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.

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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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Don’t Lose Focus at Christmas

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.

See Clearly, Pray Well

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.

Hallesby on Prayer Meetings

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!

A Plea for Corporate Prayer