Struggling to Pray

May I confess something here in regard to prayer?

May I tell you the difficulty of praying to God as I ought; it is enough to make you entertain strange thoughts of me. When I go to pray, I find my heart so reluctant to go to God, and when it is with him, so reluctant to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers; first to beg God that he would take my heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. In fact, many times I do not know what to pray for, I am so blind; nor how to pray, I am so ignorant.

There it is.

But I have a second confession to make: I did not write the first confession.

As you were reading it, I’m sure you were thinking, “What kind of pastor would struggle like this in prayer?”  The answer is, surprisingly, John Bunyan.  The author of Pilgrim’s Progress wrote this in his work entitled Prayer in the Holy Spirit.  Bunyan, whose immense knowledge of Scripture and godliness were evident in all that he did, struggled with prayer.  He felt, as I have, and I am sure many of us have if we are honest, that we are often no better than those hypocrites who “honor Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from him” (Matthew 15:18).

Those who struggle in prayer stand in good company.  And it should be expected.  Why should that which destroys the strongholds of the enemy come easy to us? When we get frustrated because someone doesn’t respond immediately to our texts, will persisting in prayer through suffering and loss seem worthwhile?  Why should we expect bending our knee and bowing our head to our Sovereign Lord to come naturally to stiff-necked rebels?  Prayer is difficult work.

So what do I do when I don’t feel like praying, when praying is such heavy lifting that I want to give up on it?

Well, the first thing to do is Pray.  Richard Foster once wrote, the “desire to pray is prayer itself.”  It is a longing of the spirit to know fellowship and communion with God.  Though in groans too deep for words, the Spirit of God Himself groans within us, interceding for us, and building within us that desire to pray.  There may be times when our prayers are simple, direct, and anguished prayer, but they are prayers nonetheless.  The regular exercise of prayer, spending time talking with God will increase your desire and readiness to pray.

Secondly, Repent.  So often our hearts get cluttered with the detritus of false gods, the flotsam and jetsam of this worlds good that there is no room for the Spirit of God to move upon us.  We harbor envies and rivalries. We hold on to bitterness and unforgiving attitudes.  We nurse our grievances and feed our lusts until they consume us. Is it any wonder that the Spirit of prayer would be quenched within us?

Repent.  Confess your need for cleansing and renewal. Turn from the paltry and empty things of this world so that you can know the glorious and satisfying presence of God.  Start where Jacob started in his prayer to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…” (Gen 32:10). Confess your need, and your struggles in prayer, and God will show His goodness to you.

Finally, pray God’s word.  The Bible is full of God’s promises toward His people.  Pray His promises. “Lord, you promised that you would never leave us nor forsake us, but I feel distant from you know.  Please let me know you are near!”  “Lord, you taught your disciples to pray saying ‘Our Father who art in heaven…’ Teach me to pray, and grant me the desire to draw near to you.”  As you read through Scripture, rather than struggling to find your own words, pray God’s words back to Him.  Pray the Psalms as your own prayers, teaching you to praise, lament, and seek God’s help in every situation.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive treatise on prayer, just a reminder that genuine prayer is difficult work, but it is worth the effort.  “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” James tells us.  May we draw near to God in our life of prayer.

Temporary’s Path to Apostasy

I’ve been reading Pilgrim’s Progress to my young sons, and I am continually amazed at the depth and clarity with which Bunyan examines the spiritual condition.  Most recently, we read of Hopeful’s acquaintance Temporary and how he fell away from his faith.

Temporary, as his name implies, was a pilgrim who started his journey with enthusiasm, but then quickly left the path of faith. He stand as an illustration of those who, like the seed that falls among the rocky soil, which quickly grew, but then withered under the heat of the sun.  He begins with outward excitement, but as there is no inward working of the Holy Spirit, he soon proves to be apostate.

Christian, in explaining how Temporary fell away, gives us a warning for our own life of faith.  Here are the steps to avoid:

They draw most of their thoughts away from the remembrance of God, death, and judgment to come. 

Thinking regularly on God’s holiness, Christ’s death for your sins, and the coming Day of Judgment keeps you in close communion with God. Yet so often, family concerns, careers ambitions, and the barrage of  social-media and 24/7 entertainment are distractions from thinking of God.

Then they gradually neglect private duties such as personal prayer, curbing their lusts, watchfulness, sorrow for sin, and the like. 

The God-given means fo grace (ie. prayer, Bible study, reading of wholesome books, discipline (physical and spiritual), self-examination, stewardship, etc) are all meant to strengthen you in your faith. Neglect these gifts at your own peril.

Then they shun the company of lively and whole-hearted Christians.

Though you may continue to come to worship, the conversations over coffee never get past the kids activities or current events. The idea of sharing your testimony, or listening to someone else’s never comes to mind.

After that, they grow cold to public duty, such as conscientious listening, reading of the Word, godly corporate gathering, and the like.

When you stop talking to others about your faith, then your desire for worship falls away.  Attendance becomes hit and miss, you cannot concentrate on the sermon, and your commitment to the ministry of the Church weakens.

They then begin to find fault or pick holes, as we say, in the lives of some of the godly, so that they may claim religion is stained based on some weaknesses they have noticed in these believers, and they then justify putting religion behind their backs. 

With no real commitment to the worship and ministry of the Church, you then turn on the people of the Church.  With growing criticism, you judge the saints with specks in their eyes while ignoring the logs in your own (Matt. 7:3-5).

Then they begin to adhere to and associate with, carnal, immoral, and unrestrained men. 

As you no longer participate in the life of the Church, and you don’t like the people of the Church, your circle of activity expands to include worldly entertainment and even Sunday activities (hunting, organized sports, etc) that conflict with church life.

They give way to carnal and depraved conversations in secret, and they are glad if they can find similar practices in any who are considered reputable, for these hypocrites encourage them to be all the more bold. 

As you spend more time with people of the world than with people of faith, worldly influences creep in, looking for the faults in other Christians as justification for your own.

After this they begin to play with little sins openly. 

Desensitized to the effects of sin, you dance even closer to the fire, with no fear of being burned.

And then, being hardened, they show themselves as they are.

No longer bothered with pretense, you invite more worldliness into your life, and reveal your true nature.

Christians, trust in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit to keep you and strengthen you in your faith.  Do not wander or neglect the means by which God has promised to nourish and sustain you.  And if you find yourself in Temporary’s path toward apostasy, repent, and turn from your sins, that you might be restored by God’s mercy!

SDG

The Dangers of Professional Christianity

Does anyone know that the liturgical calendar calls the Sunday after Christmas?

Answer – Assistant Pastor’s Sunday.

Okay, it’s not an actual liturgical day – but boy am I glad the Assistant Pastor could fill in for me.

The last time I had taken a full day off from work was when I was on bedrest following a week in the hospital – and even then I started back to work before the Doctor’s recommended timeline.  I was feeling burned out. I just had to make it through Christmas Eve – and Christmas day since it fell on a Sunday – then I could finally get away for a little bit.

I read somewhere that there are a couple of clues to when a Pastor needs to take a break:

  1. When he repeats the same sermon two weeks in a row and the congregation doesn’t notice, and
  2. When he repeats the same sermon two weeks in a row and he doesn’t notice.

I hadn’t gotten to that point, but I was close.  Spending time away from the church – which is difficult for me since I live directly across the street from it – helped me to see how close I had come to a burnout.  From the realistic understanding that the work of the Church is essential, important, and urgent, to the unrealistic expectation that I can do it all myself and in my own strength; I stood little chance of survival.  I was increasingly frustrated with myself, making careless mistakes, growing short-tempered, and becoming an overall “bah-humbug.”  (My apologies to my family for bringing this on during Christmas, too – we always hurt the one’s we love…) Getting away for a week and realizing that the church would go on, even thrive, without me gave me that little jolt I need to get back into the proper perspective.

The time away also helped me to see that while my walk with Christ is essential to  my pastoral ministry, my pastoral ministry may often be a detriment to my walk with Christ.   There are several traps that are easy to fall into as a Pastor, shortcuts that seem to help make discipleship and pastoral ministry go hand in hand, but in reality, destroy both.

Here are just a few examples:

(Warning – there’s some brutally honest self disclosure coming here!)

Substituting Spiritual Studies for Spiritual Life

My workweek usually requires writing two sermons, planning and leading two worship services, writing a Sunday School and a Wednesday night bible study, writing this blog, and the occasional bible studies, devotions, and weddings and funerals – not to mention visitations, meetings, and the administration responsibilities of pastoral care.  Oh, and did I mention I have a wife and 4 kids, too.

It is a joy to be called by a congregation to study, teach, and preach God’s Word, yet there are often times when the tyranny of the urgent, the never ending, relentless onslaught of Sundays overwhelms and incapacitates.  And then sacrifices are made.  The quiet time of study and reflection, listening to God’s Word for me personally is crowded out by the need to find something that I’m supposed to say to my congregation.  The time on my knees in prayer and fellowship with God finds its way to a prayer at the pastor’s desk.  Worship becomes work. Sanctification becomes sanctimony.  What should nourish and feed the Spirit becomes a drain, until you’re left, well, like this:

bilbo

Time away from the pulpit, from the office, from the demands of ministry, help me to find the peace and joy of stopping and dwelling in the presence of God.  Like that break in college when you went home, just for a bit, to be nurtured, strengthened, and rejuvenated for the return to reality – we all need moments when we can return to home base with God, resting and waiting upon Him.  Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” I’m not one to run from my problems, but there are times when all you can do is drop everything and run to the Lord.  Only then can you find the strength and the wisdom to face what’s before you.

Worship as Perpetual Motion

I was sitting in worship in another Presbyterian Church on Sunday, with relative anonymity and no responsibility other than that I was there to worship God.  In that moment it dawned on me that I had gotten to the point where my preparation for worship, and my experience in worship on a Sunday morning had become an act of perpetual motion rather than heartfelt worship.  Like the “white-washed tombs,” I had fallen into a Pharisaical practice of having the name of God on my lips while He was far from my heart.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh, but maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Sundays came and went as a matter of course; I was going through the motions of worship, occasionally allowing my heart to actually break into what I was doing, but more often than not, that just took too much out of me – so I had to keep it all bottled up for the sake of moving forward.  When all the while, it was holding me back.

John Bunyan once wrote, “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”  Amen. Worship isn’t really worship if you’r heart is a million miles away.  If you’r heart isn’t fixed on God in worship, it isn’t a praise song, no matter how many times you repeat the chorus.

It took getting away from leading worship for a Sunday to get myself back into the right perspective for worship.  I’m only too grateful that God saw fit to show me this and restoration a heart of praise.

Trusting What’s Works Rather Than The One Who Works

Finally, it is all too easy to rely on the tools of the trade, rather than the Hands of the Master.  I have a pretty framed degree from a rather prestigious seminary on my wall – that should account for something, right?  I know my Greek and Hebrew, and can exegete a text forwards and backwards.  I bring a natural comfort to the pulpit, an easy manner in speaking, and that helps me communicate with the congregation.  With all of that going for me, this whole ministry thing should come together pretty well, shouldn’t it.

The temptation in ministry is to rely on my skills, my professional development, my education, my talents, my resources… You see what’s happening there.  If that’s the source of ministry, then all you’ll get is me.  Trust me, no one needs more of me.

Instead, all of this pedigree for ministry is simply rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.  How does Paul put in in Philippians:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–11)

Interestingly, that was my foundation verse when I was in Seminary. Whatever I was confronted with, I would come back to this passage – I want to know Christ above all things, before all things, in all things.  It’s funny, that need never really goes away.

So – a huge thank you to my congregation and elders and assistant Pastor for making time away possible.  A huge thank you to my family and friends for bearing with me as I worked through all of this.  And a huge thank you to my savior, for being eternally patient with this work in progress.

SDG

Make It Known

One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”
(Psalm 145:4, ESV)

Have you established an inheritance for your children and grandchildren?  It’s something I think everyone hopes to do, leave something behind as a blessing for our children and their children.  When I go, I will leave everything behind.  I would leave my family with their debt of gratitude rather than simply in debt.  As a pastor and father of four, to leave my family with a financial inheritance will take a lot of planning and discipline, but the joy of giving the gift to future generations will be worth it.

However, the generations that follow us will inherit a great many things above and beyond a financial gift or obligation.  I have inherited my father’s sense of humor (or lack thereof), his sense of physical discipline (or lack thereof), and his astonishingly good looks (or lack… wait a minute).  Whether intentionally or not, we pass along from one generation to the next our priorities, passions, perspectives.  Our children may gain their inheritance directly, through our instruction and advice, or indirectly, by what they observe and overhear in our lives.

Have you given any thought to the Spiritual Inheritance that you will leave behind?  If your family were asked today to describe your faith, could they give an informed response?  Have they seen your faith evidenced in the way you live, the way you work, the things you say?  Have you shared your faith with your family, have you passed it along to the next generation?

Consider Psalm 78:5-7, “He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments,” and Psalm 145, “One generation shall commend your works to another.”  Even Paul, in his letter to Timothy said, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt secure first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well” (2 Timothy 1:5).  God’s word teaches us that our faith is handed from one generation to the next, like a baton in a relay.  If we do not actively share our faith and teach it to the next generation, we have dropped the baton and set our children up for failure.  John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, once wrote, “Your children have souls, and they must be born of God as well as of you, or they perish.  And know also, that unless you are very vigilant in your behavior toward and before them, they may perish through you: the thoughts of which should provoke you, both to instruct, and also to correct them.”

What can you do then, to be sure you pass your faith along from generation to generation?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be faithful in worship, and bring your family!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I won’t be coming to church this week; we have family/friends visiting.”  Can they not come to church?  Invite them, urge them, implore them to worship with you.  Nothing shows your love for your family and friends more than providing them an opportunity to come before the Lord in worship and praise, to hear His Word proclaimed, and to receive the blessing of His presence.
  • Worship as a family.  This doesn’t have to be complicated.  Read one of the devotions provided by the church together each day, and pray the suggested prayer.  If you are inclined, sing a hymn or praise chorus too.  Mathew Henry wrote, “They that pray in the family do well; they that pray and read the Scriptures do better; but they that pray, and read, and sing do best of all.”  If you’d like more resources on starting family worship visit: http://familyworshipguide.net/.
  • Read your Bible often, and discuss it as a family.  Whatever you do for family worship, make sure that you also spend time reading the Bible, both personally and together as a family.  Every evening, I read to our children one chapter from the Bible.  If they have questions, I try to answer them.  Sometimes I try to clarify what we’ve read.  Other times, I ask them what they think about the passage.  More than just reading the Bible let it engage you and your family.  Share with your wife, kids, friends, your favorite book of the Bible, tell them what passages have great meaning for you, ask which ones they like.  John Quincy Adams noted, “So great is my veneration for the Bible that the earlier my children begin to read it the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens of their country and respectable members of society.  I have for many years made it a practice to read through the Bible once a year.”

Let it be known, from generation to generation, that your faith was genuine and sincere.  Let there be no doubt of your love for God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of His Holy Spirit.  May we never forsake this sacred duty to make known God’s faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 89:1).