kids are too busy.

Don’t rob your children of play by forcing them into sport.

Missional Community is a family gathering so bring your family to the gathering.

Discipline

It’s important to make the distinction between rebellion & childishness.

I want to befriend my children before discipling them.

There’s a cruelty to not helping our kids obey.

Discipline is a fence, keeps our kids from the thorns & cliffs. If stay this side you’ll be more fully human.

End discipline on a positive note, talk about things they enjoy or play with them.

Gospel

Our children said it made them feel special to be part of Gods big story, to have a calling in his world.

The big picture of our relationship to God as Father helps our children makes sense of discipline.

40 Seekers Considering the Resurrection!

raised-190x282A local pastor sent me a very encouraging note yesterday. His church has mobilized for mission by inviting 40 non-Christians into a Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection study!

They begin meeting this week to consider the plausibility of the resurrection of Christ. Would you take few seconds to pray for them, that God would give the leaders wisdom and sensitivity, and that the seekers would uncover the beauty and necessity of the risen Christ?

If you’re interested, there’s a great film on Doubt to Faith and extra resources at www.raisedbook.com