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The Secret To Effective Prayer

         To the best of my knowledge, the disciples made only one request of Jesus about what they wanted Him to teach them.  “Lord”, they asked, “teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1-CEB)  They did not ask Him to teach them how to perform miracles, or how to be effective witnesses, or the best way to represent the Kingdom of God.  Instead, they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.  It seems to me that they were acquainted with the law of cause and effect.   Time and again, they heard him teach and preach with unusual authority; they had seen Him do things the likes of which had never been done before; they were present as he produced miracle after miracle.  At some point, it must have dawned upon them that there must have been a direct connection between the power of Jesus and His practice of prayer.  Therefore, they requested, “Lord,teach us to pray.”

           In response, Jesus does something rather unexpected.  He does not begin by teaching the disciples the best methods for prayer or the proven techniques of prayer or the proper posture to take when we pray.     Instead, Jesus says, “When you pray say, Our Father…”  Immediately, Jesus goes to the very heart of effective prayer by lifting up the nature of the relationship that exist between the One to whom we pray and the one engaged in praying.

Jesus says address God as Father.  Do not address Him as some formal, impersonal, and distant Deity; rather address God as a close and intimate, informal and compassionate, loving and caring Daddy.  Speak to Him like you would speak to a Daddy who takes delight in being in the presence of His children; who will go to whatever lengths necessary to supply the needs of His children; who will leave no stone unturned and no opportunity missed to provide for the best possible life and future for His children.  Prayer is not about the words we say or the posture we take.  Prayer begins when we are acutely aware of the relationship that exists between us and God.  And Jesus is so certain about this being at the center of prayer that He instructs us,  “Ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.  Everyone who ask, receives.  Whoever seeks, finds.  To everyone will be opened to you.  Everyone who ask, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.” (Luke 11:9-10-CEB).

Suppose, then, the very next time we pray, we take a moment to think about the Father that we are approaching.  We are approaching “Our Father” who is determined to make His love for us known to us; who desires to give us good gifts; who is willing to die simply for the privilege of being in our presence.  Suppose we are aware that this is the God to whom we pray.  If we do, the chances are very good that we will discover that “…with God all things are possible.”(Matthew 19:26-CEB)

“Called To Be With Jesus”

In Mark’s account of the calling of the twelve disciples, he says, “He appointed them to be with him…” (Mark 3:14)  I am of the opinion that this is our first responsibility if we are to be numbered among the disciples of Christ.  If we are to know someone, it is necessary that we spend time with them getting to know them.  That is especially true if we are to know Jesus Christ, especially if we are to become like the Jesus we say we know.

The kind of knowing to which I refer is the knowing that results from sharing personal experiences with Jesus; it is the kind of knowing that comes from having intimate communion and companionship with Jesus; it is the kind of knowing that grows out of close association and fellowship with Jesus.  You might say it is much like the difference between knowing a person’s resume and reputation and knowing the person themselves.  It is only by being with Jesus that we will come to see what He sees the way He sees it; that we will come to hear what He hears the way He hears it; that we will come to feel what He feels the way He feels it; and, come to know what He knows the way He knows it.  There is no other way for us to begin to understand the mind and capture the spirit of Jesus, to experience the passion of Jesus for the Kingdom of God, to share the vision of Jesus and participate in the trust that Jesus has for the Father unless we spend time with Jesus.

If we are serious about being disciples of Christ Jesus and if it is our deep desire to be transformed into His likeness, then we must do what those first disciples who were called by Jesus did.  Our first order of business must be that we daily and with deliberate intent spend time alone with Jesus.  We must make time for “one-on-one” encounters with Him through our private prayers, our reading of the scriptures, our moments of meditation and contemplation, our moments of listening for His guidance and direction and those occasions when we quietly bask in the joy that comes just from being in the Master’s presence.

I submit to you that being with Jesus made a radical difference in the lives of those first 12 disciples.  The Gospel writer John reports that there came a time when “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”. (John 6:66)  His further reports that Jesus raised the question to the twelve, “You do not want to leave to do you?”, to which Simon Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:6:67-69)  These disciples knew what they knew primarily because they had been with Jesus.  Likewise, we should know that we know what we know because we too, have been with Jesus.

 

 

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God’s Absolute Promise

In his book, Things Hidden, author Richard Rohr states that “The only absolute this God every promised Israel was God’s presence itself.”  Time and again, we find this promise being made throughout the scriptures to those who belong to God.  It is made to Jacob in his dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:15); it is made to Moses when God sends him to Pharaoh to demand that Pharaoh free the children of Israel from their Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:12); it is made to the children of Israel through the prophet Isaiah regarding the challenges and the troubles they will face (Isaiah 43:2); it is made to the disciples through Christ Jesus when they are being sent into the world to make disciples of all humanity (Matthew 28:20).  To my way of thinking, God is consistently and constantly assuring and reassuring us of his abiding presence with us.

While thinking about this absolute promise, I found myself wondering not so much about whether or not God keeps that promise but rather about if God’s presence and His presence alone is enough.  If I am under the impression that God’s presence means that our lives will be filled with blessedness and bliss, then God’s presence alone may not be enough.  If I am under the impression that God’s presence will bring us only good things and things that make us happy in this life, then God’s presence alone may not be enough.  If I am under the impression that God’s presence will effectively protect me from all hurt, harm and danger in this life then God’s presence alone just may not be enough.

There are relationships that are based more on what we can get from the person with whom we are in the relationship then on who that person is.  I have found those kind of relationships to be more inauthentic than they are authentic; that they can sink to the level of being offensive because one is being used for the others personal gain or satisfaction.  It seems to me that authentic relationships have more to do with who the person is in the relationship than what they may have.  And my relationship with God should be the most authentic relationship that I have and therefore more about who God is than what I may or may not get from God.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul writes, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)  Let me remind us that these are the words of the same man who gives a list of the troubles and trails, pains and sufferings he has endured during the course of his life and ministry (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).  It is obvious that Paul’s contentment had nothing at all to do with his life being trouble-free and without suffering and pain.  I believe at the heart of the contentment Paul experience was the presence of God though Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in his life.  I am learning that to know I am not alone and that God is with me when life becomes unbearable is to know that life is bearable; that to know that I am not alone and that God is with me when life’s hurts, harms and dangers come my way is to know that I have been equipped by God to handle whatever the hurts, harms and dangers may be; that to know that I am not alone and that God is with me when the storms of life are ragging is to know a kind of peace that is beyond comprehension despite the raggings of the storm.

Is it enough for us to know that the only absolute God ever promises us is the promise of His presence with us?  I am learning day by day that it is indeed enough because day by day, I am learning more about who God is than I am learning about what God does.

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Follow Me!!!

 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow him, they left their nets at once “and followed him”. (Matthew 4:20)  When Jesus issued that same call to James and John, “…immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”  (Matthew 4: 22)  I have found myself wondering about the  immediacy of their responses.  There is no hint of their being hesitant or of giving due consideration to the implications of their following Jesus.  Immediately, at once, they followed Him.  Few if any of us would be foolish enough to leave everything at the beckoning of some recently appearing itinerant preacher no matter what the gossip network says about who He is or who He Himself claims to be. Why do they respond immediately and at once?

I would think this is not the first encounter between Jesus and these first disciples.  There is every likelihood that their paths have crossed before:  maybe these disciples were present in one of those crowds that flocked to hear Him teach; maybe they were curious about His reported miraculous powers, curious enough to want to see that power demonstrated; or maybe by sheer accident they happened to be in that one place on that one day when Jesus came wherever they were and something He said caught their attention.  Whatever the case, it is very possible that Jesus and these potential disciples crossed each other’s path on one or more occasions such that they were able to recognize one another when Jesus ccalled them to folow Him.  The truth is most of us who have  become followers of Jesus heard of Him or about Him or even had some marginal encounter with Him before we decided to follow Him.  I believe that to be more the rule than the exception.

But the question remains why would they immediately follow him?  It has been suggest that these disciples responded immediately because He captured their hearts; He uncovered in their souls a hunger and thirst for something more than the ordinary and something greater than the regular routine; He ignited a spark in them of what I have come to know as the irresistible urge for eternal life and abundant living that at that moment they in all likelihood neither understood nor could describe.  That is why I believed they followed Him and it may be the only real reason for following Him at all; that He captures our hearts.

In his book Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr says, “Jesus never said, ‘Worship me’, but he often said, ‘Follow me’”.  Worship is defined as reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage or any object regarded as sacred.  Following is defined as accepting someone as a guide or leader and conforming to and/or complying with that persons belief, ideals and way of life to the degree that we replicate in our lives the belief, ideals and way of life of the one we are following.  To do that involves developing a new style of life, a new way of living.  Thus following Jesus means being transformed in such a way that we begin to live as Jesus lived, to do what Jesus did, and more importantly to love as Jesus loves to the end that it becomes evident to others this Jesus in very present in our lives.

According to John, after hearing Jesus teach what some of the disciples regarded as “hard teaching  …many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  Jesus then turns to the twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”  Peter responds almost as quickly as he did to the call of Jesus and says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”(John 6:60-69)  I get the distinct impression that those who left Jesus were more given to worshipping Him than they were to following Him.   Every now and then I find it sobering to ask myself am I primarily a worshipper of Jesus or am I primarily a follower of Jesus?

 

“Being Forgiven”

We have entered into one of the most sacred seasons of the Christian year: the Lenten season. During this season those of us who consider ourselves to be the Disciples of Christ Jesus focus our attention on the journey of Jesus to Calvary to seek to find new meaning in that event for our lives.

Among other things, the cross is symbolic of the forgiveness of God for our sins. That reality is capture in that moment when Jesus, while impelled on the cross, raises His voice and pleads to God on our behalf, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”. (Luke 23:34)   By all indications, Jesus is imploring God to forgive us for the wrongs we have done.  But suppose these words of Jesus are not really a plea to God on our behalf; suppose these words are more a revelation about God and His forgiveness.

As I have come to understand it, forgiveness is not something we earn or merit; it is not something we are awarded because our conduct deserves it or merits some special recognition.  Instead, forgiveness is an expression of the unconditional love of God.  It is an act of God’s amazing grace; it is an expression of God’s eternal and never-failing mercy; it is the free gift of God offered and extended to us whether we ask for it or not.  Isn’t that how grace is understood: the unmerited favor of God that reflects the unconditional love of God for us?  Unconditional love is exactly what it claims to be:  love that has neither conditions nor requirements; neither stipulations nor qualifications; neither limits nor boundaries.  Forgiveness is not ours because we are sinners who find ourselves in need of forgiveness and ask for; forgiveness is ours simply because it is what the unconditional love of God does.  That is what John captured in what some have described as the Gospel in one sentence: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)  I understand these words to mean that God does not send His only son into the world so that He can make His forgiveness possible for us ; God forgives us and sends His only son into the world to make that forgiveness known to us.

There is however, one thing of which we must be aware.  This is a free gift.  Like any other gift the value and benefits of that gift cannot be experienced and enjoyed unless it is received and accepted by the one for whom it is intended.   As life changing as unconditional love may be, its life changing power cannot be forced on anyone.  So the question is not if God forgive us; the question is are we willing to receive the gift of forgiveness that God has already made available?  I am of the opinion that when Jesus seemingly makes that plea for forgiveness from the cross, it is not so much a plea; rather it is a declaration of the availability of God’s forgiveness. That is what lies behind Richard Rohr’s definition of forgiveness. He says forgiven is “Fore-given meaning being given beforehand-before you earned it, were worthy of it, or maybe even asked for it.” It is the gift of God.

 

 

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The Mark of Maturity

     According to our vision statement, “We shall become a spiritually mature Christian fellowship in order to provide an effective witness for Christ in this world”.  This statement is based on Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus in which he refers to the body of Christ as being, “…built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and becoming mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. (Ephesians 4:13)  The question that naturally arises from the vision statement is what is spiritual maturity?  What does it look like?  How does it act?  How are we to recognized it when we see it?

     I came across the answer while reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:  A Conversation in Spiritual Theology.  In his book Peterson says, “Love is our most mature act as human beings”.  (Peterson p. 245)  Once I read those words it occurred to me that the love of which Peterson speaks is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill, heart-fluttering, romantic kind of love;  nor is it the kind of love that we only hold for those who are nearest and dearest to us.  This is the kind of love that is an intentional, deliberate decision and act of the will.  It is the kind of love that decides to act lovingly whether we feel like being loving or not; it is the kind of love that decides to act lovingly when the recipient our of act of love is friend or foe; it is the kind of love that decides to act lovingly whatever may be the consequences to us. 

    I do not happen to be one of those persons who subscribes to the notion that the crucifixion of Jesus was an event that He could not avoid; that he was destined to die upon the cross and there was absolutely nothing He could do about it.  As I have come to understand it, Jesus was endowed the freedom to choose just like the the rest of the human race, and at various points during his life and ministry, He had the opportunity to choose another path other than the one that would lead to Calvary.  He could have answered the temptations put before Him by Satan after forty days in the wilderness differently and thus avoided the cross (Matthew 4:1-11).  Likewise, He could have walked away from that cup that was placed before Him by God in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42) and avoided the same fate.  If on no other occasions, on these two occasions Jesus was free to make His own choice but He chose the way of the cross. 

     It seems to me that is why Jesus can say, “A new command I give you:  Love one another.” (John 13:34)  It is impossible to command anyone to feel love for another.  But our Master can command us to act lovingly toward one another because it is a decsion and na act of the will.  And take note:  it is our loving actions that identifies who we are:  “By this all men will know that you are my disciple, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

     If it is the case that we are called to attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) and if Paul is right in his assertion that “…God demonstrated His own love for us in this:  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8),  then it is true:  “Love is our most mature act as human beings”.  Dare to be human!  Dare to be spiritually mature!  Dare to love!

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New Insight Into The Goodness of God!!

 

            This has been a most unusual summer for my wife, Pat and me.  On the heels of her graduation from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University with a Masters of Christian Education and having facilitated two successful training sessions of Spiritual Gifts at City Temple, she was diagnosed as having contracted a bacterial infection which was in her blood.  The infection eventually settled in the area of her hip and the pain was so severe that for two weeks she lay flat on her back in the Greater Baltimore Medical Center unable to so much as raise her head from her pillow without experiencing the most excruciating pain I have ever witnessed.

            After two weeks of treatment with antibiotics and pain medication, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center where for almost four weeks she went through painful rehabilitation in order to regain her ability to sit up, stand up and walk.  She was then released to come home while remaining on antibiotics administered intravenously, pain medication taken orally, physical therapy given twice and week and walking with the aid of a walker.  It wasn’t until she returned to the doctor for her first visit after coming home that we were given an indication of the severity of her illness.  I have no words that can begin to capture or describe the degree of pain I witnessed my wife endure during this ordeal.  What I can say is that I would not wish this kind of pain on any living creature.  I understand better now the concept of pain management:  there is pain that can be relieved and there is pain that is so severe that, at best, can only be managed.  Pat’s pain was managed.

            There is an image I have regarding this entire event that will forever be engraved in my being.  From time to time, persons would come by to visit Pat and I am almost certain that most were not aware of the degree of her pain.  But I noticed that at some point in her conversation with her visitors she would say, “God Is Good!!”  It never failed that those words were spoken by her at some point, no matter the conversation, no matter the pain she was experiencing.  And the more I heard her say those words, the clearer it became to me that she was not going to allow this pain or this illness to diminish her spirit, to cause her to lose her sense of self, to even take away from her that remarkable ability she has to listen to the needs and the concerns of others.  She was forever reminding anyone and everyone who would listen that “God Is Good!”

            Obviously her understanding of the goodness of God has little to do with avoiding pain, getting around troubles or instantaneous healing.  Rather it has to do with God’s willingness to be with us in our pain to share our pain; it has to do with God being present to assure us and strengthen us when we cannot reassure or strengthen ourselves; it has to do with the mysterious way God will use others who show up and, without their even knowing it, say a word that makes all the difference in the world.  God’s goodness may be found more not in the reality that He shows up and does the spectacular, but in the reality that His showing up can be in so many ordinary ways that we just might miss Him.  Maybe the real point is that the goodness of God is that never fails to show up and be with us no matter where we find ourselves in this life and what we find ourselves having to endure.