Growing in Spiritual Intimacy

“Some say they have been married for 20 years, but truthfully they have been married twenty times the same year.” This statement by pastoral psychologist Jannie Botha has been ringing in my head ever since I have heard him say it few years ago.  It’s true: just because we have been together for long does not mean we have grown together strong.  Growth requires deliberate discipline (1 Timothy 4:7).

From the offset of our relationship my wife and I had a good spiritual partnership.  We went to church together, did Bible School together, served in a student ministry together and even planted a church together before we got married.  But although we shared some amazing times of worship together over the years, and although we pray together daily, we have not found a model for frequent devotional time together that worked well for the two of us. She has her way of spending time with God and I have mine.

Yes, we occasionally share what we read in the Bible and what God says to us, but we have always desired to grow spiritually together through a structured couples devotional time.  Especially now that we have kids we longed some format of a family devotional time that they may grow into more and more as they grow older.  And after more than a decade’s marriage I think we found something which works for us!

A Devotional Model for Couples

In his series Creating and Intimate Marriage Jim Burns shares that he and his wife Cathy also have their own devotional time, but that once a week they would come together and have a devotional time where share on spiritually with each other and spend time in prayer together, especially regarding their marriage and family.

They would begin their devotional time together by sharing from their Bibles and journals the most significant thing(s) that that God revealed to them personally, and discuss this with each other.  They would share what they have read, why it touched them and what it made them think and feel, and possibly how it would impact their current or future attitudes and actions.  This is a time of spiritual discussion and reflection.

Thereafter they share their greatest joy, greatest struggle, and greatest desire of the past week.  This can be a simple as “my greatest desire of the week is a weekend away from everything” or as deep and honest as “my greatest struggle of this week was you, Jim!”

This is followed by a time of affirmation – where they would encourage one another by stating how they positively perceived one another during the week.  Because they are committed to create an atmosphere of A.W.E. (affection, warmth and encouragement) in their home, they schedule these times of affirmation. This would lead to a time of accountability for physical goals they set for one another, and I think any form of accountability is healthy in such a session.  And eventually these sharing with one another would lead to a time of prayer for one another, their relationship and their family.

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Overcoming spiritual barriers to intimacy

It is important to note that the biggest barriers to intimacy include a lack of priority to meet together in such deliberate and disciplined ways – which these devotional times in themselves will overcome.  But furthermore relational issues such as unforgiveness, anger, and guilt, are all spiritual conditions which these times of sharing and praying should address.  These are the things that couples need to pray about together, asking God for love and grace to grow beyond.

The aim of this devotional time is to deliberately and systematically grow together spiritually as “draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8) and so doing to  grow in deeper intimacy.

This couples devotional method works for me – perhaps you and your spouse can try this and see if it works for you?

 

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Slow down – you need to fast!

The medical benefits of fasting is astounding, ranging from a stronger immune system, better hormonal balance, increased longevity, lowered heart risk and even to healing of various cysts and some cancerous growths.  For these and other reasons fasting clinics have been popular throughout Europe for over 60 years.

But fasting is not only prescribed for its health benefits; it is rightfully still thought of as a spiritual exercise or discipline.  Yet in our high-paced consumerist society this ancient discipline is not frequently practiced.  So why should Christians fast?  What is the promise behind this self-denying practice?

The 69th Psalm of the shepherd-king gives us unique insight into the purpose and power of fasting.  In its opening lines David cries Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my soul.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold… mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (verse 1-2, 4).  Two verses later he writes “O God, you know my folly; the sins I have done are not hidden from you.” (verse 5).

These opening phrases sketch the mindset of a troubled man in a hopeless situation: his soul is in anguish because of enemies much more powerful than himself, and to top of it his conscience is troubling him with the weight of guilt. Then David finds comfort in these words, the central thought of the Psalm: “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10)

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God alone can save

Why fast?  Firstly, David “humbled his soul with fasting” to appeal for help: his fasting was a clear statement that all his strength, all his knowledge, all his resources was insufficient to save himself from this troubling situation.  This great shepherd-king who killed the lion, the bear and great Goliath, who lead an army of mighty men that put fear in the hearts of his greatest enemies, this great David abstained from food and wine to shamelessly declare “I cannot save myself” – “my prayer is to you, O Lord!”, “Save me!”, “Deliver me!” (Verses 13, 1, 14). In his fasting he displayed his trust in God, saying “God alone can save!”

Years later his great-grandson King Jehoshaphat received troubling news that three great armies were marching against Jerusalem, greatly outnumbering the inhabitants of small Judah.  His first response was to do what he learned from David: Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:3). Rather than rallying the troops, forming allegiance, gathering supplies and fortifying the cities Jehoshaphat humbled himself with fasting to appeal for help from God. The closing line of his prayer captures the motive of their fast: “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).  And as they weakened themselves through abstaining from food and stood before the Lord helpless, the Lord answered “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (verse 15). God responded with a great deliverance that day!

Still years later Ezra the priest was returning from exile, leading a group of elders and officials to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.  Although Ezra had special favour from King Darius carrying letters of his support, Ezra refused to ask for a royal guard for protection through hostile territory because he ensured the King “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him” (Ezra 8:22).  So what did Ezra and his company do before their dangerous journey?  “I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21). The wise priest and his companions humbled themselves with fasting to appeal for help from God.  And the hand of the Lord was upon them for good!

God alone can satisfy

The second reason David states in Psalm 69 why he humbles his soul with fasting is to facilitate holiness as he confesses and shows remorse for his sins (verse 5-7).  After being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and staged murder of her husband Uriah, the king fell on the floor in remorse and fasted for seven days (2 Samuel 12:15-18).  From this time of fasting comes these words:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment…

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

(Psalm 51:1-4, 10-12)

David did not invent fasting as a means of repentance and holiness; as a Jew David grew up and annually kept The Day of Atonement – the special Holy Day during which all Israelites fasted (“afflicted their souls”) and confessed their sins to God as a nation.  On this special Sabbath the High Priest offered a Lamb for atonement of sins (Leviticus 23:27-28). Thus the nation annually humbled themselves in fasting as a sign of remorse to facilitate their holiness to God – as prescribed in God’s Law.

But fasting for holiness not only has to do with confession of sins – the key focus is to humble the soul by denying its carnal cravings.  During a fast one shuts down all other impulses that tug at the heart and deny all the cravings of the flesh. This time of consecration therefore serves as both a reminder that God alone satisfies the desires of the soul, and an opportunity to grow in holiness and love for God.    During a fast one can pray with the Psalmist “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God… Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:1,7).

So Psalm 69 teaches us to humble the soul by fasting, firstly to obtain help, because God alone can to save, and secondly to grow in holiness, because God alone can satisfy.

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When fasting is not selfish

But we ought to fast to obtain help for others, as the Lord instructed Israel in Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  And Nehemiah and Daniel showed us that even righteous men humble themselves by fasting to show remorse for the sins of their nation, and to appeal for God’s mercy. (See Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 1)

Is there any situation in your life too big or difficult for you? Is your soul too cluttered, too worried, too demanding or overburdened with guilt?  And do you crave intimacy with God, to share in his holiness?  Then it’s time to slow down, and fast.

RESPONDING TO A CRISIS

A crisis is due (time of arrival uncertain)

September 11, 2001 is a day that no New Yorker (or our generation) will ever forget.  It started off as another ordinary day as people hurried into the day.  Someone overslept, another had a fight with his wife, someone’s car broke down, one planned to get engaged that evening.  But for more than 5000 people in the Twin Towers it was the last day of their lives.

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We never schedule a crisis in our dairy – no one knows when disasters is going to hit.  A sudden death of a loved one, news of cancer, robbers in your home or a letter of retrenchment.  These things happen to someone every day.  Jesus spoke the truth: “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).  All we can do is “be watchful” and ready (1 Peter 5:8) and respond in a godly way.

Judah’s king Jehoshaphat had such a day as three big armies crossed the sea from Syria to invade Judah.  Yet this Godly man did not panic or run away.  His response to this crisis is recorded for our comfort, encouragement and learning (Romans 15:4).

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Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (1 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)

What can we learn from this great historic account deliverance?

  1. DEVOTION: Live ready (v6-13)

1Devotion

Jehoshaphat is a king that served God with the devotion of king David, “walked in his commandments” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4) and had his “heart set on God” (19:3).  Not only did he serve God in the privacy of his heart and personal life, but this righteous ruler courageously brought about a great reformation in the nation of Israel by destroying Baal worship with its immoral public practices, and by further commissioning priests to teach the Law of God throughout Judah and later judges to bring about justice in his kingdom.

So when the news of this crisis came to his palace, Jehoshaphat did not fear but did what he did every day: he went into his inner room and prayed to the God whom he had faithfully served all his days.  I love the way the book of Daniel records how that godly prophet responded to the death threats of not worshipping the emperor: “and Daniel went to his house… and he kneeled on his knees three times a day and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since his youth.” (Daniel 6:11)

So what do we learn from this?  A crisis may hit any of us at any moment, and the best way to be prepared is to be securely rooted in a devoted relationship with God.  When war breaks out the soldiers should be disciplined and trained; when exam day comes the student should be prepared; when a fire rages the fireman should be trained.  When a crisis hits, the believer should be firmly established in the devotional disciplines and relationship with His God – just like Jehoshaphat was.

Secondly, Jehoshaphat was ready because he was forewarned about some impending doom (2 Chronicles 19:2).  Peter teaches us to “be watchful because the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and Paul urges the believer should “not be ignorant if [Satan’s] plans” (2 Corinthians 2:11).  We are ready by staying close to God and watching in prayer, listening to what the Holy Spirit reveals to us.

  1. PRAYER: Run to God (v13-14)

2Prayer

As soon as the news of the approaching armies reached the king he proclaimed a fast, and everyone in this reformed nation ran to their God.  Jehoshaphat’s prayer is deliberately included as an example prayer for a crisis such as this.  This is how he prayed:

  • Praise: Even with the crisis looming Jehoshaphat starts by praises to God, allowing his (and the assembly) to consider Whom they are praying for: the Almighty God who Rules from Heaven and has power over every nation, and he is the God who made covenant with them!
  • Remind: The king reminds himself (and the assembly) of what God has done in the past, which immediately makes this present crisis seem less dooming since God has done many similar miracles for Israel in the past. Furthermore Jehoshaphat reminds himself (and the assembly) of the promises of God, stirring faith that God had already promised to do the thing he was about to ask. These two reminders stirred the assembly’s hope that God is at hand and for them, and therefore he is willing and able to deliver them from this disaster.
  • Confess: “You have not because you ask not”. Only after praising God for his attributes and faithfulness does the King confess his problem to God and asks for intervention, but he adds their helplessness in the situation and trust in God’s willingness and ability to help. He prays “For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” (verse 12).   God promises “grace to the humble” – and that is exactly what the nation needs in this crisis!
  1. WAIT: Let God direct you (v13-15) 

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After the prayer the whole nation “stood before the Lord” (verse 13) – just waited patiently, quietly for God’s direction or instruction. Each minute that they stood waiting they knew the army marched closer to Jerusalem.  But no-one did anything to prepare for war or flight – they abstained from all food and rest and entertainment because they knew that all their efforts will be futile – they literally looked and waited for God to save them.

Just like Habakkuk did years later, the Jews took their eyes off their enemies and looked towards God: I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me” (Habakkuk 2:1). Then God answered through the prophet Jahaziel that he will destroy their enemies – they simply had to walk to the edge of the desert and see what He was going to do.  Juda was encouraged by God and worshipped God with relief and gladness.  God heard their prayers and would save them from certain destruction!

Because they waited, God answered the questions “Lord, what do you see?”, “Lord, what will You do to save us?” and “Lord, what must we do?”  In every crisis the Word of God is what changes the situation from trial to triumph.

  1. FAITH: the worship of faithful obedience (v16-21)

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But as in almost every situation, God involves us in His salvation.  What did the Jews have to do?  In simple obedience walk head-on towards the enemy.  As Moses had to face Pharaoh, Joshua had to encircle Jericho, David had to walk up to Goliath, and Gideon had to walk into the Midianite camp, so Judah had to march in faith towards this massive army.  As Daniel’s friends discovered, God’s Great Plan sometimes requires us to walk through the fire. But as they obeyed in faith, they started singing the ancient Israeli song associated with God’s faithful deliverance of the Egyptian Army after their Exodus “Praise the LORD, for His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:20)

And this act of faithful obedience and praise resulted in God’s intervention into the situation: the three invading armies turned on each other and completely annihilated each other so that “No-one had escaped.” (v24)  All Judah had left to do was carry the spoils of war back – for three full days!  What a marvelous victory by the Lord!

  1. THANKS: Stop to give honour (v24-26)

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But the story does not end with the spoils and peace – Jehoshaphat had the wisdom to end where they began: at the House of God.  The whole nation returned to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God and make His praise glorious.  They returned to the place where they prayed, waited and received the Word and direction from God.

Just like one of the ten lepers who had received healing from Jesus returned to give thanks and “was made well (or whole)”, so Jehoshaphat and Judah was reward with “quite” and “rest all around” because of their gifts of thanks.

The other day the Lord said to me as something happened which was out of my control, “Don’t walk around defeated.”  I want to leave you with this phrase – when Crisis hits don’t walk around defeated, like heathen who live “having no hope and far from God in this world” (Ephesians 2:13).

Rather, like King Jehoshaphat, devote your life to seek and serve God.  When news of crisis comes, turn to Him in prayer, reminding yourself of Who He is and what He has done, present your problem to Him and confess your helplessness and trust in Him. Ask Him what He will do and what you should do. Then wait – let Him direct your response.  Act confidently – God is in control of your life, and you are precious to Him.  And once He has saved you, make His praise glorious!

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Lessons learned from church planting 2 – the blessing of being clueless

This is the second post in a series on “lessons learned from church planting” – the previous one was on the blessing of confident humility.

A street view of the Moonbox Theater, annexed to the bigger Breytenbach Theater in Sunnyside, Pretoria
A street view of the Moonbox Theater, annexed to the bigger Breytenbach Theater in Sunnyside, Pretoria

Our first meeting place was a dark little boutique theatre in the heart of Sunnyside called the Moonbox Theatre.  At times this quaint little theatre caused for some amusing and very embarrassing moments as the décor of the current production had to be left untouched.   For instance, during Halloween there would be spider webs in the corners, witches on brooms hanging from the ceiling and smiling lit pumpkins all around; during Easter bunnies and bright eggs decorated the dark theatre; during valentine the lights would be red, hearts and balloons on the walls and a bright mouth-shaped couch filled the preaching place…  Yet this never seemed to bother the early members of Shofar Pretoria who confessed they came back into this unsafe part of the city to a small, dark hall for times of intimate fellowship with God and one another.

Dependence on God

When we came together there was so much joy, excitement and hunger for God.  Yet we were clueless – none of us had any idea how to do this thing called church planting.  I had no experience in church-planting, pastoring or administering a church, but I had no need to fake it, since everyone else aslo knew I was clueless – but so were they!  There was no pretense, no false confidence – we all knew that we needed God’s grace and leading.  During this period I truly learned that “God gives grace to the humble” (James 4:5), and what grace did we walk in!

That sense of dependence lead us to pray a lot; since we had no education or experience in church-planting we needed hear everything from God.  Even with sermon preparation: I remember praying every Saturday for hours on end to hear the Word of the Lord for the church meeting on Sunday, recording everything the Lord was saying to the church. (During the initial 3.5 years of the church plant I was employed in the Air Force).  But it was not just me praying – the church prayed continually: before our services members would pray that everyone who entered would have a life-changing encounter with God – which they did.  The whole church rocked up for our midweek prayer meetings and we also had regular weekends dedicated to prayer and fasting. We prayed so much because we were clueless and knew that “unless the Lord builds the house” our efforts would be in vain (Psalm 127:1).

A house of prayer for all nations

In the first year of the church-plant we noticed that we were a very white, educated group of people meeting in the inner city of Pretoria – not at all representing or reaching the community we worshipped in.  In times of prayer we strongly felt God lead us to become “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).  So I ministered on that one Sunday and we prayed sincerely throughout the week that God would add people from the inner city to our congregation.  The very next Sunday, as I ministered, I noticed a tall, handsome black man walk into the small theatre where we met.  He was clearly moved in the service but tried to slip away during the closing prayer.  But Hendrik Redelinghuys quickly jumped up and greeted him and offered him coffee. He then told us that in the week he was alone in his room, frustrated with his life and betrayed by the people around him, praying with a rosary to God for help.  Frustrated at his lifeless religion he grabbed the rosary, threw it in the corner, and when lightning did not strike him down he cried out to God to lead him to people who knew Him and could teach him. So this particular Sunday morning Robert Ramwisa, a student from Rwanda walked out of his flat and (miraculously) heard our singing as we worshipped from within our little theatre-church.  He asked the guard at the gate to allow him inside, and although the man warned him “this is a white church”, Robert felt drawn inside.  That day Bob was overwhelmed by the presence of God and felt His love in the congregation, and the next Sunday Robert met Jesus his Savior and became part of the family. With that we started to grow into God’s “house of prayer for all nations.”  He was a pillar in the church-plant, later became a small group leader, and today he is back in Rwanda heading up a small group and church plant.

A recent photo of Robert Ramwisa in Kigali, Rwanda with a few mission team members from Shofar Johannesburg visiting him.
A recent photo of Robert Ramwisa in Kigali, Rwanda with a few mission team members from Shofar Johannesburg visiting him.

Power to transform

One of the major benefits of this dependent, prayer-driven congregation was the resulting prophetic ministry within the church – not by some “elect prophets” but by everyone.  I do not recall one service that passed without someone sharing a word of knowledge to an individual, or a word of prophesy from the Lord to either the church or an individual.  Because we waited on the Lord in prayer and worship God spoke faithfully, clearly, personally.  Our gatherings were characterized by a liberating freedom and holiness in respectful fear in the presence of God.  Each time we met, the Lord “sent forth his word and healed” (Psalm 107:20) and lives were forever transformed by the Lord.

One such an example is how Handré Verreyne became a member of our young congregation.  That day he was not looking for spirituality or God, and he was not at all interested in attending church, even though he was brought up as a “Christian”.  But Handré loved beautiful young women, and we had beautiful young women in our small congregation.  So Handre came to church on that Sunday wanting to win the heart of Meson Osborn, but God had a meeting planned with him.  That day God spoke into Handré’s heart and he became a member of the church.  As an added extra Handré did win Meson over, got married, and today Handre is serving as assistant pastor in Shofar Pretoria.

Avoiding bloodshed in church

Living in prayerful dependence on God saved us from various disasters in those days – some more literal and some more spiritual.  For instance, one evening as we prayed before the church service I heard the Lord instruct us to lock the doors.  So I asked Danie Ferreira to lock the doors when the service started.  Early in the sermon, I looked up and saw two men stand at the security gates trying to open the gate.  I asked Danie to open the gate for them, supposing they were visitors who did not know what time services started. But as they entered my spirit felt very uneasy.  The two “visitors” went to sit on the opposite sides of the hall, and immediately four or five of the men in church got up and went to pray in the foyer at the back – you could hear the deep rumbling as they prayed ardently. Several others bowed their heads and prayed softly in their chairs.  Something was not right!

At some point the uneasiness was so great that I stopped preaching and asked the congregation to pray together. We continued the ministry, but as we closed the service in prayer and everyone stood up, the men who prayed at the back gently removed the two “visitors” form the congregation and confronted them in the foyer as to their motives for coming here. Their story was fickle and their demeanor evasive, but we discovered they had guns and asked them to leave.  We suspected their motive was to rob the church during offering time (as was reported regularly in Pretoria Central during that time).  The next day we heard that two other congregations up the street were robbed on that Sunday by two gunmen who “visited” the churches.  Our prayerful dependence and sensitivity to God’s leading protected the church that day.

Birthing the purposes of God

In the months leading up to the church plant about 10 of us prayed fervently until we were convinced that God mandated a church plant in Pretoria.  Moreover, as we prayed we understood that the church were to be characterized by a few things: the healing of sexually broken people, a “well of salvation” (Isaiah 45:8), to restore “peace in the city” (Zechariah 8:4-5), “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7) and influence in government.

As I got underway in the pastoring and administration of the church I had forgotten to focus on these things the Lord had said about the church.  So as time went on and the church grew with new people being added there was much ministry in the area of sexual brokenness, and the prevalence thereof really concerned me, until I recalled the mandate given to the church.  From that moment on I cherished and celebrated the redemptive work the Lord was doing, to bring the sexually broken to the church for healing and restoration.

Today as I look at the photos of the people from those early days of Shofar Pretoria and I see their flourishing friendships, marriages and families, I cherish the fact that the Lord had birthed in Shofar Pretoria a well of salvation, a place where the broken can find Jesus their Healer.

Safety in the counsel of many

The last benefit I wish to mention regarding the blessing of being cluelessness was our experience of “safety in the counsel of many” (Proverbs 11:14).  Since no one had experience in planting, pastoring or administrating a church – but all had some experience and ample passion for ministry – there was a great degree of praying and planning together.  We were all learning, we were all praying, we were all working together. Although I was the leader and made the final call God spoke to us all and though us all.  Looking back, I find this extremely necessary since I was much younger, much more gullible and much more emotionally lead.  This was indeed safer for both the church and myself!

But there were other benefits: because everyone participated in the planning and discussions, people felt that their opinions were valued and therefore they were valuable, that their contributions mattered.  It truly stirred the faith and passion of the young group who saw that they were part in building God a house, and that the Lord was working through them.  This lead to tremendous buy-in and ownership of the church plant, resulting in a strong unity, crazy creativity, a freedom to minister and a willingness to serve, because God worked through us.

In the next post we will consider the benefits to the church when the pastor was still working.

The God Who Hears

God hears.  God: transcendent, all-mighty, all-knowing, ever-living, ever-present, unchanging, so different from us.  Yet this same big God is immanent, relational, approachable, and actively involved in our everyday lives – he knows your voice and listens to you.  God hears you.

Hagar and Ismael seeking water (Hermine F. Schäfer, 1964)
Hagar and Ismael seeking water (Hermine F. Schäfer, 1964)

Most of the Old Testament accounts have as basis “the people cried out in their suffering… God heard their cries” and then God saved them.  One such account is of Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah.  Since Sarah was barren she offered Hagar to bear a child for Abraham, but afterwards became resentful and mistreated Hagar.  The servant fled but was met by God who said “Return to your mistress… name the child Ishmael (meaning ‘God hears’) because the Lord has listened to your affliction” (Genesis 16:11).  Years later Sarah had a son and the jealous contention drove Sarah to send the servant and her son away.  Hagar and Ishmael ran out of water; she put the child to rest under a shrub and sat some distance away, not being able to watch her child die of thirst.  The Bible records God heard the voice of the boy” (Genesis 21:17) and saved them from their immanent death by providing a well.

God hears and saves.  God saved the the Hebrews slaves from Egyptian slavery and oppression because he heard them – “When we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent the Angel and brought us up out of Egypt…” (Numbers 20:16).  Years later in their Promised Land they forgot God and repeatedly fell subject to foreign domination, but “when the children of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer” (Judges 3:9) “for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning” (Judges 2:18).   More than ten times in the book of Judges the phrase “cried out” occurs in this book, and then God hears, has pity and sends a deliverer such as Gideon, Samson, Deborah, etc.  The people cry out, God hears and God saves.

In the psalms God is revered as “You Who hear prayer” (Psalm 65:2), and he invites his people to call on Me in the day of trouble; and I will rescue you…” (Psalm 50:15; cf Ps 91:15).  Many of the psalms were written in celebration of God’s answer to their prayers, with a familiar refrain in these songs “then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses” of Psalm 107.  A few sample texts will illustrate:

Psalms 40:1-3  “I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me, And heard my cry.  He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, Out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, And established my steps.  He has put a new song in my mouth– Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, And will trust in the LORD.”

Psalms 18:6-16  “In my distress I called upon the LORD, And cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His  temple, And my cry came before Him, even to His ears. Then the earth shook and trembled; The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken… He sent from above, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.”

Psalms 66:17-20  “I cried to Him with my mouth… certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, Who has not turned away my prayer, Nor His mercy from me!”

The psalmists sing that God hears and heals (30:2), he hears and saves from distress (18:6), shame and entrapment (31:22), from troubles (34:6), from “miry clay” (40:1-3).  God answers by giving strength and courage (138:3).  Certainly, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him” (Psalm 145:18), therefore one should Wait for the LORD, and He will save you” (Proverbs 20:22; compare Psalm 27:14).

Much of the history books retell the intervention and deliverance from God who hears and responds to the cries of his people.  He intervened when soldiers cried out to him from the battle ground (2 Chronicles 13:14-16; 14:10-14; 20:1-28).  When Elijah “cried out to the LORD” to resurrect a widow’s son, “the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived.” (1 Kings 17:22).  When king Hezekiah was sick and dying, Isaiah “cried out to the Lord” for his healing and God responded with a sign – the sun moved back 15 degrees on the sun dial (2 Kings 20:5, 11).  Even when Solomon consecrated the temple God made this well-known promise: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  Therefore Hosea, years later, called unfaithful Israel to repentance saying “take words with you” (Hosea 14:2) with this promise from God I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely (v4).   God hears and responds to the prayers of his people.

God saved the sailors in the boat Jonah traveled in.
God saved the sailors in the boat Jonah traveled in.

But God does not only hear the prayers of the righteous or of the Jews – the promise is that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32 quoted in Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13).  God hears everyone.  The Old Testament book of Jonah reveals this truth as God saved the pagan fishermen from drowning because they called on him (Jonah 1:14), the rebellious prophet from drowning by sending a big fish (Jonah 2:2), as well as the inhabitants of Nineveh from impending judgment because they repented in fasting (Jonah 3:4-10).  God is merciful – he saves all who call on him.

The Bible clearly shows that God hears and saves all who calls on him.  How does this truth change our lives?

1. Secure in God’s intimate awareness

Firstly, I rest in the knowledge that God is intimately aware of me and hears my prayers as he heard Jesus’ desperate cries (Hebrews 5:7).  But God hears more than our prayers.  In Hagar’s account we see the Lord is a God who listened to the unjust treatment of the pregnant servant girl as well as a God who hears the cries of a thirsty boy and provides an outcome (Genesis 16:11, 21:17).  He is a God who took note of the Egyptians’ oppression of the Hebrew slaves and heard their groaning (Exodus 2:23-25) and their cries (Exodus 3:16).  The Lord took note of Leah’s desperate desire to be loved and have children and gave her first two sons: Reuben (literally “the Lord sees”) and Simeon (literally “the Lord hears”) (Genesis 29:32-33).

God listens to the conversations (and complaints!) of his  righteous people.
God listens to the conversations (and complaints!) of his righteous people.

God also takes note of conversations among each other: he listens when the righteous talk to one another (Malachi 3:16) and he God records it in a book, but also hears complaints and murmuring (Numbers 11:1, 12:2).  In another incident we read that God heard the threats of the Syrian military commander against Israel and responded by saving his people (2 Kings 19:6-8).  God is near; he hears and responds.

 2. You have not because you ask not

Secondly, I am aware that God ordained our relationship with him in such a way that he gives us what we ask in prayer.  Jesus taught us “ask, and you will receive!” (Matthew 7:7).  He taught us to ask for everything, from your daily bread and forgiveness (Matthew 6:8-10) to peace of for your city (Psalm 122:6 and Jeremiah 29:7).  Years later the apostle John wrote: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

Oliver Twist was brave enough to ask "Please sir, can I have some more...?" (Movie from book by Charles Dickens)
Oliver Twist was brave enough to ask “Please sir, can I have some more…?” (Movie from book by Charles Dickens)

God gives us what we ask.  I find that we tend to rely on our own efforts to satisfy our desires and needs, and do not ask God Our Father for these things. James wrote to a frustrated church in Jerusalem “You lust and do not have… Yet you do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).  We live life in relationship with God.  Our heavenly Father knows what we need (Matthew 6:32).  So ask – God hears you! You will receive.

3. God does not get tired of your prayers – he invites it

Sometimes we tire of asking God for the same things over and again, thinking God gets annoyed by our asking.  Yet God does not get tired of hearing our pleas – rather he encourages it.  Using two parables Jesus taught his disciples that persistence is necessary in prayer.  The first is of a man who knocks and asks for bread in the middle of the night until his friends gets up and gives him what he asks (Luke 11:5-13), and the second of a widow who pleads for intervention from a judge on behalf of her two sons until he gives justice (Luke 18:1-8).  In both teachings Jesus taught that his disciples should persist and persevere in prayer until God the Father responds in answer. Do not stop asking – God does is not worn out by your asking!

Watchmen awake at night
Watchmen awake at night

In another place God said: “I have set watchmen on your walls; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent… give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth (Isaiah 62:6-7).  Are some of your prayers unanswered?  Have you given up praying about finding a life partner, or your marriage, your financial situation or the will of God for your life?  Then you have need of endurance!  God would say to you today “Persist in prayer.  Do not stop asking!” – God hears and he will respond.

 4. Come closer

The Almighty God invites me and you to approach him with our needs and desires, to “boldly approach the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).  Do not keep silent but “let your request be known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

You can pray with the confidence that God does hear you and he will respond with compassion and power.  So close the door, switch off your phone and talk to your Father in secret who will hear and reward you openly (Matthew 6:6).  As you start praying let this last Scripture be an inspiration to talk to God Who Hears.

Isaiah 64:3-4 “you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence… for since the beginning of the world Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen any God besides You, Who acts for the one who waits for Him.”

vulcano
God responds powerfully on behalf of those who pray to him (Isaiah 64:1-4).

True Christian fellowship

We’ve all attended a Christian fellowship meeting where boredom drives us to count the cracks in the tiles and we end up feeling feel guilty for wondering whether this was a waste of precious time.  At other times we walk away from lively discussion with laughter or tears, yet feeling empty, wondering if Jesus was at this meeting.  But we go back because we know it’s right, and because we remember and yearn for those powerful life-changing encounters with God in a loving community.  How do we prepare for those meetings?  What did the Christian fellowships look like to result in such life-giving communities?

The word “fellowship” is used very loosely in Christian circles these days for anything from formal Sunday worship services to conversation over coffee to prayer meetings at work.  Interestingly enough, none of these references are improper when compared to the New Testament use.  Hampton Keathley did a very helpful study of fellowship in the New Testament, showing how it the concepts of “having together” or “sharing” is used in reference to our relationship with God and one another, the various ways in which companionship takes place, or for the sharing of resources to meet one another’s needs, as well as partnership in ministry.  Christian fellowship is a wide study, and perhaps that is one reason why at times “fellowship groups” fail in being productive and life-giving.

levels-of-communication3
Conversation in Christian fellowship should should grow towards being loving, genuine and truthful.

Before we get handles on what to focus on in Christian fellowship groups, let’s first consider our communication within the fellowship.  It is widely considered (and helpful) to look at five levels in communication:  Hallway Talk is that shallow conversations we do in showing courtesy – the “hello!” and “lovely day, isn’t it?”  exchanges as we pass by.  Then we have Reporter Talk where we relay facts or experiences; in a Christian group this is typically a teaching or an update.  Next we move to Intellectual Talk as we add personal depth by sharing our thoughts, understanding or opinions on the subject at hand.  Many Christian groups only progress to here, limiting the fellowship to intellectual debate or lecture – the reason for the lifeless feeling in fellowship.  From here the talk should move to making it even more personal – Emotional Talk – where one’s feelings towards the subject is discussed: “How do you feel when you read ‘God so loved the world…’?” or “How does the statement ‘God will judge every work…’ move you?” But Christian fellowship should not climax with emotive response alone – the aim to evaluate yourself soberly in light of the Word and then present your shortcomings vulnerable for the Lord in the ministry of the fellowship (1 John 1: 7-9; James 5:16).  Communication in Christian fellowship should be Loving, Genuine Truthful Talk.  This level of communication is very honest and transparent and requires an environment of patient love and safe trust.  But this is the environment where the Spirit of God works with great power and delicate precision.  Here there is LIFE that shows in healthy growth and miraculous transformation.

The elements of true Christian fellowship

Now that we know the conversational environment wherein Christian fellowship should take place, what are the necessary elements for healthy Christian fellowship?   With fellowship meaning “sharing” – what do we “share” when we come together?

Christian fellowship should first of all be communion with God.
Christian fellowship should first of all be communion with God.

Firstly, as Christians we come together to fellowship with God in Christ (1 John 1:3, Colossians 1:27). We share in God as we share in Christ – this is firstly an objective reality, since God lives in and we live in God through Christ.  In a literal sense we “share” or “hold onto” God himself – this is true regardless of share activities.  God has us together and we have God together.

But fellowship with God is also subjective experience and deliberate activity as we commune with him about anything and everything in prayer.  We come together to meet with God and converse with God.  This includes the giving of thanks for his goodness in our lives, praising him for who he is and surrendering ourselves to him in worship. Fellowship with God must always be the central focus of Christian fellowship, otherwise it becomes a human social interest club.  We meet with God as God’s family around Our Father’s table.

Christian fellowship involves encouraging, supporting, caring and also correcting one another.
Christian fellowship involves encouraging, supporting, caring and also correcting one another.

Secondly, we fellowship is with one another (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 1:3,7-9).  It sounds silly to say it, but the second focus of coming together is to be with one another and “stir one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  The focus of gathering is the well-being and growth of the others, placing the needs of others above their own (Philippians 2:3-4).  An enlightening study is to search through the New Testament and take note of the many instructions to “one another” and “each other” as it gives a healthy perspective of the practice of early Christian fellowship that characterized by love for one another.  The complete list of “one another” –instructions is long, but the essentials in my view for every meeting is to “encourage each other” one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18, 5:11) and “build each other up” (Hebrews 3:13) in our walk with Christ, to support and care for each other (Galatians 6:2; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26) through struggles and hardships, to correct and warn one another of harmful attitudes and sinful behaviour (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16) as we hold one another accountable before Christ.

Christian fellowship should be centered in the Word.
Christian fellowship should be centered in the Word.

Thirdly, we fellowship in Word the Scriptures are the basis of our conversation and reflection whether in instruction (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2) or edification and correction (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) the Biblical Text is the basis of our communion.  Too often our conversation centers on our opinions, resulting in worldly advice or cheap Hall-Mark card encouragement.  In Christian fellowship the Bible is central.  We gather around the word of God as we seek God and his will for our lives, remembering the words of Peter to our Lord: “Lord, you alone have the words of life” (John 6:68).

Christian fellowship should be Spirit-directed. "The wind blows where it pleases... so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
Christian fellowship should be Spirit-directed. “The wind blows where it pleases… so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Fourthly, we fellowship in Spirit (Philippians 2:1).  As mentioned above our fellowship is not mere intellectual engagement or emotional interchange, but spirit-to-spirit ministry.  We already “share in the Spirit” since we all immersed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12), and therefore our interaction should be spiritual.  This includes prayerful waiting on the direction of the Spirit for empowered ministry as we “serve one another with the gifts each one has received” (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 12:6-11). We must remind ourselves to stop and listen to the promptings of the Spirit, and in faith obey.  Our fellowship is in the Holy Spirit.

"Fellows in a ship" working together for a common goal - a good image of Fellowship in the Gospel'
“Fellows in a ship” working together for a common goal – a good image of Fellowship in the Gospel’

Lastly, we fellowship in Gospel (Philippians 1:5, 7 27).  Objectively this means we have become “partakers of the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6) – those who have received and hold on to the promise of redemption in Christ’s substation and grace.  When we come together this is evident as we testify of our experience of Christ’s continual saving work in us.  But to “fellowship in the gospel” (Philippians 1:5) also means to partner with one another in the work of the gospel – the spreading of the good news of God’s reign and Christ’s saving work.  We fellowship as we take hands, or “yoke together”, to work diligently and strategically in sharing the gospel and showing God’s love with those close and those far away.

Thus Christian fellowship is centered in our worship of God and overflows to our communion with one another.  This fellowship is centered in the Word and directed by the Spirit and results in partnership in spreading the gospel of Christ.  Christian fellowship fails when its aim is mere intellectual enlightenment or emotional support; the goal of Christian fellowship is the discovery of God and his truth followed by a conviction and transparent confession of who I am, so that God through his grace may do his transforming work in me, within and through this loving community.

It took ten plagues…

It took ten plagues for God to deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt.  I remind myself of this truth often.  Imagine with me: Moses meets God at the burning bush, takes off his shoes and falls on his face in fear of this Great I Am.  God sends him to Pharaoh to command the release of his people (he tries to get out of the job, unsuccessfully).  (See Exodus 4, 7)

Moses walks into Pharaoh’s palace (where he grew up and from where he fled some 40 years earlier) and stands face to face with the ruler of Egypt who believes he is a god; Moses’ confidence is in Aaron his spokesperson and the two wondrous signs in his hands, given by God.  “Let God’s people go!” says Moses.  As a sign that he is sent by the One True Living God, he throws his shepherd-staff on the ground and it becomes a snake.  But then the court magicians did exactly the same with their sticks – what an unexpected surprise!  The magicians could do the same sign God gave as proof of His divinity and supremacy!

When Pharaoh did not let God’s people go to worship the Lord, Moses performed the first plague by turning all the water in Egypt to blood (Exodus 7:20-21).  Yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and unwilling to let God’s people go.

10plagues_cartoons

We know the history.  It took nine more signs before Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go.  The one sign was not enough.  Two plagues could not do the job either.  Did Moses miss God when he turned the water into blood and Pharaoh did not release the slaves?  No.  Did he do something wrong that caused the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? No.  Moses had to go to Pharaoh ten time and instruct him to release the slaves ten times and call down ten plagues upon the Egyptians.  It simply took ten plagues for Israel to be delivered from Egypt – Moses needed to be persistent in obeying God.  There is a need for endurance.

This Biblical account is not unique in illustrating our need for persistence.  During Israel’s battle with the Amalekites they had the militant advantage for as long as Moses kept his hands in the air (Exodus 17:11).  Noah was persistent in obeying God to build an ark for 120 years and preach repentance to his generation, yet only his household was saved (Genesis 6:22; 2 Peter 2:5).    Abraham’s persistent faith for an heir is commended by God, so that he was called “friend of God” (Genesis 22:18; Romans 4:17).

More contemporary examples of persistence, its needs and rewards are captured in the memories and legacies of William Wilberforce who dedicated his life to the abolition of the British slave trade, and Thomas Edison for his persistence in the design of the light bulb.  Persistence pays off!

The Bible has much to teach us on a need for persistence.  It is fueled in prayer before God and results in faithful acts of obedience.

Persist in prayer

woman_kneeling_prayer

I have heard many people teach and encouraged demotivated individuals to pray once, believe and “leave it with God”?  Yet the Biblical text is full of examples and instructions regarding persistence prayer.  Jesus himself once prayed for a blind man, but afterward he could not see clearly.  So Jesus persisted in prayer and the man’s sight was fully restored (Mark 8:23-25).  He instructed and encouraged his disciples likewise to persist in prayer, saying that they always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  He taught them “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).  Although less clear in the English, this instruction in petitioning, acting and persevering for a desired outcome is given, implying persistence until the desired outcome is achieved.  His own life was one of persistent, passionate prayerfulness (Hebrews 5:7; ).  The disciples followed Jesus’ example of persistent prayer and modeled it to the early church (Acts 1:14; 2:42), also instructing them to “persevere in prayer” (Ephesians 6:18), “be steadfast in prayer” (Romans 12:12) and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Examples of persistent prayer also abound in the Old Testament.  Abraham persisted in prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23-33).  Jacob’s persistence in wrestling with the Angel of the Lord secured him with the blessing of God and a changed identity (Genesis 32:24-31).  Moses persisted in prayer on behalf of God’s grumbling, unthankful people for forty days so that they were spared (Deuteronomy 9:25).  Hannah was shamelessly persistent in her petitions for a son, and Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:10-12).  Likewise Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s persistent prayers were heard, and John the Baptist was born (Luke 1:12).  Simeon persisted in prayer for Israel’s Savior and he was rewarded to lay his eyes on Jesus before his death (Luke 2:25-32).  Elijah persisted in prayer and the draught over Israel was broken (1 Kings 18:42-45).  Daniel had a disciplined prayer life (Daniel 6:10-11) and persisted in prayer for the restoration of his nation until he was heard (Daniel 9:1-3; 10:2-3, 11-12).

But persistent prayer must be accompanied by persistent faith in action.  In the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture, “waiting on God” and “hoping in God” are typically used as synonyms for persistence in prayer and obedience while waiting for God’s intervention (e.g. Psalms 88 and 130; Isaiah 26:8 and 40:30-31).  There is a need for persisting in doing good as well.

Persist in doing good

Persistence in doing  the will of God
Persistence in doing the will of God

Jesus’ life is the perfect example of persistence in doing good (Acts 10:38), of doing the Father’s will (Matthew 26:36-45; Philippians 2:5-8).  His disciples followed his example and instructed the church to do the same, and “not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13) but remain “steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Joseph’s life is an example of someone who persisted in doing good, even though he was victim to much betrayal an suffering. (Genesis 41:43, 44)  Although he suffered unjustly at the hands of his brother and as slave to Potiphar and as prisoner in jail, he persisted in doing good, and God continued to bless him, until later he was appointed as ruler in Egypt. (Genesis 39:10, 12, 23).  Because of his persistence and faith God entrusted much to him.

Nehemiah’s life is one of persistence and faithful endurance.  Amidst great resistance from without and within (Nehemiah 2:19-20), even in the face of war (Nehemiah 4:7-9), he obeyed the burden of God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, to remove the shame of his people and to restore true worship in Israel (Nehemiah 8:1-3).  Likewise, the lives of the David, prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea as well as the early church serve as inspiration to us of persistent faithfulness to God, suffering ridicule and rejection, imprisonment, beatings and even fatal martyrdom in faithful obedience to God.

Is there something you are “waiting” or “hoping” for in God?  Have you tried but failed, even though you did what God commanded you?  Then remember: it took ten plagues to deliver the slaves from Egypt.  Don’t give up!

So what are you trusting for?  Do you have unfulfilled dreams or unanswered prayers?  God has not forgotten you – he cannot (Isaiah 49:15).  He hears your prayers and is willing and able to intervene (Isaiah 59:1), but you have need for persistence, so pray and work until your bucket is full (Revelations 8:4-5).

Follow the example of our Biblical heroes.   Remain determined in your dream.  Do not wobble due to residence, do not yield to pressure.  Be not spineless in the face of the impossible nor waver when the wait is long.  Are you weak or battle-worn?  Then “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14; see Isaiah 40:31)

But be steadfast in your faith, tenacious in your pursuit, unshakeable on your course.  Be relentless in your prayers and unremitting in doing good.  God honors persistence!