Posts Tagged ‘Richard Foster’

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 19: Seeing God’s Hand in Natural Events

December 18, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-6

Several years ago, I visited a parishioner who was convalescing at home after a debilitating illness. He was a former NASA scientist—with a Ph.D. from Harvard—who was also an amateur astronomer. (“Amateur” in the truest sense of the word: he didn’t need compensation to pursue his love for the stars.) To pass the time and keep his sanity during his long recovery, he engaged in some astronomical research.

“I’ve made a discovery,” he told me with excitement as he greeted me at the door. “I know the date on which Jesus was born!”

“Really?” He sensed skepticism in my voice. He then qualified his earlier words: Maybe he didn’t know the exact date, but he had a narrow range of dates, within a couple of weeks, given certain assumptions. “Look, I’ll show you.” He explained his findings using a star chart, the Bible, and various clippings from astronomy journals.

Surprisingly, it all seemed very… plausible to me. And he wasn’t a crackpot. He said that it wasn’t actually a star, per se, but a morning star—Jupiter, I believe—which would have been visible to the magi at this particular time in this particular region. Contrary to popular illustrations of the Star of Bethlehem and Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear,” this astral phenomenon was not something just anyone would have noticed. But for men like these magi who made their living studying the night sky, this would have been an incredibly curious event.

The point is, through this natural event, God was speaking to the magi.

In this sense, miracles happen all the time, even if we can “explain” them naturally. For the magi, every moment was imbued with the possibility of encountering God. That being the case, they waited and watched for God, discerning his presence in the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday.

If only we could follow their example! We might learn to see God’s fingerprints everywhere!

In his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster describes a worship service he was leading in someone’s home on a hot summer evening.

The doors were left open in hopes of a breeze. At one point in the meeting, I encouraged everyone to “wait on the Lord” in listening silence. The stillness was quickly interrupted by the homeowner’s cat scratching at the screen door, seeking entrance. The more I tried to ignore the cat, the worse it got. I prayed that God would do something—send the cat away, magically open the door, and other more drastic prayers that I shall not mention, since you may have a fondness for cats. (Strangely, it never occurred to me to get up and let the cat in!)

Later in the evening, someone mentioned the cat. Everyone began sharing how distracting the cat had been on their ability to focus on God. Everyone, that is, except Bill—a former missionary filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Bill sat pensive, uttering not a word. “Bill,” I queried, “what are you thinking?” “Oh,” he spoke deliberately, “I was just wondering what God wanted to say to us through the cat?”[1]

I’m not quite where Bill is in this story—maybe not even close. But I’d like to be!

Are we aware of God’s presence in the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday? Is God trying to get our attention? Are we paying attention?

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 86.

A reflection about prayer

April 15, 2014

In the following homily, which I shared at our church’s Palm Sunday evening prayer service, I made reference to some profound worship experiences I had while I was in Kenya in 2012 and 2013. The video below demonstrates the style of prayer to which I referred in my homily. Around the 40-second mark, my fellow pastors begin praying out loud, all at once. This was a completely new way of praying for me!

Twice over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of going to Kenya to teach indigenous United Methodist pastors classes on Wesleyan theology, church doctrine, and church history. While I was there I had some profound experiences of prayer and worship, and I’d like to share one of them with you.

You know how in our worship services I ask people to lift up the name of someone in prayer—someone says a name, I say, “Lord in your mercy,”and the people respond, “Hear our prayer”? The Kenyans I worked with do something kind of similar when they worship—it’s much more chaotic than what we do, but very beautiful. During worship, they sing hymns and praise and worship songs, and then—spontaneously, without being prompted by a pastor or anyone—they begin praying. And when they pray, each person in the group of dozens or hundreds of worshipers shouts out their praise and gratitude and supplications to God—individually, all at once. Out loud! It is this beautiful cacophony of voices.

I had never heard anything like it before. Some of the pastors were literally weeping as they prayed. They seemed to pray with such holy desperation. They were pleading that God would give them whatever they were asking for! Read the rest of this entry »

The Grinch who stole Lent

March 4, 2014

Just in time for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli reminds us what a lousy program for self-improvement Lent really is.

I know, I know… We’re not exactly “giving up something” or fasting in order to improve ourselves: whatever the reason we practice more intense forms of self-discipline during Lent, it’s supposed to have something to do with God, not us. But, good heavens, suppose we do fast one day a week during Lent, or give up chocolate or beer, shouldn’t there be some payoff on the bathroom scale?

As Galli well knows, it’s hard to avoid these sorts of “what’s-in-it-for-me” thoughts during Lent. Besides, there must be some payoff, right?

Maybe not. Galli would say that I tell myself (and my congregation) “white lies” when I extol a couple of so-called “benefits” of Lenten discipline.

As we discipline ourselves in small things (eating sweets), it will inevitably help us discipline ourselves in large things (like being generous to the poor). We get this from Jesus, of course (Luke 16:10), but it’s theinevitably that’s the problem. You see, when picking the small thing for self-discipline, we sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not all that small. We pick it because it plagues us, and has plagued us for years. This means it’s likely to continue to plague us for years to come. And so instead of helping us to move on to loving others, our life energy is spent trying to not eat little pieces of candy.

Fasting doesn’t even necessarily lead us into deeper prayer, which is the big twofer of fasting for some people: We discipline the body while immersing ourselves in prayer. But when I fast, prayer is the last thing I feel like doing. I’m tired, weak, and thinking about food the whole time I’m praying.

So, instead of the small thing helping me become faithful in the big thing, it just makes me focus more and more on the small thing. Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways. I believe, but O Lord, help the enormity of my unbelief.

Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

That’s pretty much my experience—except when I accomplish a fast I feel really good… as in proud of myself. And that brings me back to Galli’s point: I’m reminded how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

I’ve read Richard Foster on the subject of fasting, in his excellent book Celebration of Discipline, and Foster would nod sympathetically at Galli’s words. He writes about all our temptations to make fasting (which would also apply to its less severe form, “giving something up”) about us. He warns us that it’s not about self-help. He says we don’t even fast in order for God to bestow some blessing on us. He would probably also say that it’s helpful for us to be reminded how little we love God, etc.

But I’ve never heard Foster say anything like what Galli says here:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march…

So I end this little essay by grabbing two more pieces of candy, for Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow! It will be time to give myself again to disciplines great and small. I do that partly because, in the end, it is probably better to be a little more disciplined or loving and self-righteous than undisciplined, unloving, and merely lazy. And who knows, by God’s grace, I may lose track of what my left hand is doing!

But I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.

And recalling that I have one.

We observe Lent, including Lenten practices of fasting or giving something up, in order to remind us how sinful we are and desperately we need a Savior.

Amen!

We’re not very good at praying, and other reflections

October 2, 2013

Last night, I offered the invocation at a city council meeting. My prayer, adapting and greatly expanding a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (my go-to resource for making sure my public prayers aren’t terrible), was as follows:

O God, the fountain of wisdom, whose will is good and gracious, and whose law is truth: We thank you that you have blessed us with this city of Hampton and with these servants who make up the City Council. We thank you for all the dedicated citizens in our community, both elected and unelected, who strive continually to make our city an even better place to live.

We confess that in spite of our highest ideals, our best motives, our most selfless impulses, we often fall short of your standard of love and justice; we fall short of what you would have us to be and to do; we fall short of our own principles. For this we are sorry and we pray your forgiveness.

At the same time we are grateful, because we recognize that it isn’t up to us frail and fallible human beings to ensure our own success—because you are here with us. By your grace, you will make us equal to the task that lies before us.

So we ask you so to guide and bless the members of this assembled body, that they may govern our city with wisdom, that they may make decisions that please you, that they may truly love the people they serve, always placing the interests of others ahead of their own. And bless all of our citizens, that we would respond to their leadership in a spirit of love, humility, and graciousness. Amen.

Not bad, right?

Praying this prayer in a public, secular context reminded me of a prayer that I offered at a corporate shareholders’ meeting when I first entered the ministry nine years ago. (Come to think of it, I’ve done this sort of thing a lot.) It was a large gathering of people—probably a thousand or so. I prayed my prayer and left. Weeks later, I received a letter from a Baptist pastor in the area who was at the shareholders’ meeting.

He told me that my prayer was bad—scandalously so—and what business did I have calling myself a Christian minister?

Why did he say this? Because I hadn’t included the formula, “in Jesus’ name,” at the end. God, he said, won’t or can’t hear prayers that are not offered in Jesus’ name. With urgency, he asked me to repent and start praying properly for the sake of my soul and the souls in my congregation.

Today, I would have placed the letter in File 13 and gotten on with my life, but I was young and foolish then. I wrote him back, making the point (with which I still agree, surprisingly) that it’s only by grace that God hears and acts on our prayers. It’s not any human action that compels God to give us what we ask for. To say otherwise is to reduce prayer to a meritorious work that earns God’s love.

Besides—and this was the coup de grâce as far as I was concerned—in the Lord’s Prayer, the very prayer that Jesus gave his disciples as a model to emulate, there is no “in Jesus’ name” formula.

I’m hardly against using the formula in the doxology of my prayers. In fact, I love the Trinitarian formula—again, from the Book of Common Prayer—that concludes with words such as these: “we pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” But whether we say “in Jesus’ name” or not doesn’t change the fact that we Christians offer our prayers in or through his name and power, and on the basis of his atoning work on the cross and our new standing before God.

My Baptist pastor brother was, in a Christianized way, making the same mistake as the Gentiles Jesus mentions in Matthew 6:7-8: that there is a technique for prayer, a way of doing it “correctly,” which compels God’s response. Isn’t that the last thing we need? One obstacle to prayer, after all, is believing that we don’t know how to do it! To which I would say, “Of course we don’t know how to do it! What’s your point?”

If no less a saint than the apostle Paul can confess his inadequacy at prayer, then we can be sure that we’re not very good at it, either. In his masterful book on the subject, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster says—if memory serves—that we’re always beginners when it comes to prayer.

But we pray anyway! The Spirit will intercede with us to make sure that we “get it right,” regardless how poorly we do it.

In the days since I preached the sermon on Jesus’ Model Prayer, I’ve been intentionally following the outline of this prayer to guide my own words and petitions. So I spend the first part of my prayer focusing on God—who he is and what he wants for me and for the world. Then I turn the prayer to myself and my own needs and personal petitions.

In his sermon on the same text, Timothy Keller says that if we remember that what we’re praying for—before all else—is that God’s will will be done, then we’ll never be disappointed by a petition not granted. Why? Because, Keller says in so many words, our first and most important petition, “thy will be done,” will always come true. All of our personal petitions are subsumed under that first petition.

While I appreciate the logic of that statement, and it’s beautiful in its own way, I smell a rat—a big, fat Calvinist one—and I say that as someone who adores Timothy Keller. He’s simply one of the best and brightest Christian thinkers of our generation. But sooner or later his Reformed roots are bound to show through, as they do here.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Everything that happens in this world is not already God’s will. Yes, he permits evil, but evil is not required for God’s purposes. If we petition God to prevent evil from happening (as we often do), and evil happens anyway, we don’t say, “Well, it must have been God’s will.” No!

What sense would it make for Jesus to have us pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” unless God’s will often weren’t being done on earth? Am I missing something?

Besides, how would we know for sure whether or not God’s will were being done when our prayers seem to go unanswered? Keller implies that if what we pray for doesn’t come to pass, then we can be sure that God’s will is nevertheless accomplished. But on what basis does he say that?

Remember the Parable of the Unjust Judge? The widow pesters the judge day after day until she finally wears him down, and he gives her the justice she seeks. Her persistence pays off. If the widow had given up a moment earlier, however, and the judge didn’t relent, would that mean that the “right thing” had taken place? Of course not. The “right thing”—what we can interpret as God’s will—was that she keep on asking until the judge gave in.

With all that being said, even though he badly overstates his case, I still believe Keller is on to something. As much as it pains some of my fellow mainline Protestants to hear, God is sovereign. He’s in charge. He’s ultimately in control. If God wants to override what we want for what God wants, then by all means he can and will do so. I’m not praying for “my kingdom” to come—even though I usually live as if that’s what I really want!

Sermon 09-22-13: “Back to School, Part 7: The Model Prayer”

October 1, 2013
Do you worry that God has bigger things to worry about than a football game? Don't.

Do you worry that God has bigger things to worry about than a football game? Don’t.

One of the challenges many Christians face when it comes to prayer is believing that God cares enough to hear from us about our “small” problems. Yet, if the first words that Jesus gives us to pray are true—”Our Father”—then we have no reason to doubt. God is not less of a father than any human father. Quite the contrary!

This sermon encourages God’s children to pray, and to do so with boldness.

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-13


The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Michael Bleecker leads worship at a megachurch in Texas. On Twitter, he recently asked his fellow worship leaders around the world to document some of the theological blunders they’ve accidentally made while leading worship or singing in church under the hashtag “#worshipheresy”. Of course, yours truly has never made mistakes when I preach or pray! Yeah, right! I once preached a sermon on Noah, and throughout the entire sermon I referred to him as “Jonah.” Or vice versa.

Many of the funny mistakes that worship leaders made were related to extemporaneous prayer, and here are a few of them: “Father, thank you for dying on the cross.” And “Father, we thank you for rising from the dead.” And “Jesus, we thank you that the tomb is not empty.” But some prayer mistakes might be more accurately characterized as Freudian slips, if you know what I mean. They reveal a bit more about us than we’d care to admit. Here are a few if them: “We’re just trying to repay You for what You’ve done.” Or “God, that you would decrease so that I may increase.” Or my favorite: “Lord, align Your will with ours.”

Lord, align your will with ours. Read the rest of this entry »

This morning’s uninspiring Facebook post

April 2, 2013

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Seriously, this is how I’ve been feeling since we left the house yesterday morning for our family’s spring-break vacation.

Ugh! 

One clergy friend sympathized, commenting, “Insanity is inherited from children.” If only that were true! I replied to him: “They at least bring out the insanity that’s already there!”

Richard Foster has written about this problem before. When we fast, for example, we often find ourselves irritable and short-tempered. We’re tempted to blame it on the hunger pangs. “My lack of food is causing me to respond in this childish way.” (If we’re not fasting, it could as easily be a lack of sleep or, in my case, especially, a lack of caffeine.) The truth is, Foster says, the anger and contentiousness are already there in our souls. Fasting is just unmasking what’s already there.

I hope it’s a sign of growth on my part that I recognize the problem. I’ve been praying about it. In fact, when I felt myself losing patience today, I prayed a series of three “sentence prayers” in my head, which N.T. Wright recommends in Simply Christian. You might consider praying them as well:

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your kingdom in our midst.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer is also a good idea—along with memorizing and reciting relevant scripture related to the peace of Christ (Matthew 11:29 or John 14:27).

What’s your strategy for coping with a lack of patience?

One challenge related to prayer: God’s omniscience

March 6, 2013

Foster’s book is a masterpiece on the subject.

In my sermon on Sunday, I said that one obstacle we face in developing the kind of prayer life that Jesus wants us to have is believing that we are doing it wrong—praying incorrectly, praying selfishly. I hope I disabused my congregation of that idea!

Obviously, there are other obstacles that hinder prayer. One is God’s omniscience: the idea that God already knows what we’re going to ask (and what we need), so why bother telling him what he already knows? Once again, Richard Foster handles this objection nicely in his masterful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.

The most straightforward answer is that God likes to be asked.

We like our children to ask us for things that we already know they need because the very asking enhances and deepens the relationship. P.T. Forsyth notes, “Love loves to be told what it knows already…. It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”[1]

That sounds good, of course. My wife doesn’t need to say she loves me for me to know that she loves me, but I like hearing it. I tell each of my three kids nearly every day that I love them, although usually they have no reason to think that anything has changed in our relationship since the last time I told them.

There is, however, a theological doctrine at stake in this discussion: God’s impassibility. Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have said (including heavyweights like Augustine) that human beings can do nothing to affect God in any emotional sort of way. God is unchanging, therefore nothing we do has the power to change God. To believe otherwise, they say, is to shrink God down to human-size, to make God in our image.

I cling to the idea of impassibility when I feel as if my sin has “let God down.” No, Brent. You don’t have the power to affect God in that way. Who do you think you are? How powerful do you think you are? Besides, disappointment almost kinda sorta implies that God expected more from me, as if God were surprised at how badly I behaved—and how is that possible for a God who already knows, from all eternity, everything that I (and everyone else in the world) will ever do? God’s impassibility seems to affirm God’s omniscience.

But not so fast… We are made in God’s image, which means that God ought to be at least a little like us. More importantly, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, certainly wasn’t impassible: He allowed the money-changers in the temple to make him angry. He allowed the death of his friend Lazarus to make him weep.

We could sidestep this objection by saying that in his humanness, Jesus didn’t have omniscience, and so these events were able to surprise him—that outside of time and space, God wouldn’t respond this way.

I’m not so sure… After all, the Bible itself has no trouble depicting God as emotional— just like us, except without sin. It even depicts God being surprised. At what point should our loftiest theology conform to scripture? By the way, one thing I admire about John Goldingay’s excellent Old Testament commentary series, For Everyone, from Westminster John Knox, is that he lets the Bible speak for itself without spackling over the rough patches with neat and tidy theology.

For me, the larger issue is the nature of love itself—God’s own nature. Isn’t love about reciprocity, give-and-take? Can’t we imagine that our loving God—even in his omnipotence and omniscience—freely chooses to limit his power and knowledge in order to have a relationship of give and take? Richard Foster thinks so:

Besides, I am not so sure that God knows everything about our petition. It seems that God has freely chosen to allow the dynamic of the relationship to determine what we will eventually ask. The fact that God is all-knowing—omniscient, as we say—does not preclude his withholding judgment on matters in which the decision depends on the give and take of relationship… For now, be encouraged that God desires authentic dialogue, and that as we speak what is on our hearts, we are sharing real information that God is deeply interested in.[2]

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 181.

2. Ibid.