Prayer 101 ~ AC/ Thanksgiving /S

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Prayer does not require an outline or a structure of any sort to be effective. On the other hand, considering an ordered approach to many prayers has the beneficial effect of framing the relationship and dialog with an appropriate perspective. Adoration and confession that precede the remainder of ones prayer reminds us that we are the created and not the creator. We approach the throne recognizing God as the Almighty and our fallen nature. We partake of the promise of righteousness-restoration (1 John 1:9) as we confess sin and receive forgiveness. Building upon this foundation we turn our thoughts to giving thanks.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

 

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We will often whisper a thanks to God when we avoid disaster or receive a windfall, but so many of the blessings that rain down upon us go unnoted. Giving thanks as a part of our prayer life furthers the foundation lain by adoration and confession by drawing our minds upward and outward. We are forced to recognize answers to prayer, large and small, as well as those which have been lifted but not yet resolved. An attitude of thanksgiving also carries over to the burdens we are called to bear. As our attitude shifts, burdens that we once prayed to be removed are now realized as blessings. In giving thanks for trouble, discipline and infirmities our perspective is enlarged, seeing these things as the testimony that they are. An enlarged perspective sees the larger expanding picture of how God is working in the world. We may see how our struggles play a role in the bigger mission and turn from complaint to gratefulness.

 

Grace and peace to your spirit…

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Digging In

imageIt is impossible to enslave mentally or socially a Bible-reading people. The principles of the Bible are the groundwork for human freedom.

Horace Greeley

The foundation of all spiritual development is rooted in the Scriptures. It is on the pages of the Bible that we learn who we are and where we came from. Our need for redemption is established and the great gift of mercy in Jesus is recorded from a number of perspectives. God’s principles for living together are spelled out and explained. Although it is often portrayed as constrictive, the Word is our freedom.

Bible reading is the first of the spiritual habits that we are going to explore and seek to apprehend. We are not going to read simply to turn the pages and for the sense of accomplishment. God speaks to us through the Word. He lives in the pages, displaying His character for us, and recording His interactions with those who came before us. We will be reading to hear Him speak to us so that we are shaped by His hand, rather than by the dominant culture.

We’ll start with establishing a reading plan and getting into the habit. Do you currently follow a plan? Are you more of a free-form reader? I look forward to hearing from you.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105)

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The First Step on a Lifelong Journey

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We all remember it, even if the name escapes us. The ‘abdominator’ or ‘muscleizer’ or something of that nature. It was a wide, flexible belt with electrodes attached to it that you wrapped around your expanding stomach. Turning it on, if you dared, sent electrical signals to your abdominal muscles causing them to dance and jerk, exercising themselves. Through this miracle device, you could remain slouched in your Lazyboy in front of the television with your favorite beverage and, with enough time and twitches, you would emerge with rock-hard abs. All gain, no pain!

Except, it never worked. You were still flabby and thirty dollars poorer.

If you want to get in better physical condition you have to move. You have to get off the couch, put down the soda and chips and take the dog for a walk. There is no magical way to have the physique and health that you want, you have to work for it. Late-night television and the glossy images on the newsstand will attempt to tell you otherwise, but the facts can’t be disputed. A healthy body requires a healthy life.

Christians often labor under a similar misconception. We think that by appearing in church on Sunday, consuming a sermon and then returning to life we will be transformed. We want a faith like the people we hear about in those bible stories, a faith that can carry us through the tough times. Every so often, we even feel a little tug to change the world.

Except, it doesn’t work.

Rather than a trim, powerful, world-changing faith, we have a soft, casual, private religion that affects our lives very little, and the world even less. The faith we want and that we were intended to have doesn’t come through osmosis. It doesn’t mystically appear by listening to sermons or listening to radio programs. It takes work and devotion, and there are no shortcuts.

That’s why you’re here.

The gift of salvation that you have received is much more than a fire insurance policy. It is meant to be transformative in your life so that you, in turn, will be transformative to the world around you. The Spirit within you craves solid food. He does not want to continue to subsist on milk alone, and His urgings will not let you simply ‘be’.

Together, we’re going to begin a renewed journey of spiritual strength training. We’re going to be exploring the variety of spiritual tools and practices that have proven to produce fruit through the centuries. We’ll talk about and create community around it. You and I will praise Him for the growth we see, and He will be pleased at the transformation we bring to the world. We will be what He intended for us to be.

Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  1 Corinthians 9:24-25

Spiritual Rhythm by Mark Buchanan

imageIn the opening pages of Spiritual Rhythm, Pastor Mark Buchanan rehearses with us of the closing verses of Psalm 88. The closing verse especially–“the darkness is my closest friend.”—speaks to a spiritual darkness nearly as black as the afternoon at Golgotha. All that the psalmist had, or thought he had, is gone, and he cries to the darkness to explain why God has abandoned him here. Most Christians can identify with the bleakness evoked in that scripture, of knowing that moment when life has crashed down and crushed our souls. As our fingers weakly reach from the rubble for the hand of the Father, none is found. We find ourselves in a season of winter.

Buchanan echoes a well known theme similar to the conclusion drawn by the author of Ecclesiastes, that our lives can be viewed as a cycle of seasons. Just as our moods and behaviors differ from season to season as the weather changes, so also should our spiritual lives mirror the life-season we find ourselves in. An important distinction that the Pastor draws in the analogy is a difference in the length of the seasons. According to the calendar winter will last precisely 90 days; a spiritual winter may last an achingly long time or pass in a few weeks. This variability demands that we prepare for the eventuality of a sudden transition into a new season before it arrives.

Spiritual Rhythm combines a pastoral sensitivity aimed at helping the believer identify the spiritual cycles and a teacher’s heart for training the disciple. In the same way that we anticipate the season to follow our present experience and prepare for it, Buchanan suggests that our spiritual disciplines should prepare for us the coming seasonal transition. Without this preparation, he says, we may find ourselves cursing the darkness rather than being able to thank God for it.

Pastor Buchanan engages the reader in the book as he has in his previous volumes. With a pastoral sensitivity and an ear for the proper personal interlude, Mark speaks to the reader as closely as your own pastor would and in a way that only a trusted associate can. He does not speak from the lofty pulpit of theological precept. Rather, he leads us to search the scriptures to find the nuggets that may not preach well but become the pearls that we jot in our journals or remember long after the book is returned to the shelf. Men will be particularly touched by the volume as Buchanan willingly visits and revisits the heart-rending pain of the lost of his friend and co-pastor Carol, expressing his pain and sorrow with complete abandon that many men strive to hide beneath layers of false machismo. A man who is especially observant will also never forget the name Abishai again.

Spiritual Rhythm is a volume that reads fast, but is one that you will want to linger on and savor. The temptation will be strong to turn this into a small group curriculum, but this material and the spiritual exercises lend themselves more to personal practice. Unless all of the members of a cell found themselves in the same spiritual season at the same time, the needs of all of the individuals would more often than not find themselves in conflict. Spend time with this book on your own and align your actions to your current season. Never again will you be anxious at an approaching transition.

I’m grateful to Zondervan who graciously provided this copy for review.

Psalm 81 – If You Would But Listen to Me

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Hear, O my people, and I will warn you—If you would but listen to me, O Israel!

You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not bow down to an alien god.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.

Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.  (Ps 81:8-9)

When we encounter verses such as this in the Bible, two things occur. We wonder how it is possible that Israel could waver in their loyalty to Yahweh. After all, they were in such immediate contact with His miraculous redemption and knew His power intimately. How does one turn away from that?

As we read in the Old Testament, apparently very easily.

“But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me.

So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices. (vv 11-12)

The second that occurs is that the Spirit within speaks to us and reminds us of our own stiff neck. The fact that the Spirit speaks to you in moments of temptation to disobedience or disloyalty puts you in the same immediacy. You have within yourself the intimacy with God that Israel shared through words and common experience. All you have to do is listen.

You know the transformation that God has wrought in you. He has released you from bondage to your Enemy, freed you from the constraints of a corrupted heart. All He asks is that you listen, that you follow His ways.

That’s not so hard, is it?

Grace and peace to you..

 

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Approaching the Spiritual Discipline of Study

image Dallas Willard categorized the spiritual disciplines in two families, abstinence and engagement. The disciplines of abstinence are those which lead us to voluntarily abstain from normal desires of human existence such as food, sleep, sex, companionship, etc. Engagement is the counterbalance to abstinence. The disciplines that we engage here seek a deeper involvement in our faith and life as new creatures. There are logical counterparts within each list and our current discipline in focus, study, is the counterpart to solitude.

“Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.” Calvin Miller

The Christian studies two things, letters and the world around us. Our primary tome is the Bible, but our library of study material grows every year. Foster suggests 6 rules that we bring to a fully rounded practice of study, 3 intrinsic and 3 extrinsic. To fully embrace a book, whether the Bible, a book of the Bible, or a volume from the shelf requires three readings. The first is to understand what the author is saying and the second to interpret his or her meaning. Only when those steps have been accomplished can we evaluate whether he is right or wrong. Can the Bible be wrong, we ask? No. Our application and interpretation can be wrong and we must engage those concepts, in which we find our own thoughts superior to those of the scriptures, more deeply.

We expand our study by engaging life and bringing it to the desk with us. We bring our experiences, the reading of other books, and talk with trusted companions to our study. Experience bears out the reality of the concepts we study and talking about them with others either compliments or contradicts our own understanding. When challenged, it gives us purpose in returning to the study. Other books operate in much the same fashion. We read both sides of an issue to gain perspective. Like talk, the voices of the other authors can challenge our position and make it stronger or tear it down, as appropriate to the truth.

Remember, study is not an end unto itself. Like the mystic that Calvin mentions, study without experience can give us facts but no wisdom. The truths that we accumulate through study must be tested in the crucible of life. They will either withstand the flames or be burned up like dross, to be replaced by new thinking by any spiritually devoted disciple.

Grace and peace to you.

Four Steps in the Discipline of Study

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Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15)

The Christian wants to live her life according to biblical principles, but in order to do so, these principles must become a part of who she is, rooted deeply in her heart to become second nature. Enabling this transformation of heart is the purpose of the spiritual discipline of study. It trains the soul to default to the desired principles so that, in a moment of crisis, the renewed soul is not without its armor.

Your thoughts and subsequent actions will conform to whatever diet you feed them. If you elect to swamp your mind with cultural influences you cannot be surprised when your outward expressions begin to mirror what is seen on the screen and heard on the radio. To have your thoughts conformed to the mind of Christ and His Church requires a purposeful, directed intake of the scriptures and the ideas that have influenced the Church through the centuries. Follow Paul’s advice and give your soul a steady diet of those things that true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious.

Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, organizes study into four steps.

Repetition

New habits are rarely, if ever, formed by a single encounter with the truth. Just as muscles are not strengthened by the single lifting of a barbell, the mind must be repeatedly exposed to an idea and channeled into acquiring that idea in order to capture it and take ownership of it. Repetition works at the lowest levels of the mind. If you want to change a behavior, in many cases all you will need to do is to repeat the desired behavior or thought over and over for a period of time. The mind will accept this as the new reality and soon, the new behavior or thought will become the habit.

Concentration

Bringing the mind repeatedly to bear on a specific aspect of God’s truth is the initial step but then we must concentrate on that truth. The daily reading plan that you follow discourages this. It leads you quickly from one chapter to the next without the time to camp on the important truths that you are encountering. This is fine for devotional reading but not for study. You must spend time with a truth, fully devoted to searching it from every angle and testing it against other ideas. Remove distractions, slow down and sacrifice volume for quality of experience.

Comprehension

Most Christians can repeat at least a few Bible passages from memory. Few though can demonstrate an understanding of what those passages mean beyond a superficial level. Spiritual growth is not attained by simply knowing something, you must understand what a truth means to both you and the original author of the truth. It is knowledge that sets you free (John 8:32), not the mere accumulation of facts.

Reflection

Only when you truly understand a truth can you reflect upon it. The words of the best known truth in the Bible, John 3:16, are so simple and yet they have a significance that is often underestimated. Focused study and the development of an understanding of a truth open the doors to a realization of the significance of an idea. Grasping significance is the moment where we see and hear and experience a truth in a whole new way.

 

Grace and peace to you..

The Spiritual Discipline of Study

imageHow can a young man keep his way pure?

By living according to your word.

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Ps 119:9-11)

The purpose of the discipline of study is the renewal of our minds. We renew our minds by putting them to work on the things of God: His Word and, His world and how we fit into it. Study extends beyond the mere accumulation of facts as we learn not only the significance of those facts, but how they apply to life in the Kingdom as well. For many Christians, lives of undue anxiety and fear are the result of superficial study discipline. They may have memorized a few passages of Scripture or a creed but they cannot apply them to life. Their minds have not done the hard word of understanding the meaning of the passages and thus, when trouble approaches, their minds are unable to properly guide them away and back onto the path.

What is Study?

Foster gives us a definition of study as “a specific kind of experience in which, through careful attention to reality, the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” The truth of the mind is that ingrained habits of thought will conform themselves to what we study. What we study becomes crucial in pointing our minds in the desired direction. Minds filled with rubbish or that are worked out only superficially are subject to be thrown about by the winds of life. As Paul teaches, those who focus on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious will posses minds that act automatically in true, honorable, pure, lovely, and gracious ways. Study forms habits.

Meditation is not study. Some are tempted to point out their devotional readings and call this study. Meditation on the scriptures turns our thinking to the Lord but it does not reveal significance to us. Study is analytical. Study reads that ‘God so loved the world’ and asks why and how. Study turns over in the mind what it means for God to love the world and as the understanding forms, the mind realizes that we too are to love the world. A new habit forms.

Radical Strength from the Discipline of Solitude

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Mt 4:1-3)

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Dallas Willard reminds us that “solitude is the most radical of the disciplines for life in the spirit.” Until we have developed the discipline of seeking out solitude we cannot know the full presence of God unfettered by the myriad distractions of life. We pray and our thoughts wander to the other things on our desk or the sound of the neighbor’s dog barking. We worship but break the communion with the spirit by focusing instead on the bright shirt worn by the man three rows ahead. Submission is weakened by ego and meditation interrupted by scattered thought. The Christian who separates herself into the desert finds herself distanced from these enemies of discipline and completely open to the descending presence of the Lord.

The benefits of solitude extend to our other spiritual disciplines. The account of Christ entering the desert to be tempted is often read quickly to get to the temptations but this does a disservice to the text. We take note of the fact that Jesus seeks out the solitude for forty days before being tempted. He immerses Himself in the full presence of his Father and the Spirit to build the strength necessary to face the tempter. He fasts, removing all external influence so that he is single-mindedly prepared to face whatever will come. We can learn from this to build our own spiritual muscle. In solitude we know nothing and no one other than God. He becomes our sole center without any opportunity for distraction.

Our desire for solitude will be misinterpreted by others. Our friends and loved ones will want to know why we seek to be apart from them but we must be diligent in pursuing our life of discipline. Ultimately, the Father deals with each of us individually and corporately but we are not free to substitute one for the other. We must be willing to walk away into the desert leaving companionship and distraction engendered by those who surround us even though they have our best interests at heart.

Grace and peace to you..

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Seeking Solitude

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community….Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . .Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer Life Together

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Christians tend to think of solitude in spatial terms, as a place where one can be alone. The spiritual discipline of solitude approaches it as an attitude, as a state of mind. As we apprehend inward solitude we dispense with the normal fear of being alone because we know that we are not alone. We are in the presence of our Savior and as we are quieted our hearing is enhanced. We seek solitude as our Lord did to hear the quiet voice of the Father in the breezes that swirl around us.

Modern culture is especially hostile to solitude. Not only are we bombarded everywhere at every moment with dozens of noise and distractions, our constant connectivity has made us ever more reliant upon our ability to communicate with words. We struggle with silence, Foster reminds us, because it strips us of the power of our words. Without our words we feel out of control and as though we are unable to justify ourselves.

One of the primary fruits of seeking solitude is that we will become free to let God be our justifier. Stripped of our feeble language we must trust in the God who is our rock, our defender and redeemer. We start with small steps seeking out little moments of peace in which we deliberately commune with God. We learn to trust the silence and let go of our need for words. A place of solitude can be sought out to not only be quiet, but to place ourselves far from others as our lifeline recedes in the distance. Alone in the silence, we have no way to hide among the rocks and can truly be confronted by God.

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