prayer

The last few days have been surreal. Reactions to COVID-19 have been multifaceted and swift. Declarations of emergency. School closings. Spring sports suspended (children, high school, college, and professional). I could go on, but unless you’ve had your head in the sand, you already know all this.

I’m quite amazed at what has taken place and how fast it has happened. It is easy to be concerned. To watch or read the news is to immerse yourself in a cloud of concern. COVID-19 is extremely contagious. While not necessarily deadly to all who might catch it, its ease of transmission makes it troubling. What is evidently concerning is that the elderly with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

The speed of reactions is deeply concerning. The decisions to suspend public gatherings, cancel events, and isolate are aimed at mitigating public exposure to the virus. As Christians, we have an opportunity to reflect a confidence in God in the midst of a challenging situation. Here are 5 things we should remember in the days ahead.

  • While we should be prepared, we should not be afraid. Listen to the normal and wise advice about washing hands or avoiding crowds if you are vulnerable, but don’t give in to fear. Over and over again, God says to his people “Do not be afraid.” Of all the people in our world, Christians don’t have to fear. Throughout history God’s people have faced giants, armies, enemies, and persecutions. And God has always been victorious. God’s people overcome because God is sovereign. If you contract COVID-19, you don’t have to be afraid. If you are in isolation, you don’t have to be afraid (or alone, God promises to be with you). You do not have to fear.
  • While the church should react with regard to services and programs, this situation provides a unique opportunity for the church to be the church rather than just attend church. The ramifications of closings, suspensions, and cancellations will have lasting effects. Some churches may choose not to meet. Here’s a link to what Wilkesboro Baptist is doing this weekend. Churches that do meet may have low attendance. Regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen at church buildings, recovery from this situation will require the church to be the church to others. Being the church means that Christians can bring sanity and calmness to those around us by caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, providing for the financially depressed, or any other number of activities. My prayer is that we as Christians will be faithful and reflect the compassion and glory of God to those around us.
  • While we are right to act, we need to remember that humanity is not sovereign. I’m troubled by our human attempts at containment. And it’s not for the reasons you might think. The 21st century west is quite arrogant. We cannot change the weather. We cannot eradicate illnesses and viruses. We cannot cheat death. We are not sovereign. The Christian worldview does not encourage carelessness or negate preparation. However, the Christian worldview does put disease, illness, and death in context. Our reactions may slow down or stall the spread of the virus in the short term. And if so, the reactions may be worth it. But we cannot stop COVID-19. Indeed, we cannot stop every illness, sickness, disease, and death. Only the Great Physician can truly heal, rescue, and protect. The great lesson of this pandemic might actually be the humbling of our nation and the reminder that only God is sovereign.
  • While we might be isolated, we need to pray for the medical professionals. Many of you reading this will be able to isolate yourselves quite comfortably. Please remember in prayer the doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel who will be testing, caring, and ministering to the sick. They are on the front lines of this situation and need our encouragement and prayer support. Remember, this is new for them as well.
  • While we might be concerned about the future, we must have faith. It may seem callous to some to be concerned about the economic ramifications of our nation’s reaction. Whether callous or not, it is real. People are going to lose their jobs. Industries will slow and shut down. The stock markets will struggle. It already is painful economically and is likely to get worse. But we don’t have to lose faith. Remember the words of Habakkuk as he anticipated God’s judgment and its economic affect 2500 years ago.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

Habakkuk 3:17-19

So, what should we do?

  1. Be wise. Use common sense. Follow the advice of health professionals.
  2. Be calm. There is a lot of fear mongering and misinformation. Seek the truth. Relax. God is in control. We will come through this.
  3. Pray. Any crisis is a reminder that we must depend on God. Take the time afforded you in the coming days to pause, pray, and seek God. I believe wholeheartedly that God will use this situation to bring us closer to him if we will let him.

This week in my devotional reading I came to Romans 9. For some of my theologically astute readers, you will recognize the controversial section in Romans 9 where Paul acknowledges election and predestination. But I’m not writing in response to that section as important as it is. God impressed upon me a burden regarding an earlier set of verses.

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Romans 9:1-8

As a pastor and theology professor, I often focus on the contentious theological passages of the Bible. Warranted as addressing the finer points of theology might be, Paul’s heart in Romans 9 is not found in a theological treatise, but in an evangelistic purpose.

When you read verse three above remember that Romans is Scripture. Paul’s writing here is God-breathed, inspired. Paul is not merely making an emotional point. He’s serious. Deadly serious. Eternally serious. His heart for his fellow Israelites is such that he expressed willingness to be cut off from Christ for their salvation.

This is what God used to break my heart.

Am I so concerned about the eternal state of my friends, family, and neighbors?

Am I broken by lostness that I would cry out for my own soul to be cursed that they might be saved?

Do I pray with fervency and share with urgency that sinners might come to Christ?

Take some time to read Romans 9. Go ahead and read the next two chapters as well. Paul’s internal spiritual desperation is matched only by his external evangelistic zeal. May we be so burdened in prayer and zealous in witness.

My first six weeks at Wilkesboro Baptist Church has been a bit of a whirlwind. I can hardly believe we’ve sold a house, moved all our stuff, concluded one ministry, begun another, all in the last 90 days. My first six weeks at the church have included baptism, the Lord’s supper, a funeral, deacon’s meeting, finance committee meeting, deacon ordination, pastor installation service, and a church business meeting. It’s been a fun whirlwind.

I’d like to share a few initial observations about my time so far:

  • I remain convinced God placed me here at Wilkesboro Baptist Church. Not only did I sense God’s leadership here, but the church is a good fit for me and my family.
  • Preaching weekly is a joy. Having the opportunity to pray, think, plan, study, and preach through sermons and series is an incredible privilege. I am thoroughly enjoying this aspect of my ministry.
  • My church is fantastic. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming. From the meals, gifts, and cards, to the banana pudding and pound cake, my family and I feel welcome. Thank you Wilkesboro Baptist Church.
  • God has blessed Wilkesboro Baptist with a wonderful staff, deacon body, and church leaders. I look forward to the years working together to accomplish God’s mission of making disciples.

Let me offer this word of exhortation from my pastor, Dr. Greg Mathis. He shared these thoughts regarding an effective ministry at my installation service on September 27. Let us forgive early and often (show the grace and forgiveness to one another that Christ showed to us), protect our priorities (keep God first in all that we do), evaluate our attitude (don’t be judgmental, bur rather be humble and contrite), remember the power of prayer (depend on God’s favor and power), and clean our hearts daily (deal with self regularly).

1406823625000-emojiThe other night my 17 month old son, Nathan, climbed up on his brother’s bed, picked up the devotional Bible we use at night, and clasped his hands together ready to pray. He modeled a lesson we should each emulate. We should be ready and prepared to pray.

Recently, I preached on the subject, “Making Disciples through Prayer.” While it is true that prayer is a struggle for many of us, it is too important an aspect of Christian living to remain a weakness. Is prayer a weakness for you like it has been at times in my life? If so, let me offer some encouragement.

The believers in the first church were “devoted to… prayers” (Acts 2:42). The church in Acts was a praying congregation. Throughout the book prayer takes center stage as the “activity” of believers and the church together. In order for us to be faithful, growing followers of Jesus, we must pray.

Notice the believers were devoted to prayers (plural), not merely prayer. I understand that to mean, they prayed in multifaceted ways—privately, publicly, personally, corporately, together, separate, in church, in their homes, in large groups, in small groups, etc. The picture of a praying church in the book of Acts declares to us that growth in our prayer lives should happen in a variety of ways.

  • We should seek to improve our private prayer lives by devoting more time to prayer, keeping a prayer journal and tracking God’s answers, interceding for others regularly, meditating on Scripture as the basis for praying, etc.
  • We should seek to improve our corporate prayer lives by making prayer an important aspect of our church experience, by spending at least as much time praying in a prayer meeting as we do taking prayer requests, by praying specifically and significantly in our regular worship gatherings, etc.

May I commend to you several ideas that have helped my prayer life:

  • Find a prayer journal and track specific requests and specific answers. I use the PrayerMate app on my iPhone to assist me in keeping track of ongoing prayer requests.
  • Read books on prayer. I’m currently reading two books that I would heartily commend: Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller. I would also commend The Hour that Changes the World by Dick Eastman or good Christian biographies that follow the lives of prayer giants such as Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.
  • Find a prayer mentor. We all need mentors in life. Our spiritual lives are no different. Ask someone you look up to spiritually for tips and thoughts about prayer.
  • Begin a prayer group or accountability group. I’ve met with several friends over the years to encourage and challenge one another and to pray. There are few activities more blessed to do together than prayer.

Growing in your prayer life does not mean that you must become a prayer giant overnight. Rather, it means that you admit where you are weak, and pursue growth regularly. Would you join me in this challenge to develop our prayer lives?

 

 

istock_000011742381xsmallIf it were not that Spring wreaks havoc on my allergies, it would be my favorite time of year. Springtime is the season for new growth. In a sense, Spring can be an analogy for our spiritual lives. We need times that refresh and renew us in our relationship with God. My post below will look at a few ways we can spur on our spiritual growth using Spring as an analogy.

  1. Spring follows winter. In the part of the country where I live, we generally experience four seasons. While our winters are mild, they do give us rainfall, snow, and cold weather that puts plants into dormancy. We all have, and sometimes even need times of winter in our spiritual lives. These seasons reinforce for us our need to grow and provide us a basis for growth. Without winter precipitation, Spring could not arrive in all of its green glory.
  2. Spring is natural. I know, I know, some of you are thinking, “But if only my spiritual growth just happened. It seems so difficult to consistently grow.” While our spiritual growth is more supernatural, than natural, the concept still fits. As Spring arrives without our help, so our spiritual growth is supposed to take place. God designed us and purposed us for growth. I believe not growing in Christlikeness is more unnatural for the believer than growing.
  3. Spring needs resources. You may think I’m being contradictory. While Spring is natural, it is not alone in its arrival. Spring flowers, plants, and grass grow because of rainfall and sunlight. Nourishment encourages Spring’s arrival as God designed nature to work together. Likewise, we need nourishment from the Son (through His written Word) and from fellowship with our Father (through prayer). These are just some of the resources God purposed for our spiritual growth.
  4. Spring brings life. I love looking at the beauty of God’s created world. Flowers that bloom, grass that turns from brown to bright green, leaves that sprout on trees, and even the insects and animals that seemingly swarm with life during the Springtime are testaments to God’s creative genius. Want to have and spread spiritual life? Then, you and I must pursue spiritual growth.

You may not feel like you’re in the Spring of your relationship with God. You may feel dry and dormant, wondering what is going on in your life. You may feel as if you’re wilting under the burning heat of a spiritual summer. Or you may be cold with a wintry blast of discouragement. Spiritual seasons in life are just as natural as the seasons of our year. How do we respond? I would advise that you pursue the God who wants you to grow. Let him speak to you through his Word. Talk to him in prayer. Build relationships with other believers who will encourage you. Make it a point to be in church. Share Christ’s love and story with someone else. In other words, apply the resources of a spiritual Springtime in your life whether you feel like its Spring or not. God desires your growth even more than you do. He won’t let you remain stagnant for long. Spring is here. Let’s pursue our spiritual growth during this beautiful season.

I tweeted out a request for prayer recently. There were some family members at a funeral I preached whom I know were unbelievers. I’m grateful for the many people who responded that they did and would be praying. To those of you who may take the time to read this, I appreciate your prayers. I could sense more warmth from them, but there was not an outward response that I could see. This circumstance got me thinking about praying for the lost, and I’d like to offer some suggested prayers we could lift up on behalf of those who don’t know Christ.

  1. Pray for the convicting power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of unbelievers. Jesus taught that the Spirit’s role is to convict of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). Without his work in the lives of the lost, they simply will not come to Christ.
  2. Pray for the gospel to be preached/witnessed to unbelievers. Paul affirmed that the “gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). We should be prepared to be the answer to our own prayer here and look for opportunities to share the gospel with others.
  3. Pray that God would open the blinded eyes of unbelievers. One of Satan’s chief tasks is to blind and hinder unbelievers from seeing the glory of Christ and responding positively to him (2 Corinthians 4:4-6).
  4. Pray that God would give believers boldness to share the gospel. Even the apostle Paul asked for prayer that he might be a bold witness (Ephesians 6:19). Pray for one another that we might boldly preach, proclaim, and witness the gospel to others.

I know there are other things we can pray, but these four are a good start. And they should be a start, not a finish. Consistently praying for unbelievers is a fruitful task because God himself desires the salvation of the lost much more than we do (2 Peter 3:9). I’m reminded of one of my favorite George Müller stories. Müller ran an orphanage in England on faith and prayer in the 19th century.  He prayed for more than 50 years for two of his friends to come to faith in Christ. One day later in his life, someone asked George if he thought his friends would ever be saved. George responded, “Do you think my Lord would have me pray for my two friends for 50 years if he did not intend to save them?” True to God’s leading, one friend came to faith in Christ shortly before George died, and the other shortly after George died. So, let us persevere in praying for those who don’t yet know Christ.

I’ve got my names ready to pray these prayers on their behalf. Will you join me?

Can you believe it? We’re a week into the New Year already. I can remember growing up how I thought time moved like molasses—very slowly. The older I get, the faster time seems to move, especially trying to keep up with my two energetic little boys. Anyway, I’m sure many of you can sympathize with the speed at which each day seems to go by. Thinking about time and all that needs to be done and all that I want to get done is a necessary and sometimes frustrating endeavor.

Someone has said that we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. That insightful thought reminds us change, improvement, or movement toward sanctification happens in a process and not overnight. So, how can we grow, improve, or change in 2015? Let me offer some suggestions that I am personally going to adopt this upcoming year.

  1. Be consistent in Bible reading and application. Ezra 7:10 reads, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” I do read the Bible every day. I believe it is a requirement for spiritual growth. But God has been convicting me about living out what I read. So I’m going to try to apply specifically each day something I read from my devotional time.
  2. Grow in my prayer life. I pray every day, but the devotion, depth, and consistency of my prayer life is not what I believe God wants. I’m going to be trying something new. There are about 4-6 parts of my day that I would consider either starting points of the day or transition points (first thing in the morning, last thing at night, devotions with my family, first few minutes in my office, last few minutes in my office, etc.) My aim for 2015 is to make prayer the starting or finishing point for each of those daily transitions.
  3. Go on a mission trip. I’m the missions pastor at my church and annually go on a mission trip. But we are commanded by God to be on mission. One way we can all practically obey God’s commands is to set aside time, resources, and efforts to go on a mission trip.
  4. Read more broadly and consistently. A year ago in December, I finished a PhD, which required an enormous load of reading. While I didn’t take 2014 off from reading, I read significantly less. I’ve put together reading goals for this year that are broad and challenging.
  5. Be useful and give away what God is teaching me. Far too many Christians today soak in their spiritual development and inconsistently, if at all, share with others what they’ve learned. Through friendships, writing, teaching, serving, and leading God has reminded me that his followers are to invest in the spiritual lives of others.
  6. Share Christ personally with more consistency. I love my job and the opportunities I get to preach, teach, write, serve, lead, and share. But sometimes I’ve allowed my responsibilities within the church building to overwhelm my focus. This has at times resulted in a failure to consistently look for conversations and build relationships with those who don’t know Jesus. I know this is an area of my life that needs improvement in 2015.
  7. Renew my commitment to personal health. All of us have many demands on our time. But personal health is a part of spiritual health and growth. Mark Dance wrote about The Physically Healthy Pastor at Lifeway’s Pastors Today blogpost. While it’s targeted at pastors, I’m sure anyone would benefit from the principles.

These seven suggestions are in no particular order. And as a way of personal accountability, I plan to write on these topics through the year. I’ll share where some of these suggestions have worked or need to be amended (such as the prayer strategy). I also hope to share some stories where God is working in my own life teaching me important lessons in the year ahead. We’re all on a journey of spiritual growth. These are some of the suggestions I believe God is leading me to adopt this year. What about you?