Day 15 - Issue 24

January 19, 2018

1 John 4:18 NLT

'Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.'

The purpose in prayer is, as one writer succinctly describes it, “Being present with the presence.” Often our humanity associates presence with feelings. Yet feelings are emotional states of response. My approach to God will prove different when feeling content and secure to when I have a raging toothache. Often we make judgements about church worship, even whole church congregational gatherings, simply upon the feelings they induce. Nothing wrong with feelings per se, but be warned, they are an untrustworthy measure of reality. As Jeremiah reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (17:9a, NIV).

Presence is the truth and reality that God is with us always. The question is, will I rest in that reality, no matter my feelings, with an undistracted mind? To acknowledge the reality of God and his presence, despite my ever-changing circumstances, is to stand in the presence of God. It is no diversionary tactic, for the realities of such circumstances don’t change. What changes is the way in which I choose to frame them. I can frame them with the fears or pleasures they induce. Or I can perceive the presence of God and frame circumstance the Godward side of my experience.

As my first wife, Katey, battled with MS, we managed our own journeys from different perspectives. Katey experienced the loss of physical and mental ability that accompanied progressive MS. I fought anger, resentment, God’s apparent abandonment, the God who I’d served faithfully. Consequently, we proved a handful to others, most of whom, understandably, took a large step back from us. Like Jacob, we wrestled long through the darkness of our night. Only as dawn peeped above the horizon, the dawning recognition of God’s presence in the bleakest of contexts, did we begin to touch God’s presence. God was not some external, impotent fraud outside and unable to intervene within our situation. God had always been accompanying us within this, the bleakest experience of our life to date.

QUESTION: What helps you discern God’s presence in your life?

PRAYER: Lord God, thank you that in Christ you have promised never to leave us nor forsake us.

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Day 14 - Issue 24

January 18, 2018

Psalm 123:1 NLT

'I lift my eyes to you, O God, enthroned in heaven.'

For some, discerning God’s presence in the silence is too passive. For years my prayer was a response to present circumstance, with no focus on the end in view. I learned that God thinks from the end backwards. I have been created human, in the image of God, for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. If I merely engage with the realities of the present it will lead to a stunted, abnormal Christian discipleship. Attentiveness enables me to discern the present in light of the end. I recover perspective.

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, our initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. We knew God does intervene and heals physically today. We’d both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer, for others and ourselves. Yet, our learning was to be that physical healing is only ever incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where death is the door to such completion. While Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we failed to be still and attend to the distinct word of God in this season. In fact, we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what we assumed could only have been the devil's work.

Exhausted and disillusioned, alone and with a sense of abandonment, while an exhausted and confused congregation melted away, we began to pay attention to God, seeking to discern his voice. We again reminded ourselves we were God’s property, albeit “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV). God alone has the word of life, and so we directed our gaze to the Lord. No longer consumed by physical disease, we waited and began to develop attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern his unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment.

QUESTION: What are the challenges within your present circumstances?

PRAYER: Lord, help me to follow where you are leading me and not where I think you should be taking me.

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Day 13 - Issue 24

January 17, 2018

Psalm 46:10a-11a NLT

'Be still, and know that I am God! …The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us.'

If stillness draws us into the prayer space, how are we to avoid the pitfalls of constant distraction? When I first began to explore prayer beyond my intercession, my mind was restless, interrupting all attempts at stillness. I soon learned my mind could not be controlled, however hard I tried. What I lacked was the essential attentiveness to God.

Attentiveness has two distinct meanings. We all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context; for example, driving a car requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions, it’s not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal or to use a mobile phone. Once in the stillness, therefore, it’s not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the space such stillness has introduced us to. On summer mornings I sit enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus; I hear a cacophony of birdsong fill the air. However, when attentive, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. This ability depends on familiarising myself with the different garden bird songs. The attention I’ve given in life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation to establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear, yet I must learn to discern what it is I am hearing. I learn to listen beyond the distractions.

Yet, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others. In approaching God, it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist way attends to my ever-swelling bandwidth of 'needs'. Instead I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an all-powerful God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. Because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who are determined to love and serve God. We are literally God’s hands and feet in the earth today.

QUESTION: What do you find hard about being still?

PRAYER: Lord, knowing you lies at the heart of all that your people are and must do.

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Day 12 - Issue 24

January 16, 2018

Psalm 46:10a NLT

'Be still, and know that I am God!'

Prayer can be my endless monotone of requests, concerns and appeals to God. God is seen as our lifebelt which we reach for to stay afloat in stormy waters. In reality, prayer is a precise response in search of a God who I deeply desire to encounter. With such love there are no guarantees of reciprocation, and my search for God might prove fruitless since God can only and ever be sought through faith. And faith is literally without substance, established solely upon an insubstantial foundation. For faith is to knowledge what skill is to sport: Intuition + Practise = Performance.

The first essential of all prayer is stillness. This is the absence of motion, the stillness of mind and heart in the face of myriad distractions. Stillness is my choice. While the mind is never free from processing millions of bytes of data sent via our senses for interpretation, we must teach our brain the art of stillness. Here, years of activity including work, hobbies, family etc take their toll. Our brains demand stimulation, and such activities offer this up in plenty. This is something we believe stillness can never give us. Forced to do nothing, we are restless. Periods of illness or the daily repetition of retirement reveal the challenge to occupy time effectively. As has been said, most people fear eternity for they don’t know what to do with themselves on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Stillness is the process by which we grow to know ourselves and become content in our own company. It steadily reduces our need for distractions. It creates the space where we can wait, seek and discover God. God refuses to compete with our constant need for distractions. God demands my full attention and is wounded when my attention drifts elsewhere. First steps into stillness take time and demand my total attention. It can feel painful, for stillness is nowhere practised in an accelerating society, where stillness is equated with lack of purpose and meaning. This so easily strips us of our self-worth, for we think we are what we do. Yet, stillness before God reveals that we are so much more.

QUESTION: Have you the courage to explore stillness?

PRAYER: Lord, there are so many distractions, so much noise, and my attention is so often divided. Yet, help my heart and mind be wholly yours.

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Day 11 - Issue 24

January 15, 2018

Matthew 2:9 NLT

'After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.'

Prayer has been described as “Standing face-to-face with God with undivided heart, mind and will”. It’s here that we are made complete and that we are completed as children of God.

Like the Magi, the first step in prayer is to respond to God’s invitation. They observed and correctly analysed the purpose of the star, yet if they had never responded to the invitation to follow, they would never have discovered the Messiah. Our life of prayer is the pursuit of the reality who is God. In our information age, where knowledge is simply a keystroke away, we can become highly informed yet remain inexperienced. Prayer is to enlarge the heart, the core of who I am, not simply to swell my head.

Response demands I journey in pursuit of God’s invitation. Following God always demands journeying from where I am to where I know not. It will lead me through a variety of landscapes and emotions. Much of the journey is discovering who I am even as I seek to discover more of God. Where once I relished travel, I now hanker to sit at home and engage in the Oratory rhythm of work and prayer. Yet, my spirit responds to the invitation to test the substance of the claims of the ancients that the inner light who is God might be knowable at ever deeper levels. I must stir myself, face discomforts of the road and travel as and where God’s leads.

Like the Magi I arrive, I kneel, I worship. There is nothing else I can do when I encounter God. My gaze is captivated by God, my prayer an expression of love, amazement and praise for the Lord of all of creation.

QUESTION: How might you breathe fresh life into your prayers?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, I love, worship and adore you.

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Day 10 - Issue 24

January 12, 2018

Matthew 2:22 NLT

'But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee.'

In reflecting upon the journey with God, it’s natural that much is spoken and written about listening to him. However, just as the Church journeys through the liturgical season called ‘Ordinary Time’, so our lives have long seasons that might be named ordinary. Joseph is finally alerted to the fact that Herod is dead and he can safely return his family to the land of Israel.

However, hearing that Herod’s son is still ruling and fearing for Jesus’ life, he takes a decision to locate his family in Nazareth. He believes this to be beyond the reach of Archelaus, ruler of Judea. The point is that we do not need inspiration to take godly decisions. God leaves the majority of decisions within our own hands with little need of supernatural intervention. Indeed Mary, Joseph and Jesus entered into a long period of ordinary time up to the start of Jesus’ ministry.

As Katey and I battled with childlessness, we engaged in numerous fasts and prayers demanding God’s reversal of our infertility. Yet, slowly we came to realise that we must walk in all God had for us now. Walk through a very ordinary time with little encouragement for our faith, save maintaining our regular rhythm of life, including prayer and considering scripture together. Little did we know that ten years ahead lay a child who was to choose to adopt us as additional parents alongside a single mum to whom we offered a home.

I believe in an interventionist God, for I have experienced such interventions too often to deny their potency and reality. Yet, I also recognise God treats me as an adult and expects me to get on with life, however I find it, and take decisions that don’t require God’s approval. Life in the main is living by the revelation of scripture that has sufficient within it to reveal what constitutes the virtuous, or godly, life.

QUESTION: Do you expect God to intervene on a regular basis or alternatively do you make all your decisions without regard to God at all?

PRAYER: Lord, teach me your ways throughout all my days to honour and glorify you.

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Day 9 - Issue 24

January 11, 2018

Matthew 2:17 NLT

'Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.'

I enjoy leading retreats based upon the reality that the Bible is the living word of God. By this I simply mean that each time I turn to scripture, however familiar my head is with the text, I can meet Christ afresh within it. A fresh encounter takes nothing away from theology established down through history as a guarantor of what we believe as the Christian community. And in an ever-expanding universe, with a creator God, theology must expand as our engagement with God continues, as in any viable relationship.

So when reading the Old Testament, it is not merely to find the foundations for New Testament truth. The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is also a living revelation, as is clearly demonstrated here. The stand-off between Herod, the Magi and the holy family is not only choreographed by God, its reality had forever been embedded within the scripture, and now the disciples had eyes to see what had not so far impacted the contemporary context.

In going to scripture we need eyes to see, and ears to listen. Our challenge is that it suggests moving beyond the rational. Yet, it demands this only in encounter and does not expect us to behave irrationally. In hindsight, Joseph’s actions display a rational approach to self-preservation of himself and his family. I wonder if family awaiting their return thought it a somewhat bizarre way of behaving; moving to Egypt without telling anyone.

Throughout history, the Church has been a prophetic voice to society. However, it battles with becoming conformed, or squeezed into the shape of acceptable, normalised contemporary culture. Too often its actions are born out of a risk-aversion strategy rather than a willingness to incarnate the life of God. Once again we are invited to approach scripture, God’s word, in the expectation that God will speak.

QUESTION: What helps you meet God through the pages of scripture?

PRAYER: Thank you, Lord, that through your Holy Spirit we can meet a living God through your living word.

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Day 8 - Issue 24

January 10, 2018

Matthew 2:16 NLT

'Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him.'

If anything reveals the secrets of my heart, it is my behaviour. Herod quickly loses hold of the hospitable and helpful persona presented to the Magi on learning how they’d departed leaving him none the wiser as to the whereabouts of the threat who is Jesus. His outburst is the greater for the deceiver himself feels deceived.

One reason my behaviour breaks socially acceptable standards is because I feel abandoned by God. My prayer appears to lie unanswered. My best spiritual etiquette has failed to elicit the response I demanded and expected from God. Like a child refused sweets in the supermarket, I fold my arms, stamp my feet and allow my real feelings to express themselves. Problem is, when this is my response to spiritual disappointment, I reveal how little faith I have in God.

As I navigated the early years of caring for Katey, I often lost control of my Christian persona that others expected. I was seldom authentically me. I was the preacher, empathetic pastor or charismatic minister that my narrow world of church leadership required of me, or so I thought. Close family constantly saw the discrepancy between my outdoor mask and my indoor fractured reality. I lived a lie; but worse, I perpetuated that lie, deceiving myself and others.

No doubt Herod believed that to rid the world of Jesus was somehow to do good in the world and protect his kingdom and its people from enduring harm. Problem is, it was a deception born of his own understanding alone. All those who assume power run the same risk of believing they always act in the interests of ‘their people’. Certainly today’s populist reaction to political leadership has created shock waves among elected officials who fail to see the difference between ruling and representing people. Church leadership isn’t immune to a similar blind spot.

QUESTION: What brings out the worst in you?

PRAYER: Thank you, Lord, that you knew my worst from the very beginning and loved and died for me anyway.

 

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Day 7 - Issue 24

January 9, 2018

Matthew 2:14 NLT

'That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother.'

Faith generates its own momentum. Even as it is impossible to define faith in concise words, it’s evident through the lives we lead and the actions we take. Joseph, who has already demonstrated total obedience through faith, now with Jesus in his arms, flees the country in response to his dream.

I would like to say that having said yes to God in response to that Ashes win, my life accelerated towards peace, joy and security. However, these are not ever high on God’s ‘to-do’ list. Something of our human frailty craves such provision, yet God views life through an altogether different lens. Joseph and his family end up on the road again, nurturing a newborn, in unfamiliar territory and with little more than what they can carry. In fleeing, they exchange risk and certain disaster for just risk and ongoing insecurity. So it was with me.

And here was the learning. That in reality faith is about building a confidence within the person and the ways of God. It’s not about practising a belief in God from within the well-protected palisades of my own private castle. Faith of necessity must always carry with it a strong element of doubt. Even as I renewed my commitment to God and God’s work, I carried a niggling doubt in the core of who I was. Yet, from God’s perspective that doubt was of no consequence for I chose obedience over it, even though obedience didn’t quell its ever-present pangs.

I discovered, as no doubt Joseph did, that obedience will lead to more questions and almost certainly to a greater measure of instability. Like the holy family, I entered into unfamiliar territory. Here I prayed and waited by instinct and through discipline, for there was no more light shed by God. Just as Joseph found ways, I imagine, to sustain himself and wondered why there wasn’t another dream, so I returned to work without elation, and knowing this was no time for more fleeces. The walk of faith is discomforting as much as it is uncomfortable. It is a personal choice without any objective evidence to support or sustain it.

QUESTION: How much do you value stability and comfort?

PRAYER: Lord, help me not to place my confidence in these material things but instead in you, the giver of all good gifts.

 

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Day 6 - Issue 24

January 8, 2018

Matthew 2:12 NLT

'When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.'

When we encounter God we are changed forever. I like the word ‘conversion’. It describes this process, life constantly changes. Not all at once, admittedly, but over time, everything I thought and did, all that influenced my choices and appetites has been subject to change.

My first attempt at seriously resisting God was towards the end of time off due to physical exhaustion. I was 26, working for a Christian youth organisation and had been a Christian just seven years. As I emerged from the depths of gloom created by exhaustion, about to resume work, I damaged my foot, which meant minor surgery and another month ‘off my feet’. Frustrated with my circumstances and virtually penniless, I planned to leave Christian ministry and get ‘proper’ employment. Katey at least deserved stability. I wanted something more than life was giving me, giving us. I felt bitter towards God and questioned the authenticity of the gospel.

It was at the time of what’s been named ‘Botham’s Ashes’. I had plenty of time to watch cricket. The odds against an England win stood at 500:1. I laid my fleece. If England were to win, I agreed with God that I would stay in Christian ministry. The day was bittersweet. I watched spellbound and delighted as Australian wickets tumbled. Yet, I had mixed emotions as England won. God had revealed the next season for my life by taking me at my word.

The Magi were changed both through their journey and then their revelation of Christ. Now they turned not to the wisdom of men for direction, but looked to God. No doubt they had little understanding and many questions but offered God all that he ever requests, obedience.

QUESTION: What questions do you have about your friendship with God?

PRAYER: Lord, I don’t want to resist you, I want to follow you.

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