Friday, February 11, 2011

Praying for Your Family

Praying for your family is one of the most basic and fundamental things a Christian does.  God calls us to love our neighbor, that is, to work for their good.  He also calls us to tell all the world about what He has done in human history through Jesus Christ.  And since the family itself is the building block of humanity, it makes sense that God would call us first to the foundation of the family before he calls us to other parts of the worldwide human edifice.

So, as we ask "How can I reach the world for Christ?" We also need to ask, "How can I love my family with Christ's love?  How can I minister to them?"

As I've sought to love my family with Christ's love, I have messed up in every way conceivable.   I want to love them, but I don't do it well.  For me, the beginning of loving them in action and in person has been praying for them in private, praying for their immediate good (e.g. a new job, a better relationship, help in isolation, etc.) and their greatest good (e.g. that they would know God through Jesus Christ).  

The only way I ever actually do this is if I set aside time to pray, only about 10 minutes or so at a time.  

I pray for my wife and son every day, covering different topics each day (e.g. Wednesdays I pray for their friendships and relationships.  Mondays, I pray for their callings, challenges, hurdles. etc.)  
I pray for my immediate family on Fridays and my extended family on Saturdays.  To help me in this, I have scrawled out a list on a few post-it notes in the front of my prayer book.  On my list are the names of my whole family with a quick note of what to pray for.  When I am rushed and cannot pray for them individually, I pray this prayer for them:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who sets the solitary in families: We commend to thy continual care the homes in which thy people dwell. Put far from them, we beseech thee , every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life. Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh. Turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (Book of Common Prayer, p. 828)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Signs of True Spiritual Life

In a previous blog post (or here) I mentioned the very challenging (and sometimes disturbing) doctrine of the Narrow Way or of Good Works:  Anyone who has true faith in Christ will not rely on their own good deeds to make them right with God, but true faith, and the spiritual life that God promises with it, will always be accompanied by signs of spiritual life.  Put another way, we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.  (See Article XII of the Articles of Religion for a brief description of this doctrine.  Also, pour over 1 Peter 1:3-9 and James 2:14-26 and Hebrews 3:12-14.)

We see the truth of this doctrine in the way Christians live.  If they are truly spiritually alive they will look different than those who are not.  

If all of that is true (and it is), then anyone reading this who gives a rip about the condition of their own soul should be asking this question:  In what ways will a real Christian look different?

If I call myself a Christian and have all my confidence before God in the work and Person of Jesus Christ, in what ways should I expect my life to look different than those who have no such faith?  

There are many places in the Scriptures we could go to find an answer to this question, but in this post we're going to just look a few places in St. John's First Letter (1 John).  The whole letter seems to have been written to help us distinguish those who are truly believers and those who are not.  In it John gives us four signs of true spiritual life

1. Obedience to God's Commands:  "And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep his commandments." (1 John 2:3) And what are God's commands?  Two summaries of his requirements exist for us in the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor) and the 10 Commandments (which tell us what loving God and our neighbor looks like).  A person whose faith is real will have a life that is characterized by obedience to God.  This obedience, of course, will not be perfect (see 1 John 1:8-2:1), but a true Christian is one who, when he does know he is in sin, confesses, repents, believes the Gospel, and obeys.  Such a person is noticeable.  

2. Love for God and other people:  "Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him... Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." (1 John 2:15; 4:7) A person who has no inkling of a love for God, as one loves other people, does not really have spiritual life. Neither does someone who hates God's people, that is, the Church.  You may want to ask yourself, as I have had to ask myself in the past:  "Do I love being with God's people?  Do I love to worship with other Christians?" 

3. Right Doctrine:  "Whoever knows God listens to us [that is the Apostle's teaching in the Scriptures]; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error." (1 John 4:6) As the Creed of Athanasius states, belief in the core doctrines of Christianity is essential to salvation, and we deviate from these core doctrines to the peril of their own soul.  Core Christian doctrines spring from the Bible and are recognized in the Scriptures by the community of the Church.  Anyone claiming to be a Christian who states (without ignorance) things contrary to what Christians have believed always and everywhere (see the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed for good summations of this) is not giving themselves or others confidence of their being truly God's.   

4. The Presence of the Holy Spirit:  "By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit..." (1 John 4:13)  God's Holy Spirit lives in all true believers (Eph 1:13Rom 8:9), and evidences of his presence are both objective (the things listed above in items 1-3) and subjective: that because of the Holy Spirit's presence, we simply  know that we are God's (Rom 8:16).  

So these, in a nutshell, are the ways in which a Christian should be different.  Again, this is only a very compact summary, but don't let it's simplicity cause you throw it out:  simple things can be true also.  

A closing thought on these four signs of life from 1 John:  God gave them to us to assure us that we are His (1 John 5:13).  They were meant to comfort and not to concern us.  So then... Do you find these four characteristics in your life?  Do not despair or get depressed if you see them only in small, freckle-sized amounts, but be assured: you are seeing God's work in your life.  

Friday, February 04, 2011

Learning to Pray in Community

Someone recently asked me to share some insights with them on using the Book of Common Prayer in personal devotions.  While I have not yet responded to this person fully, I recently read something from Eugene Peterson that speaks to the issue of common prayer as relates to private prayer,  and it will do quite well as a the beginning of a response.   So, what follows is a segment of an interview conducted by Rodney Clapp (former editor at Christianity Today) as it appears in the foreword to Peterson's book The Contemplative Pastor.  It's worth the read and is helpful in considering how we should teach others to pray:

Clapp:  American Christians tend to focus on private as opposed to common prayer, or prayer in worship.  Your writing indicates you're not comfortable with that tendency.  

Peterson: I'm not.  The paradigmatic prayer is not solitary but in community.  The fundamental biblical context is worship. That's why worship seems to me to be the place. It's the only context in which we can recover the depth of the gospel. 

Clapp: Does that men we learn how to pray in community, that what we do in solitude is something we take from the community's worship? 

Peterson:  That's what I mean.  If somebody comes to me and says, "Teach me how to pray," I say, "Be at this church at nine o'clock on Sunday morning."  That's where you learn how to pray.  Of course, prayed is continued and has alternate forms when you're by yourself.  But the American experience has the order reversed.  In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.  

Clapp: What things do we learn in common prayer?

Peterson: One thing we learn is to be led in prayer.  I'm apt to think of prayer as my initiative.  I realize I have a need or I am happy, and I pray.  The emphasis is on me, and I have the sense when I pray that I started something. 

But what happens if I go to church?  I sit there and somebody stands before me and says, "Let us pray."  I didn't start it; I'm responding.  Which means I am humbled.  My ego is no longer prominent.  Now that's a very basic element in prayer, because prayer is answering speech. 

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said.  The worshipping congregation-- hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments-- is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer.  It is a center from which I pray.  From it I go to my close or to the mountains and continue to pray.  

A second thing about praying in community is that, when I pray in a congregation, my feelings are not taken into account.  Nobody asks me when I enter the congregation, "How do you feel today?  What do you feel like praying about?" 

So the congregation is a place where I'm gradually learning that prayer is not conditioned or authenticated by my feelings.  Nothing is more devastating to prayer than when I begin to evaluate prayer by my feelings, and think that in order to pray I have to have  a certain sense, a certain attentiveness or peace or, on the other side, anguish.  

That's virtually impossible to learn by yourself.  But if I'm in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.  

Am I different?

I am currently reading through William Law's classic "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life," and through it I am being reminded of what faith that is true faith really looks like (Matthew 7:13-14).
It is still easy to call one's self a Christian in our country without facing much opposition.   But it is not easy, nor has it ever been, to actually be a Christian without facing opposition.   If you take Jesus' commands and actually try to live them, you will be schnubed or even hated. 

While our works could never make us right with God (only Christ's perfect and flawless works could do this), anyone who really knows God abandons, more and more, the things that displease Him.  Obedience to God's commandments and love for Him is one of the signs of true spiritual life.   Without these signs of life, we must assume someone is spiritually dead.  However, if we live in obedience to God's commands and ways, we will be a noticeably different kind of person, as much as a dead body is different than a living, breathing, walking person.

Consider William Law's brief description of how this difference might look (pardoning the old school language), and ask yourself (as I am asking myself), "Am I different?"

"If my religion is only a formal compliance with those modes of worship that are in fashion where I live; if it costs me no pains or trouble; if it lays me under no rules and restraints; if I have no careful thoughts and sober reflections about it, is it not great weakness to think that I am striving to enter in at the strait gate?

If I am seeking everything that can delight my senses, and regale my appetites; spending my time and fortune in pleasures, in diversions, and worldly enjoyments; a stranger to watchings, fastings, prayers, and mortification; how can it be said that I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling?

If there is nothing in my life and conversation that shows me to be different from Jews and heathens; if I use the world, and worldly enjoyments, as the generality of people now do, and in all ages have done; why should I think that I am amongst those few who are walking in the narrow way to Heaven?" (William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, iii).