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Connections between the Bible and prayer: The prayer in Philippians

Friday October 12 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: The prayer in Philippians

I heard a story yesterday that broke my heart. Someone I know from a distance, but who I always liked, became the pastor of a congregation a few years ago. Someone else, who knows the situation at that church, told me about the ways this person did not care wisely or lovingly for the sheep.

While I was grieving about what I heard, I sat down to write my blog post for this week, focused on the Apostle Paul’s prayer in Philippians.

I’ve been writing about the prayers in the letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, an exercise in pure joy for me, because I love these prayers. In each post, I’ve been printing the intercessory portion of each prayer. (Next week I’m going to focus on the thankfulness portion of all the prayers.) For the Philippians prayer, I had decided last week that I was going to print the thankfulness portion, the few sentences that follow, and the intercessory portion.

These words demonstrate such care for the young Christians in Philippi. They stand in such contrast to what I heard about yesterday.

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:3-11)

These words demonstrate the joy, heart connection, and longing that the Apostle Paul felt for the Christians in Philippi. He is not ashamed to express his emotions about the connection he feels with them. Note that his connection is grounded in both his relationship with them and what God is doing and will do. This double grounding for his prayer is the key point I’ll mention several times in this post.

Verse 6 is often quoted separately from the rest of the prayer: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” This promise has given countless Christians confidence to try to love and serve God for one more day. It’s interesting to read the verse sandwiched between Paul’s description of his prayers of gratitude for the Philippians and his prayer of intercession for them.

His gratitude and his intercession are based on his love for them, as well as his understanding of the way God works in us. Paul toggles back and forth, in almost every sentence, between his expressions of care specifically related to the Philippians and his descriptions of the way God works through Jesus Christ. His prayers are profoundly based in knowledge of the people he’s praying for and knowledge of God.

This prayer mirrors some of the themes I wrote about related to the prayer in Colossians 1. Paul prays here that they would grow in knowledge of God so they can display the “harvest of righteousness” (verse 11).

In my post on the prayers in Ephesians, I mentioned the “spirit of wisdom and revelation” that Paul prays for. Paul is always concerned about the connection between knowing God and the way we live in response to that knowledge.

I encourage you to think about three people for whom you could pray the words of this prayer from Philippians. Eliminate the words about Paul’s imprisonment and any other words that don’t seem appropriate. Pray this prayer for the people you’ve chosen for several days in a row. See what new perspectives you have on this prayer after you pray it for a few days.

(Next week: Paul’s prayers of thankfulness. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer    
          The character of God and prayer      
          The context of the Lord’s Prayer                
           Instructions from the Apsotle Paul                   
           Paul's prayer in Colossians                        
           Two prayers in Ephesians            

I have copies of my book on Friendship, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, for a good price for multiple copies. It's a great book for small groups, with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Contact me if you'd like prices at LMBaab[at]aol.com

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Two prayers in Ephesians

Saturday October 6 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Two prayers in Ephesians

Of all the letters in the New Testament attributed to the Apostle Paul (ranging from Romans through Titus), Ephesians is unique because it contains two prayers. The prayer in the first chapter comes after a dozen beautiful verses about the blessings God has given us in Christ: adoption, grace, redemption, riches, an inheritance, and the Holy Spirit.

The prayer begins in verse 15:

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Ephesians 1:15-19)

The prayer builds on the previous paragraph of the letter because it refers back to the “riches of his glorious inheritance.” I find myself wondering how often I ask, as I pray for myself or others, that we might become increasingly aware of the inheritance we have received as adopted children of God and adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus.

In addition to an awareness of this glorious inheritance, the prayer focuses on enlightened hearts so that we might know the hope we have been called to and the greatness of God’s power for us. I do pray for hope and for power for myself and others, but not as often as I might. In this time of so much fear and despair, praying for hope for many of the people in my life would be a good idea.

Many aspects of this prayer are worth pondering as a fuel for our own prayers. If I were to pray for a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” for myself and others as we grow in our knowledge of God, what would I hope for as the outcome of that wisdom and knowledge? Paul has given three things he hopes the Colossians would know because of increasing wisdom and knowledge – hope, their inheritance in Christ, and God’s power.  In 2018, what do we need to know as a result of increased wisdom and knowledge of God? What words would we use to pray for those things?

Paul’s second prayer in Ephesians comes in chapter 3:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)

I memorized this prayer many years ago, and I have prayed this prayer for myself and for others many, many times. The second sentence – focused on power, Christ’s indwelling, faith, and love – is appropriate to pray for so many people in so many places of need.

The third sentence is delightfully circular. This part of the prayer always makes me smile. Paul is praying that we would comprehend something that he considers to be incomprehensible: God’s love. This sentence seems to me to capture something so significant about life in Christ. As days and months and years pass, as we try to abide in Christ, we grow in experiencing God’s love in new areas of our life. As we grow, we realize God’s love is even bigger than we can imagine, comprehend or experience.

I love the addition of “with all the saints” in the last sentence of the prayer. We learn to know God’s love in community with other followers of Jesus. That phrase motivates me to pray thankfulness prayers for the people in my life who have nurtured, and continue to nurture, my faith.

As I write this blog post, I am praying for my readers: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18 and 19).

(Next week: more about Paul's prayers. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

I’m still trying to get out the word about my new book, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century. Please let the pastoral care people at your church know about it. There are some clear and helpful reviews of the book on the amazon.com page. Just click on the book title in the first line of this paragraph.

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer    
          The character of God and prayer      
          The context of the Lord’s Prayer                
           Instructions from the Apsotle Paul                   
           Paul's prayer in Colossians                        

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Paul’s prayer in Colossians

Friday September 28 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Paul’s prayer in Colossians

When I was about 24, I went to a five-day conference where we studied Colossians. I came away so impressed with the Apostle Paul’s prayer in the first chapter.

In verses 3-5 Paul says that he thanks God for the Colossians’ faith in Jesus Christ and the love they have for “all the saints.” Then he describes how he learned about their faith.

Next he describes the way he prays for them. When he says “heard of it” in the first line, he’s referring to the way they came to faith.

“For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Colossians 1:9-12)

At that conference, so many years ago, I had a big AHA moment based on the first sentence of the prayer. Paul prays they will be filled with the knowledge of God’s wisdom in order to please God in the way they live, in order to bear fruit, and in order to grow in the knowledge of God.

This is a kind of spiral upwards. As we learn of God’s will, as we obey God and follow God’s guidance, we will bear fruit. As we obey and bear fruit, we grow in the knowledge of God. Knowledge begets a certain way of life. That way of life, honoring God, enables us to bear fruit. And this honoring of God and fruit-bearing in our life increases our knowledge of God. This sequence has inspired so many of my prayers for myself and for others.

The second sentence of the prayer is also powerful. Paul prays for God’s power to fill the Colossians. Not so they can do great things. Not so they can be happy. I’m sure he’d be glad if they were able to achieve great things and be happy people, but he’s praying for God’s power in their lives so they can endure hard things and continue to be grateful to God when times get tough.

This is the kind of power I have needed so many times when facing challenges. Paul’s prayer has validated for me that Christians experience hard things, and when that happens we don’t have to blame ourselves for struggling. Our challenge in hard times is to pray for ourselves along the lines of Paul’s prayer, asking God to help us draw on God’s power as much as we can so we can continue to be thankful for God’s blessings to us.

Paul’s prayer in Colossians is one of dozens of prayers in the Bible that can help us grow in understanding how to draw near to God. This prayer helps us understand how and why to pray for knowledge of God for ourselves and others – so we can respond with our lives, bear fruit, and continue to grow in the knowledge of God. This prayer helps us understand how and why to pray for God’s power – so we can endure hard things with continued thankfulness for God’s blessings.

(Next week: more about Paul’s prayers. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

I’m still trying to get out the word about my new book, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century. Please let the pastoral care people at your church know about it. There are some clear and helpful reviews of the book on the amazon.com page. Just click on the book title in the first line of this paragraph.

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer    
          The character of God and prayer      
          The context of the Lord’s Prayer                
           Instructions from the Apsotle Paul                   

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Instructions from the Apostle Paul

Saturday September 22 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Instructions from the Apostle Paul

Some of the most often quoted biblical passages on prayer come from the Apostle Paul’s letters.  When I did a search for “pray” and “prayer” in the books of the New Testament between Romans and Titus – the letters attributed to Paul – I found 51 mentions of those two words. Here are three passages that are often quoted:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim 2:1, 2)

These three passages are very, very challenging. Turning worry into prayer is much easier said than done, and whenever I do it, I find I have to do it again, five seconds later. And again. And again.

Praying without ceasing is something I have never achieved, even for brief periods of time. I have grown in giving thanks in most circumstances, but all circumstances? I’m not there yet. Praying for everyone, even people I find despicable, is totally beyond my ability. My love is so limited.

I take great comfort in one of Paul’s other statements on prayer:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Thank heavens I don’t have to do it exactly right every time, or even very often. The Holy Spirit is praying for me and for all of us.

Also encouraging to me is Paul’s model of prayer. At the beginning of several letters, eloquent prayers are written out. I have been praying those prayers for many years, and I will write about those prayers next week.

In addition to the passages I’ve already mentioned, Paul discusses prayer in all sorts of situations: for married couples related to sex (I Corinthians 7:5), praying in tongues (1 Corinthians 14: 13, 14), prayer for Paul’s ministry (2 Corinthians 1:11, Ephesians 6:9, 1 Thessalonians  5:25), and descriptions of others who pray for the various churches, such as Epaphras (Colossians 4:12).

Possibly the strongest message about prayer in Paul’s letters is simply that prayer really matters in so many ways. I can’t possibly achieve all that Paul writes about prayer, but I can strive to grow as a person of prayer. I can rest in the beautiful truth that others are praying for me. Epaphras is no longer alive, but others today – friends, family members, people in my prayer group, and best of all, the Holy Spirit – are praying for me.

And I can model my prayers on Paul’s. More on that next week.

(Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Some previous posts on prayer:

           The simplest form of prayer: Breath prayer    
           A posture for prayer: Open hands, open heart      
           Two options for how to pray when the news overwhelms you   

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer    
          The character of God and prayer      
          The context of the Lord’s Prayer                

Connections between the Bible and prayer: the context of the Lord’s Prayer

Friday September 14 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: the context of the Lord’s Prayer

Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and some of the other writers of the New Testament give instructions about prayer, and for the next couple of blog posts I want to write about those instructions. Today I focus on the Lord’s Prayer. So much has been written about the prayer itself, so I’m going to let others help us understand the words of the prayer. I’m interested in the context of the prayer in Matthew and Luke, and what those two very different contexts might teach us about prayer.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew give us a long speech by Jesus that we call the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s Prayer comes right in the middle of the speech.

The Sermon on the Mount occurs very early in Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 4 of Matthew, we read of Jesus’ temptation right after his baptism, the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first four disciples (Peter, Andrew, James and John), and a brief paragraph about Jesus’ healing and preaching. Then the Sermon on the Mount begins.

Jesus begins with the Beatitudes, then he talks about salt and light, the law and the prophets, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, almsgiving. Matthew 6:5-15 covers prayer, with the Lord’s Prayer taking up verses 9-13.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by instructions about fasting, treasures, the sound eye, and ten other topics. From the variety of topics that surround the instructions on prayer, I assume that Jesus is indicating that the life of prayer should be part of obeying God in everyday life, just like all those other topics. Following Jesus impacts every aspect of life.

In the prayer section of the Sermon on the Mount, in verses 5 to 8 before the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives two negative examples that we are to avoid: the “hypocrites” who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” and the “Gentiles” who “heap up empty phrases.” Instead, we are to pray in secret and to pray simply.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus notes that if we forgive others, God will forgive us. Sadly he says that the opposite is also true.

Frankly, it’s easier to zero in on the Lord’s Prayer itself rather than Jesus’ words that come before and after the prayer, which raise so many questions. Should we never pray out loud with others? That can’t be true because we have examples of Jesus himself praying out loud in the presence of others (John 17) and examples from Acts where the believers pray together. Can we never pray complicated prayers? And what about those instances when we are working on forgiving someone, but can’t quite get there? Will God not forgive us?

If I were to paraphrase the instructions surrounding the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, I might say something like: “Watch yourself. Watch to see if you are praying to impress others. Watch to see if you are falling into the temptation of thinking that lofty and eloquent words make a prayer better. Do your very best to forgive others. All of these things matter to God. And, based on instructions about prayer elsewhere in the Bible, if you can’t quite do what Jesus has recommended here, bring that to God in prayer.”

In contrast to Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:1-13 comes in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. Chapter 10 ends with the Mary and Martha story, a lovely reminder about the value of simply sitting with Jesus. At the beginning of chapter 11, Luke records that Jesus was praying, and afterwards the disciples ask him to teach them to pray.

In response to this request, Jesus launches right into the Lord’s Prayer, a slightly shorter version than in Matthew 6. After giving the words to the prayer, Jesus tells a story about persistence, then gives the well-known words about asking, searching and knocking, and concludes with another story about parents giving their children good gifts. Jesus ends these words on prayer like this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Just like in Matthew, these instructions that follow the Lord’s Prayer raise huge questions. What about the times we persevere in prayer, but receive no answer? What about the times we ask, search and knock in prayer, but God remains silent?

I take comfort in two things. Jesus talks about God’s many good gifts as he concludes these challenging paragraphs. Secondly, the Apostle Paul experienced a thorn in the flesh that he prayed about many times, and God did not remove it (see 2 Corinthians 12:6-10). We cannot use unanswered prayer to indicate that we have failed in our prayers in some way. God has given each of us many good gifts. Yes, perseverance matters, but it is not a guarantee of God’s answer to our prayers in just the way we want things to be.

Given how deep but straightforward the Lord’s Prayer is, maybe it’s good that Jesus’ words before and after the prayer raise a lot of questions. Prayer is an ongoing challenge as well as a comfort, blessing, and joy.

(Next week: the Apostle Paul’s instructions about prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer
          The character of God and prayer

My new book came out last month, and I am hoping my blog readers will let the pastoral care people in your churches know about it. Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century

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