Some of the most heart wrenching words in the entire Bible go like this,
“39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
– Matt 26:39-42
It is hard to figure out how this works. Jesus and the Father are One. And yet they seem to be coming up to the cross from two different perspectives. I don’t entirely know what to make of this but I do know this – if Jesus had to surrender to God’s will, how much more do I need to surrender to God’s will?
Too often I am more like the disciples, asleep in the hour of trouble, than I am wrestling over whose will is being done in my life. May we follow the example of Jesus and become a people committed to God’s will being done.
If we would make this commitment some big things would happen.
I believe we might actually find unity in Christ. Too much of our division is firmly rooted in who gets their way – us or God.
I believe we would get back to mission – that we could overcome our hesitancy to reach the lost because we want God’s will to be done so much more than we would want to uphold our own comfort.
We would have communities of faith that are also communities of love. God getting God’s way means me loving you even when I don’t want to or feel like it. Too often I fail to love because I am asleep at the wheel…napping through important moments.
Time to wake up, listen to Jesus’ prayer and consider what would happen if we followed His example.
Prayer is about a relationship. Like any other conversation in your life you build and grow your relationship through conversation. Unlike any other conversation in your life you don’t get the direct feedback like you do from a human being sitting in front of you. Because of that, prayer can be a bit awkward at first. It might feel like you are talking to the wall. You may wonder if your prayers make it past the ceiling, as if God is up there and we are down here. When you start to pray, understand you are talking to Someone…a real being…a personal entity…the Creator of the Universe. You don’t use thee’s and thou’s in everyday conversation and you don’t have to use that with God either.
Prayer isn’t magical. Magic often involves using specific words and phrases said in a particular way to invoke or evoke a particular powerful action or response. Some people view prayer as if it was magical. It is as if they think God can only hear them if they use particular words and those words are not typically everyday words. The truth is there isn’t anything magical about prayer and you don’t force God’s actions by getting the verbiage right. There is no way to guarantee the action of another free and independent person.
Prayer isn’t magical but it can be effectual. Just because prayer isn’t magical, guaranteeing your desired result that doesn’t mean that prayer is ineffectual…that prayer has no effect. This is where things get a bit tricky but stay with me. Prayer is effectual. James 5:15-16 says this,
“15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
So prayer matters and prayer can actually effect outcomes. It is a bit hard to know how this works as God knows the beginning from the end and yet we do get instances in the Bible where specific prayers change the course of God’s decision making (see Genesis 18 or Exodus 32). All that to say that although we cannot guarantee a result from our prayers that our prayers can influence the direction God takes.
Last, if you don’t think you are any good at praying you are not alone. Check out Moses’ conversation with God in Exodus 3. He made a mess of it. Check out Abraham and Sarah’s conversation with God in Gen 18. The thing you will find with all of these people who had awkward conversations with God is this, keep on trying. Keep on talking. Keep on praying. It does, like in most relationships, become easier with time and experience!
The uncertainty leading up to the Presidential election drove many to their knees in prayer, regardless of political affiliation. For many conservative Christians, concern for the unborn and convictions about marriage or sexuality informed their prayers. For some of them, and for others, concern for ethics and morality in society (especially among our leaders), passion for the plight of the economically and socially oppressed, and a love for life that demands accessibility to healthcare and recognition of civil rights for people most vulnerable to discrimination and bullying inspired their prayers. Some on both sides either ignored the others’ concerns or dismissed them as hypocritical or simplistic, unconstitutional or demonic. Fear of violence and civil unrest, whether the violence was prompted by response to violence against unarmed citizens or by allegiance to white supremacy, also led Christians to pray. Americans across the political spectrum have feared that our system of government might be at risk, whether from socialism or from authoritarian leaders who disregard constitutional procedures. I think it’s fair to say that such fear remains even after the election with former Vice-President Joe Biden projected to have won the election, but President Donald Trump refusing to concede.
The prayer of Habakkuk in chapter 1 of his prophecy seems relevant for people across the political spectrum to me. The prophet feared invasion of Israel by a pagan superpower. He also lamented the injustice he witnessed already in his nation. He prayed:
“How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (Habakkuk 1:2-4).
God’s answer startled the prophet. His divine strategy to resolve the collapse of justice among Israelites was to unleash “a feared and dreaded people…a law to themselves [who] promote their own honor” (verse 7). God’s plan to discipline his people and reset them on a right course would employ means and agents that shocked Habakkuk. God’s plan for our times may confuse us. We may wonder why he does not hear our cries against violence, abuse of power, and disregard for the helpless. God assured Habakkuk that faith would provide fuel for survival (2:4), that God still controls (2:20), and that living in harmony with God empowers (3:16-19). These principles endure, and form the foundation for Peter’s encouraging words to embattled Christians:
“But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Join with Habakkuk and me in praying for justice. Be prepared for an answer you had not imagined. Live with faith and act with love as you follow Christ (Take time to reflect on his words in Matthew 25:31-46 about priority of action). Pray for Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, Jr. Pray for yourself and for me, hoping that our sentiments are the same as the writer(s) of the book of Hebrews:
“Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way” (Hebrews 13:18)
• Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.
Marriage and family therapists often say that frequency of sex can be a thermometer for the health of a marriage. It isn’t a perfect indicator but a change in frequency of sex can show that other issues are present.
Intimacy requires connection. Obviously, that expresses itself differently between men and women but you cannot have connection without communication.
The same is true of prayer. If you find yourself praying less it is a good indicator that something isn’t right. Maybe you are in a time of depression or anxiety. Maybe busyness has sucked your heart and soul away and make margin for time with God hard to imagine.
It is important in any relationship that is important to us to have consistent communication. To be in touch. To hear and be heard.
Take a moment to consider your prayer life and how in tune and in touch you are with God and if you find it lacking be intentional about setting aside some time each day to increase your connection with your heavenly Father.
“I will continually sing hymns of thanksgiving” (Sirach 51.11)
This year, 2020, has been a long, challenging year, for a great many people. Not only disciples of Jesus but those who are not. Not only for those in the United States but those in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and literally around the globe. It is not the first pandemic that has ravaged humanity in history but COVID-19 is certainly the biggest in my lifetime. This has been a year where many of us have learned a great deal about ourselves and what we are willing to endure for the sake of loving the neighbors around us.
But even with the challenge of this year, as we enter into November, we have so much to be thankful, indeed grateful, for.
May I recommend a short reading to you. I want to urge you to read Psalm 103 and Psalm 111 tonight and even tomorrow. Read them out loud. Let the Spiritual words of the Psalm flow through your lips.
Thanksgiving bubbles to the surface of anyone who is genuinely grateful for what has been received. I hold it as a spiritual truth that the depth of Israel’s thanksgiving is living testimony to the profound depth of their experience of grace in the Hebrew Bible. The extent of our own thanksgiving likewise reveals the depth of our knowledge of grace. Thanksgiving is directly proportional to our knowledge of being graced.
Sometimes, we resist public (and even private) thanksgiving because it “demands” an “embarrassing awareness” that we are on the receiving end of gifts that are essential to life. These gifts we neither merit nor come close to earning. This is why the line between “thanksgiving” and “praise” is so often extremely fine. The more we know we exist by the grace of God, every second of the day, the more pervasive thanksgiving dominates our lives.
Psalm 103 (and 111) is pure thanksgiving to Yahweh, the God of Israel. The Psalm opens and closes with the imperative
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” (103.1)
“Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (111.1)
Then Psalm 103 proceeds to present a series of “benefits” that deserve our thanksgiving. For our purposes I suggest there are four as we follow the length of the Psalm.
Thankful for … “Forgiveness” (v.3f)
Ours is a world of ungrace. Besides being a world of full of COVID, the year 2020 has reminded the entire world how ungracious humanity can be. Democrats and Republicans attack each other as if possessed by rabies. Spouses hold grudges near their heart for decades. Our world is withering away in a slow agonizing death of ungrace.
We, all of us, crave to be forgiven. Yet we, all of us, have an extremely hard time forgiving. The Psalm tells us that Yahweh forgives. Forgiveness is not merely letting us off the hook. Rather forgiveness takes our broken lives and heals them from top to bottom. Grace makes us whole. We are set free by forgiveness and empowered to be a forgiver. So, we praise Yahweh,
“who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases …”
Thankful for … Renewal of Life (vv. 4-5)
An ungrateful life is hard. It sucks “life” right out of our heart. The world, and often the church, does everything it can to reduce us to mere existence rather than thriving. We become lifeless, almost like sectarian zombies. But God did not create us to merely exist but to have life to the full, as Jesus said (and Qoheleth shouts “Amen!”).
“who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with HESED [steadfast love, NRSV] and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s”
With Yahweh we receive renewal of life. We were in the “Pit,” living a death like existence. But we are “redeemed” out of that Pit and “renewed” like the wings of an eagle. Love and compassion are gifts of God that course through our veins making us feel new life. What a gift to be thankful for. Our lives are renewed. They are crowned with God’s HESED.
Thankful for … Love that is Gracious (v.8)
Israel is brought face to face with the “God Creed” in v.8 which came from Yahweh’s own voice in Ex 34.6.
“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger abounding in HESED [steadfast love, NRSV]”
When God “revealed his ways” to Moses (v.7), he revealed the depth of his HESED (i.e. steadfast love). God’s ways are Hesed ways!Hesed ways are compassion, grace, slow to anger and extremely rich in love. Hesed ways are not dolling our punishment on the basis of what we deserve but on the basis of HESED. “He does not repay us according to our iniquities.” What if this was the basis of how human beings treated one another or Christians (at the very least) treated one another.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, for his infinite HESED.
Thankful for … Covenant (v. 18)
I am so thankful that I learned what a “covenant” actually is. For years, growing up, I imagined (because I was taught) that God’s covenant was a contract. My fingers almost get leprous even writing the word “contract” next to “covenant.”
Psalm 103 knows nothing of a contract but everything about a covenant. Covenant is relationship. A relationship between a husband and wife; a relationship between parents and children. I pity the wife (or husband) or the daughter (or son) who has a spouse or parent who views him or her in the framework of a contract.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so Yahweh has compassion for those who fear him.”
“The HESED of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting”
for those who are true to his covenant of love. Why is it that God does not give us up? It is not because we earn it, deserve it, have precision obedience. God keeps us for the same reason a Parent never gives up on a daughter/son, because of his covenant of love (cf. Deuteronomy 7.7-9)! Because he is our Father.
I am so thankful for the Covenant of Love.
That is why We Thank Him (vv. 19-22).
Forgiveness. Renewal of Life. Gracious Love. The unbreakable covenant of love. These are Yahweh’s “benefits!”
So, the Psalm declares that is why we “bless” the Lord. That is why we lift our hands in praise. That is why we raise the cup of thanksgiving (116.13). This is why we gather with other people and feast at his table. This is why we “give thanks to Yahweh with our whole heart, in the company of the upright” (111.1)
Thank you, God our Father. Thank you, Christ the Son. Thank you, Spirit of Life.
I believe it is important to pray God’s will be done. We never know what God is going to do. Often what God is going to do is far greater than anything I can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20-21). What I am about to say in no way imagines that I can know the mind of God or anticipate what He is going to do.
Over the last year we have prayed far more specifically. What you see when you do that is the answers are often more easily discernible. For instance,
A little over a month ago one of our Backyard church (BYC) members noticed our kids needed some clipboards to do their lesson work on while outside. Instead of going to the store to buy some she prayed God would just give us clipboards. After worship another parent brought up the idea of clipboards for the kids and volunteered to go and get some.
Around that same time we had a friend attending BYC who needed a vehicle. His truck had well over 350k miles on it and he was driving from Montgomery to Auburn on Sundays. We begin praying about finding a vehicle for him. We hadn’t told him this but intended to help him. When we approached him with the idea he told us he had just ended a lengthy fast and part of his fast was about replacing his truck! Long story short, he ended up with a 2015 chevy that he is loving and telling people the story of how God aligned our hearts and helped provide it.
Last year my Wineskins bank account was running down to nothing and I was going to have to start paying for web hosting out of pocket again. I had never prayed this prayer before but I decided to ask God for the money. Within two days of that prayer something happened that has never happened with Wineskins ever before. A donor approached me asking how they could help and if I ever needed any money to keep it going! Wow! Thank you Lord!
There are many other stories like this but the lesson in all of it for me is yes, pray for the will of God, but also don’t be bashful about praying specifically…then watch and see how God answers! God is watching. God is listening. Let us be bold and “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – Heb 4:16.
In my work with ACU’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry, I have the honor of consulting with congregations all over the country. Church decline and church renewal remain vital and popular themes throughout countless conversations with churches of varying contexts, sizes, and flavors. So I constantly watch for resources to aid churches in this important work of renewal.
Recently I found a work from a British author that offers a simple and useful way to reflect on the practices and life of a congregation. In his book The Healthy Churches’ Handbook (Church House Publishing, 2012), Robert Warren offers seven indicators of what makes for a healthy church.
These seven markers emerge from his research and engagement with a number of churches throughout England, where many churches have suffered decline and are now experiencing renewal. These markers resonate well with numerous others who have written about congregational health, and I share them in hopes that they will help you in your own context.
Here is a brief summary of what Warren learned about healthy congregations:
They are energized by faith. Healthy churches are deeply aware of the presence and goodness of God. Warren declares that “faith is the fuel on which these churches run.”
They possess an outward focus. Healthy churches are not focused on internal matters but are fully engaged in their context and the life of their broader community. The gospel matters to the world, and these churches identify with both the joy and the pain evidenced in their contexts.
They seek to find out what God wants. Healthy churches are not content to simply be; rather, they are bent on learning and following God’s will and purpose. They are characterized by prayer and a relentless willingness to move and adapt for the sake of God’s agenda.
They face the cost of change and growth. Healthy churches, like healthy people, are capable of facing hard facts and courageously moving forward. Relinquishing things of the past for the possibilities of the future is necessary.
They operate as a community. Healthy churches develop and sustain robust relationships that are generous, trusting, and open. Authenticity and care infuse communication, leadership practices, and ordinary life.
They make room for all. Healthy churches practice hospitality. They constantly create space for others to join in the life and vitality of community.
They do a few things well. Healthy churches have a quiet purposefulness about their life and ministry. Rather than rush from one thing to another, healthy churches live with meaning and intentionality, doing what they do with excellence.
What might you discover by using these indicators as a way of reviewing and reflecting about your own congregation? Could such a review lead to new insights or practices?
If you would like a conversation partner as you reflect the health of your church, my team and I would love the opportunity to walk alongside you. Some helpful starting points on the Siburt Institute website might be our consulting page, our Church Health Assessment page, and our contact page.
May God bless you as you seek God’s renewal in your community life!
A version of this article was originally published in a Siburt Institute e-newsletter. To receive this monthly newsletter or other communications from the institute, subscribe here.
Dr. Carson E. Reed is vice president for church relations at Abilene Christian University and executive director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as director for the Doctor of Ministry program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment as an associate professor of practical theology in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work on governance, transitions, and new ecclesial forms with congregations and church leaders. His teaching and research focus on practical theology with a particular emphasis on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married over 35 years and have four adult children.
In a time when so much is changing, the natural thing to do is to reach backward into something from the past. And the sweeping changes that the pandemic brings only heighten that impulse. In many churches, however, the reality of not going back to 2019 is becoming all the more clear as we make our way into 2021. One aspect of congregational life, congregational worship, is particularly vulnerable to new realities that are presenting themselves.
For example, Barna reported in October 2020, that 50% of millennials have simply stopped watching online worship services. So even as congregations are finding their way into presenting content in digital formats, the most tech savvy persons (young adults) are checking out altogether. Obviously, this is a complex conversation, and I would be the first to affirm that the church’s digital witness is important and vital. However, to think that simply livestreaming a Sunday morningservice somehow gets the job done is to miss the deep relational reality of what corporate worship requires.
Thus, in my conversations with ministers and church leaders through my work in the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry, I am raising questions like these: What can be delivered digitally? What cannot be delivered digitally?
The answers I hear are not uniform. However, I do get the sense that some aspects of worship – like singing or communion – simply lack the potent vitality to draw people into an attentive worshipful space when we rely solely on a digital performance. Relational needs are simply so great! On the other hand, sermons, teaching material, and dramatic performative pieces designed to provoke, teach, or persuade usually fare a little better.
What might this mean?
Every church is located in a specific context with local laws, practices, weather, and much more in play. Yet I have become increasingly aware of churches that are experimenting with multiple services with fewer people in socially distanced spaces, developing and empowering small groups to meet outdoors or in open spaces, inviting small groups of people to meet in their local neighborhoods (whether for worship or, perhaps just as important, to engage in service to the local community), or reimagining family groups to include multigenerational clusters of brothers and sisters who become “pods” to create safe communities to gather. How might leaders in our congregations innovatively pursue new forms of community that foster relational connection?
That doesn’t mean digital teaching and preaching should go away. Rather, I think it means that churches need to develop the aptitude for “both/and.” To maintain a robust digital presence along with robust experimentation with smaller, safer gatherings, will be critical for flourishing churches. In so doing, congregations can leverage this season as a time of renewal and opportunity. God is a God of hope and purpose. Let’s not forget!
If you would like a bibliography of new or recent books and resources on church renewal, pleasevisit this page on Mosaic. You might find a title or two that would be helpful in your context!
Dr. Carson E. Reed is vice president for church relations at Abilene Christian University and executive director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the director for the Doctor of Ministry program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment as an associate professor of practical theology in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work on governance, transitions, and new ecclesial forms with congregations and church leaders. His teaching and research focus on practical theology with a particular emphasis on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married over 35 years and have four adult children.