Empty Prayers

Empty Prayers

empty prayers“Asking someone, ‘How Can I Pray for You’ is Bull *&%^ !”

These words were spoken to me with blunt frustration by a man after I had just taught a class on being intentional in relationships. Praying for one another was one of several practical exhortations I had made in the class. (There was more to what I said on prayer which I will get to later.) This brother in Christ had been wounded by some bad experiences.

As we talked, I was struck by what I suspect is probably the ugly and embarrassing truth about our prayer lives as Christians: we often take it for granted and become careless and lazy in our prayer habits.

Prayer for one another is an essential habit in our Christian walk. Yet, we can all relate to saying, “I will pray for you”—only to forget. Sometimes we ask for prayer without really thinking about it. It’s an easy (and expected) part of our Christian talk.

How seriously do we really take prayer? Following are three practical ideas to help us be more intentional in our prayer life.

  1. Write Down Prayer Requests

Studies show that we remember 90% of what we write down. Why not write down what people ask us to pray for? It forces clarity and helps us remember to pray. Along this line, one of the ideas I gave my Sunday school class that morning involved writing prayer requests on 3×5 index cards. Index cards are a cheap and wonderful tool. You can keep them in your pocket or tuck them in your Bible.

Make a card for each person we pray for. Put the person’s name on the top line. Beneath their name, write the date and then the request next to it. When the prayer is no longer needed, write down the date and the answer or resolution. Keep the card to add future prayer requests for that person. As you add cards for each person, you develop a powerful story; a tool for recounting God’s work through your prayers in other’s lives.

  1. Ask People to Pray For You Rather Than Telling Them to Pray For You

Have you ever had someone just say, “Pray for me” or “You can pray for me about …“. We’ve probably all done it at some point, however, without a “will you please” in front, it can come across a bit presumptuous or even demanding.  This is not so much an issue of manners as it is not taking prayer for granted. We all should remember to be mindful of the privilege prayer is. It is a gift to be able to minister to each other through prayer. It is also a comfort to know that we can ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us in times of need which in effect allows them to help us carry our burdens.

Consider that if we ask and the person says, “yes” then there is a greater possibility of them following-through which also means their prayers will likely be more intentional and effective.

Following is not so much a literal suggestion as it is a way to expose our own attitudes and expectations about asking others to pray for us. Would it ever be right to say, “No, I’m sorry but I cannot/will not be able pray for you”? The thought of that seems almost unconscionable. But consider: can we realistically pray for every request that comes our way either directly or indirectly? How many more can we add to a long and probably dusty list? At what point are we just being disingenuous?

Here’s an idea. If we’re having trouble being faithful with our current list, maybe a good alternative when asked to pray is to just stop and pray with the person for the need at that moment rather than to say we will pray later –and never do it.

  1. Report Back to People Who Have Agreed to Pray for You

For the person who is being intentional about following through on praying for our request it can be disheartening to pray especially over a long period of time and never get an update on what is going on in that situation. When no report is given, it can convey little regard for the time others invest in praying for us. Write down the names of those we ask to pray for us so that we remember to report back.

A simple report is very encouraging to see how God is working through our prayers. It builds our faith. We keep praying for the specific need. It encourages us to pray for others. It builds our unity in Christ. Frankly, it also helps us to be more serious about asking others to pray for us. We realize there is a cost to them: their time that we should seek to honor.

Evaluate Our Prayer Habits

Prayer is a powerful and effective weapon. God instructs us to pray. He promises to hear our prayers and to answer them. It is good therefore to evaluate our prayer habits and to try to correct areas where we have waxed lazy and unintentional.

Whether we’re asking for prayer or agreeing to pray—it is a sacred privilege; a treasured part of our identity as members of God’s family that helps to build our oneness in Christ.

 

Ministry in the Storm

Ministry in the Storm

As I pressed my face against the cold glass, I looked out at the half-melted snow in the back yard.  My eyes fell on the dry dead grass peeking through the snowy patches.  Tears were streaming, sobs were billowing out from deep inside.  I felt like that dry dead grass.

The day started with a young child answering my call to start school with “I hate school, it isn’t fun and I don’t want to do it”. That was followed with an older child telling me about a great awakening they had had in their view of things. It was a good thing, but I guess I was a little distracted helping another child find their book which led to frustration for the older child and an abrupt ending to the conversation.

Just when I was trying to settle down to do grammar with my son, the yell came, “Taylor is having a seizure”. What? My head was spinning, it was only two months since the last one. What is going on? After rushing upstairs, we helped her through. There is always a time of confusion and unrest following a seizure for Taylor. She needs reassurance and answers to the same question multiple times as her mind gets back to normal. She usually feels defeated and wants to hold my hand and ask me to pray for her. It is a sweet request made by a tender heart. The challenge this morning was that I felt like I was in her same place. How could I encourage her when I myself needed encouragement? She tearfully said at times like this she wondered if God even loved her. I wanted her to be assured of His love because I know he loves her. But in the very same thought, I felt exactly as she did! If he loves me, why is this so hard? I was pouring from an empty vessel just like the widow did back with Isaiah.

As I leaned on that glass, looking out at the dead grass, feeling as worn and broken as ever, I thought to myself. “I need to text some friends to pray for me.” Quickly, I banished the thought. “No, I can’t do that, they are all under pressure, just like me… They can’t be troubled.” I waited for my next call from Taylor to ask me again, “what happened?” and could I pray for her?

She did call me in, but only to tell me that there was yet another piece to this challenging situation… something a sibling said to her preceded this seizure and when she told me, it only sent me more into a tail-spin. Now, I needed to confront other people and work through more mud and yuck.

I knew I had to do what I didn’t want to do. I texted three dear friends and asked them to please pray. It was hard, not what I wanted to do, but I knew I had no other options.

The day went on, I noticed that our health insurance had the wrong doctor listed as our PCP which led to a mess of phone calls. I received an email that had news and requests that I didn’t want to hear. It felt like bricks were falling down not only around me, but on me.

I checked my phone and found the sweet message of a faithful friend feeding me with the only bread worth eating: The Word. Psalm 91 to be exact. Words of prayer and love, followed by the others.  In the midst of the storm I had an anchor. I stopped floundering and scurrying, scraping to gain my footing and rested in the words of the Psalm. I took a minute, poured a mug of cold coffee and warmed it in the microwave… moved the dirty dishes and books from the bar in our kitchen and found a place to open my Bible.  I was reminded that all is not lost. God is still on his throne. He has good for us and I have hope and confidence.

We are ministers and we need to be ministered to. We need each other and we need to be willing to be used by God even when we may feel incompetent or unqualified. My sisters were there for me and I hope I can someday be there for them, too. We need each other when we can’t see because the battlefield we are in is too thick with smoke.

Simple action plan:

  • Remember, you are ministers and other powerful truths. If you haven’t already, sign up for our email and receive 12 of these identity statements.
  • Reach out when you need help. Text, email or call a friend.
  • Answer the call when a friend reaches out to you. You don’t have to be a professional, just a fellow beggar who found bread.
One Simple Way to Jumpstart a Relationship

One Simple Way to Jumpstart a Relationship

neighborWho are the people you see all the time, but have struggled to connect with? Perhaps your spouse, child, friend at church, or a neighbor? May I suggest that asking the simple question, “How Can I pray for you?”  is a simple, easy way to start or jumpstart a relationship.

Consider the myriads of benefits of such a simple question.

First, it shows genuine concern. How many people come up to you and ask how they can pray for you? When someone does, that communicates a level of concern that makes an impression.

Second, it allows you to get to the deeper issues. Sometimes people will throw a softball answer such as, “Well, I’m having trouble in my job?” (If someone answers this way, respond, “Thanks. Do you mind if I ask what kind of trouble you’re having?” and go from there as you feel led. In my own experience, I often find that they will share something with surprising transparency.

Third, it gives you a very quick avenue to discern (at least in a general sense) where they are spiritually. If the person is not a Christian, you can quickly learn whether or not there is openness to the Gospel.

Fourth, it gives the person someone they know they can come to for spiritual help. Most people do not have quality relationships, to say nothing of relationships where spiritual issues can be discussed. Being willing to pray for others introduces them to the prospect of a real friendship that can provide real meaning and support.

Fifth, it doesn’t take any preparation to ask such a simple question and it does not take a lot of time to ask it.

Sixth, you now have a reason to build the relationship. Go back to the person in a week or two and let them know that you have been praying and that you are wondering how the issue is going. You may even invite them over for dinner.

Who are the people you see all the time, but have struggled to connect with? The simple question, “How can I pray for you?” can help.

Five Relationship-Building Questions

Five Relationship-Building Questions

Ok, Eric. I’ve said, “No”. Now what?

In an article I wrote earlier this year, I exhorted everyone to say NO to some good activities in order to make time to say YES to more intentional spiritual investment and relationship-building.

Listed below are five relationship-building questions that I put together and gave to each of my three oldest children age 13-16 right after Christmas. I gave them a week to consider the questions and then I took each one over to Panera to discuss their answers over a cup of Dark Roast. These conversations were satisfying and insightful for each of us.

I want to share these questions with you not as a model but as a super simple example. My hope is that this will get your own juices flowing as to how you might do something similar.

 

Note: Although I used these with some of my kids, they can be easily modified and used with a spouse!

1. What is a spiritual goal that you would like to set for yourself this year?

2. What is a life goal that you would like to pursue this year?

3. What is an idol in your life that you would like to have greater victory over?

4. How can Mom and I pray for you?

5. What is something I can do better as a father?

This last question is one I ask regularly of my wife and my children. I love my family and there are many things I know I can do better. Of particular concern to me is correcting the things that I do wrong that might exasperate my children and that I might also be unaware.

Ephesians 6:4 warns fathers not to exasperate their children. The best way to know if we’re doing that is to humble ourselves and just ask. I am grateful that my kids have been truthful and gracious in answering this question when I’ve asked it. Over time, areas have been identified that I have overcome or am still working on. What a blessing it is for me to be able to change rather than to blindly continue on and risk the growth of bitterness toward me and God.

Increasingly, I view my older children as spiritual brothers and sisters who along with many others, I depend upon to speak the truth to me. While I still maintain a proper father-role, asking them this question (and the previous ones) has deepened our relationship in a unique way and is preparing them for more meaningful participation in church community.

Be Ordinary

Be Ordinary

 

ORDINARY - metal finish text on black studio - 3D rendered stock photoThe hotel ballroom was packed. I was one of three plenary speakers at a conference for youth and children’s ministry leaders. In commenting on the alarming trend of churches hemorrhaging youth, one of the speakers said, “Kids who grew up in Christian homes feet like second class citizens in the church.”

He went on to explain the basis of his claim. The church, he said, finds the testimony of people who were radically saved out of a life of deep sin (drug addiction for example) much more exciting than the testimonies of Christian children who grew up in faithful Christians homes and avoided those sins. What does this say about how we define what is really important? Michael Horton, in his book, Ordinary, has an answer.

The tendency of the evangelical movement has always been to prioritize extraordinary methods and demands over the ordinary means that Christ instituted for sustainable mission… I am convinced that we have drifted from the true focus of God’s activity in this world. It is not to be found in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary, the everyday… We have grown accustomed to running sprints instead of training for the long-distance marathon.

You may have heard and prayed the Scriptures with your family each day, perhaps even learning the great truths of Scripture with your family each day, perhaps even learning the great truths of Scripture through a catechism at home and at church. Yet in the evangelical culture of the new and novel, none of this really counts. What really matters is the extraordinary spiritual event, that life-changing experience. In fact, your testimony is likely to be regarded as greater—more genuine—to the extent that the experience happened apart from any connection with the ordinary life of the church, like baptism, profession, the Supper, and the communal prayers, praise, laments, and fellowship of Christ’s body.

Real Growth Occurs in the Ordinary

Scripture contains many incidents of people being extraordinarily converted or benefitting from a life transforming moment. Enoch, Elijah, Naaman, the woman with a hemorrhage, Lazarus, and Paul the Apostle immediately come to mind. But the normative plan that God has given for transformation is, well, quite ordinary.

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) is itself a call to the ordinary. When it says, “Go and make disciples” we can read “Go” and wrongly think only of extraordinary events such as short term mission trips or a missions emphasis week. But what is meant is more like, “As you go”. Making disciples is an ordinary process that occurs in the ordinariness of everyday life.

As parents, does it get any more ordinary than Deuteronomy 6:4-9? “Teach your children as you rise up, as you lie down, and as you walk by the way.” Jesus’ approach to discipleship was equally ordinary. His disciples just walked with him. The events in the gospels are mainly ordinary. Even the miracles grew more out of the mundane, ordinary path of life. Extraordinary blessings can be—and usually are—reaped from within the ordinary.

Examples of “ordinary” include:

  • Reading Scripture together, daily, as a family.
  • Calling the kids together for a family meeting and starting off with prayer.
  • Working through a conflict about which lights (white or multi-colored) we are going to put on the Christmas tree this year.
  • Conversations where hopes and dreams, fears and failures are shared with one another.
  • Discussing the devastating impact that a neighbor’s job loss has had on his outlook in life.
  • Taking time to stop what you’re doing to discipline a child.
  • Listening to the word being taught in a small group, Sunday school or sermon.
  • Giving attention to The Lord’s Supper.
  • Being intentional about having a child baptized and/or examined for church membership.
  • Visiting a sick or discouraged neighbor or church member.
  • Writing your spouse an encouraging note.
  • Helping a teenager through friendship struggles and decision
  • Inviting a neighbor over for a meal.
  • Praying with and for one another.

The significance of each of these opportunities is not always found in the moment itself, but in each one’s place as a link to others. There is a dynamic interrelationship that is usually indiscernible but absolutely essential. Collectively they weave together to form a tapestry that is actually rich and full. While we can miss opportunities, the problem comes when missing them becomes a pattern.

We really do need more strength to attend to these ordinary things than we need to do something much more “extraordinary”… and fun. Tish Harrison Warren captures this sentiment well, “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.”

Why God Chooses Ordinary

God is glorified when we pursue the ordinary because it requires that we first be satisfied in God. Until we find our rest in God, our hearts will always be restless. Our attentions will be blinded by our own fleshly ambitions. We demonstrate ultimate satisfaction in God when we set aside our agenda in order to take these ordinary opportunities. God is also glorified when we wait in dependence upon him to do the transforming that he has already said HE will do (Phil. 1:6). This is an active–and expectant–waiting on our part. While we wait, we joyfully pursue the mundane knowing that God is using our efforts.

Two Promises For Ordinary People

Two passages immediately come to mind that provide hope for those who cultivate an extraordinary thirst for the ordinary.

Matthew 28:20. “I am with you always”. God’s Holy Spirit is with us always. He is our Helper in faithfulness. What a wonderful promise that we don’t have to muster the strength on our own because very often, we don’t have the strength for ordinary duties.

Galatians 6:9. “And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we will reap if we do not give up.” That is a powerful promise that God will work. We will reap. God will accomplish his redemptive plan although that plan is almost never achieved quickly or easily in our lives. This is hard to remember in those situations where we’re in deep with other people.

Growth is really a process. When you think about it, the fact that growth is a process actually a good thing. We can fail. We can get up again, confess our sin, ask forgiveness, and work again toward Christ-likeness. Imagine how hard it would be if our growth and the growth of others was dependent upon us getting it right at pre-selected extraordinary moments? As it is, the ordinariness of life is a great blessing. Let us seek to be more faithful in the ordinary pursuits of the Christian life in the church and in the home.

If you’re up to it, consider taking this simple self-assessment to see how “ordinary” you really are!

The Gospel, Identity in Christ and Uniting Church and Home

The Gospel, Identity in Christ and Uniting Church and Home

gospelYou have probably noticed the increased emphasis that Uniting Church and Home has placed on the gospel and specifically, our identity in Christ in our seminars, writings, and resources. What does the gospel and identity have to do with Uniting Church and Home? In one word, EVERYTHING.

The False Gospel of Formulas

We all like formulas. A formula is simply a list of steps usually involving little effort that we follow to achieve a result. Formulas also usually do not require us to wrestle with our own sin or to rely on Jesus to provide the victory. We desperately want to believe that there are fast, easy formulas for addressing difficult questions such as: How do I get my teenager to stop flirting with “the world” and to seek Christ? How do I not lose hope when my spouse continues not to listen? How do I make disciples of my kids? How do I love the people in my church who I feel judge me for my choices? How does my home and my church work together rather than against each other? How does our church have a more effective outreach in our community? While practical answers to these and other questions are necessary, in over 28 years of ministry I have learned that the practical alone, which today really means a fast-acting, proven formula, is not what we need.

The pressure to provide formulas has pushed many churches and para-church ministries into providing many practical answers in the form of well-intentioned programs, curricula, conferences, and a plethora of self-help books. But, tragically, many of these have accomplished little in addressing the true need that continues to go largely…unmet.

God Seeks What Formulas Cannot Provide

This issue of the heart, is at the root of every single issue (Luke 6:43-45; James 4:1-4) we face.  Heart level transformation, not mere outward change, is God’s chief concern and what each of us desperately needs (Isa. 29:13, 64:6; Matt. 23:23). Heart change is a joyful satisfaction with God alone that motivates joyful obedience to do what he commands.

Practical knowledge, even perhaps a list of steps, and applied effort are critical to change. But authentic heart change is ultimately a work of God through the gospel. Only the gospel, applied by faith through the work of the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to crush the idolatry that rules our hearts and drives our actions.

Idolatry is Fueled by Formulas

Merely following a formula grants us the illusion that we can still have what WE want, the way we want it, regardless of what God may want. This is idolatry.

Many people think of idolatry as gold trinkets and Asherah poles rather than the driving force behind their own thoughts and choices…including sometimes their desires to have a biblical family and a church that they can join that meets their exact specifications. The fervor and in some cases, militancy, with which some have pursued these exposes the idolatry that drives them even in their efforts to seek something that God says is good.  Our problem is not only the bad things we do, but the good things we do for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes, our intentions in dealing with the problems we encounter with each other appear righteous, but at the heart are actually idolatrous. Appearances to the contrary, we really don’t want to help the other person grow in Christ, rather, we want to remove a source of irritation from our lives.

Even if our intentions are god-honoring, God may still want us to struggle through a problem for a longer time until we deal with what he sees needs to change… in both of us. If we settle for some sort of fix that gives an appearance of change without real change, we will miss something God wants us to learn. In such a case, God will just allow another set of circumstances to occur so that we are forced to deal with the heart issues we skirted. Very often, this explains why so many problems persist without little or improvement. Through it all, we get really good at coping without ever really addressing the root issues which are the idolatrous desires that make idols out of things and each other.

Business as Usual Does Not Work

Consider that the failure of men to lead in the home has not been corrected by regular attendance at men’s meetings.

Teens have not stopped abandoning the faith simply because more charismatic youth leaders have been hired.

Unbelievers have not been more attracted to our churches even though we’ve moved to more contemporary styles of worship and the pastor preaches without a pulpit in a grungy T-shirt emblazoned with an edgy slogan.

Families have not begun to minister and share the gospel with their unbelieving neighbors because the pastor preaches a series on outreach.

I’ll never forget a pastor who called to invite me to come and speak, as he said, “To get my families ministerin”. In our preliminary discussion, I learned that he had put his families through several outreach programs, but to no effect. He felt yet another speaker might make the difference. I suggested that the problem was not practical in nature, but instead, a heart problem: one of motivation. They simply did not want to do it. I suggested further that what they needed was to be brought back to the gospel. To really understand who they were, already, in Christ. I was disappointed, but not surprised by the pastor’s response, “I’ve already preached the gospel. They know that. I don’t need to do that again.”

What Gospel?

I recently received a letter from a national family ministry that was asking for donations for an evangelistic project. I will attest that this ministry has done many good things to help families. This letter, however, was just one very clear example of how we’ve drifted from the gospel in the life of the believer…

The first sentence in the letter said, “When you consider what your support for (ministry name withheld) can do, sharing the gospel might not be your first thought”.

Now let’s consider this statement for a moment. As I said, the work of this ministry was helping families, not evangelism. In their minds, and I hasten to add, in the minds of many Christians, the gospel is tragically known as only what the unbeliever needs, not the believer. Therefore, “the gospel” is not what this ministry to families normally talked about. But, I ask, what is any Christian ministry doing if it is not directing people to the gospel in some way? Is there an answer to any problem we have that is not somehow connected to our hearts and God’s remedy in Christ? No. And again, NO!

We Need Jesus Each Day

For real change and restoration to take place, an encounter with Jesus is always necessary. We encounter Jesus when we apply his message, the gospel, to our hearts. The gospel tells us of our sin and it tells us of the fullness of the riches that are ours in Christ by virtue of our union with him. Realizing who we are now, and marinating in the riches of our inheritance in Christ drives us to confess, repent, and walk by faith. This is what we ALL (husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, youth, children, siblings, singles, seniors, etc.) need many times each day to defeat idolatry. But this understanding, unfortunately, appears far from the standard formulaic fare in our churches and homes.

“Standard formulaic fare” is what we have demanded that our church leaders provide or we will simply go somewhere else. That’s a tragic commentary that I don’t offer lightly or with any sort of malice. I just believe it is accurate.

Relationships Help us Apply Jesus to our Lives

The gospel of Jesus Christ comes with a delivery mechanism; relationships in the church and the home. We become more effective applying this simple message by practice, practice, and more practice with each other’s help. This admittedly, is hard work because it takes time, accountability, and real faith in God to work in and through us. This is far from a mere formulaic solution.

The discipleship of my five teenage children is my responsibility, primarily. I dearly love them and delight in how they are each unique. But I also admit that discipling teenagers, at least for me, is very hard work that’s somewhat unpredictable and seems to always push me to the edge of my time and emotional limits.

One of the commitments I have made is to meet with my teenagers as a group every other Tuesday evening to discuss spiritual matters, usually through a book discussion. This is an intensive discussion that augments other things such as family worship… and late-night conversations! While I do enjoy these Tuesday meetings, I have to fight like mad to keep them on the calendar. It takes an intentional effort to prepare my own heart for the discussion and to remind them to be prepared, too. Praise the Lord that there has been some good fruit observed in the discussions we’ve had. It’s very encouraging. But because I am naturally a very selfish person, it is still hard. I fail. It’s a humbling process.

I can identify with many men who admit how much easier it would be to just drift down the river of life doing the discipleship when it’s convenient. It is so much easier, so much more comfortable, to follow the formula of dropping the kids off at church to be discipled by a trusted youth or children’s ministry leader. While youth and children’s ministry can be an important ingredient, they do not stand alone. I have met many youth leaders who passionately agree as they suffer under suffocating expectations of parents and leaders alike.

Many men might also conclude that a women’s ministry, or coffee with an elder’s wife can be far more effective at meeting their wives’ various needs than they are. And while women meeting to teach and encourage each other is a solid expression of healthy covenant community, Paul is clear in Ephesians 5 that husbands have a direct, personal ministry to their wives. They are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (V.25). They are called by God to wash their wives in the word (V.26). Satisfactory pursuit of these responsibilities by husbands may be augmented, but not completely delegated to a simple formula that only requires little of us.

We Have What We Need

We already have what we need in the gospel. We do not need to wait for some new insight gained from scientific research or a new list of steps (formula). We must get down to the hard business of exercising our faith in what we already have been given in Christ with one another.

Transformation keeps the indicative (identity: who we are in Christ) connected to the imperative (the practical that are to do). Indicative without imperative is antinomianism. Imperative (i.e. formula) without indicative is moralism. Both are Christ-less.

Uniting Church and Home Restores Balance

At Uniting Church and Home, we seek to restore lives through relationships where the indicative and imperative are kept together. It is a joyous privilege for us to start a seminar knowing that people who are struggling with real personal challenges are going to leave the seminar with joy, renewed hope and confidence because they learn how their identity in Christ is the key to overcoming struggles that have burdened them for years.

YES, men need to know how to lead. YES, children need to be trained to know and serve God. YES, churches need to equip families for ministry. “Formulas” promise much but ultimately deliver little.  These and other challenges need to be addressed through relationships that are committed to the deeper heart work that takes time and that seeks to apply the gospel in these situations. This is the only way to transform our hearts, our relationships and live for God’s glory.

If you were encouraged by this article, please forward it to a friend.