Prayer in the Life of the Church

I was preparing for our prayer meeting tonight at SPC and I was reading some of Eric J Alexander’s Prayer: A Biblical Perspective (Banner of Truth, 2012). I couldn’t but pass on this testimony to the value and power of corporate prayer in the life of the church: 
 
I came to faith in a church in Glasgow where the minister, Dr William Fitch, taught us regularly from Scripture the central place of prayer in the life of the church. The church prayer meeting was held on Saturday evening.The evidence that someone had been converted to Christ in the congregation was that they would walk into the prayer meeting on a Saturday evening. That meeting became the power house, under God, for a remarkable work of grace in that church.The only reason a believer would be absent from it would be that they were either ill or away from home. Very properly, people called it the ‘prayer fellowship’, for that was where we experienced true Christian fellowship and mutual support at the deepest level.
- p.74
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Don’t Lose Focus at Christmas

This week I had the privilege of being given the slot before Christmas in the Faith Matters column of our local newspaper, the Solihull News. Here is the text of my article:

With only a few more days to go, let me wish you a Happy Christmas! I hope you and your families have a good one.

One of the things that always concerns me at this time of the year is that I should keep in focus the things that need to be crystal clear. Defocus can be a creative technique in photography, but on the whole we need focus and clarity in order to make things, to get things done, to understand things clearly. The trouble with the blurriness of a defocussed view is that everything begins to blend together. Important details and features get missed.

I believe our society, and maybe even the church, suffers from a lack of focus when it comes to Christmas. When I think of how society presents the occasion to me, I think of lights, shopping, good food, christmassy songs, bad weather, warmth, red clothing with white trim, lots of ho-hos.

Image

Nothing wrong with all that in itself. But what is out of focus? What has been blurred out of the picture that we no longer notice?

Here it is – Immanuel – a name given to Jesus which means, “God with us”. What easily gets out of focus is the significance of the birth of Jesus. He was not just another sweet baby, but this was God taking on flesh in a stupendous, supernatural intervention in history.

Such an act of God gripped the early church. The Apostles’ Creed boldly declares to the world its belief in “Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary”.

Immanuel – God with us. Jesus – he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21,23). Get Immanuel in focus at the start of the story of the Gospels and tenaciously follow him as the story unfolds to his death and resurrection. See how this God-man was and remains the Saviour the world needs. Discover him and you really will have a lastingly Happy Christmas!

Stephen Dancer

Minister, Solihull Presbyterian Church

20 December 2013

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See Clearly, Pray Well

Ole Hallesby begins his book, Prayer, with definition.  Chapter 1: ‘What Prayer Is’. For this he calls upon Revelation 3:20, that famous verse much used of young evangelists:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

It is a springboard for what the author later writes:

To pray is nothing more than to open the door, giving Jesus access to our needs and permitting him to exercise his own power in dealing with them. (Prayer, p.10)

It is a helpful chapter, full of quotable statements about prayer, powerful and evocative. Focussing in on the attitude of heart that God recognises as prayer, Hallesby lands on the subheadings of Helplessness and Faith.  A useful meditation.

However, it got me thinking about Revelation 3:14-22 some more. It is the last of the seven messages from the glorified Jesus to the churches in Asia Minor, this to the church in Laodicea.

Jesus had a problem with that church, but it is interesting that it was not a problem the church saw itself. In fact the passage presents two diametrically opposed views of the church in Laodicea. The church sees itself in this way: “I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing” (v17a). Pretty comfortable and self-sufficient. Things are ticking along nicely.  It is clear they are involved in “works” (v15). Perhaps they were busy doing all the churchy stuff, money was not a problem. Everyone seems pretty happy.

On the other hand, Jesus sees the church like this: “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (v17b). And Jesus has a different view of the works because they show the church to be lukewarm. Rather like a forgotten, undrunk cup of coffee – take a sip, and the taste causes a gag reflex. Jesus calls for some heat – a restoration of zeal (v19).

It is hard to imagine that there could be such opposite perspectives on the same body, but there it is. Is my church like that? Is your church like that? Are you like that? You think you are rich materially (perhaps) and spiritually (certainly!). You pray for others, but – it’s alright – no one need pray for you. You help others, you pray for others, you do some “works”.

Jesus says, “I know your works”. He knows what they are really like! He knows the state of the heart that drives them. So he sees the self-sufficiency, the comfortableness, and, yes, the spiritual pride. Isn’t that warning for us about our hearts?

Jesus’ counsel to these Christians (this passage is not principally addressed to non-Christians) is this: come to him and buy. For me, this reminds me of Isaiah 55:1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” This is the call of the Servant who freely gives to any who will come – even to Christians – especially to Christians.

What he offers directly meets the needs that he has already identified in v17: gold for poverty, white garments for nakedness and shame, salve for bind eyes.

This brings us to the point of prayer. Prayer is about going to the Lord with our needs. But of course, they have to be needs we actually have.  Only the ascended, reigning Jesus sees objectively.  He sees the needs that really must be addressed. He will answer prayer about them.  What about the person who is pretty comfortable with life and has no real needs (as he sees it)? His prayers, if he prays at all, will be perfunctory, flat, empty, heartless, faithless. At the same time they may be outwardly impressive. But in reality nothing is achieved because he has not come for what he really needs.

We must ask for what we really need, and we need first of all to see what we really need.

This is why we need to be with Jesus. Hence the metaphor of the door in v20. It is an alarming picture of Jesus on the outside of a person’s life (it is singular). But see the love of Jesus: Jesus disciplines (v19) (“the Lord disciplines the one he loves“, Hebrews 12:6); Jesus is not aloof because of this pride, but is ready to enter into the closed life (v20); Jesus is not miserly with his gifts, but will grant the reward of sitting with him (v21).

O the deep, deep love of Jesus! When he is with us, when we eat with him, commune with him, we appreciate him more deeply, and we see our need more clearly too.

Then, I think, we will really begin to pray.

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Hallesby on Prayer Meetings

Ole Hallesby was a Norwegian Lutheran pietist preacher who died in 1961, aged 82, and spent two years in  a Nazi concentration camp during the second world war. His book, Prayer, is one of the most influential books on the topic I have read. I have been reading it again recently.

Following on from my last post on corporate prayer, I came across this passage today which should lift any soul who is discouraged about their participation in a prayer meeting:

From the heavenly perspective many things look different from what they do here on earth. I think that our prayers, too, look different when viewed from above.

There is, for instance, the prayer meeting. One after another prays. First those pray who are accustomed to pray aloud in the presence others. They pray well, and their prayers edify. When they say, Amen, everybody acquiesces quietly in the fact that it was a good prayer. But at the same prayer meeting there may be another believing soul who would like very much to lift his voice in prayer at the meeting. He feels that he needs it, more perhaps, than any of the others. However, he is not accustomed to it and he does not succeed very well when he tries. His thoughts become disconnected, and he speaks stumblingly. Finally he becomes so bewildered that he even forgets to say, Amen. After the meeting he is so downcast because of the prayer he has offered and because of the condition of his heart that he scarcely dares to look anyone in the face.

But I know that a new song of praise has already been sung by the saints in glory, rejoicing because they have heard a man pray to God who in his helplessness did not know what else to do. Such prayers make an impression in heaven.

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A Plea for Corporate Prayer

I remember those early late-teenage days. A new Christian mixing with other Christians (many of them also new) and doing new things that Christians do. It was like going to a new country where you see, smell and hear new things.  Some things may seem similar but they are different.

Reading the Bible was new, but then in one sense not really new. I had read books before. The Bible was just different material. I had been to church before so there was no “cultural barrier” for me to overcome to get into a church.

The thing that was completely new was praying out loud with other Christians. Not just reading out a written prayer (I had even done that before), but praying something coming immediately from my mind and heart. To be honest I really had no idea what to do the first time I had the opportunity.

I remember sitting in a room with some other Christian students who were praying and then it became obvious it was my turn. But I just couldn’t get any words out. There was lots of huffing and puffing from me, and a few semi-syllables spluttering out in aborted attempts to form a single coherent sentence. I eventually muttered some brief prayer of thanks for salvation. In truth it was not really a prayer. I was more concerned about what others in the room were thinking. It was a bit of an ordeal.

I mention this anecdote because I know how hard it can be to begin praying with others. It is new and there are many temptations we can succumb to. For example: fear of what others think of our incoherence; resentment at the ability of others who seem effortlessly to launch in; unwillingness to make the effort to get to the place of the gathering even when it is possible (i.e. laziness); doing the hard work involved in actually articulating prayers that will helpfully lead others.

I also know that because of these factors many people never learn how to pray in a group, and therefore never share in the joy of fellowship in prayer together and with our triune God.

Some might argue that there is no need. The Bible teaches us to pray but can’t this be done at home? After all, didn’t Jesus teach us,  “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6a)? That’s an argument I hear often as a Christian and as a minister. It doesn’t matter where you pray. You don’t have to pray with others.  Just do it at home.

There is a certain apparently indisputable logic to this. But it is only on the surface. Dig deeper and there are a couple of other factors at play.

Firstly, there is the attitude of the heart. The human heart is hypocritical. (“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9) I may talk to others about praying, even talk about my experiences of prayer, but all without actually praying. I may say that I pray at home, tell people I am praying for them, but at home, never actually get round to praying. I have come to know my own heart a little better than I did in  those early days and I now know that I am a better pray-er at home when I am a pray-er with others. I don’t think I am alone.

The second factor is drawn from history. At times of great movements of God, Christians gathered to pray together. Take a biblical example: the days between our Lord’s ascension to heaven and Pentecost. Immediately after the ascension the disciples gathered together: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This set up a pattern: “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said,…” (Acts 1:15). So, there was speaking and corporate prayer. (And incidentally, we may conclude that Jesus’ words of Matthew 6:6 do not exclude groups getting together to pray. Why? A blog for another time…!)

This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history. Look at any great movement of God – look hard enough and you find that the movement happens alongside the motivation amongst ordinary Christians to get together to pray.

So this is my plea: when you consider the act of praying, also think, “Who can I pray with?” If you are talking to a Christian friend about something, take a risk and pray about it together. In your family, don’t hesitate to take a moment to pray about what you are talking about. Make it a pattern of life.

But in addition to these informal, “accidental” prayer meetings, make use of those organised corporate gatherings for prayer. If your church has a prayer meeting, move heaven and earth to get to it! Get involved! Do you want God to do something? Get with other Christians and pray for it! After all, James warns us, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Decide you are going to go, order your commitments as best you can around it, don’t make excuses, resist those temptations of fear, resentment and laziness and get busy!

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Why Are the “One-Another” Aspects of Church Life Missing?

Mez McConnell recently posted a link to a blog post by the guys at the Cripplegate which listed 40 New Testament verses which show that one cannot dispense with the local church. They are all “one another” verses. You can read them here and are well worth spending some time thinking about. 

It just got me thinking. Like any church, at SPC we have our average share of “engaged” people and our share of seemingly “disengaged” people. Like any pastor, I would like to see more engagement and less disengagement in the work of the church’s ministry. This sentiment is not primarily about creating “jobs” and “ministries” so that people have practical ways to contribute. (Actually, at the moment we run a pretty minimalist ship at SPC.) What I am really concerned about, like any pastor, I hope, is the “one another” aspect of church life – a genuine communion of the saints. 

Thinking beyond these verses, I have been wondering why this “one another” aspect seems so absent in people’s lives. In a setting like leafy Solihull I have noticed a few things that seem to work against this living communion:

Work

Work is a good thing! It comes out of the creation mandate (not a necessary evil because of the Fall, as I have heard some people say). People should work to live (2 Thes 3:10,12) and to have something to share with those in need (Eph 4:28).

However, like many good things it can become an all-consuming idol. It dominates every waking thought, demands (often unpaid) overtime to get the job done. It creates fear of failure, fear of loss of advancement or fear of lost opportunity unless it is served. Time for “one another” in the church is seen as a “nice to have” but for which there is usually no time. It destroys any real effective engagement in the church and its ministry. 

Christians in work need a biblical view of work and the sphere it occupies under the Lordship of Christ. It is not the sole sphere – there are others. But under Christ it is under control and is used to serve Christ, not replacing him as Lord.

Children

Children are a blessing from the Lord! (Ps. 127:3-5) However, as with work, children can become an idol to be served. Parents are taught by our culture to fear  missing out on any opportunity for their children. So parents worry about getting them to nurseries and schools; they worry about missing out in development in academic areas, sports, social-oriented organisations. Combine this with the assumed pressure of work, they feel guilty about the lack of time they have for their children. So they find it hard to say no to them and instead lead them in the ways that are truly good for them. So parents become servants of their children, filling their spare time with a full roster of activities – which usually involve significant amounts of transporting. Church life and informal one-another ministry takes a distant third place behind this and work. 

Again, the sphere of family needs to take its place under the Lordship of Christ. We are not to be confused by the influence of the world and the guilt that it induces. Rather we submit to Jesus’ lordship and order our lives accordingly. Though we offer many “yeses” to our children, there need to be few “nos” for their good and the good of the church. 

History

Some Christians have bad experiences in relationships in church in the past. This may have been because of their own immaturity at the time and they misunderstood, misread or reacted badly to the good intentions of others. Young Christians need to learn that sanctification is a long process and it goes deep. At times helpful relationships can be painful but the results are worth it in the end. 

On the other hand, the cause of someone’s bad experiences could be the fault of others. Frankly, some Christians often forget, or have not learned, that the most basic ingredient of any “one another” relationship is love. Such people may have got hold of a bit of theology, good or bad, or attain to a position of influence without the spiritual maturity to go with it. They may have a tongue that is out of control and needs to be tamed. How easy it is for motives in ministry to be corrupted! Relationships can be easily ruined.

Those who have been on the receiving end of this failure have the potential to be of great service to the church because they have learned much through their experiences. They need to picked up and dusted down, have any root of bitterness removed, and put to work in informal ministry.  

Fear

New Christians are simply not used to this kind of fellowship! The world is a cold place. Relationships are poor and/or transitory. In such a world commitment runs the risk of hurt later on. So why run the risk? Just keep your distance, don’t get too involved. 

Sadly this is that attitude that can prevail in a church. But it is imported baggage that should have been left at the door. Churches need to work and develop a culture of love and warmth; a willingness to walk with people and sit with people through good and bad. There needs to be “stickability” in Christian relationships. If Christians persist in seeing the church as a voluntary group – where sometimes I am in, sometimes I am out – then that real stickability is left to the professionals, and you have a dead club. New Christians need to see something different – an environment in which love truly prevails. 

The church is the church of Jesus Christ. We are his people because we are united to him. Because we are united to him, we are united to one another. It is not a club. It is a body and bodies work by the connectedness and interrelatedness of their parts. 

Well, there are four things I could think of. Maybe you can think of more! Let’s pray that the churches we are part of will become, by the grace of God, “one another” places – a true communion of saints. 

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Wife and Cousellor

I am enjoying reading R W Dale’s biography of John Angell James, which can be found on Google Books. It is a mix of James’s own memoirs interspersed with editorial comment from Dale, his successor at Carrs Lane. The style is a little stodgy as one might expect for early 19th century writing but James himself I find very engaging, not least because of the awareness he had of his limitations as a minister of the gospel. Many of us can identify with that!

James entered his ministry in Birmingham in 1806 with a great sense if joy and anticipation with a congregation of 100+ in a building designed for 800. However, the first few years were hard labour with little fruit, the church growing only modestly. It caused him to question his own ministry. James, looking back at that gloomy period, wrote:

“I believe that had any offer of another situation been made at that time, I should have been strongly tempted to accept it. Against this, however, my wife, who knew the bias of my mind, firmly set herself, and used to say to me, “Never leave Birmingham till you see your way out of it as clearly as you did into it.” Her advice was sound and good, and shews the vast importance of a minister’s having for a wife one who can be a counseller as well as a comforter.”

How important it is to marry well in the ministry (or anywhere else for that matter!)

“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” (Proverbs 31:10).

I am glad that God has given me Susan who, amongst many other things, is a superb counsellor.

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