Sunday, February 28, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 12 - Centering Prayer

Day 12 – Sunday
Centering Prayer

Today at church, there were a lot of people who told me that they’re just plain tired. We had a lot of people who were either sick themselves, or who had sick family members at home. There seemed to be a spirit of exhaustion among many, and a glazed-over look on the faces of many more.

Sometimes when you’re tired, it’s hard to pray. We’ve already discussed praying when you’re sleepy—but I’m talking about praying when you’re exhausted. You might have gotten sufficient sleep last night, but you’re just emotionally and spiritually drained.

Basil Pennington offers a method of prayer, called Centering Prayer, that I believe is perfect for those who feel drained. You might not know what to pray, and you may not even have “groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26).” You just need to feel God’s love enfold you. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30)."

In his book, Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form, Pennington says that this prayer form is not new at all, but goes back many generations to the desert fathers, the monks and contemplatives of the early church. Centering Prayer has had many names and adaptations over the years, but generally looks the same, no matter who teaches it. Here are the rules (pp 59-50):

RULE ONE: At the beginning of the Prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; at the end of the Prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” or some other prayer.
RULE TWO: After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take up a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.
RULE THREE: Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by the use of the prayer word.

So, to reiterate, Centering Prayer is simply resting in God’s presence. It’s a prayer of non-striving where, instead of telling God all your problems, or instead of telling God anything at all, you simply sit in God’s love. Choose a prayer word (“peace,” “grace,” “maranatha,” and “Jesus” are good examples) that you will use to bring your mind back to God whenever it wanders. When you need to re-focus, just use your prayer word, and sit quietly again.

Pennington says, “It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given; otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own (pg. 44).” I agree with that. While we think we are praying our own thoughts and feelings, we must never forget that prayer itself is initiated by God, in us. So let the Holy Spirit pray for and through you. Prayer is God in you (Holy Spirit) talking to God outside of you (Father). You may be too exhausted to pray all by yourself, but you’re never too drained to let the Spirit pray in you.

Pennington, Basil. Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form. Doubleday Books: New York. 2001.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 11 - Praying in Public

Day 11 – Saturday
Praying in Public

I remember times from my childhood when we would go out to eat at a restaurant and we were ready to ask the blessing for the meal. We were aware that we were surrounded by a mixed crowd of believers and unbelievers alike, and my mother didn’t want our faith to be an offense to anybody. “Just pray quietly, by yourselves,” she would tells us, as she slowly put her napkin in her lap and arranged the silverware. We knew what she was doing. She wasn’t being fastidious about flatware—she was praying, with her eyes open and her head unbowed. This is how I learned to pray in public—privately, even secretly. Don’t let anyone catch you! That was the message I received as a child from that kind of prayer.

Sometime later, I think my mom realized the message she was sending her kids. So we developed a new style of praying in public, one where we sat quietly with our heads bowed and our eyes closed, praying silently and individually. Once everybody had looked up, we knew it was time to eat. That lasted for a while. It seemed a compromise between being ashamed of our faith on the one hand and being showy on the other hand. After all, Jesus said:

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you (Matthew 6:5-7).”
As I grew older, thought, I began to notice families that would come into a restaurant, sit down together, hold hands, and pray openly and out loud before a meal. They still weren’t making a show of it. They were simply showing consistency in their faith, doing the same thing they always did before a meal when they were at home. To do anything less than what you’d normally do at home seems to be a sign that you’re embarrassed or ashamed of your faith, like you’re trying to hide it from the world. When Daniel was in a tight spot, and he knew people were probably watching him when he prayed, didn’t he continue to pray in the same manner that he was used to, without making a show, but without hiding it either (Daniel 6:10)? Now, if I’m eating by myself, I simply bow my head, close my eyes, and pray quietly—the same as I’d do at home. But if our family is out together, we pray the same was we would at home.

So, what did Jesus mean in the above scripture? Simply this: Don’t let your prayer become a show to demonstrate your piety for everyone around you. He didn’t mean that it’s wrong to let someone see you or hear your pray. And certainly there are prayer times when you’re so deep and intimate with God that you’re pouring your heart out to Him, tears are flowing, and you don’t want anyone to see that. So go find a private place for those prayer times. But if your prayers aren’t too intimate for a public place, then don’t worry if someone sees you.

Jesus wasn’t condemning corporate prayer in a worship setting, either. After all, He prayed with other people in a worship setting every time He went to the synagogue or temple. In fact, the Bible makes more reference to public, corporate prayer than it makes to private prayer times. It’s not wrong to pray out loud in a corporate setting. What’s wrong is to make a show of it, trying to impress people with how well you pray, or how long you pray, or how deeply spiritual you are when you pray. Reserve your tears and chest-beating for a private place. If nobody every prayed around anybody else, how would you have learned to pray? How would your children learn to pray if they never watched and listened to you? It’s been said that prayer is more caught than taught. Give those around you the opportunity to catch on.

Twice in five days, my schedule was crazy enough that I wasn’t able to get up at 5 AM for my regular hour of prayer. I had gotten in too late the night before, and needed my sleep. My days were packed with activity, and I knew that when I got home I would have no privacy because of the kids and all their wonderful distractions. But both of those days, in the middle of the day, I had the time to pray for an hour. The problem was that it was too cold to find a park bench somewhere, so I had to be creative.

This past Monday, I went to Barnes & Noble and found a quiet corner. I love that store, because they have comfortable chairs where you can sit down and read their books—even if you don’t buy them! (Hey—it’s okay—I have a membership card!) I got a Bible off the shelf and used it for my devotions. Then I spent my prayer time with the sound of shoppers all around me. The one caution I’d give about praying this way in public is to make sure that the area where you are doesn’t have too many distractions. The only seat available at Barnes & Noble happened to be right in front of the magazine racks, and I found that I had to keep my eyes squeezed shut in order to avoid the distracting magazine covers. Also, shoppers kept wandering by, talking to each other about the magazines, and then saying “Oh, excuse me,” as they stepped past me. I just used the distractions as an opportunity to pray for each person I saw and heard at Barnes & Noble that day.

Yesterday, I went to VCU with Beth. While she was in one class, I decided I was going to have my prayer time. VCU has a prayer and meditation room that’s quiet and out of the way. I went in there to pray, but my cell phone kept ringing. An hour passed, and I think I’d spent five minutes with the Lord. I went with her to her next class, but I decided that during her third class, I’d try to pray again. Instead of going back to the prayer room, I found an out-of-the-way corner in the dining hall. That was nice, because my phone was quiet and so was my spirit as I spent an hour with the Lord. The sound of students around me became “white noise,” and I wasn’t distracted by it. Rather, it reminded me of the billions of prayers that must go before God’s throne every day—and He hears every one of them!

So the next time you’re in public and it’s time to pray, go ahead! Don’t make a show of it, but don’t be ashamed of it, either. Save your heart-wrenching prayers for your private place, but don’t be reluctant to go before God’s throne of grace, just because other people are around you. Use the opportunity to pray for them. Maybe they need it!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 10 - Where Does Your Wisdom Come From?

Day 10 – Friday
Where Does Your Wisdom Come From?

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.
(James 1:2-8 NLT)

Troubles have a tendency to get us down, to confuse us, and to fluster our faith. But rather than running back and forth in indecision, God wants us to trust Him for the wisdom we need.

All of us want wisdom, but most of us don’t want to do what’s required to get wisdom. Unless you’re Solomon and wisdom is just bestowed as a gift, you have to get it the old-fashioned way: the school of hard knocks. And nobody wants hard knocks. But James tells us to rejoice when troubles come our way, because they produce the qualities in us that lead to wisdom.

Do you feel like life has been generous with doling out the struggles? Thank God that He’s generous to hand you the ingredients for wisdom, on a silver platter. If the school of hard knocks hasn’t given you what you need, then remember—wisdom is just a prayer away. But when you ask, don’t doubt. When you ask, listen. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten pretty good at asking God questions without listening to the answers. When you ask, believe that He’ll speak, and don’t doubt.

When you ask for wisdom, don’t have divided loyalties. If you’re seeking the truth from God, don’t go to people and ask their opinion. Ask God directly. If you’re asking God’s opinion and then you turn and ask a friend’s opinion, then you have divided loyalties between God and the world. This makes you unstable in everything you do. Instead, seek God’s opinion alone. Let Him guide you.

Paul writes in Galatians 1:15-19 (NLT):
But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus. Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother.
Trust God’s voice. Quit relying so much on the “wisdom” of this world. Ask God for wisdom, and listen to His answer. Believe, and don’t doubt that He’ll answer your prayer for wisdom. Be loyal to God alone, and He will give you all you need.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - a Lenten Deovtion - Day 9 - The Way of Suffering

Day 9 – Thursday
The Way of Suffering

Today I am impressed by the reluctance the modern American church has to embrace suffering. We are so wrapped up in ourselves, in our own comfort, in our own pleasure! We prefer a feel-good religion in which we focus on the beauty of God’s presence. Megachurches across the country preach messages of self-fulfillment and living the good life. That’s what we want to hear.

Nobody wants to hear about suffering. When we come face to face with our own sin as Isaiah did (“Woe to me, I am undone!”) we realize that God’s presence isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we weep, sometimes we want to flee from the agonizing presence of a Holy God. And we avoid prayer because it can be suffering.

In our Bible study on fasting last night, we had three in attendance, besides myself. Why? People don’t want to fast. That’s too much like suffering. People don’t want to give anything up for God. We’re too comfortable. In all fairness, I never announced to the whole church that we were going to be talking about fasting at the Wednesday prayer meeting. So truthfully, it wasn’t fasting that kept the people away. I wish it were fasting that kept the people away—that it were simply a matter of people shrinking from the suffering of a fast. Instead, I fear that the reason for an attendance of three is simply that God’s people are not hungry enough for His Word. They are not desperate enough for His presence to meet with His people for an hour or two in the middle of the week to pray.

I mean – really, preacher! You expect me to give up a couple of hours out of my schedule in the middle of the week? Isn’t Sunday enough? I can’t afford that much time. It’s too much like… Suffering!

Have we lost a sense of how much we owe God? It’s because of His suffering that we are saved! But when we pray, when we go to church, we only want the fun stuff.

Today in my devotion time, I read the story of Stephen’s testimony and his subsequent stoning. What impressed me was that we’d prefer to simply read the story like this: “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spake…and all that at in the Council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel (Acts 6:10, 15).” Period. We’d like to end it there. We don’t like the idea of suffering, of martyrdom, of death. We prefer the warm fuzzies of our faith. We want people to hear our testimony and be so impressed with our wisdom that they are unable to resist. We want them to look at us and see the face of an angel. But we’re not willing to pay the price.

Lent is a season of introspection—a focus on the issues in our lives that God is working us through. It’s a time to ask God to convict us of sin. It’s a time of fasting, of giving up our comfort for the sake of our spirits. It’s a time of exquisite suffering. What I mean by this is that fasting, prayer, repentance, purging, giving up our time to God—these are all difficult things. But God’s blessing is ultimate reward! Today, ask yourself in what way you suffer for Christ. Are you really giving Him your all?

What I call the haven, as you know, is the Cross. If it cannot be given me to deserve one day to share the Cross of Christ, at least may I share that of the good thief. Of all the beings other than Christ of whom the Gospel tells us, the good thief is by far the one I most envy. To have been at the side of Christ and in the same state during the crucifixion seems to me a far more enviable privilege than to be at the right hand of his glory (
From Waiting for God by Simone Weil)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 8 - Spiritual Exercises

Day 8 – Wednesday
Spiritual Exercises

Years ago, I remember hearing an older member of our congregation who would pray every week before Sunday school: “Lord, bless these exercises we are about to go through.” I would cringe every time I heard it, thinking, this is more than just up and down, going through the motions. And I was right. Church should be more than an exercise. But God has been showing me something lately about going through the motions.

Prayer is good for its own sake, even if you aren’t feeling it. You don’t have to feel it in order for it to be effective. You may say, “Yes, but I don’t want to just go through the motions.” I ask you—do you think an Olympic athlete feels like going out to practice every day? No. Sometimes they’re tired or distracted or just aren’t feeling it. But they go through the motions. And going through the motions trains their body to act on its own.

In the same way, going through the motions can sustain you, even when your feelings try to convince you not to pray. “You’re tired,” my feelings told me this morning as I nodded off for the third time. “God wants you to get some rest, don’t you think?” Yet I persisted, even though it was gong through the motions. That’s how I train. If you never exercise, you never get stronger. Exercises stretch you. They hurt you. And they make you grow. We need some spiritual exercises.

So I decided to get up and pray in the shower. That worked. It woke me up. It also made me alert to the Spirit, who reminded me of Isaiah 40:28-31:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and to him who has no might increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

Then I thought, why not combine the exercise of prayer with physical exercise. Two birds, one stone. It’s good for your body and your spirit. Plus, the physical exercise keeps you awake during those early morning prayers. In 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul says, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Then he says I 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”Why not try it? Give yourself a physical workout along with your spiritual workout. Whether you’re feeling it or not, it’s good for you. And pretty soon, you’ll find that you’re not going through the motions anymore—you’re being moved by the Spirit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 7 - Friends with God

Day 7 – Tuesday
Friends with God
I love my friends. God has put some wonderful friends in my life, whom I love dearly. But, no offense to them, I wouldn’t want to live with them. And I don’t necessarily want to see them every day. I remember some mission trips that I’ve been on, with people who are very dear to my heart. But after living together in cramped quarters for a week, you start to get on each other’s nerves. I love my brother. He is closer than a friend. We grew up together, and still share much in common. But there are differences, and when we go on vacation together, we find that at some point in the week we need to take a break from each other. He begins to wear on me after a while, and I’m sure I aggravate him.
-->Benjamin Franklin said that house guests, like fish, stink after three days. But “there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24).”
This morning in my prayer time, my scriptural meditation was on Psalm 25:14, which says, “The friendship of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He makes known to them His covenant.” I don’t think I can begin to describe how awesome that is! It’s hard to even fathom, that God can call me His friend. What a radical concept, to have the Creator of the universe as my dear friend. And I never get tired of Him. And for some reason, He never grows weary of me.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

Because Abraham believed God, James 2:23 calls him a “friend of God.” In John 15:13-15, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

I began to notice a pattern in these scriptures:
  • Psalm 25:14 – Fear of God (because our secret hearts are revealed to him) results in friendship with God, and God revealing Himself to us.
  • James 2:23 – Believing God results in friendship with God, and a credit of righteousness.
  • John 15:13-15 – Obeying God results in friendship with God, and God revealing Himself to us.
From the moment we were created, we were God’s people, His children. But it’s not until we respond to Him in fear, faith, and obedience that He calls us His friends. When we enter that level of relationship where God can call us friends, and He is our very best friend, then He reveals Himself to us. When you enter into prayer today, remember who God is—He’s your best friend of all. And more surprising than that—he calls you His friend as well!

What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 6 - Release Your Inhibitions in Prayer

Day 6 – Monday
Release Your Inhibitions in Prayer

Many people don’t know that I hate praying out loud in front of people. You might think that’s strange, since I do it almost every day in my job. I pray in worship services, in Sunday school classes, in hospitals, nursing homes, and jails. I pray with people in my office as I do premarital counseling sessions, or meet with them about crises of faith. I pray with people in their homes, and over a coffee at Starbuck’s. So why do I hate to pray out loud in front of people?

Because for me, prayer is a deeply personal thing that reveals a bit of my soul with every word I say. Sometimes when I’m by myself and it’s just me and God, I pray with audible words. Other times I pray in the quiet of my heart. Often I find that my emotions are gushing out so much that human speech cannot contain all that I want to say. That’s why I’m glad that Romans 8:26-27 assures me:

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.”

It’s important to release your inhibitions when you pray, when you’re with other people. If you never pray out loud because you’re afraid of how other people are going to think of you, or because you’re afraid it will make you vulnerable, then you’re letting other people dictate how you communicate with God. Your prayer is between you and God, not you and them. Even if you’re praying in a group, make your prayer personal. Forget them, and just be with God. If you tailor your fit your human audience, then you’ve got the wrong audience. God is your audience when you pray. If you refuse to pray out loud when others might hear you, just think about how you might be depriving a young Christian of the opportunity to learn to pray. It’s been said that prayer is more caught than taught. By praying out loud, you allow other young Christians around you to learn from you.

You need to release your inhibitions when you pray alone. Yes, even when there’s nobody around but you and God, you can feel self-conscious about how you pray. You can overcome this by changing your prayer posture. Stand with your arms raised to the heavens, even if that’s not normally how you pray. Or try singing the Psalms aloud, making up your own music as you go along. Or let those groans of the spirit flow from your lips, regardless of whether they make sense to you. The Spirit knows what He’s praying on your behalf, so you can’t do it wrong. Put on some Christian music and dance before the Lord—it’s biblical to do so, and you might need the workout…

Physically as well as spiritually.

If you’re going to give God your whole self, then you’ve got to hold nothing back. Practice making yourself a little uncomfortable in prayer. Like an athlete trains his body, train your spirit. Release your inhibitions before God, and see the blessing that comes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 5 - Camping in God's Glory

Day 5 – Sunday
Camping in God’s Glory

This was my devotional scripture for this morning:

Numbers 9:18-21 (English Standard Version)At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the people of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the LORD they remained in camp; then according to the command of the LORD they set out. And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out.

I pray that your life might be this way—that whatever, whenever, and for however long it takes, you would follow the Lord. I pray that when you encamp with the Lord in prayer, you do so covered by His glory. I pray that you would remain there as long as the Lord’s presence lingers, not prompted to get up and move on, just because your restless spirit or schedule dictates that you move. I pray that when you rise from your prayer place, you would follow Him to wherever His glory leads, that there you might also stay as long as He directs.


“[Thomas] Merton once told me to quit trying too hard in prayer. He said: ‘How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in His hidden action within us.”-From Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 4 - Devotional Reading Vs. Bible Study

Day 4 – Saturday
Devotional Reading vs. Bible Study

I LOVE a good Bible study! Nothing jazzes more than getting into a good scripture that’s rich with nuanced meanings, thick with theology, linguistically interesting, historically fascinating, culturally provocative, and absolutely edible—meaning you can sink your teeth into it. With a scripture like that, I get to pull out my Greek and Hebrew resources, commentaries, concordances, and the like. You can smell the wood and graphite from my pencil burning as I scribble notes and make outlines. Then, once I’ve fully mastered the text, I can begin to think about how to teach it or preach it. I don’t know about you, but I’m just geeky enough that I absolutely love that kind of stuff.

2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” I was curious about that word “study,” so I looked it up in Greek. It’s σπούδασον, which comes from σπουδάζω, which is pronounced spoo-dad'-zo, meaning “to use speed, that is, to make effort, be prompt or earnest: - do (give) diligence, be diligent (forward), endeavour, labour, study.” That word σπουδάζω comes from another Greek word, σπουδή (pronounced spoo-day’) from which we get our English word “speed.” Isn’t that cool? Fascinating, isn’t it? Beth tells me I’m such a word-nerd. So I started with the scripture, and then I studied, so I could learn about studying. Studying’s good, right? Of course—for the Bible tells me so!

But it’s not prayer.

When I settle in to pray, I have three books with me. But none of them is a commentary, or a Greek lexicon, or book on Jewish history. Studying is wonderful, but that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing when I pray. Human beings are a trinity—body, soul, and spirit. Physical exercise is good for the body. Mental exercise is good for the soul (mind), and spiritual exercise (prayer) is good for the spirit. I wouldn’t bring Nautilus equipment into a classroom—neither would I bring study materials into prayer time. If during prayer time I find a scripture I want to study, I make a note of it and get back to it later. But prayer time is for prayer.

So, what three books do I have with me when I pray? My Bible (of course!), my prayer journal, and my devotion book. What’s the difference between Bible study and devotion? Bible study feeds the mind, whereas devotional reading feeds the spirit. Devotional reading gets me prepared for prayer. That’s its purpose—to give me a focus for my prayer time. It’s not so I can learn how to be a better Christian, or so I can understand the mysteries of the universe. That’s why devotional readings are short. They’re not the focus. Prayer is the focus. When you’re in your prayer time, even Bible reading isn’t the focus. You read a short passage of scripture to get you focused on prayer. If you’re doing one of those read-the-Bible-through-in-a-year plans, that’s great! But don’t do that during your prayer time. Keep it short and sweet, and let that reading become a focusing point for your prayer.

In Preaching and Preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:
I have found nothing more important than to learn how to get oneself into that frame and condition in which one can pray. You have to learn how to start yourself off, and it is just here that this knowledge of yourself is so important. What I have generally found is that to read something which can be characterized in general as devotional is of great value. By devotional I do not mean something sentimental, I mean something with a true element of worship in it. Notice that I do not say that you should start yourself in prayer by always reading the Scriptures; because you can have precisely the same difficulty there. Start by reading something that will warm your spirit. Get rid of a coldness that may have developed in your spirit. You have to learn how to kindle a flame in your spirit, to warm yourself up, to give yourself a start. It is comparable, if you like, to starting a car when it is cold. You have to learn how to use a spiritual choke. I have found it most rewarding to do that, and not to struggle vainly. When one finds oneself in this condition, and that it is difficult to pray, do not struggle in prayer for the time being, but read something that will warm and stimulate you, and you will find that it will put you into a condition in which you will be able to pray more freely.
Devotional reading is a catalyst for prayer. Begin your prayer time with a little devotional reading. It won’t make you a Bible scholar, but it will make you a better prayer partner with Jesus. You can become a Bible scholar later—now, it’s time to pray!


Some devotional resources I’d recommend:

A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People, edited by Reuben P. Job and Norman
Nawchuck. Published by The Upper Room. Available at Cokesbury Christian
bookstore. (I used this devotional book for 15 years! It has a great laid-out
devotional/prayer time, if you’re not sure how to structure your time.) is a great resource for free online devotional reading, podcasts, e-books, etc.

My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers. Available everywhere. Excellent,
intelligent, thought-provoking, and challenging. He doesn’t mind stepping on
your toes.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 3 - Wandering Thoughts & Uncertainty

Day 3 – Friday
Wandering Thoughts and Uncertainty
Yesterday, we talked about time and sleepiness as obstacles to a good prayer time. Today, we’ll take a look at two more obstacles to praying for an hour a day—wandering thoughts, and uncertainty as to what in the world you’re going to do for a hour!
Every one of us has wandering thoughts when we’re trying to pray. You’re trying to focus on God, and instead, your mind is racing with things the day’s events and where you left your car keys. It’s normal. There are two different kinds of wandering thoughts. One kind is sinful, and the other is just a distraction.
The enemy of our souls sees us praying, and he hates it. Just as he did when Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness, he will tempt you with all kinds of sinful thoughts. Whatever your particular area of difficulty is, whatever your pet sin or vice might be, that thought will occasionally come up in prayer. Just use this as an opportunity to confess your sins to God and let Him cleanse you. 1 John 1:9 saysIf we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
The other kind of thought is just your run-of-the-mill, garden variety distraction, like “Did I leave the coffee pot on?” (Of course you did—what’s a prayer time without coffee?) The way you deal with these distracting thoughts is by simply recognizing them, smiling at them, and then returning to prayer. Or, better yet, if your distracting thought is, “I’ve got to write that proposal and get it to my boss today,” then use that as a reminder to pray for the proposal you have to write, and to pray for you boss as well. Don’t let distracting thoughts pull you away from prayer—make them a part of prayer.
One way to do this, without making them the subject of your prayers all the time, is to settle into your chair before you really journey into prayer, and TRY to think of distracting thoughts. These may be confessions, tasks for the day, or anything. Don’t focus on it any longer than it takes to exhale. As you exhale, give that thought to God. As you inhale, breathe in His grace. Try to think of something else before it’s time to exhale again, and when you breathe out the next time, give that to God as well. Keep this up for a few minutes, letting go of a distraction with every exhalation, and breathing in God’s grace with every inhalation. Soon, you’ll reach a point of clarity where you can’t think of any more distractions. Try it—it works for me.
Now, about uncertainty—“How am I going to possibly pray for an hour?”
I’d find this difficult, too, if I only thought of prayer as clasping my hands together and murmuring for an hour. But prayer is an adventure with God—one that can take many forms. Start a prayer journal, where you write your prayers down—not just in a list format, but in paragraphs. Really elaborate when you write. You’ll feel it more. In fact, really elaborate when you speak to God as well. Don’t let it be, “Lord, bless him. Lord, be with her. Lord, heal him.” You should really let God know how you feel.
Some other ways to pray adventurously--we'll talk about each in detail, later:
  • Praying the scriptures.
  • Singing the Psalms to your own music.
  • Praying through the songs in a hymnal, or just singing to God.
  • Simply sitting and listening.
  • Meditating on God’s word – we’ll talk more later.
The main point is this: Don’t get bogged down thinking of prayer in only one way. Vary the way you pray. You’ll find yourself looking at the clock and asking, “Where did the time go?”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotional - Day 2 - Time and Sleepiness

Day 2 – Thursday
Time and Sleepiness

What have I done? I’ve made a covenant with God, and with others, to pray for an hour a day during Lent! How am I going to do that?

That may be what you’re asking, right about now. For some people, an hour of prayer is difficult. They give various reasons for the trouble they have. Among these are lack of time, sleepiness, wandering thoughts, and just plain uncertainty as to what to do with that much time. Today, I’ll talk a bit about time, and sleepiness. Tomorrow—wandering thoughts and uncertainty.

Lack of time is easy. Make time. Ephesians 5:16-17 (ESV) says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

In The Living Reminder, Henri Nouwen says:
“Our demon says: ‘We are too busy to pray; we have too many needs to attend to, too many people to respond to, too many wounds to heal. Prayer is a luxury, something to do during a free hour, a day away from work or on a retreat. The few who are exclusively concerned with prayer—such as Trappists, Poor Clares, and some isolated hermits—are really not involved in ministry. They are set free for single-minded contemplation and leave Christian service to others.’ But to think this way is harmful; harmful for ministers as well as contemplatives. Service and prayer can never be separated; they are related to each other.”

We can’t allow busyness to become an excuse for lack of prayer. Make time. Honestly, you have to take the time from somewhere. You have to choose what’s important, and what’s not. Many people get up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later, to make time for prayer. This can result in sleepiness during prayer. How can this problem be solved? My personal answer is: Coffee—and lots of it! But if, like me, your coffee takes a while to kick in, and you’re having trouble nodding off, let me share a thought with you. This morning, after I’d read some scripture and I’d entered into prayer, I jolted awake, not even aware that I’d fallen asleep. It was okay, because in that half-sleep of drowsy prayer, dreams and images and notions come to you that you wouldn’t have thought of with a wakeful mind.

Now don’t get me wrong—if lack of sleep chronically impedes your prayers, you need to figure out a way to get more sleep. And maybe change your prayer location from your bed, to a chair, or a kneeling posture. Vary your posture throughout your prayer time, to avoid sleepiness. But if you are drowsy, then give yourself as much grace as God gives you. Don’t beat yourself up. Just understand that God can speak to a drowsy heart and mind in a different way than He speaks to an alert one. The moment you snap to attention, see if you can remember what you’d been pondering in that half-sleep of yours. Maybe God’s voice was there.

Remember how many people God spoke to through dreams and visions. If God could speak to Joseph (Old Testament), Daniel, Joseph (New Testament), Peter, and the like, through this means, then why couldn’t He speak to you? Maybe they weren’t mystics. Maybe they were just sleepy!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Partnering in Prayer - A Lenten Devotion - Day 1 - Ash Wednesday

Day 1 – Ash Wednesday

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered (Acts 9:10).

This morning, my devotions led me to Acts chapter 9—the story of Saul’s conversion and Ananias’ obedience. God used Ananias in a mighty way, working both physical healing and spiritual renewal in Saul’s life. Through his touch, the wayward Pharisee became a follower of Christ, and the greatest missionary the world has known. What was it that made Ananias’ prayer life so powerful?

First, the Bible calls Ananias a disciple (verse 10). We know he wasn’t one of the original 12 apostles of our Lord, but he was a disciple nonetheless. A disciple is a student, one who sits at the feet of the master and learns, not only to think like him, but to be like him. Ananias was more than a believer—he was someone who tried to live like Jesus. The prayer life of a true disciple is going to be powerful and effective, because a disciple is constantly seeking God.
Second, Ananias says, “Here I am, Lord (v. 10).” He makes himself available to God. It’s very easy for us to pray that somebody else will do God’s work. It’s something else entirely to make ourselves ready to respond. Those who are ready to respond to God see great things happen.

Third, Ananias uses his brain—something we’re all meant to do. Granted, he argues with the Lord, but let’s put that aside for a minute. Ananias carefully thinks through his mission. He considers what he has to do, and reflects on its potential outcome. God likes it when we pray with our spirit, but He also likes it when we use our minds. He doesn’t want to go off half-cocked, trusting his feelings. He wants to be sure. Notice, the Lord never chastises Ananias for his reply. God simply repeats the instructions.

Finally, Ananias is obedient. He follows God’s instructions to the letter. Because of his obedience, Paul is blessed—and the rest of the church through him. Through this, God shows us that we can pray all we want, but until we’re obedient, God isn’t pleased with our prayers. When we are obedient, God does mighty things.

Ash Wednesday is all about conversion. Saul was converted to Paul, by the saving grace of Jesus Christ. But before he could be truly converted, Ananias had to be converted to God’s will. As you pray, ask God to convert you to His will. Ask Him to make you a disciple, to make you available, to help you use your mind, and to be obedient to Him.


The seat of our disease, says Helmut Thielicke, “is not in the branches of our nerves at all but rather in our roots which are stunted and starved.” The eloquent German points out that Martin Luther prayed four hours each day, “not despite his busy life but because only so could he accomplish his gigantic labors.” Luther worked so hard that a little desultory praying would not suffice. “To work without praying and without listening,” continues Thielicke, “means only to grow and spread oneself upward, without striking roots and without an equivalent in the earth.” Trees can grow well in rocky soil, as I can attest by looking out the window of my mountain writing cabin, but they do this only by finding crevices in the rocks where the roots are able to penetrate deeply.”--From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood

Partnering in Prayer - Introduction

Partnering in Prayer
A Lenten Devotion by
Rev. Greg Smith


Dear Prayer Partner,

Thank you for joining me as together we covenant with God to pray for at least one hour a day. As your prayer partner, I’ll either be sending you a daily email, or a weekly digest of messages through snail mail. Please feel free to reply, and make this an ongoing conversation. Or, just read these encouragements along with whatever other devotional material you use.

I hope the thoughts that I share along our journey will be useful to you. Sometimes, they may be quotes from some of the “greats” of the faith. Other times, I may share with you an insight that God has showed me during my personal prayer time. I may share a teaching about prayer, or just a word of encouragement as we take the prayer road together. Honestly, I don’t know what this Lenten season will bring, as I plan to write each message to you fresh, each day. We’ll discover what God has in store together.

I am so encouraged by your response to my invitation to prayer. So far, over 10% of Antioch Baptist Church has joined in this covenant together, plus some other friends in other places. One friend said that this challenged reminded him of The Love Dare, with a twist. Certainly, we do this as an expression of love to our Lord, who asked His disciples, “Sit here while I pray,” and again, “Remain here and watch,” and still again, “Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.(Mk 14:32, 34, 37-38).”

When is the best time to pray? Like me, you may choose to get up early in the morning, or you may prefer to pray late at night. You may even want to pray for half an hour, twice a day. I do suggest that you devote at least twenty minutes at a time to prayer. Otherwise, your prayer time will seem rushed and insincere. What loving couple spends less than twenty minutes talking together over a meal? Certainly, they spend much more time than that! Indeed, the One whom we love the most deserves uninterrupted time alone with us. And we with Him. Personally, I’ve found the early morning hours to be best, because I get too tired late at night. It has to be when nobody else is awake, and before the phone has started ringing. I hope you find a good time, and a good comfortable spot to return to day after day. Make this your sacred time, your hallowed ground. There, you are safe. There, you can enter God’s throne room of love.

Along the journey, if you lose your way, don’t lose heart. Many have ventured off the path before you, and returned again whole. Just rejoin our covenant group tomorrow. Give yourself the same grace God gives you, and continue to seek His face. May God bless you each day of this journey.

In Christ,

Greg Smith

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-10 - The Beatitudes
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying: 3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A couple of days ago, I was reading The Beatitudes (which means "The Blessings") and it occurred to me--not only is this a list of blessings, but it's a continuum of Christian growth.

Spiritual Poverty - This must come first if the Holy Spirit can do any work in our souls. To be poor in spirit means to recognize our own spiritual poverty, and our inability to do anything without the Spirit of God in us. Nobody can become a Christian without first becoming poor in spirit. You can't enter the Kingdom of God without realizing that you can't do it on your own. Salvation (spiritual wealth) can only come as a gift from the spiritually wealthy (God alone) to the spiritually poor (us).

- I don't believe Jesus is talking about mourning the death of a loved one, here. It seems to me that he's talking about mourning your own sin.
We can only get to a point of grief over our own sin, once we've realized our spiritual poverty. Confronted with his own sin, Isaiah said, "Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty (Isaiah 6:5)." Once a person has reached a point of spiritual poverty, they can be brought to repentance. This is, of course, followed by grace - "Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for (6:6)."

Meekness - A person can only cultivate true meekness in her life when she has realized her own spiritual poverty and sin, entered a time of repentance, and received the grace of God. Without these prerequisite steps, a person tends to think of themselves more highly than they ought (Rom 12:3). Once they have walked the path of poverty and mourning, God can begin to develop within the new believer a character of meekness. Because of their past failures, meek people refrain from judging others, and extend grace to one another.

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness - Those who have not developed meekness in their lives never get to this stage of spiritual growth. The un-meek are still seeking after self-fulfillment and self-gratification. They might look at righteousness as something to admire in others, but they do not hunger and thirst for it themselves. While an un-meek person thinks he has already become all that he needs to be, a meek person recognizes his own need for spiritual growth.

Mercy - Once you have a passion for personal righteousness, that will naturally extend to a desire to help restore others who are broken. You can do good things for other people without reaching this point, but true mercy depends on a spirit that seeks God.

Purity - I can never be pure without first developing these other qualities in my life. The word pure comes from the Latin purus, which means "unmixed."
Psalm 86:11 says "Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name." This level of Christian growth can only take place once we have been brought through spiritual poverty, mourning over our own sin, into the meekness of a saved soul. A desire for righteousness leads to mercy. Until a person has practiced mercy, they cannot truly say that they have an undivided heart. Unless he reaches out to his enemies in love, he maintains a sense of "I'm right and you're wrong, and I'm better than you are." Mercy defeats that kind of attitude, and allows a person to grow enough to move past the divisions in his heart, and on to purity.

- Having reached a point of mercy and purity, the growing believer develops a greater desire. She develops an outward orientation which seeks not only personal restoration, but communal wholeness. The pure in heart become peacemakers when they see the growth God is bringing about in their own lives, and desire to see that same growth in others. As the world does not want or understand peace, the peacemaker, ironically, will become the recipient of...

Persecution - This is the highest level of spiritual growth, when the world ceases to honor you and wants to do away with you instead. In John 15:18-19, Jesus says, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." Of course, the goal of our growth is not to be persecuted. The result of our growth, however, may be persecution--if we take peacemaking seriously.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I'm a Little Teapot

In my prayer time yesterday, this just came to me. I googled it to see if anybody else had written about it, and couldn't find anything on here it is, original (as far as I know).

What's the best thing to do when you're angry? Some people take a time out, and put on a pot of tea. Do you remember that old kid's song, "I'm a Little Teapot?"
I'm a little teapot, short and stout.
Here is my handle, here is my spout.
When I get all steamed up, hear me shout,
"Tip me over and pour me out!"
It's a simple song, but embedded within its words are a hidden message (I'm serious) for dealing with anger.
I'm a little teapot, short and stout.Fist, Don't take yourself too seriously. Be able to see yourself in a silly image.
Second, realize your potential for boiling over.

Here is my handle, here is my spout.
There are two different ways that I can choose to deal with anger. Either I can get a handle on it, or I can spout off. It's up to me which I will choose.

When I get all steamed up, hear me shout
This, of course, is referring to the teapot's whistle. When you get steaming mad, do you whine? Do you shout? Do you cry? According to the song, the teapot shouts something that's pretty useful for people who have a tendency to get overly angry:

"Tip me over and pour me out!"
What is being poured out? Me. Myself. My ego. That's what's being poured out of the teapot. When I make tea, I often forget the pot and let it boil over, spilling out of the top and making a mess. But here, the teapot realizes that it will not boil over if "Me" is poured out. If I pour my ego out before God, then there's no more Me left to get angry.

In John 3, John the Baptist's followers tempted him to be angry and jealous, because Jesus was gaining more followers than John was. But instead of being angry, John said, "He must increase, but I must decrease."

"More of you, and less of me, Lord!" This must be my prayer whenever I'm tempted to boil with anger. "Tip me over and pour Me out!"

So, the next time you get angry at someone, just think this little song to yourself. You'll probably start to chuckle when you think of yourself as a little teapot, short and stout. Your mood will change--I guarantee it. Or better yet, just stop the argument you're in, look the person in the eye, put one hand on your hip and the other hand in the air, and sing the little song. I wonder how they'd respond to your little teapot?