“Abide in me, and I in you….  Jn 15:3

PrayingLifeOver the last few years, God has been teaching me an important lesson: deep, daily communion with God is vital for faithfulness and fruitfulness.  Several weeks ago I had the privilege of guest preaching on John 15:1-11, where Jesus exhorts his disciples to abide in Him for fruitful living.

What exactly does abiding in Christ look like?  Maybe our answers would begin with quiet times, meal-time prayers, and family devotions – all important, and all expressions of abiding in Christ.  But I don’t think we’ve gotten deep enough yet.  Abiding in Christ is something all-encompassing and all-consuming.  Thankfully Paul Miller, in his book A Praying Life, goes deep and fills in some gaps for us.  He offers five characteristics of what he calls a praying life (Miller’s quotes in italics below)…

1. The praying life is interconnected with all of life.

We don’t learn to pray in isolation from the rest of our lives.  For example, the more I love our youngest daughter, Emily, the more I pray for her.  The reverse is true as well; the more I learn how to pray for her, the more I love her.  Nor is faith isolated from prayer.  The more my faith grows, the bolder my prayers get for Jill.  Then, the more my prayers for her are answered, the more my faith grows.  Likewise, if I suffer, I learn how to pray.  As I learn how to pray, I learn how to endure suffering. 

2.  The praying life becomes aware of the story.

If God is sovereign, then he is in control of all the details of my life.  If he is loving, then he is going to be shaping the details of my life for my good.  If he is all-wise, then he’s not going to do everything I want because I don’t know what I need.  If he is patient, then he is going to take time to do all this.  When we put all these things together – God’s sovereignty, love, wisdom, and patience – we have a Divine story.  People often talk about prayer as if it is disconnected from what God is doing in their lives.  But we are actors in his drama, listening for our lines, quieting our hearts so we can hear the voice of the Playwright. 

3.  The praying life gives birth to hope.

If God is composing a story with our lives, then our lives are no longer static.  We aren’t paralyzed by life; we can hope.  Many Christians give in to a quiet cynicism that leaves us unknowingly paralyzed.  Many Christians haven’t stopped believing in God; we have just become functional deists, living with God at a distance.  We view the world as a box with clearly defined edges.  But as we learn to pray well, we’ll discover that this is my Father’s world.  Because my Father controls everything, I can ask, and He will listen and act.  Since I am his child, change is possible – and hope is born. 

4.  The praying life becomes integrated.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me.  If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy.  Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offer us a less busy heart.  In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet.  Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a greater capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. 

5.  The praying life reveals the heart. 

As you develop your relationship with your heavenly Father, you’ll change.  You’ll discover nests of cynicism, pride, and self-will in your heart.  You will be unmasked.  None of us likes being exposed.  We have an allergic reaction to dependency, but this is the state of the heart most necessary for a praying life.  A needy heart is a praying heart.  Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer.  So when it starts getting uncomfortable, don’t pull back from God.  He is just starting to work.  Be patient. 

A responsive prayer

Father,

Too often I pray for the wrong reasons.  Like the hypocrites, I pray to get attention from others.  Like the pagans, I babble thinking that somehow I could manipulate you into doing what I want.  Forgive me.  I forget that this world is about You and the story You are writing.  I lose a sense of our Father-child relationship.  Teach me to pray to You as my Father and Lord.  Help me to approach you in light of the gospel: as I am, with my whole being, and with great reverence.  Amen.

“Who are the Elders of SSBC?”  I can’t say I’ve never heard that question before.  Our church is at the size where getting to know our Elders is not always easy.  Yet God has called these men to be our shepherds (1 Peter 5:2), teachers (Acts 6:4), and examples (1 Peter 5:3).  We should know them!  Being a Pastor at SSBC gives me the privilege of rubbing shoulders with these godly men on a regular basis.  They are wise leaders and enjoyable to be around.  More importantly, they love the Lord, love their families, and love our church.  To help us get to know them better, I plan on asking each eight questions and posting their answers here.  Enjoy.  And please pray for these men and their families.

Past interviews:               Eric Mello                   Tim Ells

KlebergsI met Jim and Debbie Kleberg for coffee a few years ago.  They immediately struck me as a gracious couple.  Their commitment to the Lord and His church was clear.  Their love for the gospel and ministry, especially to married couples, was evident.  But I didn’t see Jim’s unique combination of strength and tenderness until he recently joined our Elder board.  I know you’ll enjoy getting to know the Klebergs in this brief interview…

1.  How long have you and Debbie attended SSBC?  What drew you to SSBC?

We have been coming to South Shore Baptist for nine years.  We were looking for a church where our family could grow in the Lord.  Coming here we found both an emphasis on God’s Word and an atmosphere of love and support.

2.  What is your favorite part about serving as an Elder at SSBC?

As a new Elder, I’m excited about serving in whatever new areas I can.  I’m also pleased to be able to work with the other Elders and get to know them better.   Let me say, they are everything one would hope for.

3.  When was a time that God undoubtedly showed His faithfulness to you and/or your family?

This past year we’ve really seen God do amazing things surrounding Debbie’s illness.   He has been so faithful.  It is truly amazing to experience His presence and comfort upon hearing such a diagnosis.  In the days following, the prayer and counsel of brothers and sisters in our congregation was such an encouragement and demonstrated the reality of the body of Christ.  In the final analysis, we found ourselves totally helpless and dependent on Him.  What a wonderful place to be!  It doesn’t sound like it, but that is where we experience deep fellowship with Him.  There is a book that explores this called Don’t Waste Your Cancer.  We can really identify with its premise.  Debbie is doing very well now and has had very good checkups.  So, our tendency is to ask – OK when is it over so we can breathe a sigh of relief?  We, of course, want it to be over!  With this type of cancer and treatment, that kind of milestone doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.  We’re learning that God wants us to continue to understand dependency.   He’s given us peace and direction.  We can’t imagine going through something like this without Him.  We are so thankful and have learned much.

4.  What are three Christian books that have significantly influenced your life?

Years ago, especially when hosting Bible studies for new believers and their friends, I gave out numerous copies of More than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell.  Its simple message (that presents Jesus as God and no one else) really affected me.  I found it to be a great follow-up witnessing tool.  It was effective enough to actually make one coworker very angry!

Another book that I found valuable was This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti.  It is a novel that tries to picture the reality of Ephesians 6:12-13 (For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms)  within the context of the activities of a local church and its members.  Even though it is only a novel, this book really gave me an appreciation of the power of prayer.

The Prodigal God by Tim Keller has recently shown me the depth of Jesus’ teaching through parables – this one being the parable known as the Prodigal Son.

5.  What is God currently teaching you?

He’s showing me my absolute dependency on him.  I have no power or wisdom outside of what He has given, and that is totally dependent on my faithfulness.  Our experiences during Debbie’s illness have underscored this truth.

 6.  What is one thing about yourself that most people don’t know?

Driving on empty.  I have skirted getting stuck in the best of places.  I haven’t actually gotten stuck for a good 10 years now, so I am either getting smarter or just not taking enough chances.  Gas stations are such a waste of time.

7.  What do you like to do for fun?

Classic car shows, photography, World War II history.

8.  How can the SSBC congregation encourage and serve the Elders?

Please pray for us and our families, that we would stay faithful and protected from the adversary.

PrayingLifeSome staff and elders at SSBC are reading Paul Miller’s A Praying Life in January.  Almost everyone I know who has read this book says it’s one of the best resources on prayer.  This is good timing for our church, as our theme for the year is drawing closer to God through prayer and drawing closer to one another.  This is also good timing for me, as I want a richer fellowship with God and more fruitful intercessory ministry.

I hope to post some reflections here as I read.  I probably won’t edit these much – just some raw thoughts from my inner track.  Here is my first entry…


Why is Prayer Hard?

My prayer life isn’t great.  I’ve seen bursts of enthusiasm and depth in my communion with God.  But sometimes it is more perfunctory than enjoyable, more rushed than restful.  And I am so easily distracted!  The cares and worries of my day enter in and short-circuit the connection I have with God.  The pressures of work and home responsibilities crowd out the desire to be still and know God.  So I end up bouncing back and forth between focused time of fellowship and distracting, unhelpful worry over daily tasks.  My 30 minutes of prayer end up being 10 minutes of real prayer and 20 minutes of who-knows-what.  This chaotic way of communicating to my Father is awful frustrating.  Miller writes…

American culture is probably the hardest place in the world to learn to pray.  We are so busy that when we slow down to pray, we find it uncomfortable.  We prize accomplishments, production.  But prayer is nothing but talking to God.  It feels useless, as if we are wasting time.  Every bone in our bodies scream, “Get to work.”  (15)

Yup.  Amen. Right on.  Why does prayer sometimes feel like I’m wasting time?  Why is it hard for me to linger in God’s presence?  As a Pastor-Elder at SSBC, I am called primarily to two things:  the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Prayer (Acts 6:1-7).  Why do I sometimes view Word ministry as more important than prayer ministry?  More from Miller…

A praying life feels like our family mealtimes because prayer is all about relationship.  It’s intimate and hints at eternity.  We don’t think about communication or words but about whom we are talking with.  Prayer is simply the medium through which we experience and connect to God.  Oddly enough, many people struggle to learn how to pray because they are focusing on praying, not on God.  Making prayer the center is like making conversation the center of family mealtimes.  In prayer, focusing on conversation is like trying to drive while looking at the windshield instead of through it.  It freezes us, making us unsure where to go.  Conversation is only the vehicle through which we experience one another.  Consequently, prayer is not the center of this book.  Getting to know a person, God, is the center.  (20)

A Responsive Prayer

Father,

Forgive me for not approaching you as my caring Father when I pray.  Teach me to pray, Father.  Teach me to rest in You, to depend on You, and to know You through prayer.  Like a young child with a parent, help me today to pause and enjoy unhurried conversation with You.  Amen.

 

During college I struggled with one of the essential practices of Christianity:  daily, focused communion with God through Bible reading and prayer.  I knew I should do it.  I could quote most of the scripture references about why reading the Bible is crucial.  I even learned some tools that would help me dig deeper into God’s Word.  But I still struggled to regularly crack the thing open, let alone putting time into studying and praying through it.

biblereadingOf course I’d run to the Bible when I needed God, when I wanted something, or when I felt conviction from sin.  I enjoyed listening to good preaching and attending lively bible studies.  But my personal times of worship were sparse.  This would be a good time to lobby for personal worship, but I’m assuming you already believe that personal fellowship with your Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer is essential to your daily well-being and perseverance over the long haul.  If not, then read the last half of the last sentence again…slowly.

Since college I’ve grown in prioritizing daily Bible reading.  I’ve learned that I must approach the Bible with unique focus and care in order to meet with God.  Here are 8 ways to make the most of your bible reading time…

1.  Anticipate God speaking to you through it. The way we approach the Bible is as important as what we do when we’re in it. I’ve spoken to many friends who do not approach the Bible as if God is about to speak to them, giving them a word for their day.  Instead, they approach it like a textbook.  Or a book of wisdom.  Or a rulebook.  As a result they are more often bored, confused, and burdened when they read their Bibles than rejuvenated, enlightened, and excited.  God desires to speak something to you.  He has something for you in His Word for your particular day.  Do you believe that?  Are you eagerly anticipating what He might say to you today?

2.  Set aside regular time for it. Like most things in life you need a plan or very little will happen.  You need to be prepared.  So Christians ought to discern when the best time for communion with God would be.  I’d suggest the mornings even if you’ve got an early wake-up time.  Best to get the Word in you before embarking on your day.  Yes, this requires discipline.  But shouldn’t we be at least as disciplined about reading God’s holy Word as we are disciplined in counting calories, studying for tests, preparing for meetings, spending time with friends, attending church, eating meals, checking our Facebook page, watching Sportscenter, or exercising regularly?

3.  Pick one thing and read it the way it was intended to be read. Some may read the Bible regularly but approach it haphazardly.  They pick and choose what they read (a little of this, a little of that).  They often latch on to the verse that pops out or leaves a special impression instead of respecting the author’s arrangement of the passage.  Paul meant for his letter to the Ephesians to be read from beginning to end, not one verse here and one paragraph there as we may see fit.  Remember that God, through each author, intentionally places the first sentence in any given Bible book before the second, the first paragraph before the second, and so on.  We must respect the way God presents Himself in the Bible by reading each book from beginning to the end.  Note:  I am not saying that pulling single bible verses out for memorizing or study is always wrong.  But I am saying that the best way to approach each verse in the Bible is to read it in its literary context.

4.  Study it. A few years ago I taught Romans to forty-plus 16-year olds.  What a joy!  And a challenge.  I would often remind my students:  if you skim the Bible, then your application of it will also be superficialBut if you dig deep, your application will be rich and more helpful. Take the time to study the Bible.  Ask yourself what the author’s original intent to his audience before you jump to application.  Consider the culture and audience’s situation.  Get a notepad and scribble.  If you don’t know how to study the Bible, then ask someone who does.

5.  Meditate and pray through it. I read somewhere that meditating on God’s word is like a cow chewing its cud.  When we study the Bible, we give it an initial chew and swallow.  But we need the repetition of regurgitation to take God’s word deeper into our hearts and minds.  So many ways to meditate on scripture:  pray through it; journal about it; personalize it; visualize it; sing about it; talk it out with a friend etc.  Prayer in particular is a great way to meditate; it not only further presses God’s truths in our hearts but gives vent to our responses – confession, thankfulness, praise etc.

6.  Memorize it. I must admit I don’t do this much, but I should.  The Lord has blessed me with an ability to remember scripture phrases and sentences fairly well.  This is no excuse to not put in the extra time for memorization.  We might think of several reasons why bible memorization is crucial.  The Psalmist gives us one:  “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11).

7.  Take it into your day. The Campus Ministry leader who mentored me in college suggested that I write out key verses from my morning study on a 3×5 index card.  I’d pull the card out on the bus to class or between classes or when I was eating solo in the cafeteria.  Reading it several times saturated my day with scripture and provided more opportunities for meditation and prayer.

8.  Apply it. Jonathan Leeman says that God’s word brings action, light, and freedom to His people.  Indeed it does!  God’s Word encourages, confronts, and loves in such a way that often a specific response is very appropriate.  Sometimes application means simply to be still and worship the Lord.  But sometimes God wants us to do something specific like confess sin, serve a spouse, encourage a friend, or submit to an authority.  Reading the Bible and not applying undermines the daily rhythm of listening and responding to God’s voice.  If we take out application we short circuit the full circle of communion with God and will eventually lose motivation to meet with Him.  We desperately need not only to listen and meditate, but to live God’s words through worship and obedience.

When I approach the Bible with this kind of focus and care, my reading time becomes something far greater than mere reading.  It moves into the realm of communing with the Almighty.  And there is nothing more important that I can do for my spiritual health, my marriage, and my ministry than deep, daily fellowship with God.