Archive | June, 2017

Why and how we should practice fasting as regularly as we pray or give

19 Jun


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Is fasting an important teaching of Jesus?  Let’s be honest.  Rarely, exceedingly rarely, in our evangelical world do we hear about fasting.

Once scholarly source, Halley’s Handbook says this: “There are special occasions born out of extreme sorrow when fasting is appropriate, but generally speaking it is out of order.”

Generally speaking, it is out of order?  Really?

Jesus once spoke to his disciples about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6.  In verse 16 we read that he said, “When you fast…”

Look at the flow of the Jesus’ teaching, since the beginning of chapter 6.  Jesus says in verses 2 & 3 “When you give,” and our Christian culture generally accepts this teaching as something normal.  The result is that we practice giving weekly in worship and in other ways.  Then Jesus says in verses 5, 6, & 7, “When you pray” and our Christian culture also generally accepts this as normative, and we have prayer in worship, prayer meetings, and encourage private prayer as well.

Then Jesus says “When you fast” in verses 16 & 17, and we have to be honest and admit that this is NOT a common part of Christian culture and practice.  But look at what Jesus has done so far in this chapter: he categorizes these three practices equally.  Giving? Total normal and expected.  Prayer?  Totally normal and expected.  Fasting?  “Generally speaking out of order”?

Not so for Jesus.  He taught fasting as expected and normal.

In Old Testament Jewish culture, and later in the early church, there were a variety of special occasions when fasting took place: sadness, tragedy, demon possession, ordination for ministry.  Fasting was considered to be a regular practice.  Just as regular as going to worship services.

Sadly over time fasting has gone from a regular practice to an occasional practice.

So first and foremost, we need to see Jesus’ teaching as a corrective.  Fasting is to be practiced by all of his disciples regularly.

Having established the regularity of fasting, Jesus goes on to show us that fasting can be done the wrong way!

Fasting can be done the wrong way.

Jesus says in Matthew 6:16 that fasting can be done wrongly by people attempting to build their reputation.  Earlier in the sermon in Matthew 6, Jesus said the same thing about giving and prayer: our practice of spiritual disciplines can be abused.  He shows how the hypocrites made a mockery of fasting by making a production out of it.  He says they disfigure their faces.

My NIV Study Bible notes say that typical custom when fasting was to put ashes on your head to signify that you are fasting.

For many centuries and still to this day, ashes are a traditional way to start Lent.  Early Ash Wednesday morning, Christians receive a sign of the cross, written in ash, on their foreheads.  Then they wear it all day long to signify that they have begun the period of fasting lasting from that day until Easter.

Jesus is saying that some people in his day would go beyond that.  You might not notice that someone had ashes on their head. But you couldn’t miss it if someone’s face was “disfigured.”  That word “disfigure” is the same word that Jesus will use a few verses later in 19 & 20 to describe what moths do to clothing and was rust does to iron.  What these hypocrites were doing to their faces, then, was very noticeable.  And that is a problem.  They’re doing a good thing, fasting, but they’re doing it wrongly.  They’re using fasting to get a lot of attention.  To build up their reputation as being super-spiritual.  To get people to think they’re something special.  And Jesus says, if that’s what they want, then they got it.

They have their reward already.  His point is that their reward is a weak one.  It’s a powerless reward.

Is it possible that we might draw attention to ourselves when we practice spiritual disciplines?  Might our announcements on Facebook, about fasting or praying or giving, amount to the same kind of self-focused attention that Jesus decries?  If so, then the “likes” we receive are our reward.  We really want those “likes” on our posts.  They can make us feel important and appreciated.  But Jesus says that our practice of spiritual discipline should be aimed a much higher reward, that of being noticed by our father in heaven.  And the way to get him to reward us is to do our fasting in secret.

Jesus isn’t alone in showing how fasting can be done wrongly.  His teaching is very similar to another prominent teaching about fasting in the OT.  In Isaiah 58:1-7, God says fasting can be done wrongly by not changing us.

Years ago at Faith Church we showed a film called simply, 58.  It is now free to watch online.  I encourage you to do so.  It talks about how the teaching about fasting in Isaiah 58 can apply to our world, a world in which poverty, human trafficking and injustice are rampant.  We can practice fasting all we want, but what if we are never changed by it?  What if our fasting doesn’t make a difference to the injustice in our world.  In Isaiah 58, God calls this a false fast.  In Isaiah 58, just as in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, it seems the people doing the fasting are out to get the benefit for themselves alone.

When our church took a mission trip to Costa Rica in the summer of 2009, our group there read this chapter the day before we walked through a deeply impoverished slum neighborhood where a church we visited was located.  We decided that those who wanted to could voluntarily forego a meal, and we would donate the funds to the church.  Many also selected numerous personal items to give to the needy brothers and sisters in the church.  Some in our group were very hungry that day as we walked around that neighborhood.  But instead of eating lunch, we prayed as we walked the streets.  We had our eyes opened to poverty and gang violence and broken down homes where babies were sick.  That was a fast designed to benefit those in need.

Now read the rest of Isaiah 58, verses 8-14 to hear the results of the true kind of fasting.  Isn’t that astounding?  That is another reason why we practice the right kind of fasting.

But what else happens when we fast.  So far we’ve heard that God desires us to fast, and that he blesses and rewards those who fast.  That alone is wonderful.  But in Scripture we see there is even more to fasting.

Fasting is designed to: Help us concentrate on prayer.  Fasting adds intensity to prayer.  Jesus once gave his disciples a tip when they were struggling to cast out a demon.  They had seen Jesus do it many times and thought they would try.  But this demon wasn’t coming out.  Jesus said to his disciples, “That kind only comes out by prayer AND fasting.”  In the spiritual realm, fasting adds power.

Next, fasting is designed to: Heighten spiritual awareness.  Many times fasting was used before a special decision.  Acts 13 speaks of a time when the early church fasted.  As a result, God set apart Paul & Barnabas as missionaries.  Then the church fasted again before laying hands on them.  When my denomination, the EC Church, was selecting a new Bishop a few years ago, the leaders called for a special season of fasting before our Bishop was chosen.

Next, fasting is designed to:  Teach us dependence on God (rather than food).  Fasting flies in the face of American self-sufficiency.  Our famous slogan is: “Get R Done.”  We are independent.  We think we don’t need anyone, and fasting reminds us, YES WE DO.  Fasting takes us out of our comfort zone and reminds that we are indulgent, consumers, and it takes us to a place of dependence.

To illustrate our need for dependence on God, in a very weird statement in John 6, Jesus told us that he was to be “eaten”.  I’m serious.  Look it up.

I encourage you to read all of John 6 because the connections between Jesus and food are many and varied.  He carries on a testy conversation with the crowds around him that day, and eventually he says this: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Weird, huh?  I wish I could enter into their hearts and minds of the people listening that day.  I wish I could understand what this meant to them.  It is such a bizarre statement.  We know a bit of how they understood it because toward the end of the chapter, we read that even some of his disciples stopped following him.

So what was going on in this strange chapter?  Jesus said more than just “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  Look back at verse 48.  He talked about being the Bread of life from heaven.

There was in the history of Israel a story all the people listening to Jesus that day would have known very well.  The story of manna, which the people in the crowd refer to in verse 30.  It is a story hearkening back to the time when the people of Israel, in the book of Exodus, had left slavery in Egypt and wandering through the desert, heading toward the Promised Land of Canaan, they had very little means to get food.  So God provided miraculously for them every morning with flakes called manna.  The flakes would lay on the ground like snow, and then would collect enough for that day and use the manna to make bread.  Back here in John 6, Jesus says that he, not the manna, is “the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (6:48-50).  The practice of fasting goes together with this teaching about nourishing ourselves on the person of Jesus.  But how?

Author Dallas Willard, in his excellent book about spiritual disciplines, The Spirit of the Disciplines says that fasting “emphasizes the direct availability of God to nourish, sustain, and renew the soul.  It is a testimony to the reality of another world from which Jesus and his Father perpetually intermingle their lives with ours.  And the effects of our turning strongly to this true “food” will be obvious.”

So we see that fasting teaches us dependence on God.

Next, Fasting is designed to: break the chains of injustice

We have practiced communal fasting like this during lent with our sister church in Chicago, Kimball Avenue.  I have written about the Lenten Compact here.  Lent is an ancient Christian period of fasting, and the Lenten Compact is a group fast.  In this group fast, we agree with one another to participate in a fast, leading up to Easter, using the principles found in Isaiah 58, which I mentioned above.  One year was the Compact was designed to teach us about the strangers among us, and many of us fasted by giving extra time and resources to help refugees coming into Lancaster.  Another year the Compact was about violence, and we gave up things like violent movies, video games and the like.  These are fasts that heighten spiritual awareness, help us prayer, help us depend on God and break the chains of injustice.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.  How do we actually practice fasting on a regular basis?

There are all kinds of ways to fast.

Fasting is abstaining from anything that hinders prayer.  Abstaining from something that would allow more time for prayer.  Meal?  Football game on TV?  All TV for week?

Ideally fasts add more prayer and time with God.  But just fasting alone is important because it reminds us that we can have unhealthy dependencies on things in life, and the act of giving them up, just that alone, is a good thing.

Maybe you might try fasting food on Sundays before communion.  Start Saturday night after dinner, eating nothing until after communion the next day.  Take the extra time that you would have normally spent eating food, and spend more time in prayer confessing your sin and shortcoming, thus preparing you for communion.

Fast during Lent. Catholics have Friday Fish Fries because a traditional fast during Lent is giving up meat.  You have probably heard the phrase: “What are you giving up for Lent?”  This past Lent I gave up phone games.  Some people give up Facebook.  Some fast from TV.  When we fast during Lent, we are opening up space in our lives to ask God how we can depend on him more during that time.  We are seeking to break unhealthy dependency on lesser things.  We are seeking to prepare ourselves for the great celebration of Easter.

We should also practice fasting during times of spiritual depression, maybe to get away, go to a mountain and pray.  Twin Pines is a great spot for this.  When you go to camp or go on a retreat, do you realize that you are actually fasting many of the normal parts of life we are accustomed to?  What also happens at camp?  We spend extra time with God!  Should we be surprised, then, at how many people have amazing experiences with God at camp, or on retreats?  Fasting is part and parcel of that.

We also need to practice fasting on a regular basis like we practice weekly worship attendance which includes prayer and giving.  In this regard, many American Christians could learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.

I’ll never forget that when I visited our sister churches in Nepal in 2007.  I got to talk with their director, and he told us about how much their churches are growing and reaching people, even in the midst of persecution.  I had to ask him what their secret was.  How could they be growing so much, while we in the USA are seeing churches in decline?  You know what he said to me?  Our sister Churches in Nepal practice fasting regularly.

And then there was the time our missionaries in Brazil, Dave & Conce Roof, shared this amazing story:

A number of years ago, one of the elders Dave and Conce trained, and who was a dear friend of theirs, started outright lying in a number of the churches. He was causing division and strife, and it seemed he was intentionally trying to destroy the church from within.  Dave and Conce were devastated with seeing the destruction of the relationships in the church by this man they had invested so deeply in. The personal hurt and grief were painful.

They asked us to pray for God to give them wisdom as to how to handle the situation for God’s glory and the good of the body, and for the restoration of this dear brother.  How could they confront this man effectively and biblically, to bring healing?  Dave and Conce decided that this was definitely a time for fasting.  I don’t remember how long they fasted, but Dave said they were just finishing praying at the end of the fasting period, and there was a knock at their door. Dave literally got off his knees to answer.

It was the elder.  He was weeping.  God had spoken to him.  This man not only confessed to Dave and Conce and asked their forgiveness, but he also went church to church, and publicly before each and every congregation confessed everything and asked for forgiveness.  Some people were very suspicious, but over time the elder proved himself as truly changed.  As you can imagine, out of an incredibly difficult situation, the churches came together and were strengthened.  It unified them. Fasting can do mighty things in the spiritual realm.  Dave and Conce did not have to find a way to deal with the mess, God moved in the elder’s heart.

Some cautions are in order when thinking about fasting:

Be prepared for the battle inside when you fast.  Your mind and body will tell you that it is too hard.  “What are you going to do without that TV, food, phone, etc?  You really enjoy that.  You need that.”

What if fasting food is medically detrimental?  You should see your doctor before fasting food.  If the doctor says, “No,” you can fast other things.

Have you ever considered fasting?

Not for dieting purposes but for spiritual strengthening purposes.  In fasting we deny ourselves real food, in order to feast on the Bread of Life.  We do this by taking the time we would normally eat and use it to spend more time with Jesus.  The implication in this is dependence, trust.  We are saying to God that we will trust and depend on him to nourish us more than food.

Remember that we are both body and spirit.  What we do in the body affects the spirit and vice-versa.  In fasting, we are denying our body, so that we can strengthen our soul.  It may seem counterproductive.  Wouldn’t denying the body hurt the soul?  NO, because if we learn to depend on Jesus while denying the body, we can learn to control ourselves.  If I can deny my body food, then I will have greater spiritual strength to deny my body of lustful things as well.  I use my soul nourishment to control myself.  The desires of my soul to love and obey God become the controlling factor of my life rather than the desires of my flesh.

Remember that time that Jesus practiced a 40-day fast?  He was out in the desert by himself, spending time with God.  It must have been physically excruciating.  I have fasted for a day here and there, and it was hard.  One time I fasted food in college during soccer season, including a game day, and it felt really hard.  Jesus fasted 40 days.  Imagine what that did to his body!  Imagine how emaciated he would have been, how weak.

And yet, author Dallas Willard says something shocking: Jesus in the wilderness was actually at a place of spiritual strength. Jesus had just spent 40 straight days with God.  24/7.  Total dependence on God. Fasting, in a total surprise move, actually strengthens us.  When you consider that in fasting you are spending extra time depending on God, it makes sense that you are strengthened.

What can you give up to nourish yourself on Jesus?  All of us should try fasting food if it medically possible. But we could also deny ourselves of things like TV, Facebook, Video games, etc.

Remember to fast in secret:

  • Someone who gives up hobby for a month, spends that time in prayer, and tells no one about it!
  • Imagine a family that decides to skip a meal a week, and instead of that hour or two spent on meal preparation, eating and clean-up, they spend time in extra Bible devotion, prayer.  And they tell no one about it.

What are you going to do to practice fasting?   Wait expectantly, then watch God work.  Be excited about the connection you will feel to Jesus, the things you will learn and the things you will see.  When we willingly sacrifice to spend time with and get to know another person, it is good.  Love is received and felt.  The relationship grows. How much more should we be excited to deny ourselves and fast to get to know our God more and to have time to commune with him, to reconnect in a deeper way.

Remember that Christ said to us, “WHEN you fast….”  So, think about it…What can you fast this week?  This month?  What area or circumstance in your life needs extra prayer and focus right now?

And if you need help, get a trainer. Be a trainer.

A forgotten spiritual discipline?

17 Jun

Image result for forgotten disciplinesIf you had to take a guess, what would you say is a spiritual discipline that has been incredibly important over the history of the church, and still is very important, but is rarely practiced in our contemporary American church?

It is a discipline that stems from our Faith Church Growth Process.

Our logo symbolizes our Growth Process.

The Growth Process is how we seek to help people grow as disciples of Jesus.  It stems from Matthew 7:21-23 where Jesus tells a story about people who looked like really strong disciples on the outside.  These people show up at the door of heaven fully expecting to enter in, but he shocks them by saying “Away from me, I never knew you.”  We don’t want any of you to be shocked like that!  So we look a bit further in the book of Matthew, chapter 16, where Jesus taught what true discipleship is.  There he says that we can be his disciples if we do three things: deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.  We call that crossing the Matthew 7 line, which is that center line in the logo.

See, the reality is that some of us have not crossed the Matthew 7 line.   Some of us are convinced that Jesus will welcome us into heaven, but when that day comes, he will actually say “Away from me, I never knew you.”  Some of us are staying to the left side of the line.  See those boxes on the left side of the line?  They represent worship and fellowship.  They are both incredibly important elements of our faith, of what it means to be a church family.   But we can worship and fellowship in a totally outward way, not having that inner change that Jesus talked about.  Jesus did not say that he wants worshipers and fellowshipers.   What he said is that he wants disciples.

And to be his disciples, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.  Our Growth Process is designed to encourage everyone in our church family to cross the Matthew 7 line.  We can’t force anyone, of course, and we aren’t going to try.  But we do want to encourage everyone in the family of Faith Church to pursue discipleship to Jesus, so our Leadership Team members are going to be contacting every adult in the church family on a regular basis to talk about this.  It is that important to us.

What that means is that Jesus taught us that self-denial is critical to being his disciples.  How, then, do we deny ourselves?

Self-denial is the lost discipline.  Join us tomorrow at Faith Church, as we talk about self-denial in our ongoing summer sermon series on the spiritual disciplines.

5 important steps to help you read the Bible

12 Jun

Image result for how to read the bible

When you pick up a Bible, you’re not reading a book.  You’re holding in your hand a library of books.  66 books! (Well, 66 writing as a Protestant.  Other Christian traditions include additional books in the Bible.) 66 books, written by about 35-40 different authors, writing over a period of about 1500 years, inspired by God to tell one story.  It is an astounding book.  But for many it is also an intimidating book.

If you feel at all hesitant about reading the Bible, please know you’re not alone.  Many people think just like you do.  If we’re honest, we respond to our unpleasant feelings about the Bible by ignoring it.  Please hear me out when I say that if you have not read a Bible in years, I’d like to share five keys that can help make the Bible accessible to you.

As I said, the word “book” is actually not a very good description for the Bible itself because it is a library.  The word “book” is also not a good description for many of the 66 books of the Bible.  For example, I recently preached through 1st Timothy.  Was that a book?  No, it is a letter.  Obviously, letters are different from books in many ways.

We call this distinction “genre”.  What does the word “genre” mean?  “Genre” has French origins, stemming from the word “gender”.  That should help us understand what it means.  Gender is a type of person, either male or female.  Genre means “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content[1]”.  That is the first important step when reading the Bible:

Answer the question, “What genre is this?”

There are many genres of literature in the Bible.

The Bible includes Non-fiction and Fiction.  Real-life stories and ones that are made up.

You might think “Wait a minute, Joel, the Bible is true, it is non-fiction.  How can you say it includes fiction? Are you saying some of the Bible is false?”  Nope, I’m not.  What I am saying is that the Bible includes works of fiction.  Take, for example, Jesus’ parables.  Was he telling true stories, like news reports?  Maybe some were based on real-world stories, but generally Jesus created the stories to teach a main idea.  The parables are generally fiction.  Now to be precise, they are works of fiction within a non-fiction account of Jesus’ life.

There are many fiction and non-fiction genres of literature in the Bible.  In the Bible you’ll find History, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Letters, Prophecy, Lists, Laws and more.  There are also some very unique biblical genres.  Take the four Gospels, for example, which are quite unique in the ancient world.  They are biographies, four accounts of the life of Jesus.  But they are biographies with a theological purpose. Each of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are endeavoring to tell the story of Jesus’ life, but they have purposes for telling that story.

I say all this about genres for a reason.  To try to explain that reason, I first want to talk about two specific genres of literature.

The first genre I encountered a few weeks ago when my son graduated from high school.  We showed up at the venue, and as we entered the room, ushers handed out commencement programs the school created for the event.  That commencement program is a work of literature, and as such, it is a particular genre of literature.  The program starts with an order of events for the evening, and then it includes lists.  Lists of award winners, lists of graduates and so on. When I read the commencement program, I expect that it will tell me lots of true information about the graduation ceremony and the participants.

On the other hand, the second genre is a book of poetry by GK Chesterton, a wonderful English Christian thinker, author and poet from the 20th century.  I have this book on my shelf at home, and it is called Poems For All Purposes.  As the title suggests, it includes a variety of Chesterton’s poetry.  When I read poetry, I have to use certain principles to understand it, right?  In poetry I know that there is likely going to be a lot of figurative language for example.  The poet might talk about a stone, but mean something very different.  Often poetry is mysterious and hard to understand.  We learn that about poetry when we study it in school.

So what would happen if I took the principles of reading and understand poetry and applied them to the commencement program?  I could try to find symbolism or metaphor in the names of the students and the awards.  I could try to count how many more boys or girls there are and discern a secret message about masculinity or feminism.  But that would be an improper way to read the commencement program!  It’s just a list.

Likewise it would be improper for us to read the Bible like we read, say, a novel by John Grisham.  The Bible is different from a novel.

So when we read the Bible, it will be very helpful to remember Genre.  If you are reading the book of Joshua, which is primarily a historical book, you will have a different approach than if you are reading the book of Proverbs, which is primarily a bunch one-liner wise sayings.

Once you have an idea of what genre you are reading, it is time to move to the next key.

Answer the question, “What was the cultural situation that led to this work of literature?”

Because the original situation of a particular portion of the Bible is so far removed from us, we should do a little bit of work to find out what was going on in that culture.

Think about it this way.  When you read The Lord of the Rings, you are familiar with the name J.R.R. Tolkien.  He is the author.  He is British.  He lived through the two World Wars.  He was a soldier in WW1, and when you consider the impact the World Wars had on Britain, that tells you something.  The Hobbit was published on the eve of WW2, as Hitler was rising to power, and The Lord of the Rings series came out in decade after the War.  Do you think knowing Tolkien’s cultural situation might help understand The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books?  It absolutely will help.

The same thing goes with the Bible.  When we start to read a book of the Bible like Jeremiah, we should consider it important to answer a few basic questions.  Who wrote this?  When did they write it?  Why did they write?  Was there something going on in their lives or in the world that motivated them to write?  Who were they writing to?

Before we ever read one word of a passage of Scripture, we should take a few moments to answer these questions.  But where do we find these answers?   Not all Bibles include that information.  And that is why I am so thankful for Study Bibles.

I want to recommend two Study Bibles to you.  The NIV Study Bible or The Life Application Study BibleThe NIV Study Bible is a tad more scholarly, while the Life Application does what its title suggests, it helps you focus on applying the Bible to your life.  Both are excellent.

This Bible I hold every Sunday is a NIV Study Bible.  I’ve had it for nearly 25 years, and I love it.  In the palm of my hand I have not only the text of the Bible, but also loads of helpful resources.  Before the text of each book of the Bible, there is an introduction that seeks to answer the questions I just mentioned.  Who? What? Where?  When?  Why?  For every single book of the Bible.  Sometimes, for the shorter books, the introduction is about as long as the book itself!

The next major feature of a study Bible is the notes.  Many of the verses have explanatory comments helping you understand the text of the Bible.

Also, study Bibles have cross-references.  Not Jesus’ cross.  But references to other parts of the Bible that might relate to the one you are reading.  That is very helpful for study.  If one biblical author says something similar, you have a cross-reference telling you where to go in the Bible to find that similarity.  And when you read that other verse, it can help you have a more full understanding of the original passage you started reading.  This can be especially helpful for learning how New Testament passages are based on Old Testament passages.

Most study Bibles have additional resources like maps and concordances.  Have you ever been in that situation where you are trying to remember a verse or concept from the Bible, but you are not sure of the specific verse number?  Your concordance can help you. You think to yourself that the verse had, for example, the word “milk” in it, but you have no idea what verse that is.  You open up your concordance, scroll down to the word “milk”, and you find that “milk” is listed numerous times in the Bible.  You look them up until you find the right one.  Most study bibles only have partial concordances because an exhaustive concordance is massive.  An exhaustive concordance lists every single time every word in the Bible is used.

All of these resources are found in a good study Bible.  Each book has an intro, there are study notes, cross-references, maps, and a concordance.   Some will have other features too.  But those resources will help you study this ancient book.

In our day and age, all of these resources are available free online.  You can pay for Bible study programs that have astounding capabilities, or you can use free online services, which are amazing in their own right.  I recommend Bible Gateway or Blue Letter Bible. Frankly, there are plenty of times that it is much faster for me to do a search in Google than it is to flip through a concordance.  Google is a powerful Bible study tool too!

But for those of you not interested in computer tools, I urge you to purchase a Study Bible and practice using it.

So I have surveyed two key tools that are important for reading the Bible.  Learn the Genre and seek Introductory answers.  Before you even start reading do that.  You might think “Really, I have to do all that?  My life is too busy.  If I have to do that, I don’t think I’ll be reading the Bible.  And why can’t I just pick it up and start reading?”

First of all, with a Study Bible you will get through those introductory questions very rapidly.  It is all laid out for you.  Second, I urge you to consider reading through whole books of the Bible.   I often use this method in my preaching.  Don’t just pick a random verse here and there.  Go to the Gospel of Mark, for example, and slowly read through the whole thing, maybe a chapter per day.  But first, answer the introductory questions.  That way you aren’t doing introductory work every day on a new book of the Bible.  You do it once for Mark, and then, depending on how fast you read, you might not need to do the introductory material again for a few weeks because you are reading through Mark that whole time.

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you are thinking: “Joel, this still sounds like a lot of work.  Can’t I just pick up a Bible and read it, and expect to hear from God?”

Yes and no.

Hearing from God when we read the Bible is what I want to look at next.  I believe there is a vital attitude that we need to have when we read the Bible if we want to hear God speak through it.

Bring an attitude of humility to your reading and study of the Bible.

Humility says “Lord, teach me from your word.  Even though I may have read this passage 100 times, teach me.  Even though I may have Psalm 23 memorized, teach me when I read it again.”  Come to the reading of Scripture with a teachable, humble heart.  A humble heart will learn from God, and a humble heart says “I don’t have this Scripture all figured out.”  We should not come to Scripture arrogantly thinking that our reading, our interpretation is the only right one.

And that leads us to the necessity of prayer when you read Scripture.

In 1 Cor 2:12 we read that Spirit helps us understand the things that God has given us. There is no doubt that some parts of the Bible can be hard to understand.  We should not assume that we can just read them and understand them and easily apply them to our lives.  Instead we need to pray that the Spirit will help us understand them properly.

Every time we read and study Scripture, whether in private, at church, in small group, we should have a humble teachable attitude that asks the Spirit to help us understand.

Read with a mind to discover the author’s intent

And that brings us to a key issue in reading Scripture: Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response.  If you’re not familiar with those terms, let me illustrate.

Do we want a lawyer to read our last will and testament and interpret it however they want?  Imagine your will says the estate is going to be divided 10% to the church and the rest equally distributed to the children.  But the lawyer says “I interpret that to mean ‘give the money to whomever they cared about the most.’  And they clearly cared about me the most, so I will just take it all.”  How do you think that would go over?

That lawyer is using reader response theory to interpret the will.  Reader response theory says that the reader provides the meaning of the text.

When it comes to a last will and testament, we don’t do that.  We believe the author of the last will and testament had a will, which is why it is called a will.  They had a desire to use their estate in a certain way.  So when we read a last will and testament, we should strive to find out what their desire is. We cannot give it whatever meaning we want.  The same goes for the Bible.  We believe God was communicating his will to us.  That’s why we pray for the Spirit to help us understand it.  And that is why we use these tools and methods I’ve been talking about today.

We should avoid reading a passage of Scripture and saying, “Well, this is what the Scripture means to me.” Instead we should be asking, “What did God mean this Scripture to say?”  And then we strive hard to determine what God intended.  In addition to humility, then, we ask God’s Spirit to help us understand his Word.

Read the Bible personally and together in a community

Furthermore, reading and understanding Scripture should not simply be a solo effort.  Before the printing press it was exceedingly rare that someone would have their own copy of Scripture.  So people would have to come together in groups to hear it and discuss it.

Nowadays we have such easy access to the Bible.  Not just paper copies, but also on our phones and computers and via audio versions.  Because of this easy personal access, and because of our culture that prizes individualism, we can get the idea that reading and understanding the Bible should primarily be a personal thing.  No doubt it is healthy and important to read and study the Bible on our own.  But we should also see our interaction with God’s Word in community.

And by “community” I mean the church family, which could be your small group, your class, etc.  If you are thinking that God is speaking to you in his word, take what God is saying to the community and discuss it.  You might have it wrong and need to have your interpretation corrected.  Or you might have it right, and your word from God might impact others.

These five steps have helped me greatly in accessing and learning from what is often a very difficult book.  The Bible.  Are there any of these steps that you need to add to your life?

Do you feel intimidated by the Bible?

10 Jun

Image result for reading the bibleThis Sunday we continue our summer sermon series called Spiritual Exercises.  Last week we looked at How to Pray.  This week we are focusing on How to Read the Bible.

But the Bible can be very intimidating.  It is huge.  When we talk about reading a novel, we think in terms of weeks.  Days, if you are a fast reader.  Hours, if it is a real page-turner.  But when it comes to the Bible, we often think in terms of a year.  How many of you have endeavored to read the whole Bible in a year?  There are multitudes of reading plans to help guide you.

Life often gets in the way, we fall behind, and before you know it, we have given up reading the Bible in a year.

What we often try instead of reading the Bible in a year is a daily devotional reading.  Often that kind of Bible reading is one chapter per day.  When we do this, we’re not necessarily interested in reading the whole Bible consecutively.  We just want to read a bit on a regular basis so that we can have consistent spiritual input in our lives.  In other words, we want to hear from God.  Even the chapter per day approach has its difficulties.

There are parts of the Bible that are boring.

There are parts of the Bible that are really hard to understand.

There are stories that speak of people and places that we don’t know how to pronounce, and we have no idea who or where they are.

What do we do with all of this?

Sadly, we tend to leave our Bible on the shelf, on the nightstand, or as an unused app, maybe uninstalled.

Why?  There is no doubt, the Bible is intimidating.  It is a book with 66 books inside it, the most recent of which was written about 1900 years ago by people who spoke dead languages and lived in cultures extremely different from our own.

All that taken into consideration, I’m convinced that the Bible is accessible.  I admit that reading the Bible must be very different from reading a novel or the news.  So tomorrow at Faith Church, we’ll talk about some tools and attitudes that are vital to help you read the Bible.

Practical suggestions to help you pray

5 Jun

Image result for prayerThis winter/spring I read an amazing book on prayer I wish I had come across years ago.  It is called Prayer: Conversing with God by a missionary named Rosalind Rinker.  She first published it in 1959, but it is so relevant.  Could have been written yesterday.  Easily one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.

She talks about her early experiences on a missionary team, when they had staff prayer meetings:

“We were all together on our knees in the same room, each with love for the other, and each with a common purpose. But I began to realize we were each making a little speech to the Lord when our turn came. I know we were supposed to pray silently with the one who was praying audibly, but when we all covered the same ground — well, I found that I was trying to think how I could start my prayer with more “colorful” words. How I could put more “action” into my prayer, how I could make it sound more “spiritual,” and how I could take hold of the promises with more faith than the others. I wanted to word it differently from the persons who had prayed before me, and make it sound more important and interesting.”

That spoke to me.  I’ve had the same thoughts many times.  As if the prayer time was a showcase of spirituality.  Who could get the most “Amens” or “Yes, Lords”?  I’m guilty of those thoughts each month when I attend my local ministerium prayer meeting or my denominational district pastors’ prayer lunch.  There are buzzwords you can pray and you know you will get a reaction!  Start talking about revival in your prayer, that’s guaranteed to get you some “Amens!”.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker goes on to say:

“I used to choose a chair near the bookcases, so that when things got dull, I could quietly glance through the shelves and make a mental note, and often a penciled note, of the books I wanted to read.  Then there were the times I actually pulled out a book, and using my jacket around my shoulders as a shield, leafed through some of the books during the prayer meeting.  Sometimes I just plain fell asleep on my knees during those long sessions of prayer. After my turn was over, it wasn’t too hard to do.”

Yup.  Been there too.  When prayer becomes performance, who cares if we pay attention.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker says that her relationship with God, and thus her practice of prayer, was revolutionized when she discovered that God desires us to talk with him as a friend.  If you read through Exodus, you see the example of Moses and God and how they talked.  It is amazing.  Real friendship.  Real conversation. And in fact in Exodus 33:11, we read “God talked with Moses face to face, as a man talks with his friend.”  You read through the Psalms, and you see David is like that too.  You watch the example of Jesus, and it is the same.  Real conversation in prayer.  Real emotion.  Truth.  Honesty. That’s how we should talk with God.

But what about rote prayers?  If we are supposed to talk with God as a friend, does that mean it is wrong to read or repeat prayers?   Hear me clearly: recited prayers, memorized or read, are not wrong.  In fact, I think they can be very helpful, and we probably need to use them a lot more than we do.

A resource like the Book of Common Prayer is excellent, and I would suggest you all use it, as least from time to time.  There are also numerous BCP apps for your smart phone.  You might look into other prayer books too, and there are many biblical prayers that are fantastic.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with saying the Lord’s Prayer every day, every worship service, as long as your heart is in it!

Along with that kind of written prayer, I believe that conversational, unprepared, ad lib prayer is also very important.   This is where Rosalind Rinker’s book is so helpful.  She has loads of excellent practical suggestions for how to have great conversations with God.

From time to time I hear the argument that says “Well, isn’t prayer unnecessary, because God already knows our thoughts and our needs and everything about us?”  God does know all that.  But that’s pretty one-sided isn’t it?  A real relationship involves equal give and take, both friends communicating as much as possible. How do you think God would feel if we never or rarely make an effort to talk with him?

Therefore, God desires us to be persistent and consistent in prayer.

David says in Psalm 5 that he prays in the morning and watches for God to answer.  I encourage you to read that this week.

Then there is the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 about the widow.  Another one to read this week.  Parables can sometimes be hard to understand, but Luke tells us exactly what Jesus was trying to accomplish in that parable. In Luke 18:1 he writes “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

You know what that means?  Prayer takes energy, investment, and commitment.  When I took prayer class in college, I heard a phrase that shocked me “prayer is hard work.”

It seems wrong to say “prayer is hard work”.  But anytime you do anything consistently and persistently, it can feel like hard work.  So let’s not fool ourselves by saying that prayer is supposed to be simple or carefree or effortless.  A healthy practice of prayer, like any healthy relationship will take work.

Here’s the beautiful thing, though.  Hard work can become heavenly.  How many of you have had the experience of learning to love and enjoy hard work?  Whether it is straight up physical labor, exercising, practicing a sport or maybe a musical instrument, you can grow to enjoy it.  Say you are on a sports team.  After you practice and practice, and after you put in the hard work, how many have found it to become delightful?

Jesus’ disciples once asked him “Teach us pray.”  Great question. That’s what this sermon is all about.  We want to learn How to Pray.  So, what should you actually do?  What will this hard work of prayer look like?  And will you work at it, practice it, till it becomes delightful to be in such regular, wonderful conversation with God?

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Plan to pray.  Carve out time.  It could mean cutting out something to make room for prayer.  I recently read an article where a guy made a commitment to wake up at 5am every day for a year.   Not necessarily to pray.  But it changed his life.  Would you wake up early to make time for prayer?  That might work for you.  Or would you cut out time on Facebook in order to have time to pray? In Matthew 6, right before he teaches the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that when we prayer, we get alone, be in secret, talk with God.  When I was a student at LBC, I used the private music listening booths in the library.
  2. Write down prayer requests.  Keep a journal.  I found a great free prayer app this week.  Prayer Mate.  It is available for both iPhones and Androids.
  3. Pray God’s word.  Write down this reference.  I preached it on Easter.  Ephesians 1:17-19.  Then the most famous prayer of all is the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew 6:9-13.  Memorize it.  Use it both as a word-for-word prayer, but also as a model for prayer.  Take note of the elements that Jesus includes in the Lord’s Prayer.  Praise, Confessing sins, Requests, Thanksgiving.  Then go to the Psalms.  We need a steady diet of the Psalms.
  4. Just start talking.  Know that God loves you, that he is your friend.  And just start talking to him.  Tell him everything.  Have a conversation with him exactly like you do with your friends.  In a group setting, can I challenge you to take a risky step and pray out loud.  Even if it is just one sentence.

Learning to how to pray is not going to happen by reading a blog post or book about prayer.  If you want to learn how to pray, it all boils down to just starting.  Make a practical goal for yourself this week.

My personal goal is prayer walks through the church.  I need to get started.  When I walk through the various rooms and hallways of the church building, it reminds me to pray for various ministries, groups and people in our church family.  In the lobby, I see our Summer Lunch Club volunteer sign-up table.  That reminds me to pray for all the volunteers and participants in a wonderful outreach the helps families in need.  Down the hall, I walk past the nursery and I think about all the families in our congregation raising young children.  I pray for them during what is an emotionally and physically exhausting period of life.  Around the corner, I see the offices of The Door Christian Fellowship, an amazing congregation that rents space from Faith Church.  We’ve deeply appreciated our partnership with The Door, and I pray that God blesses them.  And on and on the prayer goes.

How about you?  What will you to work on prayer?

Here’s my one big action step I’d like you to consider.  Get a trainer.  Be a trainer.  Yup, just as you would get a trainer for your physical health, get a spiritual trainer to learn how to pray.  Jesus once said, “Where 2 or 3 are together, there am I with them.”  When you get together with people to pray, he is there.  What an outstanding promise!  So who will train you to pray?  Or, who will you train?

Then add Rosalind Rinker’s book to this.  Each of you get the book, and read one chapter per week.  Get together for an hour per week, and take 30 minutes to review the chapter, then take 30 minutes to pray.

Get started.  With expectancy.

With any habit, it can take a while for it to feel more comfortable. But that is the nature of anything you want to grow in.  Practice.  Practice. Practice.

You can see such a difference in people that practice.  Whether it is a musical instrument or athletics.  There is such a connection to the spiritual life.  We are not just spirits.  We are bodies too, so how we use our bodies affects our spirit.  That’s why we need to practice spiritually.

Remember God’s grace.  You don’t have to pray perfectly.  God doesn’t care about that.  Just start talking with him. Share your thoughts with him, and do it consistently.  It might feel awkward, but push through.  That’s what practice is like.  And watch your conversations with God grow and flourish.

Do you want to learn how to pray?

2 Jun

Image result for i don't know how to pray

Do you know how to pray?

Before we talk about that important question, let me back up a bit.  It took me a while to find this image. To be honest, it almost always takes longer than I want to find the right image for my posts, or for the PowerPoint slides I make to illustrate my sermons.  I use Google Image Search, and often the results returned are not quite what I’m looking for.  So I have to refine the search multiple times and scroll through row after row of images.  Sometimes the images help me think about my blog posts or sermons in a new way, and I decide to change the sermon.  But more often, I tire of not finding the right image.

This time, though, I had one phrase I was looking for: “I don’t know how to pray.”  I have heard people express that sentiment or something like it many times over the years.  That’s why my sermon this coming Sunday is called “How to Pray”.

All I wanted was one picture that said “I don’t know how to pray” or “How do I pray?”  As you can see the one I found is close.  Close enough for me.  I was surprised because I thought “How to Pray” would be a popular topic, and thus result in loads of images to choose from.

What was interesting, though, was that another result filled the page with images.  That other result was the question “What to Pray?”  It seems that people are talking about “What to Pray” rather than “How to Pray.”  Or at least people are posting more images about “What to Pray” than they are posting images about “How to Pray.”  The exception is that there were a few images referring to how to pray in specific circumstances.  I would suggest that “How to Pray (in a specific situation)” is just a variation of “What to Pray”.  So I didn’t want to use a picture that described, for example, “How to pray for your kids”.

I also didn’t want an image that referred to “What to Pray”; I wanted one about “How to Pray.”  If you learn how to pray, it will be much, much easier to determine what to pray.  Furthermore, I suspect that people, based on the input I have received from our Faith Church family, want to learn how to pray.

This morning I was talking with someone who mentioned prayer times before extended family meals. One older member of the family always does the praying.  They are not rote prayers.  But this person seems to be able to speak with eloquence in his prayers.  So that person always prays.

Is that the answer to “How to pray?”  Eloquence?  Do you have to be a good public speaker in order to pray?

Or what about those rote prayers?  I mentioned rote prayers above because that is another way people answer “How to pray?”  A rote prayer is a memorized prayer that is recited.  For example, The Lord’s Prayer which starts “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”  There are mealtime prayers, bedtime prayers, and so on.  Among the various religious traditions there are loads of rote prayers. Are rote prayers the answer to “How to pray?”  I would say “Yes.”  But only partially.  I love The Book of Common Prayer, as it helps us pray in many situations.  You can read and inhabit one of its meaningful prayers for a host of common life situations.  I believe we that we would do well to memorize and recite, or at least read, these pre-written prayers often.  But I also believe there is more to prayer.  Much more.

How about you?  Do you feel you have a good handle on prayer?  Are you wondering “How to Pray”?

At Faith Church on Sunday we begin a summer teaching series called Spiritual Exercises, and if you don’t have a church family, we invite you to join us.  For the next few months we’re going to be talking about the following habits/disciplines/exercises which are vital for helping us live eternal life now.  How to:  pray, read the Bible, fast (deny yourself), talk about God, worship, be humble, depend on God, serve, give, make disciples, have solitude, love God with your mind.

We start off tomorrow trying to answer the question: How to pray?