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Connections between the Bible and prayer: Sensory prayer in Revelation

Thursday November 1 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Sensory prayer in Revelation

Through my childhood, in Episcopal and Anglican churches, incense played a role on special occasions. The priest would walk down the center aisle swinging a chain with a metal ball on the end. Inside the ball, incense was burning, and the smoke came out of cleverly shaped holes in the ball.

As I child, I was never sure if I liked the weird smell of incense. But it definitely signaled something about holiness to me.

Fast forward fifty-some years to the ordination of my colleague, James, to the Anglican priesthood. The ordination was held at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Dunedin, New Zealand, and during some of the prayers, James lay face down on the marble floor.

How are incense and laying face-down related? Both draw on images of prayer in the book of Revelation.

In Revelation 1, the writer, who identifies himself as John, says he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (verse 10). He hears a loud voice, then turns and sees an extraordinary vision of Jesus standing among seven lampstands, with white hair, eyes of flame, feet like burnished bronze, a sword coming from his mouth, and seven stars in his hands (verses 12-16).

John says, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (verse 17). This posture of awe and submission is echoed in many ordinations in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. I was privileged to see it when James was ordained.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation contain the powerful letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, Jesus’ confronting and comforting words that are still relevant today.

Revelation 4 describes a vivid scene of worship involving precious gems, thrones, flashes of lightning, a crystal sea, four strange creatures singing “Holy, holy, holy,” and 24 elders who “fall before the one who is seated on the throne” (verses 3-11). So again, worshippers are showing their devotion with their whole bodies in a position of submission, awe, and trust.

In Revelation 5 a drama unfolds. A scroll has been sealed with seven seals, and a mighty angel looks for someone worthy to undo the seals. No one in heaven or on earth is worthy, except for the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who is also the Lamb. As the Lamb takes the scroll, the four creatures and the 24 elders again fall before him and sing, each hold a harp and a golden bowl full of incense (verses 1-8).

The incense is identified as the prayers of the saints. In Revelation 8:4, incense is again connected with the prayers of the saints. In my childhood, when the incense was burned in church, I wish someone had told me about this symbolism.

Because of many excesses in the Roman Catholic Church of the late Medieval period, the Protestant Reformers tried to return to simple expressions of faith: grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone as a source of authority. This was often accompanied by simplifying everything: no art in worship spaces, no incense, no laying face down during ordination services.

I’ve been heavily influenced by both the Episcopal/Anglican heritage of my childhood, and the grace-oriented, Bible-focused faith I learned in my early adult life in various Protestant settings, accompanied by very little art, incense or other sensory-focused experiences.

In recent years I’ve been asking myself this: What does a rich prayer life look like when it draws on all bodily senses? How can smells, taste, touch, bodily movements, and art contribute to prayer? How can we grow in bringing our whole bodies to God in prayer?

Revelation offers a few answers to my questions, and, as Revelation always does, raises yet more questions.

(Illustration: Dave Baab’s interpretation of Revelation 1:12-16. Notice the seven lampstands, which Jesus in Rev 1:20 identifies as the seven churches. In the painting, Dave has broken up the continents and put one lampstand on each continent, symbolizing to Dave the reassuring reality that the church on every continent belongs to Jesus, and that Jesus will keep the light burning in and through his church throughout the earth. Also note the way Dave represented Jesus’ white hair, golden sash, bronze feet, and the seven stars in his right hand. I have the original of this painting hanging right beside my desk, reminding me that Jesus is Lord of the Church even in the midst of decline, scandal, conflict, and discouragement. Many times the painting has brought tears to my eyes.)

If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column of the whole webpage. 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            
           The prayer in Philippians                  
           Paul's thankfulness                       
           A story of healing motivated by the instructions in James              

Connections between the Bible and Prayer: the instructions in James

Saturday October 27 2018

Connections between the Bible and Prayer: the instructions in James

In mid-2010, I began to have some weird medical symptoms. I was tired all the time, and my left foot felt cold, even if the room was warm. We were in New Zealand, where spring begins in September. As spring went on, and then summer began around Christmas, the weather got warmer and my foot got colder. I got more tired, and I talked to the people in my department about working fewer hours.

Of course, I went to the doctor about this, and got a referral to a neurologist. He put me through a raft of tests, and everything kept coming back normal.

In late February, 2011, I was talking with Andrew, a lovely intern at our church. He asked me how I was doing, and I told him about this weird cold foot and fatigue. He asked if I’d like for him to round up some elders and come over to my house and pray for me.

“Yes!” I replied enthusiastically. I was quite pleased about this, because it seemed to respond to clearly to one of the longest passages in the New Testament about prayer, from the letter of James.

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.”   —James 5:13-18

The passage refers to I Kings 17-18, one of the more vivid Old Testament stories. Elijah is guided by God to pray for no rain as a punishment to Israel for its disobedience. And when he did pray for rain, the setting was the dramatic competition with the prophets of Baal to see whose God would bring rain.

Of course, passages like this one in James raise so many questions about unanswered prayer. When we pray for something, and God does not appear to answer, does that mean we haven’t been faithful like Elijah was? Does it mean we haven’t prayed hard enough?

Before 2011, I had quite a lot of experience with inner healing prayer making a significant difference in people’s lives, but I had almost no experience with seeing prayer contribute to physical healing apart from medical interventions. I had seen God answer many prayers in settings related to physical illness: giving relief from pain, giving doctors wisdom about the right treatment, and helping caregivers find strength. I was quite sure God answered many kinds of prayer related to physical illness, but I simply hadn’t seen a lot of direct healing from disease in answer to prayer.

On March 7, 2011, our intern, Andrew, came to our house with two elders and the spouse of one of the elders. Andrew brought a vial of oil, and he anointed my forehead with the oil. Then he, my husband Dave, and the others prayed for me. Fervently. Passionately. With urgency.

A week later I noticed that my foot wasn’t as cold. A few weeks after that, my foot felt normal again. It took a couple of months for my energy to come back.

In the seven years since that night, I’ve experienced times in cold weather when both of my feet have gotten cold, but never again the odd sensation of having one cold foot in a warm room. I had good energy for a couple of years after that night. Sometime in 2013 or so, aging caught up with me and I felt a reduction in energy. Since then I’ve had days where I’m as tired as I was in early 2011, but never day after day.

Truly God healed me because Andrew obeyed the words in James 5. It was a gift of love from God to me. And it was so good to experience the direct application of words from the Bible about prayer.

(Next week: sensory prayer in Revelation. 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 of the full web page.)

Good news about my book, Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest. It just went into its 14th printing, and the 13th printing was only about two months ago. I’ve also written a Bible study guide called Sabbath: The Gift of Rest, and lots of articles about the Sabbath, which you can access here.

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            
           The prayer in Philippians                  
           Paul's thankfulness                       

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Paul’s thankfulness

Friday October 19 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: Paul’s thankfulness

For several weeks now, I’ve been writing about the prayers in the New Testament letters attributed to the Apostle Paul. These prayers have shaped my prayers in so many ways over so many years. Today I focus on thankfulness.

Paul recommends thankfulness in many passages. My favorite is Colossians 3:12-17, one of the passages Dave and I chose for our wedding. If you want to click on the link to the passage, notice how many times Paul mentions thankfulness in this description of how to live the Christian life.

In addition to recommending gratitude, Paul also models thankfulness in the letters. I won’t comment on the passages below. I will simply quote from all the places in his letters where he thanks God for the people he is writing to. Notice what he thanks God for, and spend some time pondering if you could thank God for those same characteristics in people in your life.

“I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.”
          —Romans 1:8

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
         —1 Corinthians 1:4-7

“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.” 
          —Ephesians 1: 15-16

“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.”
          —Philippians 1:3-5

“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.”
           —Colossians 1:3-5

“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
          —1 Thessalonians 1:2-3

“We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”
          —1 Thessalonians 2:13

“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
           —2 Thessalonians 1:3

“But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”
          —2 Thessalonians 2:13

“I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith.”
          —2 Timothy 1:3-5

“When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus.”
          —Philemon 1:4

(Next week: prayer in the non-Pauline New Testament letters. 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                
           Instructions from the Apsotle Paul                   
           Paul's prayer in Colossians                        
           Two prayers in Ephesians            
           The prayer in Philippians                  

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                        

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