Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Counter-Cultural Activity of Prayer

After a small gathering of prayer warriors this Wednesday, I fell to thinking about how prayer that shaped the Western world is completely against the values of our modern Western world:

  • Action - Prayer often feels useless because the activity is done by God.
  • Speed - There's no way to utilize any tool to speed up God's responses.
  • Temper - "The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God". 
  • Personal opinion - One of prayer's big goals is to focus you on hearing God and obeying God, and actively turning your back on your own desires and thoughts.
  • Individual achievement - This counts for nothing with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They created the world in 6 days, and invested personal effort in saving children that weren't interested in obeying them.
  • Crowd approval - Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for making long prayers in the marketplace so that everyone could applaud their holiness. Daniel won a court case appeal (via lions) for his habit of keeping a window open while praying, while 120 satraps lost their lives. 
  • Rebellion - this is "as the sin of witchcraft", and hampers prayer. 
  • Anti-authoritarian - God is the authority. You're not. Submission is essential.
  • Self-actualization - Humility, begging for forgiveness, and admittance of sin are in complete opposition to "I can do it all myself" - especially since many Scriptural examples of prayer's power came with people in groups (Pentecost, Peter's release from prison, Solomon's dedication of the Temple)
  • Dialogue - God does answer, but He doesn't given an immediate verbal response, He often uses silence, or we have to figure out what He wants by (a) waiting, (b) listening, and (c) reading His Word. The whole book of Nehemiah shows individuals and groups repenting of sin, describing God's amazing attributes, and making respectful requests. Not once did God say "why yes, that's a good plan". They had to figure out His answer from what happened after the prayer.
  • Personality - God created it. See "individual achievement". 
  • Quick fixes - God let Abraham and Sarah sit on a promise of His (for a son) for 25 years. Also see the Parable of the Persistent Widow.
  • Aesthetics - Prayer can be heard in prison or at home. ("God, be merciful to me, a sinner.")
  • Positive thinking - Nehemiah's prayer for wall restoration and Hannah's prayer for a child were answered, along with Elisha's prayer for blindness of the Assyrians, Elijah's prayer to burn up a sacrifice to shame the priests of Baal, 
  • Cheap grace - Prayers won't be heard by unrighteous men, those with violent hands, or by men who treat their wives badly (1 Peter 3:7). Also, selfish motives (James 4:3), lack of attention to His commandments (Proverbs 28:9), unrepented sin (Psalm 66:18), lack of faith (James 1:5-7) and lack of forgiveness (Mark 11:25) are all hindrances to prayer. In fact, you may get curses instead of blessings for these abominations. 
Our King likes to be approached regularly with acknowledgements of His person, understanding of His grace, and attention to His will - before we make our requests known. At the same time, "Abba, Father" and spread-out hands can work, while the Holy Spirit makes intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered. He's always ready to hear a contrite heart. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thoughts on Rick Warren, John Piper, and Sobriety

Every Christian struggles with thinking more of themselves than they ought (or else Romans 12:3 wouldn't have so sternly warned believers on 'opinion sobriety'). It would be harder, while fans scream your name, in church and out of church, to keep a realistic view of yourself as a redeemed sinner. Even so, I cringed a little to hear the words "sacred trust" handed admiringly from one big name to another: John Piper to Rick Warren.

Quite honestly, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Warren's answers on several basic questions. It seems that he came out of a theological hall with more knowledge - and desire to serve - than most institutions give to their students. I began listening in the same way that I shop at major department stores in malls - "how horribly inflated are these prices" - and came away thinking that the $1,500 St. John dress may be quite a bargain at $250. (After looking through racks of goods 'worth' thousands, your judgment gets impaired.) He believes in a literal hell, God as a sovereign, and the necessity of believing in Christ as the only way to truth and life. Well and good.

At the same time, I would not at all be willing to attend Saddleback regularly, knowing that the minister will water down or edge around explanations so that more seekers can go away with a slight interest in cracking open a Bible. If a person is being drawn by the Spirit, they may welcome someone with clear statements about sin, righteousness, and the judgement to come. Otherwise, the polarizing nature of the Scriptures will work, and like Felix, you may be sent away to 'come again and speak another time', while the hearer hopes to bribe you with friendship and human bonding methods, to never again say those horrible words about 'judgment'.

What most bothered me - especially after hearing a rousing discussion on Piper via the "Sinners and Saints" radio program - was how enamored he seemed to be by Warren's success. It set my teeth on edge to see Piper animatedly talking about how "the world needs an authentic testimony from a living voice" - as if Moses and Jesus the final Prophet weren't enough. It also set my teeth on edge to hear Piper reiterating the same sort of fawning accolades that Warren must often get from starry-eyed media acolytes: "you're the most publicly influential the world". There were assuring words about the necessity of humility. But it still seemed like the fascination of Harry Potter wand-maker Ollivander, who seemed to be more entranced by Voldemort's power than his evil nature.

There is nothing wrong with men of the true gospel finding large audiences of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Crowds clustered around Jesus, and a crowd of 3,000 gladly bent the knee to Christ after Pentecost. There is a great warrant for leaders asking each other hard questions and comparing each others' practical views of Scripture. "I withstood [Peter] to his face", says Paul in Galatians 2:11. But nowhere do I find, in either the Old or New Testament, leaders of the persecuted churches of the Way talking about their influence on the world, and how the world needs them to go forward. In every way, they talked about the reign of Christ, the person of Christ, the power of Christ as effected by the Holy Spirit, the transformation that happens when God calls to man. This sounded more like man justifying himself, for which Job was rebuked by God - and then forgiven after repentance.

Sobriety in thought is necessary for each believer, struggling against the natural desire to have a good opinion of himself. Nehemiah constantly references God's hand in both judgment and restoration, how his success is only due to the good hand of God upon him. It's hard to communicate a message to thousands of people and not miss things, or have our motives misinterpreted. But I came away from watching this interview, thinking that John Piper is just as soft on those who have experienced success, as Rick Warren is soft on unbelievers - so that the Way might appear easy. Jesus never said he'd take away the burden of the yoke, just that it would be easier under Him than under anyone else.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Aggressive Blessing

Being a pessimist makes it easy to whip out Deuteronomy's list of curses if people don't follow God's will.....but what about the dire consequences of actually following it?

“Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God" (Deut 28: 1-2).

There's those qualifiers, like "diligently obey" and "observe carefully"....but normally, when God says "come upon you", He means some sort of disaster. What He seems to be saying is, if you put time and effort into really paying attention to what He says and how to please Him, you can't help but be blessed. 

I'd like blessing to overwhelm me like a flood, and all my crops to come into my barns (working on a herb garden), and my enemies to be defeated before me. That's an attractive thought. So is the dual idea of (a) being holy so that (b) the nations are afraid of us. (It would be great if my country had enough money to lend instead of borrow, but that isn't the case.)

If some of our more flagrantly defiant leaders had justice dealt out to them, I would rejoice. But replacing one wolf with a slightly tamer wolf doesn't really decrease the danger to the sheep, it just makes them more complacent. "Well, that one's gone! Now we can get back to life as usual."

Blessings are wonderful, life-changing events. Nehemiah wasn't afraid to either pray repentance for himself and his people, OR for success in speaking to his employer. Only God could really make a king (a) give up his trusted cupbearer for who-knows-how-long, (b) fund the journey to a beaten kingdom, so that said cupbearer could (c) build a temple to his Lord God and (d) possibly become the king's worst betrayer. And He did. And we have a book about the fastest restoration work of all time - 52 days - prefaced by a lot of tears and broken walls and despair. 

Nehemiah is one of my favorite books, because it's about God's blessings. It's not that God made their enemies vanish, or magically restored the burned walls. It's not that people weren't trying to rebuild walls and the temple and their lives in Jerusalem before. But when God's ready to bless you, He'll bless you - even in the midst of people sending sly letters to the king and trying to block your efforts with fear and gossip. Satan never wants God's people to be blessed, He wants them either sinning, complacent, or ready to give up. Holding on to God's promises with both hands, keeping His commandments firmly in mind, won't always mean that blessing is around the corner. But once He decides it's blessing time, you can't get away! I look forward to that.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Tyranny of More, the Necessity of Rest

It seems impossible to say no to that insistent voice: "...more".

This isn't simply just a marketing tool that's been overused, though we could rage about product placement in films, or the Era of Corporate Greed. It's that odd thing that drives us to eat more than is necessary ("just one more bite"), or play another online game (I'm currently addicted to Trizzle), or land one more business client. Social media merely enhances an already existing mantra in our heads - that 'more is better'.

Toddlers have the same drive toward grabbing and acquisition for its own sake, but I'm thinking about how hard it is to say "no" and feel like a worthwhile person. Being caught in a riptide of your own feelings that reaching for "more" is reaching "up", toward the light, toward expansion and progress and....we don't even know what, there's that reaction you get when you tell yourself (or others) "no". No, I don't need a new skirt on sale (that I'll never wear), I don't need to volunteer more, I don't need to give that person 'just one more chance'. Oh, that reaction. "But .... don't you WANT to do more/be more/help more?!" And the insinuation: "EVERYONE should want to be the best they can be, do until they drop."

When you're ill, you have a ready-made excuse not to do things. The sad part is, that as a fully functioning adult, I still feel that impulse to make up an illness to get out of doing, not just chores, but "things that will help". Good things, even noble things, but too much.

There are times that you do what you must, and we are in a constant spiritual war zone that seems to require everything we have and then some. But even soldiers are given leave from battle, or sent to the infirmary when they are wounded in limbs or organs. There are few legitimately accepted respite points for those in battle against darkness with no face. Somehow, you're supposed to be able to wage war via Tweets while you sleep, and contributions after your death.

There are just as many verses and passages about resting, and being content, as there are for engaging in activity. The same God who says "do not grow weary in doing good", also says "but My grace is sufficient for you". He says not to despise the day of small things, that He is the one who brings the greatness. I can see over 700 references to "rest" in the Word (via BibleGateway) and only 34 for "strive". I could use other words, but I won't. Just say no to the voice that says "but how do you know that you've researched enough?" I'm on to you.

One of my favorite converts in the Bible is Naaman the Syrian (II Kings 5), who was convinced by his wife's maidservant to seek healing for his leprosy in the land of Israel. Highly insulted by Elisha's directions given by messenger, he storms off....only to be asked by his servants to try out the prophet's directives. ("My father, if it were some great thing the prophet asked you, would you not do it?") Perhaps the centurion, asking Jesus to heal his daughter, knew what Naaman's servants did - the power of healing is in the message of the Healer, not its impressive presentation.

There's nothing impressive about rest. Seen wrongly (or done wrongly), it looks like laziness. Resting in the power of Christ looks as ridiculous as holding a Psalm sing in jail, rejoicing in the shame of being beaten for His name (Acts 16). Prayer meetings don't overflow until great disasters happen - there's nothing left to do. Naaman got the same unimpressive deal as God gave His people, in many battles. Dig ditches (II Kings 3), so your beasts will drink and you will win the war. (Really?! Ditches?) Build an altar and pour water on it, Elijah (I Kings 18), and I will bring the fire from heaven. (Prepare an altar by drowning it. Right.) God constantly tells us that He can do great things with less, and we have trouble believing that, like the Disciples. ('You want us to feed 5,000 people with a few loaves and wee fish. Sure.')

We do work as we rest in His sufficiency. We pray, we trust, we hope, we give and keep on giving, we fight against the enemy within and without. There's plenty of work to be done. We plan, and He directs the results (Proverbs 16:9). But He also gives His beloved rest, lays His sheep near a still stream, and says, "I am enough".

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Power of Misinterpretation

The problem of interpretation is not an exclusive Bible issue.

This is a human issue, stemming from Satan's primo marketing technique in the Garden of Eden. He markets death as the smart, eternal thing to do, helping the founding parents to drink the Kool-aid with him.

Today's inspiration comes from "The Power of One", a novel set in South Africa. What caught my attention was that the website clearly states a problem of interpretation. People think the title has to do with the power of one person to change the world. The author's intention was to point out the life-changing power of education, and how the whole trajectory of a child's life can turn based on one teacher's influence.

It's hard to fight against the snide, constant insinuation that the Bible is hopelessly flawed, that a vast gulf between its authors' intentions and people's perceptions must be bridged (or not) by human reasoning. The sad fact is that this is half-true - we get messages from God wrong all the time, in our own lives. The lie that exists in the insinuation is that the Bible is merely man's message to man, about a Supreme Being (who may or may not exist).

Can you make up your own interpretation and base it on the Bible? Of course, people do it all the time. Will it be accurate? No.

Another lie that people give in to is the "beauty" of re-interpretation. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that confusion and 20 different meanings that conflict with each other is a 'wonderful' human trait. If you find yourself slogging through an English-teacher approved book that makes you think about broken buildings and failed relationships and the continual drip-drip-drip of grey rain - you're supposed to end the novel gloomily satisfied that the human life is deep and vast and its purposes unknowable. When faced with an obstacle, armed with this depressing knowledge, you can stare at it hollowly and think about how all life leads to chaos and fear.

Variety is surely the spice of life, but if you don't know which spice to use, the sauce you are making will taste like ashes. And that's what Satan wants - ashes out of people's lives. But he constantly tells you that if you just push past this or that barrier, All Glory Will Be Revealed.

God's messages are clear, though hard to understand (it comforts me to know the Apostle Peter found it difficult, too). Swimming through this world's murk and fog isn't glorious, but it's work we've been given - until we get to go Home. Light abounding. Grace eternal. Life unending. No sign of brokenness or failure or sickness anywhere - and a depth of understanding we can't imagine now. What are Satan's promises when compared with that?