Bible Text: Acts 8:26-40 and John 15:1-10 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Over the last number of weeks we have been exploring the topic of praying. Every one of our explorations has encouraged us to express our needs and wants, our emotions, our cries for help, our frustrations and our thanks and praise. But through all of these expressions of our thoughts and emotions, we have been encouraged to use meditation as a means of calming ourselves and enabling us to approach our time of prayer with the sense that we are entering into a space where we will have a conversation – a dialogue – with God. We have been encouraged to feel comfortable and safe in the presence of God and never forget that God has promised to be with us on this journey of life no matter where that journey may take us and no matter what we may encounter. Last week we were reminded that while we each need to develop our own relationship with God, we need to also remember that what each of us gains through our own time of prayer can provide strength and insight and support to others in community. So as we worship together we can encourage one another in our faith and in our life. Today we are going to conclude this series with a focus on the heart. Of course we all know that when the Bible speaks about our heart, they are expressing that image of the heart that is associated with our thoughts and emotions. Often we believe that they were unaware of the fact that the heart really is an organ that pumps the blood that keeps our bodies going. But the reality is that they chose the image of the heart because they believed that just as the physical heart enabled the body to function at its best, so the metaphorical heart was the centre from which all our thoughts and emotions emanated and touched every part of our being. The unity that is so often expressed in the Hebrew Scripture to depict our creation by God finds its ultimate expression when we come to see our physical, mental and spiritual life summed up in that one central place – the heart. And so, biblical religion is essentially heart religion. To have a good and honest heart is to have a God-centered motivation in our life; this ties in with Jesus’ declaration that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul, mind and strength. While expressing it with more than just the word heart, the Hebrew person would understand that all was centered in the heart. Secondly biblical religion is about the renewal of our hearts. We talk often about the renewal of our hearts through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What we are really talking about is letting God’s Spirit teach us and direct us into the ways that will bring us to a place where we will think and act in ways that will reflect the will of the One who has created us. We seek for God to help us to see the things that can cause our hearts to be pulled from God and so seek to bring peace and wholeness to our inner heart – our inner soul and being. Such inner peace and wholeness will then be radiated out into our whole body just as the physical heart pumps a supply of life-giving blood to every part of our physical being. But for that renewal of our hearts to occur requires us to seek for three qualities. First our heart needs to be consistently repentant – not just regretful or remorseful but understanding that repentance means turning back from dark paths of self-service to face, love, thank and serve God. We are to repeatedly renew our commitment to holiness and constantly re-examine ourselves in God’s presence. Second we are to consciously return to God day by day traveling home to our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend. Third, the desire of the renewed heart for God moves us to become runners, not that every one of us will physically run a race, but runners in the sense that we will press on in life toward the goal of a full life with God as expressed to us through the life of God in our Lord Jesus Christ and continually brought to our minds through the presence of the Holy Spirit. But even when we seek for these qualities of a renewed heart with God, we recognize that coming to that unity of heart is not an easy thing. Christian living will always involve an element of conflict and struggle with temptations both from the outside and the inside. We want to be perfect in serving God but practically we know that we will fall short. When we read in Scripture that we are to pray with our whole heart, we need to understand that this is to be our intention even if the reality is that we will ever need for our heart to become whole. There will be moments when we feel at perfect peace and feel that we have reached a wholeness of heart and there will be time when we feel our heart torn and struggling and there will be all the times in between. But it is for us to never give up hope, to never surrender our faith in God and to ever seek for that wholeness of heart that will draw us closer to that full communion with God. And so our goal in life as Christians is to receive from God the gift of an undivided heart. There are four tests that we can use to help tell us how far our own hearts are united Godward. The first is, how far are our heads right? Are we seeking to embrace God’s truth as revealed in the Bible, assessing our life by it, and sensing God’s presence and gift throughout life? The second is, how far are our hands right? Are our hands engaged in activities that are pleasing to God or just pleasing to ourselves? Third, how far are our habits right? Are our routines, our cherished ways of thinking, our hobbies and interests aligned with the heart of God? Fourth, how far are our hopes right? What do we save for, plan for, scheme for, and pray for? Clearly we need to watch what it is that we take into our hearts – for what we take in will always seek to take over. We are what we are at heart – no more, no less. The heart is the inside story of everyone’s life; and we do not understand ourselves, or anyone else, until we are in touch with what goes on in us and in them at heart level. And so the Bible constantly encourages us to guard our hearts for from it flows our life. Finally we are enjoined to pray in the Spirit with our whole heart – not praying tongues or from some ecstatic experience but conversing responsively with God through an awareness of our life with God as imparted to us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. First we are to remain aware of the new covenant revealed by God through Jesus and know that we live our lives as the people of that new covenant. Second we are to remain aware that the Spirit will lead us on a progressive, intensifying realization of who God is, leading us to dwell even more on the wisdom, power and love of God. Third we are to remain aware of the beauty of life and the presence of God throughout creation. And so for us as Christians, we are to open ourselves continually to the Spirit of God and the ministry of that Spirit leading us to contemplate and rejoice in the relationship we have with God in Jesus Christ as the frame and foundation for the rest of our lifelong praying. We are to pray clearheadedly and wholeheartedly. Jeremiah knew this truth about God: “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you.” (Jer. 29:13-14) AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 4:5-19 and John 10:7-18 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; Let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, And let us exalt his name together! Psalm 34:1-3 So far in this series our focus has been almost entirely on individual prayer, the kind of praying that we do when we are alone. This private communication between each of us and the Father has been the centre of our attention. We have looked at petition – which is the heart of personal prayer; we have explored meditation; we have looked at the importance of praising God and learned about expressing the pain of our lives through uttering our complaints or pleas to God for help; and we have highlighted the importance of hanging on to God in persistent prayer that expresses faith and hope as we come to realize that God will not abandon us no matter what happens in our lives. Truly each of us must take responsibility for our life and our life with God and in God. Each of us needs to acknowledge that we live our lives under God’s eye and that we will answer to him for whatever we do. We have to be the persons who exercise faith in Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour and Lord and we need to ask God to show us how we can each one of us be a disciple and please God in everything we say and do. This is God in Christ making us realize and develop our own individuality in his presence enabling us to take our faith seriously. This emphasis on deepened personhood and intensified individuality is integral to understanding and living our life of faith and hope and love and prayer. But it is not the whole story. We need to not forget that our growth as individuals is not for us alone but is developed in order that we may become strength and hope for others in the fellowship we call the church. But as we explore the concept of joining in, we need to have a clear understanding of what is really meant by church. We all say that the church is not a building or a denomination but that is the way we most often identify church. But the descriptions of church in the New Testament make no real mention of buildings. The focus is on connections: associational and organic. The fact that we come together in this place of worship shows our connection to one another by association. But the images given to us by Jesus and by Paul and others about church speak of an organic connection – a sharing of life and energy. We have only to think of the image of the vine and the branches from John’s Gospel or the powerful image of the body as told by St. Paul. As each branch of the vine can only truly live as it is connected to the vine and thus share the same nurture, so the body only functions to its fullest capacity when all its members are respected and cared for. To use a modern illustration think of a bicycle wheel. The hub is the centre from which all the spokes emanate but if too many spokes are broken or faulty, the wheel loses its effectiveness and can no longer perform the function for which it was intended. So it is with the body of Christ – the church. We need to recognize that we share a common life with one another with God in Christ and that – as a consequence – we are to be giving ourselves to love, serve and strengthen our fellow participants in Christ’s body. Learning to be accepting of one another with all our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies is critical to being shaped into a single body with one head – Jesus Christ. We are all connected to the Lord and connected to one another by the grace of God in a body whose visible shape is what is to be known as “church”. Packer believes and affirms that we need each other! God has called us together to be this body on earth, to find that sense of belonging and to share it with each other. It is through loving connectedness within the church that we can draw others. The image Packer uses is that of a group who are holding hands but who drop hands to welcome a new addition. True enough each of us comes to the body of Christ as individuals engaged in our own path with God; but when we gather in worship, we seek to affirm one another in the faith and seek to express our shared thoughts and desires to reveal a unity in fellowship and focus on our relationship to and with our God. So we are encouraged to come together for worship, for prayer, for study and fellowship; and we are to remember that this is not something commanded in order to maintain a building or to secure funds to maintain clergy but that it is the will of God who so well knows how difficult it can be to maintain faith when we are isolated from one another. When we come together, we no longer hear just our own words or thoughts but we hear the words and thoughts of others. But we need to not only hear but also acknowledge and respond to one another, praying for one another and encouraging one another so that no one has to walk alone. But God not only wills that we should come together in worship, fellowship and prayer but he also uses that time of our togetherness – if we are open to see it. We are to become conscious of and remain conscious of the lives of others within the body and seek to teach, advise, listen, pray and act as we are able. We often wonder when Christ will return. Perhaps he is waiting for us to show ourselves as his body so that when the head returns, there is a body ready to receive him. I realize that this sounds like we can become perfect but that perfection is not outside of or apart from Christ; it is rather a seeking for a wholeness in the body that only Christ can bring and yet is to be achieved in part by our willingness to be perfected by Christ. So we are enjoined to join with others in building our relationship with God and in expressing our faith within a body that we know as the fellowship of which we are a part. Packer quotes an anonymous poem that goes like this: To live above with the saints we love, Oh, that will be glory! But to live below with the saints we know? Now that’s a different story! We have all found ourselves struggling with coming to terms with a difficult fellow believer. It can cause all kinds of divisions and hurt and can even tear fellowships apart. Developing, building and encouraging healthy Christian fellowship and healthy bodies of believers has never been easy and probably never will but if we truly believe that God has called each of us and adopted each of us and loves each one of us and hears each of our prayers, we will choose to come together and stay together. We will choose to give and receive love with a mutual openness to one another. We will choose to commit ourselves to the congregation, to identify with its goals and members, to open our lives and our homes to one another, and to help one another wherever that help is needed. For as much as we may be close to God individually it is critical that we choose togetherness and choose wholehearted, closely bound involvement in our congregation’s life of prayer, praise and service. Through this we will discover not only the will of God for our own lives but also find the will of God for our life in community. Let us never forget to join in! AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 3:1-10 and Luke 24:36-53 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Hanging On I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. Psalm 130:5-6 In this Psalm we are given a picture of a person whose patience in waiting for the Lord to answer is even more than watchmen waiting for the morning. If you have ever been on sentry duty, you would know that the night always seems so much longer than it really is. Developing the will to hang on until the morning and not give in to sleep is important to the task of a sentry. And when morning comes – and you are still awake – you can celebrate the fact that you hung in there. Hanging on to God in prayer is often hard. Life is full of forces that pull us away from prayer. Disappointment over a project or situation that hasn’t gone as expected, health troubles, broken relationships and breakdowns can create a sense of discouragement that makes us feel that prayer simply does not work, and that if God has let us down in this all-important matter, why should we pray about anything at all. Hanging on in prayer during such circumstances is the specific problem area that this message addresses. Hanging on in prayer is often difficult for us and deciding not to pray often becomes an option that we consider. It is certainly easy to say that we are to be patient, persistent and persevere in prayer but sometimes the reality of our situation makes it extremely difficult to continue to believe in prayer. This is one of those situations where the support of a fellow Christian is so important. We discover in the moments when our life and our faith are most challenging that we have great need of one another if we are to hang on and find the strength of mind and soul to continue to ask for God’s help. But how can we be persistent in praying when we are trying to hang on? There are four things that we are encouraged to dwell on. The first is relationship. We are to remember that no matter what happens to us in this life that God never abandons us nor does he ever let us go. We have been adopted by God and as such we are loved with a love that goes beyond the bounds of any other love. The Bible speaks about our “sonship”. God has chosen to make us his sons and daughters and to welcome us into his family. Further, we are not only welcomed into the family of God but we receive the gift of God’s own spirit to help us develop a God-centered mind. The blessing of adoption and the blessing of the Spirit of God do not shield us from any of life’s grimmer experiences, but they do turn us into unique people with a unique outlook on life and a unique destiny. When bad experiences come it is critical that we do not forget who and what we are. We are in a covenant with God – one that he will not break – and we need to ever remember that God will be faithful to his own word. Feelings have their ups and downs, but whether the sun is shining or whether the clouds are dark and the rain is falling, the promises of God still stand. The second thing we are encouraged to dwell on is the records of persistent praying in the Bible. We have already seen one example from Psalm 130 but there are others. Too often we have misinterpreted the Hebrew word “wait” seeing it as a sign of inactivity but the word is meant to convey a sustained effort of keeping on, keeping on in prayer and expectation. It is about focusing on the Lord, asking the Lord to help us to hang on until the time for action comes. Eugene Peterson in his translation of the Bible – The Message – puts it this way: “Stay with God.” That certainly conveys something active rather than passive. In another passage from the Psalms, Peterson translates being still before the Lord as “Quiet down before God” and “wait passionately for God”. In Psalm 40 the patient waiting of the author for God is interpreted by Peterson as” “I waited and waited and waited for God.” In Psalm 62 the author talks of waiting in silence. He has gone beyond the point of complaining or asking and is simply at a loss for words but is still hanging on waiting for God to answer. Other examples that come to us from the Bible are Nehemiah who lamented the situation of the people in exile and sought for their relief from their oppression. Another is Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who endured years of humiliation from other women for her inability to conceive. Then she gives birth to the prophet Samuel. Finally think of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who longed for a child. They were blessed with the one known as John the Baptist. Third we need to dwell on the reasons why we are to be persistent in prayer. I am sure that – from time to time – we have become frustrated with waiting for God to act. I am sure we have wondered what was going through the mind of God. There is no real answer to that question in this realm but it may help us to consider that there are reasons for God making us hang on for answers that do not appear to us in the moment. There may be something else that needs to happen before our prayer is answered. In the meantime we hang on, we stay with God, we quiet down before God, and we do not lose sight of our trust in God. The fourth thing we are to dwell on is how to overcome the resistance we may feel to persistent prayer. Remember that persistent prayer is difficult. The circumstances that cause us to pray and challenge us to be persistent in prayer will work to encourage us to abandon prayer. The losses we experience in life, the disappointments and the troubles we face will work on our minds, hearts and spirits to convince us to abandon our faith and turn our backs on our relationship to God. We may find ourselves telling ourselves that resistance is hopeless; we can’t hold out in hope. It is then even more than at other moments in our lives that we need to look to faith to keep us going, to keep us expecting, to keep us hanging on to God’s promises. To close this week, I want us to consider that when we face our most trying moments in life, when we feel overwhelmed by life and feel most helpless; when we struggle most to hang on and hang in there; those are the moments when prayer becomes even more vital. Those are the moments that we need to reflect on our relationship with God and to God and not surrender to the urge to abandon the hope we have in God. So may God help us and may we help each other to be persistent in our praying, in developing that relationship with God and so hang on as we wait for God to help us. AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon, I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. (Ps. 55:16-17) The person who wrote this Psalm was actively praying to God but not in terms that we have so often been instructed to pray. So often we have been trained to be nice to God when we pray, to be respectful, to ask for things, to pray for forgiveness for our failings, to honour God with heart, mind, soul and voice. Yet here we have a person who feels that he has the perfect right to complain to God. So the question that lies before us today is: Do we have a right to complain to God and, if so, how are we to do it? As I said, we seem to have been trained that we can complain about anything and anyone but not to or about God. Yet the Bible does not shy away from recording the prayers of people who complain with great freedom and at considerable length to God when bad things happen and when they feel they are at the end of their tether. We hear them say: things are out of hand; I’m isolated, helpless, hopeless, hurting; Lord, do something! The phrase “How long?” appears nearly twenty times in the Psalms. The Psalms are filled with sentiments expressing a desire for God to intervene in situations beyond the author’s control. One of the best examples of complaining in prayer comes from the book of Job. Job is a person who has been greatly blessed by God and yet suffers tremendous setbacks. The book further reveals that these setbacks have been allowed by God. Satan believes that Job will turn from God if his life is less than successful. God does not agree but allows Satan to test Job. He can do anything to him except take his life. And at some point the taking of his life would have been a way to end his suffering; but not even Job considers this. Instead we find Job in conversation, in prayer to God venting and yet at the same time asking questions which are rational. He is puzzled by the turn of events yet he does not lose his faith in God. Job is indeed distraught by grief and human pain, he is goaded to despair by his well-meaning friends, and yet he speaks his words of complaint to God not because he is disappointed or angry with God but because he believes in God and believes that God will answer his questions and his complaint. In the end Job never really gets the answer that he or any of us might have expected but Job is content with his answer. He accepts his situation, he does not lose hope and his life changes again and all is restored. The prophet Jeremiah has become known as the “weeping prophet” and for good cause. Jeremiah was given the task of telling the people of Israel that the nation would be overrun and the people sent into exile. For his trouble he was not only persecuted by his own people but also suffered exile himself and probably never did return to his homeland. The interesting thing to note about Job, Jeremiah and the psalmists is that their prayers of complaint are never met by any rebuke from God. Their complaints were acceptable and accepted. Before we proceed further with the subject of complaining, let’s think back to that image of the Christian life being like a hike we are taking with the Lord. Being invited to go on a hike sounds upbeat, adventurous and perhaps romantic; yet depending on the terrain that the hike will take, it may be more challenging than we were prepared for. As much as we are told by Jesus that the life of faith that we have chosen will not be all sunshine and roses, we focus on the positives and choose to deny the negatives. When we made the decision to believe in God and believe in Jesus, we set ourselves on a path through this life that very likely might involve some trouble or tribulation or persecution. But if we have in our heads that Jesus suffered so that we would not have to suffer or believe that only good things and good times will fill our lives as believers then we deny the reality of life itself. Think about the temptations of Jesus. He had the opportunity to avoid all the things that we encounter in our lives – hunger, the desire to be saved from all ills and trials, the desire to be in total control of our lives; yet he did not give in to the temptation to relieve himself of any of these things. They are part of our life here and he made sure that he knew intimately how it felt to be hungry, ill or depressed or helpless. Foolishly, we have come to believe that we need to be stoic about our pain and troubles. We probably feel that many of the Psalms and other writings where people complain to God are not appropriate but while the Bible teaches self-control, it also teaches us about the relation between our thoughts and our emotions. The view of the Bible is that we are a unified being. This is why we believe in the resurrection of the body because our soul needs a body to be whole. The Bible teaches that when we suffer in body, mind or spirit, that we suffer in whole not in part. Our physical body then is the vehicle through which we express all our thoughts, emotions and actions and so we can describe ourselves as either an embodied soul or an ensouled body. And so it is perfectly appropriate for us as believers to express not only our joys to God, our hopes and our petitions, but also to express our frustrations and make our complaints known to God. And this is all about being realistic about life and realistic about our relationship with God. If as parents we only wanted our children to tell us about the good things that happened, the requests that were easy to grant, we would miss out on much of what happened or happens to our children and would miss so many opportunities to support and encourage them. And so it is with God. But what can lead us to a prayer of complaint? Situations in our lives where we feel opposition, betrayal, deprivation or isolation, losses or depression; any of these can be moments for us to offer a prayer of complaint, an honest prayer that makes no pretense of prettiness. The good news is that God invites us to pour out our hearts to him – even from our darkness – and he never lets go of us once we are in his grip. Finally how does God answer our prayers of complaint? God responds in two basic ways. First he sustains us in our weakness and keeps us going in spite of our pain. Every situation in life that gives rise to a complaint may not be resolved as we may hope but we learn through bringing our complaints to God and asking for his presence and strength that we can survive these situations. Second we are encouraged to keep trusting God despite the circumstances. So we live, passing through life’s ups and downs. Nobody’s Christian existence is sunshine and roses all the way. Some of us experience horrible losses, loss of health, loss of respectability, loss of friends, spouses or even children. These losses are not beyond the bounds of possibility for any of us and are actuality for many of us. But at such times, the only strategy for us is to pray out our complaints to God, following the models we find in Scripture. And as we do so, may we remember that God loves us, we are his children, he has adopted us and that he will hear our complaints and will love us now and forever. AMEN
Bible Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Mark 16:1-8 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Asking So far in our study of prayer, we have focused on our relationship with God in order to see how an appropriate understanding of the Christian life can generate good praying. We have been exploring our commitment to the real God in real faith for the living of the real Christian life; and we have discovered some tools to help us develop that relationship and deepen that commitment. We have been encouraged to see meditation or brooding or contemplation as a way of bringing ourselves into the presence of God. We have been shown why God wants us to praise him and we have learned to consider having God do a spiritual checkup on us. Today we are going to explore the petitionary aspect of prayer and look at the key truths we need to keep in mind about human asking and divine answering. Now it is interesting that the Westminster Shorter Catechism – which is embraced by the Presbyterian Church – was written mainly by Anglicans but it is seen as one of the best documents to guide us in learning better praying. The first question to consider from that Catechism is: What is prayer? The answer is that prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies. The second question is: What rule has God given for our direction in prayer? The answer is that the whole word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism then asks four questions that lead us through the Lord’s Prayer. The opening part of the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to draw near to God. We come as children to a father who is able and ready to help us. Then we are taught to pray that God would enable us, and others, to glorify him in every way that he is known. Third we are encouraged to pray that the kingdom of God’s grace may come and that we, and others, may be drawn into that kingdom. Finally we are to pray that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know and obey his will in all things as the angels do in heaven. Going beyond the Catechism, there are some other questions we can ask. First, what is it right to ask for in prayer? What is to be the scope and range of our petitions? Second, what should be the reason for our asking, that is, our motivation? Third, what is our reason for expecting God to answer our prayers? On what basis do we make our petitions? Fourth, how does God answer prayers? What should we expect when we make our petitions? But while we may ask these questions as we approach God in prayer, we need to ever remember that prayer is a two-way street. God will be asking his own questions about our asking: Why do you ask for this? How serious is the matter to you, and how deep does your concern go? Why do you think that what you are asking for is in line with my will? Would something other than the precise thing you now request satisfy you equally? Tell me. We expect as parents to question our children’s requests and so we can expect God to question our requests – not to deny them outright or to be vindictive but to come to appreciate our situation better and help us to learn to ask for what is really needed. So first: What should we ask for? Scripture tells us that whatever we ask of God in the name of Jesus, we shall receive; but the key element is not the actual ask but what informs the ask. Remember that Jesus sought to do the will of the Father. He even asked for the cup to be taken away from him – the cup being a metaphor for the life he was asked to live that would lead to death on the cross; yet if it was the will of the Father for him to drink the cup – complete the life he was called to live and the death he was called to die - then that would be Jesus’ prayer. That worked for Jesus but how do we formulate petitions according to God’s will? We are to follow the guidelines of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for daily bread – sustenance for body; we pray for daily pardon – release from the sins that trouble our hearts and minds; and we pray for daily protection – God’s presence with us to keep our whole being from falling off the path. Now this may meet our needs but what about our petitions for others, especially when people ask us to pray for specific outcomes? First, we lay before God the reasons why we think that what we ask for is the best thing. Second, we are to tell God that if he wills something different then we will seek to understand how it is better, and it is that that we really want him to do. Second: Why should we ask? What is the motivation of our asking? The biblical perspective throughout is that, with God – the searcher of hearts – the inner realities of motivation, purpose and desire that prompt and energize our actions are just as important as the performance of the actions themselves. When our prayers become mechanical without focused thought, then our prayer is not from our heart. Remember that God assesses all our actions from the inside as well as the outside. The Lord’s Prayer was given not just that we might learn the words but that the spirit, the attitude of this model of prayer might also be appreciated and adopted as our spirit and attitude. Third: On what basis do we ask? What are our expectations in prayer and what is the basis for those expectations? What reasons do we have for expecting answers to our prayers? Packer uses the image of a 3-legged stool. The stool will stand if all the legs are equal. The first leg is our knowledge that God is now our Father by adoption and grace. We have become God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ. The second leg is the promises of God as set forth in Scripture. Let us remember, though, that the promises of God have more to do with spiritual development. We are to seek to become more like Christ and so we seek to grow in grace in order that we might truly understand and appreciate the promises of God. The third leg of the stool is purity of heart, our own purity of heart before the holy God to whom we pray. As was mentioned in a previous message, purity is not in the moral sense that we so often think of but rather in the sense of unity of focus – our God-centeredness. Our centeredness on God, our unity of focus will lead us in our prayers. Finally, how does God answer our prayers? The short and the long of it is that God always gives positive answers to our prayers; the prayers may be answered in the terms we outlined, in terms that differ from the ones we presented or we may be told to wait. Truly we are taught that we can expect answers to prayer and God will be faithful to answer; yet we also need to understand that the relationship we develop with God, our deepening knowledge of God and his will, our willingness to let God search us and change us will have a profound effect on not only what we ask for but what we expect of God. Take heart, be of good courage, pray both in and out of season and trust God! And never forget the words of Jesus: Ask and it shall be given unto you; knock and the door shall be opened; for everyone who asks receives, and every one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8) AMEN
Bible Text: Isaiah 50:4-10 and Mark 14:1-11 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Prayer Checkup As we enter Holy Week, it is appropriate that the subject of today’s message on praying is titled “Prayer Checkup”. We are all no doubt familiar with checkups in other aspects of our lives – particularly the importance of medical checkups; but spiritual checkups? Sounds like going to the confessional or having the minister visit and being expected to answer questions about our faith that we really might not feel comfortable discussing. Well, be assured, it involves neither of those things; although, it does involve examining our lives a little closer than perhaps we are used to – in the matter of our spiritual health. When we are challenged to let Scripture shape our lives, to examine our motives for hints of self-serving, and seek connection and/or correction from the living God, we are going through a spiritual checkup. Packer applies this to prayer specifically as prayer is the vehicle through which we engage with God in relationship and it is in and through this relationship that we seek for God to give us our checkup. The passage of Scripture which is the focus of this message is from Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (vv.23-24) As mentioned before, Packer is concerned more with the development of our relationship with God and how we view that relationship. Our actual prayers in words come from the ground we prepare as we enter into the presence of the One we call our Lord, our Friend, our Companion on the journey. And a vital part of that preparation is what he calls a “prayer checkup.” When we come to regard a spiritual checkup as a necessary spiritual discipline and give it its proper place in our lives, we will be more honest in our prayers. As we take ourselves to our doctor and expect that person to examine all aspects of our physical and mental health to help us discover areas of weakness that can be helped through medical treatment, we come to God and expect God to help us examine all aspects of our spiritual health to help us discover areas in our lives that God can help us with that we might become healthier in our spirits, our minds and our bodies. First God checks up on our faith. This happens when we ask ourselves questions such as: Do we trust God, do we trust Christ? Do we look out for and take careful note of God’s promises; do we rely on God to keep those promises? Does our faith bring us peace of heart – peace with God through forgiveness, peace with circumstances through leaning on the Lord, peace with people because through faith we love them? Does our faith hold up in crises or give way under pressure? Second God checks up on our repentance. Our repentance is not about regret and remorse for things gone wrong but a change of life that we are constantly seeking to make. We are to be serious about tracking down and turning away from all the false steps of our past. Remember the Iona Community interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer when we said: Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us. We ask for forgiveness but we also ask for help to change. Third God checks up on our love. Love is the most basic command of God for life and the one that we all have the most difficulty with - whether it be love of neighbour or enemy or even self. Our checkup is a way to be more conscious of how we are seeking to express our love to God, our love to neighbour or stranger and even of how we are approaching the love of our own self - the person we are in God’s eyes. Fourth God checks up on our humility. Packer describes humility as honest realism and realistic honesty. Genuine humility comes from a desire in us to be Godward in direction and to let that mind that was in Christ Jesus – to quote Paul – be the same mind that is in us. When we invite God’s help in self-examination we will find ourselves asking questions such as: Am I able to joyfully perform tasks in my church that have little or no visibility? Do I regularly credit others for their contributions? Can I value and enjoy people who are not normally considered respectable? Are my thoughts toward the difficult people in my life infused with grace? Do I honour others with my thoughts, words and actions? As we learn to honestly say yes to questions like these, we are learning humility. Fifth God checks up on our wisdom. Time spent in reading the Scriptures, meditating on the words, and exploring the meaning of the Scriptures bring to us a depth of wisdom to help us find the way through this life, what life itself is meant to be and how to cope with life, its ups and downs. Wisdom helps us to form strategies, calculate consequences, channel passions, discern and avoid foolishness and cherish peace and harmony. Finally God checks up on our focus. When you really think about it, when we invite God to check up on our faith, our repentance, our love, our humility and our wisdom, we are inviting him to check up on our focus. How far have our faith, repentance, love humility and wisdom combined to make us clear-sighted about our goal in life and the priorities it brings. God wants us to discern whether we’ve got life together or whether, as yet, we haven’t. Probably the second is true for most of us but that doesn’t mean that we are done for. It just means that we need to keep trying, to keep being open to God’s checkup, to being open to trusting God to continue drawing us along the path. We began this message with Psalm 139: “Search me, O God.” The Psalmist knew that he needed God to check him out. He knew that he needed God to examine him so that he could become more aware of his spiritual health and his relationship to God, to himself and to others. The searching of God – the eternal physician – happens as the teachings found in the Scriptures impress themselves upon us and then the indwelling of the Holy Spirit carries those teachings to the depths of our being where they can help us to help ourselves. A prayer checkup will help us be more focused as we seek to come into the presence of our God and to engage our friend and Lord in honest meaningful conversation. So let us ask God to lead us in the way everlasting; let him search us that we may see what he sees and let him show us what needs to change for the health of our spirit and life. Let us invite God to examine our inner being, the part that no one else sees so we may be led into spiritual health finding our faith enlivened, our desire to follow God deepened and our prayer life strong and engaging. May we not hesitate to go with God! AMEN
Bible Text: Hebrews 5:1-10 and John 12:20-33 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Over the last few weeks we have been following a path to prayer that the author says is more about a who-to than a how-to. But to get to that point where we are focused on the who-to we need some how-tos along the way. First he encouraged us to understand who is the God we want to pray to and then to understand that this is a God who does not just tell us who he is and what he can do but also a God who seeks to be in a real relationship to us. He wants to be a companion to us on this journey called life in general and our lives in particular. And he has chosen to reveal himself in three significant ways in order to help us gain an understanding of how we can relate to him – as a parent, as a visible companion in Jesus and as a spirit that can enter our hearts, minds and souls and bring us gifts of wisdom, peace, and hope. So when we make the choice to have God as our companion and friend on this journey, we come to understand that we will never again travel the path alone. But we also come to understand that we can become distracted and veer off the path that God desires us to follow. But while following those distractions and by-paths we learn that God is ever calling out to us to come back to the real path. With a patience beyond our imagining, he continues to call us until once again we find ourselves back on the way. All of this is really preparation for prayer because as we commit ourselves to being in a relationship with God, we are preparing to speak with God in a real and honest way and also preparing to listen to God speaking to us in a real and honest way. Remember that Packer said that a real friend does not respond to our wants and perceived needs simply because we believe them to be what we really need and want. A real friend understands the situation and the dynamics of our situation and responds in a way that shows a deep care and affection for us. A real friend wants the best for us even if the best may not seem like the best at the time. And if we really trust that friend, we will listen and accept what they say even if it is not what we want to hear. But we can become distracted and we can find ourselves not really listening – perhaps because we have already made up our mind as to what we really want or need and have closed ourselves off to having a conversation or dialogue with our friend. Prayer is so much more than just closing our eyes and going through the motions. Prayer is our dialogue with the one with whom we will have an eternal relationship. And so Packer encouraged us to consider brooding prayer or meditative prayer or contemplative prayer. He reminds us that meditation is as old as the creation of humanity and God ever encouraged people to meditate on his words and commandments. Finding our focus through brooding or meditative prayer is an opportunity to reflect on the Scriptures and begin to seek for a deeper understanding of what God has said to people throughout the ages. In this way we draw ourselves into a place where we not only better understand the one whom we are seeking to pray to but we also can begin to see more clearly the answers we need to the situations we face in our journey. And so we come to the next element on this exploration of prayer: praising. C.S. Lewis came to believe in God as an adult. Once he made the decision, prayer became a big part of his life pattern. But Lewis also had lots of questions. He wondered: why does God, the God of the Bible, the God of Christianity, call on us to praise him? He said,” we all despise the man who demands continual assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness.” Did God want praise so that he could feel good about himself? Is a prayer of praise an opener so that we can get to the stuff that matters to us? Lewis answered these questions in this way. We praise God not because God demands praise but because it is an expression of our gratitude for what God has done for us and in us. Praise is an active enjoyment of a renewed display of God’s active love. Our praise together in church as a body of God’s people is an expression of that gratitude corporately and helps to draw us into a deeper sense of the presence of God. Our prayers of praise help us to once again declare audibly who God is and also can remind us of how we have distanced ourselves from our God. Our praise of God is to become a discipline for us and part of our regular spiritual nourishment or diet. The discipline of offering praise to God helps us to stay focused and remember not only the nature of our relationship to God but also the difference that that relationship can make in our everyday lives. When we come together in a corporate body to worship, the discipline of prayer and praise become more regular and we come to depend on one another to be there so that we might be encouraged. Praising God in prayer also needs to be a part of our overall communication with God as it helps us to find the balance that a good diet always brings. Then we come to recognize that to give praise to God is a duty in the sense that we owe it to our friend and companion to never forget the benefits we have from our relationship and it also becomes a delight when we truly appreciate that relationship, the love, the grace, and the forgiveness. And now for the final answer as to why we give praise to God. We often say that we expect to be in heaven with God when this life is over. But when we get there, will we know what is expected of us? C.S. Lewis says that the praises we offer here, our times spent in corporate worship as well as our individual times of prayer are all preparation for us to be able to continue to praise God in heaven. We teach our children to read, to write, to take care of themselves in so many ways and encourage them to practice these things so that when they become adults, they can continue to take care of themselves. In a similar way, we are taught by the generations that precede us how to offer praise to God, how to sing praises to God, how to become disciplined in prayer, that we might know and never forget how to be a thankful people. I have mentioned many times the experience I had in Morrisburg back in the 1980s. A coming together of Christians who had chosen different expressions of faith and were in different worshiping communities of faith and yet could come together as one body to offer praise and prayer to God and encourage and support one another. That experience taught me much about the importance of praise as prayer and prayer as praise. It showed me that even in our diversity we could find unity when we chose to adopt the discipline and diet of praise to God. Clearly there are many elements to prayer and many things to learn and consider but above all may we remember this. Everything we do, everything we say is to be done to the glory of God and to the further development of our relationship to him both individually and corporately. AMEN
Bible Text: Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:1-21 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. (Anglican Book of Prayer 1549) Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97) Brooding may sound like a strange title for a message on praying and I must admit that I was puzzled by the word. But as we seek to develop a relationship with God, with our friend and companion on this hike through life, Packer wants to encourage us to consider what he calls brooding prayer. As much as Packer wants to focus us on who-to in our praying, he recognizes that there will always be a need to mention some of the how-tos. What he calls Christian brooding could also be called meditating. But he wants us to understand that what he is thinking of when he uses the word meditation is not an exercise similar to Eastern or New Age religion. Brooding or meditating is a spiritual discipline that is intended to ripen, stabilize and strengthen our renewed and renewing hearts. He sees it as a vital, energizing element in our communion with God. It is about directing our thinking and bringing discipline to our living and our praying. So often the term brooding can have a negative connotation. But Packer wants us to focus on the positive side of brooding. Self-indulgent forms of brooding can lead to moodiness and be destructive to us. But he wants us to see brooding in a new light, as an activity that can help us control our random thoughts and help us to focus our thoughts in a clear, orderly, vivid and nourishing way. He wants us to really reclaim the word meditation and use it in the most constructive way possible. But to keep us from letting ourselves get distracted and take a by-path, he chooses to use the word brooding. So what is the nature of this Christian brooding or meditating? First it is to be described as thinking in God’s presence, thinking before the Lord, thinking about the Lord and our life in his world, by his grace and under his sway. He then brings to mind the picture of a cow chewing its cud. Cows don’t eat their food once but more than once. In a somewhat similar way, Packer says we are to chew over the lessons we learn from God’s word and so gain a depth of wisdom, motivation in our life and nourishment. We may even speak out loud in our meditating but it is not a sign that we are crazy. Now for some rules to help direct us in Christian brooding or meditation. The first rule is: meditate on God with God. Remember that we are coming to God as a friend and seeking to speak with God. So we come with a humble spirit to show our love for God. The second rule is: meditate on the word in the Word. Remember that we can learn much from meditating on the words contained in passages of Scripture. As we do so, we will be looking to God for help, guidance and direction as we seek to discover his mind and will and then seek to have our lives affected by what we learn. The third rule is: Don’t get discouraged by the unevenness of your focus. God is a patient listener and teacher. When you find your thoughts wandering, gently bring yourself back to the subject or word or words that you have chosen for your time of brooding or meditating. Another term you may have heard for what we are talking about is contemplation or contemplative prayer. Whether we choose to talk about meditation, brooding or contemplation, we need to be thinking about our relationship to God, thinking about God’s purposes, God’s greatness, achievements and blessings. And then what it means to respond to God. Thinking in the presence of God becomes talking to the Lord directly, and talking to God leads back to further thinking in his presence. When this discipline becomes a habit for our inner being, we will find God inhabiting both our hearts and our minds, enabling us to truly think and feel and move in a sustained attitude of prayer. And so we are encouraged to meditate on God’s Word. The practice of meditating on the word of God is as old as the earliest times of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament. Every leader of the people was encouraged to meditate on the law of God both day and night and so find and keep direction in life. To help us use the Bible more effectively in our meditation, Packer suggest seven images for us to consider: 1) we need to see the Bible as a library of different books written in different times; 2) explore the Bible as a landscape of human life; 3) read it as a letter written by God for you; 4) value the Bible as your listening post listening for the Spirit of God; 5) explore the law of God not in a legalistic sense but as instructions given by a loving friend; 6) think of the Bible as your light in the darkness of life; and 7) cling to it as a lifeline taking note of the assurances God gives to people as you read the Scriptures. We are also encouraged to meditate on the works of God. We are to read the ways in which God has been actively involved in the lives of people in the past and so begin to see where God is actively involved in our lives. We can meditate on the promises of God, on the grace God has shown us, on the forgiveness we have received and the hope that Christ’s victory over sin and death has given us. And so we have come to learn that as Christians it is a good thing to be brooding or meditating or contemplating our life with God. We have also come to understand that God has ever encouraged people to meditate or to brood or to contemplate and that it is a way of connecting with God and coming to a deeper understanding of his words and his intentions for us and for the world. But is there one right way to meditate? Well let’s be clear about one thing, meditation is not an end in itself; it is to be seen as a prelude to prayer. Meditation allows us to put ourselves in a place where we can be more open to developing a relationship with God that leads to a who-to in praying. So how do people meditate? All I can do today is to briefly outline some techniques. You can follow the practice of Benedict called Lectio Divina in which a single passage or part of a passage is meditated on. A second technique is to take one of the Gospel narratives and imagine you in the scene as an observer. A third technique is to focus on a theme or a topic. A fourth path is to pray a prayer from the Bible. You can take the prayer itself and then begin to see yourself or someone else in the prayer and then meditate on that. Have we found ourselves spiritually anorexic, half-starved in our relationship with God or our growth in Christ seeming to be stunted or have we found difficulty moving ahead in our faith? Perhaps one of the great drawbacks of our Protestant approach to God and faith is that we tend to live our faith on the surface and may have allowed ourselves to be more concerned with rules than with the spirit. Bringing back into the practice of our faith the freedom to embrace meditation will do much to encourage us to grow in faith and will allow us to explore a depth of relationship with God on a more personal note than perhaps we have allowed ourselves to explore. As I close this today, remember that our faith is to be more than a matter of external observance, that is to become a matter of internal life, a life lived in and with the One who calls us his children, the friend we are to come to know more intimately – the Lord! Amen
Bible Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and John 2:13-22 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer The Path and the By-Paths In the Psalms we find these words: Lord, teach me your way, so that I can live by your truth. Teach me to serve you with complete devotion. Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your laws, and I will obey them at all times. (Ps 86:11; 119:35) We are following a path for the next number of weeks that will help us to explore praying and prayer not from a how-to approach but a who-to approach. We trust that we will come to find delight in prayer rather than just finding prayer a duty. We trust that we will come to a better understanding of the purpose of prayer and its place in developing and sustaining our relationship with God. If you have never read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I urge you to do so. While it may seem dated, Bunyan’s allegory on the Christian life contains a wisdom that transcends time and space. While it may not correspond totally to your experience, it nevertheless paints a picture of the Christian journey in life that will no doubt resonate with many. Today we are going to focus on the path of prayer and speak about the by-paths. Packer likens this focus to a hike. If you have ever set out for a hike on a well-marked trail and then seen a path to the side that looked like a real path and decided to take it instead of the well-marked trail, you may have found yourself on a by-path. I found one something like what he is talking about near Banff Alberta. I went for a hike with my oldest son. We expected to be gone 2 hours. Somehow we lost the main trail and found ourselves on what amounted to a goat path clinging to the side of a mountain that overlooked a deep valley. With no hiking sticks and no water we spent another three hours winding our way searching for a familiar landmark. Finally we scrambled up the side of the mountain where we found a campsite and a phone. We then called Diana to come and get us. The experience was one we would never forget but not long to repeat. By-paths can be great adventure but they can also bring great danger. Just as Packer has encouraged us to come to a clearer understanding of who God is in his nature and begin to see that we are being invited to come to God in prayer as a friend, he wants us to find the authentic path of prayer so that we may not find ourselves on a goat path that leads us away from God but on a path that will keep our feet firmly on the way of God. He wants us to see our lives as one long hike – through all its ups and downs – in the company of God who is our companion on the journey. So what are the marks of this true path of prayer? The first mark is to follow instruction we find in Scripture. Packer encourages us to read the Psalms and to read what Paul and others have said about prayer. The second mark is our commitment to a way of life. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ and decide to live as Jesus’ disciples, we are to follow his teachings and so commit ourselves to the way of life given to us by Jesus. The third mark is purity of heart. But by purity of heart he is not thinking of purity in the strict moral sense but rather heeding the first and greatest commandment of which Jesus reminded us: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Purity of heart is a matter of willing one thing and that is to live every day of one’s life loving God – being single-minded and so being pure in our heart’s affection and focus. Now this may sound like an impossible path to follow, but Packer says that this is the path that God asks each believer to follow and that we can follow that path to God through prayer because God will be patient with us. Our study of Scripture, our commitment to the way of life revealed by the teachings of Jesus and our willingness to love God in heart, mind and soul will draw us along the path of prayer and help us to avoid the by-paths that would tempt us. And what are the by-paths? The by-paths can be many and varied. They often come when we are seeking quick answers to life’s struggles; when we pray for immediate relief for a situation that is troubling us in mind, body or spirit. They also come when we offer a prayer and feel that we have not received an answer to that prayer; or when our prayer becomes more of a demand for a specific outcome rather than seeking to understand the way of God and how that may influence our prayer and the response we will receive. At other times it can be when we try a new method of prayer in the hope that it – by itself - will help us to a better relationship with God. Consider this: does a good friend always do whatever you ask just because you think it is what is needed, or does a good friend listen, give advice or opinion and help you to truly discover what it is you truly need. So often we simply scratch the surface of prayer but fail to truly engage God in our prayers. And that can be the greatest by-path of them all. Going back to the Pilgrim’s Progress, we need to note that the decision of the pilgrim to follow the path of God is not one that is taken alone. The pilgrim has a companion. Somehow we forget that Jesus sent the disciples out two by two – never alone. Yet somehow we have come to believe that our relationship to God and with God is a matter for ourselves alone. True, we each need to take the path of faith for ourselves but we are encouraged to take companions. The Camino walk in Spain says that even if you start the walk alone, you will end it with companions. Jesus himself begins his ministry alone but he ends it with companions. True enough, the companions abandon him at what may be seen as his hour of greatest need but they return and he still considers them companions. In fact, he considers them friends. Packer feels that we need to capture this when talking about our life together as Christians in community. Rather than talking about our fellowship with one another, we need to talk about our friendship with one another and our friendship with God as articulated by Jesus. And what is a friend? Friendship is more than mere acquaintanceship; it is a bond of intimacy built out of mutual trust, truthfulness, care and accountability. James Houston – in a guide to devotional reading – said that “a true friend in Christ will wake me up, help me to grow, and deepen my awareness of God.” (Packer, Praying, pg. 52) For Packer this is the friend we have in Jesus. So our decision to follow the authentic path of prayer will involve us in an understanding of prayer throughout the history of Scripture, it will encourage us to commit ourselves to following the way of God as revealed through Scripture and lead us to a true love of God that we may not find our heart, soul or mind divided but focused on that friendship that God seeks to have with us and we come to understand that we seek to have with God.