Comprehensive Praise: some reflections on worship from Psalm 150

sunshine-dust-motesThe psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible, prayer-songs that were often used within the corporate and private worship of the people of Israel. They are also one of our strongest biblical resources for shaping our life of worship today within the Christian church. The entire psalter concludes with a summary psalm of worship, Psalm 150, and I would like to share some thoughts that leap out to me about worship from this psalm.

Worship is God-Centered
The beginning word of Psalm 150 is simple: Hallelujah, which means, “praise the Lord.” The theme and tone of this psalm, something which sums up the entire book of psalms, is God-directed praise. This word, hallelujah, sets our spiritual compass to true north in God. Here at the beginning of this psalm, yet at the end of the entire psalter, we remember that God is the center-point of attention for our worship and rooted anchor for our lives. An oft-repeated phrase about worship is: “its’ not about me.” Hallelujah is the personal and communal exclamation of that reality. When we conclude the final word in the psalms with an introductory word, “praise the Lord,” we are forced to remember that worship and life is not about me but about God.

The Intersection of the Mundane and the Holy
In the next verses of Psalm 150, we find location in worship within God’s sanctuary or tabernacle even as our imagination stretches up to the heavens or the firmament of the sky. The psalmist reminds us that worship simultaneously draws us near to God in a Read More »

A Crash Course in Knowing Christ (Ephesians 1:15-23)

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This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, I continued our new series walking through the New Testament book of Ephesians, entitled “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity.” This weekend, I continued with the second half of chapter 1, which offers us a “Crash Course in Knowing Christ.” This is really a prayer of Paul that unfolds for us how prayer in gratitude, intercession, and worship helps us know Christ more fully in our lives.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement.

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Becoming De-occupied with Ourselves: The Place of Desolation in Prayer (Friedrich von Hügel)

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Every once in awhile I come across a work that is a hidden gem. Thanks to the recommendation of Eugene Peterson in his work Take and Read: Spiritual Reading – An Annotated List, I recently finished Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s brief work, The Life of Prayer. In the midst of his seven facts concerning God and seven facts concerning the human soul in prayer, I enjoyed particularly this section reflecting on the way that spiritual desolation provides an opportunity for us to become de-occupied with ourselves and occupied with God.  Hang on until the final sentences to get the most out of this.

If, then, spiritual dryness is indeed inevitable in the life of prayer, we will be much helped to bear these desert stretches, by persistent recognition—hence also, indeed especially in our times of fervour—of the normality and the necessity of such desolation. We will thus come to treat desolation in religious as we treat the recurrence of the night within every twenty-four hours of our physical existence; or as bodily weariness at the end of any protracted exertion in our psychic life. When desolation is actually upon us, we will quietly modify, as far as need be, the kind and the amount of our prayer—back, say from prayer of quiet to ordinary meditation, or to vocal prayer—even to but a few uttered aspirations. And, if the desolation is more acute, we will act somewhat like the Arab caravans behave in the face of a blinding sandstorm in the desert. The men dismount, throw themselves upon their faces in the sand; and there they remain, patient and uncomplaining, till the storm passes, and until, with their wonted patient endurance, they can and do continue on their way.

There are generally a weakness and an error at work within us, at such times, which considerably prolong the trouble, and largely neutralise the growth this very trouble would otherwise bring to our souls. The weakness lies in that we let our imagination and sensitiveness be directly absorbed in our trouble. We contemplate, and further enlarge, the trouble present in ourselves, instead of firmly and faithfully looking away, either at the great abiding realities of the spiritual world, or, if this is momentarily impossible for us, at some other, natural or human, wholesome fact or law. And the error lies in our lurking suspicions that, for such trials to purify us, we must feel them fully in their tryingness—that is, we must face and fathom them directly and completely. Such a view completely overlooks the fact that such trials are sent us for the purpose of deoccupying us with our smaller selves; and, again, it ignores the experience of God’s saints across the ages, that, precisely in proportion as we can get away from direct occupation with our troubles to the thought and love of God, to the presence of Him Who permits all this, in the same proportion do and will these trials purify our souls.

[From Baron Friedrich von Hügel, The Life of Prayer (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1929), 34-37.]

A Prayer of Bernard of Clairvaux

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Jesus, how sweet is the very thought of you! You fill my heart with joy. The sweetness of your love surpasses the sweetness of honey. Nothing sweeter than you can be described; no words can express the joy of your love. Only those who have tasted your love for themselves can comprehend it. In you love you listen to all my prayers, even when my wishes are childish, my words confused, and my thoughts foolish. And you answer my prayers, not according to my own misdirected desires, which would bring only bitter misery, but according to my real needs, which brings me sweet joy. Thank you, Jesus, for giving yourself to me.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercian monk and Christian mystic.

On Prayer Walking: some practical guidance

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This past weekend, as I concluded our series on neighboring at Eastbrook, one of the application points was for us to prayer walk our neighborhoods. I realized that for some of us this may be a new concept. I was first introduced to this when I was a new disciple of Christ in high school. I came across this helpful article by Shelley Stott on prayer walking, “Prayer Walking: A Way to Pray Specifically for Our Neighborhoods.” Here is Stott’s definition of prayer walking:

Prayer walking is exactly what the words imply: walking and praying. Prayer walking has been described as “praying on site with insight.” When you hear the sounds and see the sights of a particular place, you understand better how to pray for the people in that location.

Near the end of the article, she offers some very practical advice for prayer walking:

Five Things to Remember When Prayer Walking

  1. Be alert.
    If you prayer walk with a partner, don’t get distracted by conversation with each other. It’s helpful to agree ahead of time that you will keep conversation to a minimum to keep the focus on prayer. You might want to meet beforehand or gather to debrief after your walk, but the time you set aside for prayer walking should be focused on just that.
  2. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
    Just as your five senses gather information from your surroundings, remember to keep your heart open to what the Holy Spirit is telling you as well. Perhaps you feel impressed to stop and talk to someone or to go down a new street. Listen to and obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit as you go.
  3. Be ready.
    You may encounter someone who needs prayer or is willing to engage in a spiritual conversation with you. Be ready to interact with those around you. Ask your pastor about evangelism training if you haven’t been trained already. Be willing to ask people if you can pray for them. Find out what is heavy on their heart and be ready to listen and pray. If people are not open to letting you pray right there—or if you’re not in an environment where you can openly pray because of government restrictions or persecution—you can still assure them that you will pray for them later.
  4. Be a doer.
    You can’t really learn to prayer walk unless you just do it. Even if you feel apprehensive or you don’t feel that you can wrap your mind around it, go ahead and try it. As your team debriefs, you may learn better ways to prayer walk that you can implement in your next walk. As a team, you can begin marking a map so you can see the areas you have prayer walked. But don’t stop at marking maps. Put your shoes on and put yourself in the neighborhoods.
  5. Be on the lookout for God at work.
    Make your prayer walk an opportunity for thanking the Lord. Be assured that you didn’t beat God into the neighborhood. He has been there working long before you arrived. What an awesome privilege we have to join God as he draws people to himself.

Daniel: A Prophet of Prayer

 

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“The handwriting’s on the wall…”

“We’re walking into the lion’s den…”

It might not surprise you to hear that these well-known English idioms trace their way back to the biblical story of Daniel. Daniel is best known for his journey into the lion’s den when he defied a monarch’s edict. The story of Belshazzar’s feast, where Daniel interprets writing that miraculously appears on a wall, has been recounted in numerous works of literature.

Enduring Prayer
But what catches my eye as I read through the book of Daniel is not the lions’ den or the miracle handwriting, but Daniel’s life of prayer. We see in the first chapter of the book that Daniel and his friends were dedicated to the Lord God of Israel by their commitment and behavior. When Daniel faced a challenge of interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, we read that he and his friends “plead for mercy from the God of heaven” (2:18). In answer to those pleading prayers, God miraculously provided when the pressure was on for Daniel. Clearly, Daniel was a man of prayer when faced with challenges.

Consistent Prayer
Yet as we read on, we find that Daniel was a man of prayer at all times, not just in times of challenge. In fact, it was Daniel’s consistency in prayer that provided the opportunity for him to be sent to the lions’ den. Out of jealousy for his position, Daniel’s enemies realized that they could not catch him up on issues of integrity or character but only if “it has something to do with the law of his God” (6:5). So, they trick King Darius into signing off on a law that prohibits prayer to anyone but the king himself for a thirty-day period. Undaunted by this situation, Daniel returned home and did what he always did: “three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (6:10). Daniel was consistent in prayer.

Humble Prayer
In chapter 9 of the book, we find Daniel poring over the Hebrew Scriptures of the prophet Jeremiah. There, Daniel discovered that a seventy-year period was decreed for the exile of God’s people (Jeremiah 29:10) and that the end of that time is drawing near. Daniel’s response is not to lurch into action and set up a strategy for returning the people of God to their homeland. Instead, his immediate response is to turn to God in contrite prayer. His heart is broken over the sin and idolatry of His people and, in Daniel 9:4-19, he offers one of the most moving and powerful prayers of repentance in the entire Bible. Daniel’s prayer eventually takes him into a time of deep repentance accompanied by a vision of God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. Daniel was a man of prayer that took sin and wrong seriously. Action was required, but it was not actually to come through Daniel. God had that task for Ezra and Nehemiah. Yet it was Daniel’s humble prayer that catches the eye in Daniel 9.

So, who is Daniel? The un-eaten prophet of the lions’ den? The reader of divinely-sourced dreams for earthly kings? A person of integrity in the presence of great earthly power? Yes, without a doubt, Daniel is all of these things. Yet at the core of Daniel’s life is an intimacy of relationship with God that is birthed in the crucible of prayer: enduring, consistent, and humble.

[For more on Daniel, consider following through the Eastbrook Church preaching series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.”]

Six Pastoral Reflections on the California Synagogue Shooting

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This past Saturday, a 19-year-old man opened fire in a synagogue near San Diego, Chabad of Poway, killing one and injuring several others. This past fall, a similar shooting occurred at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, taking even more lives.  Since Saturday’s events, I have been reflecting on how we should think about and respond to this situation as followers of Jesus. Let me offer six basic responses here.

1. Lament – Paul the Apostle encouraged the early Christians to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). One of the greatest gifts we can offer to another person in grief is to sit with them in mourning. This was, in fact, the best gift that Job’s friends offered him in his distress. Let us, too, mourn with those in mourning and, as opportunity arises, share comfort with those in mourning from the overflow of comfort we have received in our own lives (2 Corinthians 1:4).

2. Rebuke hate – As Christians we follow a Savior who brought God’s grace and truth and embodied God’s love to the world (John 1:14; 1 John 3:16). Because of this, we cannot countenance hatred, whether within us or others, whether toward other Christians or those who do not share our beliefs. Anti-semitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and even more mild forms of prejudice have no place within those who name Christ as Lord. Valid disagreement about beliefs do not give us permission to hate, whether passively or actively, those with whom we disagree.

3. Be a peacemaker – In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). We can be peacemakers because, as the Apostle Paul wrote of Jesus, “he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). James, that advocate for faith manifesting in good works, exhorted early Christians, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). We have an amazing opportunity in the midst of strife and danger to actively move forward as people marked by Jesus’ peace.

4. Advocate for change – Gun deaths in the United States surpass that of other nations, not just in numbers, but in percentage of our population. While I have many friends who are strong gun-rights activists, I have also talked with others, from gun shop owners to those who have lost loved ones to gun-related deaths, who agree that something needs to change in the legal processes by which guns are purchased and regulated. As Christians, who value the dignity of each human life made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and seek to be peacemakers (James 3:18), we must advocate for better gun legislation.

5. Look to ourselves – Early reports indicate that the young man accused of this shooting was a church attendee at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church just twelve miles away from the synagogue he terrorized. While the pastor of that church has appropriately distanced the congregation from this egregious event, all of us who follow Jesus must enter into a time of self-reflection about ways in which our own faith or congregational life might, even inadvertently, give rise to such hatred. God’s grace is sufficient for us to face into hard truths about ourselves. Peter tells us that judgment begins in God’s household (1 Peter 4:17), so we should humbly pray, “Search me, God, and…see if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24).

6. Pray – There is always power in prayer. God has given us the gift of prayer that we might reach out relationally to Him but also so that we might reach out to the world through Him. Every action listed above requires great wisdom, compassion, perseverance, and strength. The best way to move forward with all of these actions is from the foundation of prayer and trusting God with the results. There is not an either/or that must exist between prayer and action. Ideally, prayer and action fit together as two parts of the Christian response to any calamity. Certainly we can agree with the Apostle Paul: “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).