Archive for September, 2016

When we pray for discernment, what do we expect to happen?

September 8, 2016

In Roger Olson’s most recent blog post, “Evangelical Christian Thoughts about ‘Mindfulness,’” Dr. Olson asserts that genuine Christian prayer must include talking to God. From his perspective, if we’re not talking, we may be meditating, but we’re not praying.

Is he right?

If so, doesn’t this conflict with how we often talk about prayer? In my job as pastor, for example, I often ask laypeople to consider serving in lay leadership positions and on committees. Usually, they respond by saying something like, “Let me pray about it and get back to you.” I know I’ve responded this way when others ask me to make important decisions.

But what are we really saying when we say we’ll “pray” about a decision?

I suspect few of us imagine that God will tell us in an audible voice whether we should do something or not. So are we waiting to feel an intuition, a hunch, a warm feeling in the pit of our stomachs? And if so, am I right to be suspicious of this kind of “prayer”?

C.S. Lewis certainly would have been. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior tempter Screwtape urges his young apprentice to get his human patient to focus on his feelings when he prays. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy”—writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter—he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

These words convict me. I often judge the success of my prayers based on how I feel while praying, or shortly thereafter. So when I pray for discernment, how much of what I “discern” will depend less on the Holy Spirit and more on whether I’m “well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment”?

Once, while talking to a candidate for ministry, I told him he should seriously consider going to a particular seminary. He said, “I’ve prayed about it, and I just don’t feel that the Lord is leading me to go there.” Frankly, I thought he was mistaken. And I wanted to say to him, “Yes, but how do you know that my telling you this isn’t a part of the Lord’s guidance? Maybe the Lord is using me to get you to consider going to this seminary.”

On what basis did this person discern that he shouldn’t go to this seminary if not his own feelings? Is that O.K.?

What are your thoughts?

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.

Sermon 08-21-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 1: Our Prayers”

September 7, 2016


As I say in this sermon, we often treat prayer as if it’s the maraschino cherry on top of church sundae. Instead, it ought to be at the very center of everything we do as a church and as individuals. The church in Acts 12 prayed as if prayer were a matter of life and death. Because it was. And it still is.

[Please note: The last few minutes of the sermon were cut off. Sorry! Refer to the sermon manuscript.]

Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-17

The Olympics are drawing to a close today. As usual, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them—especially the swimming. And no—not even the foolish, drunken antics of Ryan Lochte can detract for a moment from what our swimmers accomplished in the pool. Especially my favorite Olympic hero, Katie Ledecky. In the 4x200m freestyle relay, Ledecky was anchoring the team. And the Australian swimmer in the lane next to Ledecky started the final leg of the race with what I thought was a significant lead over Ledecky—89-hundredths of a second. And I’m like, “Ugh! I don’t like this!” But the announcer on the TV was far more confident than I was. She said, “I’m afraid that’s not going to be a big enough lead for the Australians,” and sure enough, Ledecky won by nearly two seconds!

Why did I doubt her?

The great Katie Ledecky

The great Katie Ledecky

An article in the Washington Post last week described the kind of goals that her swim coach, Bruce Gemmell, makes with her. Ledecky and her coach call them BFHGs. “Big fat hairy goals.” They mostly keep these goals a secret from everyone—including Ledecky’s own family. But t hey did reveal one of the goals that they set for the Olympics this year. The goal was that Ledecky would finish in the range of 3:56 seconds in the 400m freestyle. She actually finished at 3:56.46. So mission accomplished. Read the rest of this entry »

Why did Ananias and Sapphira drop dead?

September 1, 2016

mockingbird_devotionalAny pastor who preaches annual stewardship sermons knows that the Bible doesn’t say what we want it to say when it comes to financial giving. We’ll take free grace over Law every day of the year except “Commitment Sunday.” I’m talking, of course, about the Old Testament law of the tithe. If only we could convince our parishioners that Christ has set them free from every law except that one!

No one believes me when I point to the generosity of Zacchaeus or greed of the Rich Young Ruler and say, “See… Ten percent may not be enough for us Christians!”

All that to say, I like this insight concerning Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5:1-11) from Jeremy Coleman in The Mockingbird Devotional:

What’s terrifying, then, is that Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but for believing what is untrue of God. They believe they must give something; that in order to be acceptable before God and church, something is required. Ananias and Sapphira hold as truth their requirements and pretenses, and reject the truth of Christ’s freedom. Because they believe their lives are being tallied, God takes their lives, leaving them in the only thing Jesus needs for their resurrection: their death.[†]

While I would have modified that first sentence (“…Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead merely for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but also for believing what is untrue of God.”), I still like it.

Jeremy Coleman, “September 11” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 311.