Monday, September 30, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-30 [Prayer like breathing] Nehemiah#6 - Prayer and God's promises

Nehemiah#6 - Prayer and God's promises

We can claim God's promises from Scripture. Nehemiah is not the only person in Scripture who does so. The real question is whether it is God or us who needs reminding of His promises. I am convinced, once again that the "claiming" of this promise has more to do with Nehemiah's reassurance than it does with the "twisting" of God's arm.

By remembering God's promises we recapture a clear picture of His nature, character, and plan. When things look like God is not in control, these promises remind us of His ultimate control. If prayer is a dialogue, then these remembered promises (although they are in our mouths) are God's reassurance to us that our prayer will be heard.

But there's more... There is a clear note in the tone of the prayer that indicates that Nehemiah is completely comfortable "haggling" with God. This also has precedent in Scripture. At one point when God is considering the harshest possible judgement for the wandering Israelites who had worshiped the golden calf, Moses prays that God would "relent" (the original Hebrew has overtones of "repent"!!!) from this course of action. Abraham "negotiates" with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. ("If I find 50, no make that 40, no make that 20, no make that 10 righteous people will You still destroy the city?")

In the army a junior officer has to ask for "permission to speak freely." With God, our permission is granted.

The last point is that the promise Nehemiah claims here is conditional. Nehemiah would have clearly understood that his "claiming" of this promised place a burden on him and the people too. A relationship is a two way street....

Remember the instruction You gave Your servant Moses, saying, "If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to Me and obey My commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for My name."      (Nehemiah1:8-9)

We'll take a break from our series of prayer for the Month of Mission Series which starts tomorrow!!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-29 [Prayer like breathing] Nehemiah #5 Confession

Nehemiah #5 Confession

Confession: This is a word that has had "bad press." Today we are encouraged to see ourselves as beings that are basically good ("filled with light") and so we don't like to think of ourselves in need of forgiveness. The reality is that, if we have done the praising part of our prayer right, we will know that there is a qualitative difference between God and me. He is righteous - I am not. He is pure - I am not. He is faithful - I am not.

Nehemiah confesses his sinfulness. But here he goes a step further: He confesses the sin of the nation. He is very careful to show that he is not standing in judgement of the nation - he includes himself and his father's house.

But why do we confess? Does God need our confession before He can forgive us? Absolutely not! Confession has more to do with our being able to receive forgiveness than it has to do with God's willingness to forgive us. We don't confess because God needs our confession. We confess because we need to be set free of the blockages of sin and guilt in us. Every time we confess, we are opening ourselves to God so that He can do heart surgery on us, removing our stony hearts and putting hearts of flesh in place instead.

And why should we confess the sins of the nation? Nehemiah understood that the change of a nation lies with change in the people of the nation. As Nehemiah confesses the sin of the nation and his part in it, he puts in place a chain of events that will lead to the transformation of society.

Individual sin leads to corporate sin. Confession and the transformation that comes from forgiveness must also begin on an individual level. In Nehemiah 8 we can see how Nehemiah's private remorse becomes the nation's remorse as they weep while God's law is being read to them.

I confess the sins we Israelites including myself and my father's house, have committed against You. We have acted very wickedly toward You. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and laws you gave your servant Moses.      (Nehemiah1:6-7)

Saturday, September 28, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-28 [Prayer like breathing] Nehemiah#4 - Petition

Nehemiah#4 - Petition

We continue our journey through Nehemiah's heartfelt prayer for his country and people. After praise he offers petition...

The word petition is derived from the language used in the presence of a ruler or a king. He hasn't really come to the content of what he is asking for yet - at this point he is simply asking that God would hear him out.

There are two aspects here:
Firstly, the language of petition reminds us that God doesn't owe us anything. God does not have to listen to us. He does not have to answer our prayers. Petition draws clear lines of identity. We are the ones in need and God is the One who can meet them. We need to come in great humility, understanding that although God wants to answer our prayers and although He longs to be gracious to us, this our privilege and not our right.

There is a trend among people today to have a "name it and claim it" model of prayer. They claim the promises of Scripture and boldly demand that God honours His promises. While it is true that we can rest on the promises of God (We'll see Nehemiah do it later in the prayer) our attitude should always be one of humble, worshipful, wonder: "Who am I that Thou would listen to me?"

Somebody once told me that they always felt guilty for always asking God for things. My response was to say that sometimes our prayer requests are actually the highest form of praise we can give, because we are admitting our need for God. We have problems that only He can solve and when we give them to Him in prayer, we are admitting our inability and His all sufficiency!

The second aspect of petition is that Nehemiah uses what Bible-Scholars call "anthropomorphisms" (attributing human characteristics to God.) Does God have ears and eyes like ours? No - He can see further than my eyes can, He can hear better than my ears can. When Nehemiah uses these very human images for God, he is expressing a longing for intimacy with God. We all know how much it means to us when a friend takes time to listen to our story or when a friend's eyes glisten with tears of compassion for us.

With New Testament eyes, we see this prayer completely fulfilled in Christ. Because Jesus experienced all our pain, sorrow, and brokenness as a human being, we know that He fully identifies with us.

So, after preparation and praise, Nehemiah comes to petition: A statement of dependance on God and an expression of a longing for intimacy with Him.

... let Your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.      (Nehemiah1:6)

Friday, September 27, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-27 [Prayer like breathing] Nehemiah #3: Praise Prayers

Nehemiah #3: Praise Prayers

Nehemiah, after days of mourning and fasting is ready to bring all his loving concern for Jerusalem to God in prayer. Unexpectedly his prayer begins with praise! One would expect him to emphasise the plight of Jerusalem and that he would try to twist God's arm with the magnitude of the need, but Nehemiah begins with praise and the praise is both affirmation and theology.

It is affirmation because as one begins to take one's eyes off one's circumstances and onto God, one becomes ready to believe that our prayers will be answered. When he spends time in praise, Nehemiah is reassured about God's character, power, and faithfulness - thus validating the effort of prayer. Prayer is not wasted when we come to such an awesome God.

The prayer is also an act of theologising. The Israelites had been through a crisis: The Babylonians had destroyed their city and their temple and this had two implications: Firstly, the temple had been the centre of their worship and now they felt far away from God. Secondly, the victory of the Babylonians had made them feel as though God had rejected them or forgotten them and that He was a weak God. (In those times, if my nation defeated your nation then my God was bigger than yours.) Nehemiah's praise is an antidote to these two problems. He affirms that God is not stuck in our man-made temple but the God of Heaven and that He is great and awesome. And God's covenant love is always available for those who love and obey Him. So, if one feels far away from God, guess who moved? (We'll see how to move back later in the prayer.)

It may feel awkward to begin a prayer with praise when one is not feeling great or positive, but it does help us get our perspective sorted out. Steve Wiggins says "Take the biggest thing that's got you down and stand it upright next to God - anyone can see who's bigger now."

O Lord, God of Heaven, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands...      (Nehemiah1:5)

Thursday, September 26, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-26 [Prayer like breathing] Nehemiah #2: Breakthrough prayer

Nehemiah #2: Breakthrough prayer

We continue to journey with Nehemiah who has been wrestling with the predicament of Jerusalem after the exiles had returned. His wrestling led to prayer and his prayer continues to the end of the first chapter of the book of Nehemiah. This prayer leads to significant breakthrough and action. What I want to emphasize today is that Nehemiah didn't just get the bad news and pray the prayer we have here in chapter one. The prayer we have here is the culmination of a process of prayer.

There are times that we will pray about things for a long time. In some cases this is because there are issues we have to sort out. As we will see, Nehemiah was going to become the answer to his own prayer. He was going to have to go out on a limb of faith and take a risk. The period of time spent in prayer is not because God is deaf or slow to move, but because, more often than not, prayer involves the transformation of our own hearts. Nehemiah's process of prayer and fasting which stretched over a couple of days was as much a time of reflection and clarification as an act of devotion.

Sometimes God does ask us to prevail in prayer. Daniel had this experience when the answer to his prayer was delayed due to spiritual opposition. There are times that we get to play an important role in persevering in prayer.

It's not always easy to understand why God delays answers, but there is a real possibility that as time goes by that our prayer, like Nehemiah's, will change from : "Lord would you hurry up and do something!" to "Here I am Lord, send me."

Breakthrough prayer is not just endlessly repeating the same prayer day by day, but a real soul-seeking prayerful reflective process in which we try to understand the problem and the possible solutions and what God might be asking us to do. It's all about listening prayerfully even more than we speak in prayer.

As Nehemiah did, we will at some point reach the breakthrough and be able to bring the prayer to a conclusion and act according to what God has revealed to us.

When I heard these things I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said...      (Nehemiah1:4-5)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-25 [Prayer like breathing] Nehemiah's Prayer #1: Passion

Nehemiah's Prayer #1: Passion

Some background to our reading today: Nehemiah is in exile in Babylon. After the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, they were defeated by the Persians and after 70 years of exile, the Persians released the Israelites to return to the promised land. Some Jews remained in Babylon in the high ranking positions they had risen to. Nehemiah was one of them - he is the cup-bearer to the Persian king.

But Nehemiah's interest was the welfare of Jerusalem and the reason for his distress in this verse is the bad news that Jerusalem is in a sad state of affairs and defenseless in the absence of a city wall.

Over the next few days we'll look at aspects of his prayer to see what we can learn from it.

The first aspect of meaningful prayer is passionate sincerity. We are left in no doubt that the welfare of Jerusalem is very near to Nehemiah's heart. The bad news he hears leads to reflection, sadness, and fasting. His prayers are not a glib "Please bless the world" but a sharp and targeted arrow that has been released with all the force the archer can muster.

There is much that can be said about fasting. For the moment it is important to say that fasting has much more to do with preparing the heart of the one who prays than it has to do with twisting God's arm.

The passion with which Nehemiah comes to the task of prayer indicates:

  • A clear belief that God will take him seriously
  • There has been time taken to discern a clear outcome for which to pray
  • A sense that Nehemiah is in a place where he prays in accordance with God's will.

Martin Luther said: "The wonder is not that God answers prayer, but that he inspires prayer."
Nehemiah's passionate (his tears) preparation (his fasting) for prayer is a most beautiful example for us...

When I heard these things I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.      (Nehemiah1:4)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-24 [Prayer like breathing] Heritage Prayers for our Land

Heritage Prayers for our Land

In South Africa today is Heritage Day - a public holiday on which we celebrate our country's heritage. Many call it "braai day" and use it have the traditional barbecue that South Africans love so much. This should be accompanied with gratitude for our many blessings and  also with mindfulness that we all have work to do to make our country and our world a better and safer place.

In a harsh and dangerous world, Paul urged Timothy and his congregation to pray for leaders and those in authority.

Our country and world face heartaches and strains (and I'm not going to make a list of these today...) Even our President has requested that faith communities pray for our land.

In the light of these needs and calls to prayer may I urge you to pray? Please bow your head right now and join me in a moment of prayer for our nation....

"Lord, you see the state of our nation.
You hear the cries of Your people.
We pray for ALL our leaders today
And for Your guidance in facing the critical issues of our time.
We pray for our land which is Your land and for its people.
We pray for leaders in politics, economics, media and social settings.
We pray for the angry and frustrated.
We pray for the desperate and the helpless.
We pray for justice and righteousness to flourish.
And then....
Help me to be part of the solution and not the problem.
Deal with me where my heart is hard.
Show me where I can make a practical difference.
Deal with me where I may be hard-hearted to my fellow human.
Give me Your heart for the afflicted and oppressed.
Help me overcome my fears and excuses.
Show me how I can be the difference in our land.
Lord hear our prayer.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-- 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.      (1Timothy2:1-2)

PS: Please note that the reference for yesterday's edev was incorrect (It needs to be 1Kings 19 and not 2Kings)

Monday, September 23, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-23 [Prayer like breathing] From Disillusion to Prayer

From Disillusion to Prayer

Elijah is in a bad place: Having conquered the prophets of Baal on mount Horeb, he is served a determined death-threat by queen Jezebel and flees for his life. Elijah is overwrought, overstrained, and burnt out. We find the prophet who stood up against the prophets of Baal in chapter 18 asking to die in chapter 19. He is in a place we've all been in at one time or another.

God deals very gently with Elijah. First he feeds him a few simple meals and gets him to rest. (This is one of the first things to do for people who suffer from burnout-depression). Then came the long walk to Horeb, just simple mechanical routine, one foot in front of the other - nothing complex or overloading - another important part of healing from burnout.

At Horeb God asks the question. "What are you doing here Elijah?" Elijah's answer is like a knee-jerk reaction - he lists his woes but there is no real sense of relief.

Then God treats Elijah to a show of natural phenomena: Wind, Earthquake, and Fire. (Maybe all of these served as symbols of Elijah's inner turmoil) After these tempestuous occurrences came the still small voice and Elijah now knew (like he knew like he knew) that God was listening. And then came the same question "What are you doing here Elijah?"

God asks the same question twice: - "What are you doing here Elijah?" And Elijah uses the same words both times when he answers. The difference is in the implied tone of voice. The first time the answer comes from a heart that is blown about, shaken up, and burnt out. The second time the answer comes from someone who has seen the wind, earthquake, and fire being stilled by the Significant voice.

Prayer is the certain knowledge that no matter what our circumstances, no matter what chaos may abound, no matter what the uncertainty, no matter how loud the noise of our pain might be, there is a God who speaks with a small still voice and who listens to our prayer.

Prayer is learning to hear that voice in the midst of our circumstances and to give Him our pain and heartache.

After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here Elijah?"      (1Kings19:12-13)

Friday, September 20, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-20 [Prayer like breathing] Prayer: Bringing our needs to God

Prayer: Bringing our needs to God

God has given us prayer so that we can talk to Him, but also for us listen to Him. We sometimes feel guilty bringing our "shopping lists" before God, but we need to understand that God, like a good friend or parent, is interested in whatever may be bugging us.

We are invited, no, instructed to present our requests to God. We are to talk to God about it (prayer), we are to nag God about it (petition), and we are to give thanks for His answers. My good friends are the ones who will listen when I need to get stuff off my chest. Prayer is me trusting God with my baggage because He is my friend.

Prayer is me, dropping my defenses and becoming real with God. As I do that, He begins to work in my heart giving me peace and comfort as I spend time with Him.

- -  -   -    -     -

Do you struggle to pray?     I do...
Part of my problem is that I try too hard to say the right things and even to talk at all! I am learning that one of the best things I can do is simply to be in God's presence. For me watering the garden and occasionally sending up an arrow prayer whilst being very conscious of His presence or riding my bike and looking around at the beauty of the veld and praying for people or situations as they pop into my mind have become special ways of praying.

Do good friends struggle to be together? Sometimes they talk, sometimes they're quiet and sometime one speaks and the other just says "mmmm" or "yah." So don't struggle - just do it!

How about talking and listening to God on the way home today?
You will find that some of that tightness in your chest and some of that being-chased-after feeling in your heart will ease up...

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.       (Philippians4:6-7)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-19 [Prayer like breathing] Prayer: Getting real

Prayer: Getting real

One of my favourite images is that prayer is like an old camera...
The lens is focussed and the shutter opens...
The light shines in and leaves an image on the film negative.

Prayer is very similar to this:
We focus in on God,
we open the shutters of our hearts
and He shines His light in and our hearts (the film) are changed...

Psalm 139 is all about opening up to God. In the first part of the Psalm, the psalmist struggles with the almost relentless knowledge that God has of him. (Even when he tries to escape God he cannot!)
1 O LORD, you have searched me -- and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar...
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

Then he begins to realise that God loves Him with the tender love of a Creator, and that he, the Psalmist, is a precious creature.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

His response is to give even more of himself to this tender, merciful, loving God.

And so, where the Psalm began with the Psalmist running away from a God who knew too much, the psalm ends with the author running toward God all the while offering everything he (the Psalmist) has.

Our prayers should involve some of this: that we open our hearts to God - even the scary and ugly bits - that we stop pretending and that we stop hanging on to a false dignity. We need to turn to Him and call for His help, we need to expose ourselves to Him.

When we ask Him to scrutinise our lives like this, He shines His light and love into the whole area of our lives and we can be changed!

Search me O God and know my heart
Test me and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me
And lead me in the way everlasting      (Psalms139:23-24)

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-18 [Prayer like breathing] An introduction to Prayer

Dear e-dev friends
My apologies for the gap in EmmDevs. It has been an exceptionally hectic time which was made more complicated by me being knocked off my bicycle 2 weeks ago and while my trusty iron steed is fine, I have had a bit of "road rash" to deal with and so my short break from EmmDevs ended up being longer than planned. My bumps and grazes are healing well and we have a few days before our annual October Month of Mission and so I'm going to be sharing some thoughts on prayer...
The first of these is below....
God bless and Love,

An introduction to Prayer

In our hectic sprinting from deadline to appointment and the daily fight through traffic jams on the road and in our email inboxes, we are easily convinced that we are too busy to pray.

But if we want to avoid running out of steam, we must "be faithful in prayer." In Paul's mind being "joyful in hope" and being "patient in affliction" go hand in hand with being "faithful in prayer". Think about that for a moment... Finding joyful hope and endurance in tough times is connected to prayer!

I have an over-busy mind and always seem to be over-run with things that must be done.

When it comes to being "faithful in prayer," I am still learning.
Here are some quotes from people who have mastered the truths that I am still learning:

  • Martin Luther said: "I have so much to do today that I need to spend the first hour in prayer."
  • Someone else said: "Seven days without prayer makes one weak!"
  • What about this one? "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had absolutely no other place to go." -- Abraham Lincoln
  • "One can believe intellectually in the efficacy of prayer and never do any praying." --Catherine Marshall
  • "Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?"-- Corrie Ten Boom
  • Fredrik Wisloff said: "You may pray for an hour and still not pray. You may meet God for a moment and then be in touch with Him all day."
  • And this awesome one: "Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge for Satan" --John Bunyan
What I'm learning is to stop making excuses about being busy, about not knowing how to pray and just not quite managing to make time to pray, and I am simply grabbing moments to connect deeply and intimately with God.

And whenever I do, it's like taking a huge breath of fresh oxygen and realising that I've been holding my breath and that I actually want to breathe more often.

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.       (Romans12:12)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

EmmDev 2019-09-03 [A Life of Thanksgiving] At the centre...

At the centre...

On the penal colony on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John, who was imprisoned for spreading the gospel, had a vision of heaven. Some think it is a vision of the future, but that reduces and diminishes the incredible message of Revelation. The vision John saw wasn't merely of something that would happen one day far far far in the future. No, his vision is one that applies to the past, the present and future.

It is a vision of how Christ overcomes evil and will ultimately put an end to it forever. The vision he had comforted the early Christians oppressed by the power of Rome. Throughout history, Revelation has comforted Christians who have been persecuted and it comforts those who are being persecuted today.

There are numerous visions in Revelation. The vision of the scroll with seven seals is a picture of suffering from the perspective of the throne-room of heaven. The beautiful moment in this vision is when John is weeping because there seems to be no-one who is able to open the 7 seals on the scroll that deals with the suffering of the church over the ages. Then there is great relief because Jesus appears as the Lamb who was slain who is able to open up the scroll of suffering.

So what does all of this have to do with thanksgiving?
Well, before John describes the scroll and how Jesus opens it, he describes heaven as the control room of history. In this control room we meet four strange creatures (who represent the earth) and 24 elders (who represent the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles - the faithful of the Old and New Testaments)

And what is their job? "To give glory, honour and thanks to God."

As we draw our series on Thanks-giving to an end, let's pause with this image in our minds: In the control room of heaven, where even our suffering is seen, there is ongoing praise and thanks-giving. Why? Because the scroll of our suffering is opened by none less than Jesus, the Lamb of God, who hung on the cross and defeated sin, death and Satan.

For this we GIVE THANKS!

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

"Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come."

9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

11 "You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being."      (Revelation4:6-11)

(With this series completed, I'll be taking a small break for a day or two...)