Thursday, April 21, 2016

What are You Doing?



 by Pastor Bill Heffelfinger

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Matthew 5:14-16

What are you doing?  That question, like most, can have many different meanings, depending on which syllables the speaker puts the emphasis.  We often ask our kids this question, with a clear message that they shouldn’t be doing whatever it is that prompts the question.  I often ask myself that question when I make a dumb decision to try to go for the green after a wayward tee shot, rather than pitching out to the fairway, only to result in compounding my mistakes.  But, perhaps, Christians don’t ask themselves this question enough when it comes to living our faith. 

Many Christians doing nothing, because we can’t earn our salvation.  Our salvation is in Christ alone. Full stop. Thus, they conclude, doing any good work would be trying to earn that salvation, and because they wouldn’t want to take any of Christ’s credit, they excuse themselves and proceed to nothing. Within the past week, I was reminded twice, in powerful ways, of the flaws in that behavior.
Last week, I flew to Nashville for a conference for work. On the plane, I reread one of my favorite books, “Safe at Home” by Bob Muzikowski. It’s the story of Muzikowski’s battle with drugs and alcohol, how he was introduced to Christ’s love by a rugby playing pastor of a NYC church, and how after turning to Christ, Muzikowski impacted the lives of thousands of kids by starting little league programs throughout the city of Chicago. One particular passage, however, struck me. After a drive-by shooting during one of the little league games, Muzikowski received a voicemail from a couple of coaches who “supported the vision” of the league, but “didn’t feel called to coach anymore,” but would “continue to pray” for the league. Muzikowski deciphers the Christianese of the message, and comes to this conclusion:

“We’ll ‘pray for you’ usually doesn’t mean anything. If everyone who promised to pray for me really did, I’d be levitating. It happens so often that when I have other Christians tell me ‘I’ll pray for you,’ I’m tempted to say, ‘Don’t pray for me. Either coach third base or umpire the two o’clock game next Saturday afternoon.'

It’s not that I don’t value people’s prayers. I do. But any little old lady in a nursing home who can’t get out of bed can pray. And a lot of them do. What we need even more are volunteers we can count on. To show up on time. And not quit halfway through the season.”  p. 227

Each time I read that passage, I feel compelled to ask myself if I could be doing more, not to earn salvation, but so that those around me would “see [my] good works and give glory to [my] Father who is in heaven."

But, by the time the plane landed, and I was enjoying pulled pork and country music throughout Nashville, the thoughts of what more I could be doing to show God’s glory were less of a concern than the next line dance I could learn.

Little did I expect, on the 2nd day of the conference, at a luncheon with 1,000 of my colleagues, I would be reminded once again to ask myself, “What are you doing?”  During the portion of the luncheon where we are introduced to the local charity our organization is raising funds to support during our conference, a young woman stood on stage and told us of her life of drugs, prostitution, and 82 arrests (including 2nd degree murder). But, the reason she was standing in front of us was to share how she was “saved by love” through an organization called “Thistle Farms."

To make a long story short, a woman began Thistle Farms as a community to support those who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction.  They employ these women in various social enterprises, which include a natural body care company, a cafĂ©, an artisan studio, and a few other ventures. The woman standing before us, broke down in tears, sharing the story of how Thistle Farms, because they were willing to love on her, provide her with job training and skills, and remind her that her past does not have to define her. They were willing to do something for her, rather than just talk about it.

You see, love is a verb.  It requires action.  If we are called to share God’s love, we are called to put it into action.  It’s time we take seriously our call to action.  What that’s going to look like for our church, remains to be seen.  But, let’s do it together.  Let’s let our good works shine and give glory to our Father.



Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Prayer Series 8 - Deep and Wide

 by Dina Sleiman

Deep and wide, deep and wide.
There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.
~ Traditional Bible Song 

 Throughout this prayer series, I’ve been talking about how to tap into that flow of the Holy Spirit, and how to develop an intimate relationship with God. Thinking about that river of life, that fountain of living water, calls to mind the traditional Sunday school song above. It reminds me that in addition to going deep into God’s word and prayer as I’ve been encouraging us to do, it’s also important to go wide. So let’s look at deep and wide in reference to our prayer and devotion time in several areas.

Personal Communication with God
Most of the topics I’ve been writing about for the past few weeks have encouraged you to go deep into your prayer life, spending quality intimate time with God.

 However, it’s also important to go wide in our communication with God. To always have him in our hearts. To direct our thoughts to him throughout our day. In this way a concern becomes a petition. Joyful moments become a time of praise. Thankful moments an act of worship. Painful moments a sacred encounter. Remember to keep your thoughts continually tuned to God, but to take that deep time to really focus on him and listen for direction as well.

Another area we should remember to go deep is in spiritual warfare. When under attack from the enemy, it is important to take out that shield of faith and that sword of the spirit of the word of God and to go on the offensive to do battle in spiritual realm, giving quality time and attention to the issue.

Intercession for Others
Similar to personal communication with God, we should be regularly sending petitions to him for those we encounter throughout the day. When we hear an ambulance siren or see a crashed car, take a moment to whisper up a prayer. When we hear about a sick child on facebook or see someone looking sad in the grocery line, offer up a petition.

But we should also take time to go deep into prayer for other people, offering them before the Lord. Holding them in the light of his glorious presence. Speaking scripture promises and blessings over their lives, and going to battle in the spirit for them as well.

Bible Reading 
In one of my posts I talked about an ancient Bible reading technique called lectio divina. This calls us to read small sections of scripture, taking time to mediate and picture specific words or phrases that stand out and shimmer to us. Incorporating prayer and listening into our Bible reading time. I love this technique. It truly brings God’s word alive. Another great way to go deep into God’s word is by memorizing scripture. Finally, copying it in your own handwriting is great for getting God’s word deep into your heart.

But it is also important to go wide in God’s word. To make sure that you’ve read the whole Bible, hopefully several times. We should know the voice of the good shepherd and not follow that of a stranger. The best way to learn God’s voice is by reading his word in large chunks. All of the techniques I’ve mentioned for hearing God’s personal voice and direction work best when you are well-acquainted with God’s written word.

And these days there are so many opportunities to go wide in God’s word. You can listen to scripture on CD while driving or exercising. You can read the Bible in multiple translations online. My church has held Bible reading marathons where people take turns reading the scriptures out loud. If I remember right, you can read through the entire Bible in a 24 hour marathon.

Praise and Worship
We can also go both deep and wide in praise and worship. I think most Christians know about focused praise and worship through music on Sunday mornings. However, it is also a huge blessing to your mind and your spirit to keep praise and worship playing in the background throughout the day whenever possible.

You know, this whole topic of deep and wide is similar to what we call quality time versus quantity time. And since experts have argued over which is more important in relationships, I think it’s safe to assume that both are essential. We need to know God on a deep level, but we need that quantity time spent with him and his word as well for familiarity and a sense of closeness. So remember to go both deep and wide in your prayer time.

That concludes my series on prayer. I hope that you've grown more connected to God and closer to him during this time. Be sure to check out any previous installments that you missed: You Have Spiritual Senses, Eyes of the Heart, Shut Up and Listen, Divine Reading, A Time to Pray, A Place to Pray, and Put Your Mind at Ease. May God bless you in your prayer times!

Which are you better at spending in relationships, quality time or quantity time? Which do you find more important? What are the benefits of each? Please share any of your personal tips for going deep and/or wide with God.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Prayer Series 7 - Put Your Mind at Ease

 by Dina Sleiman

15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. ~ I Corinthians 14:15

Today I'm continuing my series on prayer. Please be sure to check past posts if you missed any installments. My hope is that these posts will help you better connect with God and grow in your relationship with him.
Several years ago I led a ladies Bible study for a few close friends. One of the ladies had a hard time praying. She would feel anxiety and even panic when she prayed. How sad! For this woman prayer was scary. A performance of sorts. As if God was judging her words and deciding if he would magically grant her wish or strike her with a lightning bolt for her shoddy job.
If you've been following my series on prayer, hopefully you already understand that prayer is not a performance. Once this woman realized that simply basking in God’s presence, merely listening to his voice, or dwelling on a scripture could be a form of prayer, things began to go much better for her.
Paul instructs us to pray with both the understanding and the spirit. There are a number of prayer techniques used throughout the ages, that allow our minds to rest and our spiritual awareness to blossom.
Spontaneous Creative Expression
Let’s start with one that shouldn’t be too scary. Art. Art is a form of communication. Anything we can do with speech, we can do through singing, dancing, painting, writing poetry, etc... And yes, through these means we can pray.
Letting your mind flow free to worship God and express your heart spontaneously through the arts can provide an amazing experience in God’s presence. Little wonder most churches begin with music. And while planned music or dancing can work well as worship and prayer, how much better to engage in our own personal artistic prayer experience. Allow your emotions to well up from within and express them to God through your chosen medium, engaging your spirit and giving your mind an opportunity to rest. Bask in the tone of the music, the color of the paint, the texture of the clay.
Acts 2 Church even allows for such expression on Sunday morning during service. But I encourage you to consider adding your favorite form of artistic expression to your personal time of prayer as well. 
Risen! - by novelist Lisa Samson

Repeated Scripture
Choosing a significant scripture and repeating it in a rhythmic pattern in time with your breath is a prayer technique that was used by both the ancient Hebrews and medieval Christians. This method of prayer is one of the most soothing techniques I’ve ever experienced. And it gives one a sense of entering the kingdom of God deep within.
Here are some of my favorite scriptures that I like to pray:
~“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”
~“King of Kings and Lord of Lords”
~“In Him I live and move and have my being”
~“Be still and know that I am God”
~“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”
~ "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"
Any short scripture of personal significance can work. As you repeat these scriptures, allow your mind to dwell on them, to picture them. Imagine what your life would look like if these scriptures were fully realized in it. Allow them to do a work deep in your heart. Imagine the change that will take place when you truly begin to believe them.
Prayer in the Spirit
When reading I Corinthians 14:15 in context, you will discover that Paul is specifically referring to…dare I say it? I'm tempted to just call it the "t-word," but that doesn't seem right considering that the New Testament refers to speaking in tongues on numerous occasions. Although Acts 2 is technically a Baptist church, we have always encouraged the gifts of the spirit. Speaking in tongues has taken a bad rap in parts Christendom, and not without good reasons. Despite the fact that I was raised in a charismatic church, even I have held reservations about this technique, mostly because it was often taken to extremes and because it caused division in the body of Christ.
However, just because something causes controversy doesn’t make it wrong. In fact Christianity itself is quite controversial these days. The only theological argument I’ve ever heard against praying in tongues is a single scripture. And I would argue that a single scripture not taken in light of the entire word of God, at the very least, begs for reconsideration. Many churches avoid tongues not for theological reasons but because it is hard to control and has been abused. But that does mean it cannot be done decently and in order. Or even just privately at home. And who’s to say God would not like us to give up our control from time to time and give him the reigns.
As I’ve been doing this series on prayer, I’ve felt God prompting me to reexamine speaking in tongues. And it occurred to me that speaking in tongues serves the same purpose of many other prayer techniques. It eases our mind, it allows us to pray God’s words and not our own, and it is a way for the Holy Spirit to speak through us and to us. Paul prayed in tongues more than anyone around him, and there is something to be learned from that.
Praying in tongues can seem intimidating because it by definition can’t be understood with the logical mind. We might worry we’re speaking gibberish, or something we heard someone else pray rather than an actual earthly or heavenly language. But Paul says in Romans 8: 26, “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” And I suspect it might be the release from deep in our spirit that matters more than the specifics of the words themselves.
Maybe speaking in tongues isn’t the thing for you. No worries. The important thing is to be open to how God is leading you to pray. However you choose to pray, remember that prayer is not a performance. Remember to pray both with your spirit and your understanding. And remember that it’s okay to put your mind at ease.
Are you able to put your mind at ease when you pray? Have you ever tried or had an experience, positive or negative, with any of these techniques? How is God leading you to pray?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Prayer Series 6 - A Place to Pray

 by Dina Sleiman

"Here's what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” ~ Matthew 6:6

For several posts I’ve been sharing my thoughts on tapping into the spiritual realm and truly communicating with God. And while this requires honing our spiritual senses, the physical environment around us can either contribute to or diminish our prayer process. As we see above, Jesus recommended we go into a small, quiet room and pray.

In his book Mystically Wired, Pastor Ken Wilson asserts that many Christians fail in their prayer and devotional lives because they make it too hard on themselves. They make unrealistic demands and set themselves up for failure. God intended for us to enjoy prayer. It is meant to be a relaxing and refreshing time in His marvelous presence. I’ve mentioned some techniques that might help enrich your prayer time including listening to God, imagining meeting with God, and ruminating on specific words from scripture. But today let’s spend some time considering where we pray.
 
We should prepare for prayer the same way we might prepare for a date with our spouse, making it a special time to meet with the lover of our souls. Choose a place that is quiet and comforting. A place that will bring you joy. A place that is special to you. That way when you go to this place, your body will immediately respond with positive associations. As you have wonderful prayer times in this place, those associations will continue to grow. It doesn’t always have to be the same exact place. I have three places in my house where I like to pray. Find what works best for you.

Next, think about your posture. What helps you enter into prayer and focus on God? Kneeling, laying prostrate on the floor, sitting with your hands folded? For me it’s usually sitting cross-legged or with my knees tucked to my chest in an overstuffed chair or on a plush carpet. It could be lying in bed…or showering…or driving in your car. There’s never a “bad” place or way to talk to God and petition him. However, some environments and positions help us to better enter his presence and hear from him in return.

When you first begin to pray, consider taking some slow deep breaths to relax yourself and enjoy the moment. Imagine breathing in the presence of God and breathing out all the stress of your day.

Here are some other tools that might contribute to your prayer experience.
1)      Art work: Anything beautiful that lifts the soul, photos of nature, religious artwork, even a relaxing screensaver
2)      Water: a trickling fountain or sounds of the ocean or rain
3)       Fire: candles, a fireplace, a campfire, or a virtual fire
4)      Scent: incense or a relaxing aroma like lavender or vanilla
5)      Bible: a special Bible with personal significance in a translation you love
6)      Devotional Books: prayers, scripture collections, poems, writings in God’s voice
7)      Journal: for recording what God speaks to you and your own poems and prayers
8)      Music: classical music, instrumental music, especially worship music

I keep this website book marked because it streams beautiful “soaking” worship music all day long. http://www.soaking.net/
 
Give thought to what blesses you during your prayer time and keep those items handy in one place. It won’t be all of the prayer aids I mentioned. Certainly not all at the same time. I once experimented with lighting a scented candle, running a fountain, and playing worship music all at the same time. By the time I was done I had entered sensory overload and was completely distracted. But I have been blessed by all of these items individually during my prayer sessions.

This post would not be complete without mentioning the place I spend most of my personal prayer time—what Ken Wilson calls the “outdoor cathedral.” Like many others, I feel closest to God in nature with no ceiling over my head. I love to listen to the birdsong, the rustle of the breeze. To watch scampering squirrels, waddling ducks, and soaring hawks. Even little ants busy at work. There I can see, feel, hear, taste, and smell God all around me.
So take time to prepare for a special meeting with God. It will be worth the effort.
This post should allow for some good discussion. How do you enjoy praying? Where do you pray? Do you use any aids in prayer? Might any of these suggestions enrich your prayer life? Do you have any suggestions for us today?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Prayer Series 5 - A Time to Pray

 by Dina Sleiman

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Today we’re going to talk about prayer.” The youthful pastor glanced over the faces of the congregation lining the pews. One by one smiles turned to frowns of guilt and remorse. Several sets of eyes glazed over with disinterest, while others turned away from him. A sweet, elderly lady in the front row continued to gaze up with a beatific grin.

He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. This should be good. “How many of you have heard a sermon before that instructed you to rise early each morning and pray?”

Every hand in the audience shot up. “How many of you have tried to do this?”

Over half the hands stayed in the air. “And how many have succeeded?”

As he suspected, only five or six remained, including the saintly white-haired woman up front. “Well, I have good news for you. Jesus liked to pray at night.”

A few sighs met his ears, followed by a murmured, “Thank God.”

The pastor chuckled. “Different question. How many of you have been taught that you should set aside an hour a day to pray?”

Again every hand rose. “And how many of you actually pray an hour a day.” All hands fell. Even his friend in the front row lowered her wrinkled one and wobbled it back and forth to indicate hit and miss. Then one brave soul in the back raised his hand high. Several nearby parishioners glared at him and grumbling exploded about the building.

Oh, great. The last thing he needed was to get in trouble with the senior pastor. Again. “Settle down everyone. Today we’re going to talk about a different approach to prayer.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Would it surprise you to know that every school morning for almost nine years I’ve had a devotional time with my children? Often when I mention that to people, I’m met by disbelief, glares, or guilt. But we’ve found a simple formula that works for us. And if ever one child is running late, another will fuss at them because they love our prayer time. They crave that special moment to start the day.

However, we do not wake up early, and we don’t spend an hour. Allow me to share our recipe for prayer success.

1) Keep it short: Our prayer time is five minutes long.
2) Build it into your daily routine: We pray every morning by the front window right before they have to catch the bus.
3) Have a plan: We say the Lord’s Prayer together, then I read a 5-15 verse passage of scripture from a specified book. Finally, one of us closes with a prayer for our day .

Perhaps that sounds too simple. Too easy. But prayer is meant to be enjoyed. Not dreaded. Let’s look at these simple steps in more detail.

Keep it short. When you first attempt to enter into a daily habit of prayer, start simple. Choose a reasonable goal that you feel confident you can conquer. Five minutes a day. Ten at the most. Once this becomes a habit and you begin to enjoy your prayer time, chances are you will find this time too short and want to pray longer. But take it easy on yourself and start out slow.

Build it into your daily routine. What do you do everyday? Have a cup of coffee in the morning and read the newspaper? Check your email when you get home from work? Read before you go to bed? Take a lunch break? Go running? If you’re super busy then what about drive to work? Or take a shower? Choose one of these times and add your five minutes of prayer to it. Once it successfully becomes a habit and you are enjoying it, consider extending it, or adding a second, and later a third time.

Have a plan: It certainly doesn’t have to be the same as my family’s plan. Maybe you’d like open with a worship song, read a devotional, listen quietly, and close with an out loud prayer. Maybe you’d like to read a scripture and meditate on it and then journal about it. Maybe you’d like to begin with a time of thanksgiving, then pray for friends, and finally for yourself. You might enjoy trying something different such as deep breathing, repeating a single scripture, and imagining meeting with God to talk about your day. Traditional folks might like to use a liturgical prayer and light a candle. Our more charismatic friends might want to incorporate praying in the spirit or even dancing. The plan is only to help you, and you get to set it. One day you might want to change it, or scrap it completely. No problem! But a plan will help you see how you can easily fill that time. In fact, before long you’ll find that five minutes is not nearly long enough.

And this is just a starting point to help you enjoy your prayer time. Soon every hand in our audience might go up when the pastor asks who prays an hour a day. The goal is not to sit miserably, whiling away the time. The goal is to enjoy God’s presence so that you seek it more and more. To long to meet with him again. To dream of those moments. To pray without ceasing.

Because you want to!

Do you have a prayer routine that you’d be willing to share with us? What helps you to enjoy your time with God? If you don’t have a regular prayer time, what might help you establish one?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Prayer Series 4 - Divine Reading

 by Dina Sleiman

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you [live in you] richly in all wisdom.” 
~ Colossians 3:16

A few weeks ago in my prayer series post titled “You Have Spiritual Senses” I passed along this premise: we are all spiritually wired, but we are also spiritually challenged. We have spiritual eyes, and ears, and feelings, but we don’t know how to use them. We don’t trust them. They often get crowded out by our physical senses. And this is probably most true in the Western culture. Think about it. Why are there more miracles in third world countries? Is it simply because they need them more? Or might it be that without our Western logic and education, they are more open to mystery and wonder?

I find it helpful to go back before our current culture to traditions used by ancient Hebrews and medieval Christians to learn how to tap into our spiritual wiring. To use our spiritual senses. To discover the divine. 
I had the pleasure of being an editor on a book that focused on one specific technique called lectio divina. According to Wikipedia, “Lectio Divina is Latin for divine reading, spiritual reading, or 'holy reading,' and represents a traditional Catholic practice of prayer and scriptural reading intended to promote communion with God and to increase in the knowledge of God's Word. It is a way of praying with Scripture that calls one to study, ponder, listen and, finally, pray and even sing and rejoice from God's Word, within the soul.”
Excellent resource on Lectio Divina
In lectio divina, you don’t rush through scripture trying to meet your quota of chapters for the day. You relish it. You dwell on it. You read until you find that one word that really sparks something in you. That word that lights up, full of life. Then you pray about that word throughout the day. Meditate on it. Mull it over. Ask God to speak to you his truth about how this simple word or phrase should impact your life. In Hebrew the term is a rhema word.

Really, it’s just another method for finding intimacy with Christ. For awakening those inner senses and hearing from God. Because what good are lifeless words on a page without the Holy Spirit to help us rightly understand and divide the word of God. Without God’s direction and inspiration, we all know, people can read nothing more than their own prejudices and presuppositions into the Bible.

Lectio divina is only one of many techniques for tapping into God’s kingdom that dwells within you. In the coming weeks I hope to cover many more. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the one to spark you and bring your spiritual senses alive in a new way. If you’ve struggled with your quiet time, why not give it a try. Read just a few verses, and allow God to speak his rhema word to your heart.
Let me end with a quick little poem I wrote years ago on this topic.


 I am giddy with the words of God
 that flow like amber wine.
They are honey sweet, delicately spiced,
each one a world to itself,
alive and teeming, sparks flying,
glimmering in multi-faceted rays,
a rainbow of truth to touch each heart
with the idyllic shade of light.
Otherwise, too bright, white hot,
like gazing into the sun.
What scripture or specific word has stood out to you recently? What techniques have you found that enrich your quiet times with God? How do you tap into your spiritual senses?